You have no items in your cart. Want to get some nice things?Go shopping
Sailing past the Faroese village Hattarvík on Fugloy Island, it’s hard to believe that this tiny human foothold has lasted since the 10th century and strange to think that sometime in our future, it might become a beacon for climate refugees. As the world warms, the North Atlantic region will likely experience the slowest rate of temperature increase in the northern hemisphere; and with current summer means of 11°C, this small village might be a balmy spot to settle once places like Sicily or Greece become too hot for human habitation. That is, of course, if it’s still above sea level.
Encircled by mountains on three sides, high on the edge of a bluff, Hattarvík clings to the coast. Today, it’s a dice-toss of scattered homes, a red-roofed stone church with mostly empty pews. Accessible only by boat and helicopter, Fugloy has been rendered remote by modernity’s need for speed. The island population has been in steady decline since the ’60s and, by last headcount, the permanent residents of Hattarvík numbered 11.
All of the Faroese folktales I’m currently reworking for a book of short stories deal with nature, somehow. In one of them, a troll comes to Hattarvík. Like most stories transcribed from an oral tradition, it reads raw and sparse. I must make a new kind of sense of it, break it down and reconstruct it into a story that’s mine. This is my starting point:
One evening, not many lifetimes ago, the children of Hattarvík went outside to play, running here and there between the houses as usual. Around the time for lighting candles, a boy came rushing into the house known as “uppi í Húsi” and screamed: “A troll is after me!” He sat down by the door, but an arm reached in and dragged him outside.
In uppi í Húsi lived an old man, both wise and well read, and his name was Hanus. Before him, four sons of the household had carried that name, so the villagers called him “Fifth.” Now, as the boy was torn away, Fifth jumped to his feet. He ran out after the troll and catching up to it by the bluff, he wrestled the boy from its arms. But the troll – being a beach troll (fjørutrøll) – leapt from the rocks and escaped into the sea.
A few years passed, then a troll came once more to Hattarvík. The first time, it came in the deep dark of night, but with each passing day it appeared earlier, and on the eighth evening it came at dusk. The troll was a hideous sight: overgrown with seaweed, dragging along stones and bits of ocean floor. It was crusty with crustaceans, crawling with shrimp and barbed with the spines of dead seals. And it stood so tall that it towered even over the roof of the house known as ““niðri í Húsi.”
The villagers lived in terror of these nightly visits. Whatever needed doing, they did it by day, as no one dared go out after dark. When the troll walked, it made a racket like millstones dragging across the ground, and each morning the people of Hattarvík found the turf between their houses torn and milled to a pulp by heavy, conch-riddled feet.
It was the man Sakaris from niðri í Húsi who finally drove it away. One evening, when the rustling of seaweed and crashing of stones was heard, he instructed his kinfolk to stay indoors no matter how long it might take, and then he went outside to meet it. Hours went by. The villagers put out their candles for the night, assuming the worst, but no one dared go and search for him. Then, at last, he came; wet as though he’d been hauled from the sea, dripping from every thread. Most say that Sakaris conjured the fiend into a nearby gorge called Títlingagjógv – and it’s well known that no beach troll has visited Hattarvík since.
Though old man Fifth and Sakaris both held sway over trolls, the older of the two was the more gifted, for he possessed the Sight. In his final years, while he lay bedridden, he often spoke out loud to himself and frightened the people of his house. One night, they heard him say: “Listen here, my sweet, what pains me the most is the thought of all those poor women soon to be widowed over in Kirkja.” Everyone hoped it was nonsense, but before the year had passed, a boat with seven men from Kirkja sunk and only one was saved.
Fifth’s kinfolk now came to his bedside and asked how the family would fare in the future. Would there be many boys born and called Hanus yet? Fifth answered solemnly. A sixth and a seventh Hanus would be born, he said. No more.
And so, it came to be. Two boys were born into the family and both were named Hanus, but when the eighth child came, she was a girl.
At the heart of this story there’s a troll and its post-disenchantment substitute, a girl. Both spell doom for Hattarvík. Girls grow up to be married away. The ending hints at the creeping horror of depopulation. But what about the beginning? The question I must answer in order to unlock my story within the story is –
What is the troll?
There’s the obvious answer, of course: The troll is a troll. Tangled in seaweed, dragging its element along, it seems distantly related to the ever-morphing “Dead Papa Toothwort” from the brilliant novel Lanny by Max Porter. He, too, comes for the boy of the story and his body is sometimes “a suit of bark-armour with the initials of long-dead teenage lovers carved in the surface.” Dead Papa Toothwort is a kind of Green Man, a nature-embodying spirit or deity, only something’s gone wonky. His face isn’t overgrown with leaves but “made of long-buried tannic acid bottles.” If he is the spirit of nature, then nature appears changed; altered by industrialisation, human production and waste, riddled with “Victorian rubbish.”
In Lanny, the nature of nature is to morph, be limitless, grow through and merge with what’s human. This is nature viewed through a lens of contemporary science, nature in the time of the holobiont. But in “Fifth, Sakaris and the beach trolls from Hattarvík,” a folktale passed down from a century before the Anthropocene, the nature of nature is external, to be Other. It comes to the village from a deep place beyond human impact, crashing violently into the human sphere. The troll is a storm surge; the wave that snatches a boy away. It’s a boundary breached, balance disrupted, and to restore it requires an act of magic. Fifth and Sakaris each play a shamanic role; they battle the troll in a mystical border zone between us and nature.
A border is a space for violence, for keeping out and fencing in. A violent fiction. In nature, there is no such place. In nature, by which I mean in reality, there are zones of transfer and transition. It’s like the Danish poet Amalie Smith writes in her literary hybrid Thread Ripper:
Everything alive morphs.
No species are complete.
All species are snapshots.
I was taught: Humans live in history. Nonhuman species live in nature. I lived in a city. On the weekends, I sometimes went with my family out into nature. Though my city had plenty of green spaces, they’d been planted by human hands, and I didn’t consider them fully natural. Like a wheat field or lawn, the trees in my local park seemed only demi-alive. Like the carrots in my lunch box or the oranges wrapped individually in blue paper at the green grocer, they were manmade products of history. It made them less-than: not for reverence, but for consumption.
In the violent border-fiction, the nature of nature when it seems untouched by us is to be a destination, holy and remote like the shrine at the end of a pilgrimage.
The nature of nature when it is closest to us and most intimately in our care is to be less-than-nature.
Before history, there was nature. After history, there will be nature still. In literature, this has often been a source of dread. In the earliest work of cli-fi that I know of, H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine from 1895, it certainly is. Here, a traveller arrives on a beach in the distant future and finds that the earth has been horrifically changed by the cooling of the sun.
Wells hits uncannily close to home, conjuring up the horror of a world without biodiversity. Every spot of fertile earth the traveller sees is covered by monovegetation, the same rich green that one sees on forest moss or on the lichen in caves: plants which like these grow in a perpetual twilight. It’s a world painted in stark and terrifyingly simple contrasting colours. The green of the lichen grates against harsh reddish rocks under a huge, hull-like sun. And along the margin where the water sometimes broke was a thick incrustation of salt – pink under the lurid sky.
Here, too, we encounter a border-monster, a creature of disordered nature:
Looking round me again, I saw that, quite near, what I had taken to be a reddish mass of rock was moving slowly towards me. Then I saw the thing was really a monstrous crab-like creature. Can you imagine a crab as large as yonder table, with its many legs moving slowly and uncertainly, its big claws swaying, its long antennae, like carters’ whips, waving and feeling, and its stalked eyes gleaming at you on either side of its metallic front? Its back was corrugated and ornamented with ungainly bosses, and a greenish incrustation blotched it here and there. I could see the many palps of its complicated mouth flickering and feeling as it moved.
This is monstrosity devoid of magic, “unheimlich” nature; a beach troll for a disenchanted age. But what makes it truly scary is the way that it moves. The crab comes for the traveller, not stomping and crashing with purpose, but wobbling unsteadily, inquisitively along. It moves like a toddler – and that’s the horror: It is.
In Thread Ripper, Amalie Smith writes:
The world is formed again and again.
The monstrous crab is just that: a new beginner on an end-stage Earth. Something about this rings awfully true and familiar. Reading the story, I find it hard not to think about human children born today into the inescapable global grind of killer-growth and consumption-based self-destruction.
I return to my starting point and ask again: What is the troll? As a nature spirit, it seems too romantic, uselessly pure, lacking exactly what makes Dead Papa Toothwort such a brilliant character. He is nature-in-reality, constantly morphing, inscribed with human desire, production, and waste. But, perhaps, the troll might be the girl? After all, both troll and girl are signified by the number eight. It’s a funny little number, nondescript and notoriously late to the party. But seven, there’s a different story: There’s a power player, a number by which we order the world. There are seven classical planets, seven seas, and seven deadly sins. There are seven days of Creation, seven years of plenty for the Pharaoh, seven demons driven out of Mary Magdalene, and, in folklore, seven sons. There are seven nights of not seeing the troll and on the eight night it makes itself known. The number eight means the end of tradition, it breaks continuity and disrupts sameness. But what if continuity needs breaking?
I think I’ve got it now. At the heart of my story is the violent border-fiction and those who defend it. Sakaris is the troll. Fifth is the troll. Every Hanus is the troll.
Siri Ranva Hjelm Jacobsen was born in 1980 into a Faroese-Danish family. She lives in Copenhagen and works as an author and critic. Island is her critically acclaimed and internationally award-winning debut novel, and has been translated into five languages. It is published in English by Pushkin Press.
Note: The quotes from Amalie Smith’s Thread Ripper are translated from Danish by me for this essay. An official translation is forthcoming.