Edvard Grieg and the trolls

Happy Notes — Happy Children


Image: Theodor Kittelsen / public domain
Peer Gynt finds himself “In the Hall of the Mountain King” in a famous painting by Norwegian artist Theodor Kittelsen from 1890.

Have you ever seen a troll? No, you haven’t. Nobody has.

Trolls aren’t real. They are like elves and fairies. They are what we call imaginary beings. We imagine they are real. We pretend they are real, but they aren’t.

In Norway, where Edvard Grieg lived, many people used to think that trolls were real. They didn’t ever see them, but they thought that was because the trolls lived in the mountains and never let themselves be seen by ordinary people. Ordinary people lived in the valleys, near a stream, so they would be close to water.

Since nobody ever saw a real troll, they just had to imagine what they looked like. They were usually pictured as ugly, but not always. (Do you think this one is ugly?) They were usually considered dangerous, but not always. (Does this one look dangerous to you?)

One thing for sure: you couldn’t trust them. Some farmers thought the trolls came to their farms at night and stole their milk and butter and eggs and then ran back to the mountains before the sun came up. Sometimes when children were naughty, their parents would say, “You better behave yourself or the trolls will get you.”

Peer Gynt

Do you remember Henrik Ibsen? He was the playwright that Edvard met in Rome (see Lesson 5). One of his most famous plays is called Peer Gynt, and part of the play is about trolls. Peer Gynt is not a troll, though. He is a Norwegian boy who gets in trouble and runs away to the mountains to get away from the police. And who do you think he meets in the mountains? Trolls! He meets the king of the trolls, who wants him to become a troll. He meets the daughter of the troll king, who wants Peer to marry her. And he meets a gang of troll children who chase him and want to bite him. Pretty scary, isn’t it?

One day Edvard got a letter from Henrik Ibsen. “Dear Mr. Grieg,” he wrote. “I am planning for a stage performance of my play Peer Gynt. I want it to be a musical. Will you compose the music for it?

Edvard was thrilled. Wow! Henrik Ibsen, the most famous playwright in the world, was inviting him to compose music for his play. Of course he would do it! He quickly wrote back to Ibsen accepting the assignment and set about the task of composing the music. It took him over two years to compose all the music that was needed, but eventually he composed 26 pieces of Peer Gynt music! Let’s look at three of those pieces that are about Peer Gynt and the trolls.

In the Hall of the Mountain King

“In the Hall of the Mountain King” is the most famous piece of troll music ever written. Peer Gynt has been captured by trolls and is made to stand in front of the troll king. Naughty little troll children want to hurt him. One asks the king, “May I slash his finger?” Another says, “May I pull his hair?” A naughty little troll girl says, “Hei, hoo, let me bite his butt!” But the troll king won’t let the children hurt Peer. And guess why: because he wants Peer to marry his ugly daughter. Peer is tempted. If he married her, he would some day be king of the trolls himself. “But,” he thinks, “she looks like a cow! She is SOOOO ugly!” Think about this conversation when you listen to “In the Hall of the Mountain King.”

“Dance of the Troll King’s Daughter”

The mountain king doesn’t think his daughter is ugly. He thinks she is beautiful, and he also thinks she dances beautifully. “Peer,” he says, “my daughter is going to dance for you. When you see how beautifully she dances, surely you will want to marry her.” So she dances—but her dancing is just as ugly as her looks: she dances like a cow, too. Dancing should be beautiful, smooth, fun to watch. Hers is awkward, clumsy. That is the picture Grieg had in mind when he composed another famous piece of troll music called “Dance of the Troll King’s Daughter.”

Peer Gynt chased by trolls

Finally Peer decides that he can’t stand the idea of being married to this ugly girl and spending the rest of his life as a troll. “I’m out of here,” he says. “No you aren’t!” says the mountain king. “You are now one of us, and we’ll never let you leave. Never.” Guess what happens then. Remember those naughty troll children? The mountain king says, “Go ahead, children! Bite him! Dash him to bits on the rocks!” The children chase him, attack him, bite him, scratch him. He tries to escape but can find no way out. The children knock him down, pile on top of him. He cries out for his mother: “Mother, help! I’ll die!” Think about this part of the story when you listen to a third piece of troll music, “Peer Gynt Chased by the Trolls.”

Peer Gynt doesn’t die, by the way. He escapes and goes on to have many adventures in other parts of the world. We’ll learn about some of them in upcoming installments.

Stuff to do

  • Google “Norwegian trolls.” Look at their pictures. Pick out one that you like. Is it a boy troll or a girl troll? Give it a name.
  • Draw a picture of a troll or make a troll doll. Is your troll ugly? Does it look dangerous?
  • Google “In the Hall of the Mountain King Seattle.” Play the video. Notice how it gets steadily louder and faster. Does it sound scary to you? I bet it would if you were up in the mountains surrounded by ugly creatures that wanted to hurt you.
  • Google “Dance of the Mountain King’s Daughter.” Play the London Symphony video. Does it sound beautiful? No! It’s not supposed to. Think of a cow dancing on two feet.
  • Google Peer Gynt Hunted by Trolls. Play the video by the Gothenburg Symphony. This isn’t beautiful music either, is it? It’s not supposed to be. It’s supposed to be scary.
  • Near the end of Peer Gynt Hunted by Trolls—right after Peer Gynt cries out “Mother, help! I’ll die!”—some bells sound in the distance and suddenly everything becomes quiet. Where do you think those bell sounds are coming from? We’ll find out in our next lesson.

This article originally appeared in the March 2024 issue of The Norwegian American.

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William H. Halverson

Dr. Bill Halverson, scholarly advisor of the Edvard Grieg Society of America, Inc., is regarded as one of America’s leading authorities on the life and work of Edvard Grieg. His translations of Grieg’s writings (letters, diaries, articles, speeches) and of books about Grieg and his music are major sources of information about Norway’s greatest composer in the English-speaking world.