An illustration by John Bauer (1882–1918) depicting ghoulish trolls and a kid.

When I ask Professor Lotta Gavel Adams to compare internet trolls to the Nordic monsters she's loved since she was a Swedish schoolgirl, I can hear the disgust in her voice.

"Internet trolls are not trolls!" she tells me. "Though online trolls are also forces of evil and chaos, they are really just human beings who are trying to cause trouble. If they don't eat snails or frogs or live in a cave, then they don't deserve the name 'troll.'"

She would know. Gavel Adams, professor emeritus and Barbro Osher Endowed Professor of Swedish Studies at University of Washington, has spent her entire academic career publishing scholarship and teaching classes about the trolls inhabiting Scandinavian literature and folklore. In her hands, the subject is much more interesting than the digital parlor game of a bunch of idiots on the internet.

Or at least she'll make that case at the Nordic Museum on Thursday, December 13, in a "short, snappy, entertaining" lecture called "Trolls in the Nordic Imagination: Scary, Clumsy, and Lovable." Her talk is part of an ongoing lecture series at the museum.

I am, as they say, here for this.

Stories about trolls have existed for centuries in Nordic folklore, but Gavel Adams argues that their literary function has changed radically over time. Before the mid-1800s, tales about the giant creatures were told around campfires in Scandinavian farming communities. They were aimed at adults, largely meant to frighten and entertain villagers who would regularly get lost in the dark, dense forests of the north country.

The trolls in these folktales were scary monsters who liked to eat human babies and the occasional goat. In many of the stories—such as Three Billy Goats Gruff or The boy, the troll and the porridge-eating contest—a lazy kid or a clever goat wanders into the forest, encounters a troll, outfoxes it, and escapes with a bounty.

In the mid-1800s, that conception began to change. After the Napoleonic Wars redrew the borders of Europe, Gavel Adams says, leaders in Nordic countries were plunged into an identity crisis. What did it really mean to be Finnish? What did it really mean to be Swedish?

They found their answer in the folk narratives of their countries, and they started sending people out into the backwoods to collect the stories that rural people were telling each other. Shortly after that, the industrial revolution came to the Nordic countries, which, among other things, led to mandatory schooling.

Teachers needed material to teach young students, and authors and illustrators rushed to fill that need. Artists like John Bauer and Theodor Kittelsen ended up collecting the recently revived folktales from the hinterlands and illustrating them for kids, making them softer and less scary than they were before. That's how the first visual depictions of trolls came to be.

In novels like Johanna Sinisalo's Troll: A Love Story and films like Ali Abbasi's Border, contemporary Scandinavian artists are taking trolls in a new direction. They're scary again, but now they're scary with a purpose. Gavel Adams will illuminate that purpose for her audience at the Nordic Museum.