One of my favorite books as a child was A Giant Love Story by celebrated Icelandic children’s author Gudrún Helgadóttir and British-born illustrator and author Brian Pilkington.
Published in 1981, it must have been one of the first, if not the first, book on trolls that Pilkington illustrated. Given that Trolls – Philosophy and Wisdom is his tenth, he obviously fell in love with the subject.
In Icelandic folk stories trolls are mean creatures who eat humans and therefore kidnap them and want to keep them captive. But they are also clumsy and stupid and usually end up exposing themselves to sunlight, which turns them to stone.
Which explains why there are so many “trolls” in the Icelandic landscape. The famous rock formation Reynisdrangar off Vík in south Iceland, for example, was created when two trolls tried to tow a three-masted ship to land but failed to reach the shore before sunrise, or so legend has it.
Based on elements from the folk stories, A Giant Love Story offers a different view on trolls, featuring them as emotional beings who are capable of love and care deeply for their children.
Pilkington has adopted and evolved that image of trolls until they’ve become almost the opposite of how folk stories portray them. To him they are wise and peaceful beings who look after and live in harmony with nature but hide from humans, whom they despise.
In the preface to his latest book, Pilkington even—presumably tongue-in-cheek—speculates about a supernatural connection with trolls, hinting that they have chosen him to tell their story.
In essence, Trolls – Philosophy and Wisdom is a collection of paintings made in Pilkington’s spare time. He explains that he just starts doodling and soon enough a troll is staring back at him from the page and each image inspires a word or phrase of wisdom.
The trolls are male and female, young and old, wear decorated clothing and accessories, enjoy nature and cuddling in their cozy caves. Some have horns, others warts and none are exactly pretty but there is something beautiful about Pilkington’s imagination.
As in all his illustrations, the lines are soft and the colors warm and I especially like the paintings which feature actual locations in Iceland, such as Snaefellsjökull glacier in the west and Dyrhólaey promontory in the south.
I’m not as fond of all the accompanying text which reflects Pilkington’s love for nature and his view of the world, maybe even contempt for mankind?
For example: “Trolls’ advice to humans: The best possible thing you can do for your children is to have fewer of them.” I’m not sure what he’s implying. The world is overpopulated and humans are destroying it so we should all stop procreating?
Other texts are a little too straightforward and sound too propagandish for my taste, even though I agree, such as: “It’s a good world, a beautiful planet. Let’s look after it.”
However, in many cases, the text is original and witty and, in my interpretation, suits the character of trolls better, like: “It’s hard to insult a troll; they are very thick-skinned” and, below a picture of a troll organizing rocks on a giant plain: “Rearranging nature aesthetically. The reason why Iceland is so pleasing on the eye.”
There’s especially one piece of troll advice that I’d like to take to heart, and actually do practice whenever I get the chance: “Get up late, go to bed early, take lots of naps in between.” Maybe I have a little of the troll spirit in me?
Overall, I liked the book, as I like all books by Pilkington that I’ve read, although I prefer his books that include longer stories. My favorites are the aforementioned love story and another children’s book he co-authored with Steinar Berg.
After finishing his latest book, Pilkington left me more curious about his trolls than before I started reading. What do they eat if they don’t eat humans? His paintings show them out and about in broad daylight. Doesn’t the sun prove any hazard to them?
Maybe there will be a more elaborate follow-up?
But for those interested in short and mostly meaningful anecdotes and adorable paintings of trolls and Icelandic nature, Trolls – Philosophy and Wisdom is definitely recommendable.
Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir