The law of the living Earth
Wildflower season

"Into the Woods" series, 55: Troll Maidens and the magic of bridges

Troll Maiden by Brian Froud

"Troll women are the wise and wonderful beings of this world," says Wendy Froud, a neighbor and good friend of mine who is something of an authority on trolls, for she and her husband Brian (whose paintings & drawings you see here) have spent many years exploring the folk- and faery-lore of Dartmoor. In their most recent book on the subject she writes:

"Troll women are the wise and wonderful beings of this world. They are strong and intelligent, steadfast and canny. They can be extremely kind or terribly cruel -- and sometimes they can be both. Troll women are born knowing the pathways over and beneath the hills, the ways in and out of the Otherworld. They can be guides and wise women, witches and warrior women. They are the holders of dreams and keepers of hearth and home. Usually.

The Troll Bride by Brian Froud"Every once in a while, every once in a great while, a troll woman is born in the shape of a human or almost a human with only a small tail or small branches growing from her back to mark her trollness. When humans see these lovely human-shaped troll women, they wonder at their beauty, delight in their strangeness, and sometimes fall in love with them. When trolls look at these human-shaped troll maidens, they see sorrow and a passing and a life lived flitting on the borders between the worlds. These lovely human troll women do not live long troll lives. They live to what humans may think to be an extremely old age, but for a troll it is but the blink of an eye.

"The trolls rejoice and grieve for these fleeting creatures, who are neither one thing or the other. As they delight in watching a butterfly flutter in the air or a bee dance above a flower, the trolls delight in caring for and watching over these delicate, humanlike creatures. Trolls guard them and guide them and nurture them as much as possible, knowing as they do that troll maidens will soon fade away, perhaps taken to live as human wives in the border regions of the world or perhaps to spend short lives dancing on the hills or haunting the bridges and stepping-stones of streams and rivers that flow between the two worlds.

Clapper Bridge near Stiniel

Photograph of Terri Windling by Ellen Kushner"The humanlike troll maidens are drawn to bridges and spend much time sitting or standing on a bridge if there is one close to where they dwell. Bridges are places of transition. They span a stream or a river but also the air itself. When a troll maiden sits on a bridge, she is in a place particularly suited to her own state of being -- a link between the worlds. Water rushes under a bridge, flowing away to unknown places, speeding by even faster than a troll maiden's time in the world, and when she sits still with her feet above the flowing water, she can feel still and safe, serene and eternal.

"Bridges have always been associated with trolls," Wendy adds, "such as the story of the three billy goats and the troll under the bridge -- a very bad troll indeed. But not all trolls associated with bridges are bad. Trolls, with their empathy toward stone, are naturally drawn to stone bridges, where they, for the most part, become a part of the bridge itself, supporting the structure and making it safe for those who cross it. A bridge will often have a resident troll tucked away under its arch, lending strength to the structure. Of course there are exceptions, and those are the ones who have given trolls such a bad name.

Old stone bridge near Chagford

Bridge Troll by Brian Froud"Lurkers -- there is no other word for them -- trolls who lurk, like lurking under bridges more than anywhere else. A lurking troll is usually a dimwitted troll, a greedy troll, a troll with nothing better to do. Some trolls are so enthusiastic about bridges that they make a hat in the shape of their favorite bridge and wear it to troll gatherings. These are quite warm and snug and a very popular in winter.

"Other trolls will carry large, flat stones that can be used as 'clapper bridges' -- placed across a stream or river -- wherever they are needed. The trolls tend to leave them behind when they move on, and that is why there are so many examples of clapper bridges on the moor today.

"Sometimes those trolls who are perceived as bad are merely guarding troll maidens while they linger on a bridge, for protecting these delicate creatures is the duty of all trolls."

Troll Maiden with protectors by Brian Froud

The Truth About Bridges by Brian & Wendy Froud

There are three basic types of historic bridges on Dartmoor: stone bridges, wooden bridges (called clams) and clapper bridges (made of large granite slabs). The word "clapper" is believed to have dervived from an old Anglo Saxon word cleac, mean a stepping stone.

Of the roughly two-hundred clapper bridges on the moor, Postbridge Clapper is one of the largest and best known. "Postbridge Clapper, in one form or another, has stood here for centuries," writes Tim Sandles. "The term ‘clapper bridge’ is a term used on Dartmoor for a bridge which has one or more flat slabs of stones which rest on stone piers and thus spans a river or stream. The Dartmoor term for the slabs are ‘posts’ which is how [the hamlet of] Postbridge acquired its name. It is possible that the bridge dates back as early as the 1300s, as by this time many of the nearby moorland farms had been established. The earliest documented record of the bridge is from a newtake lease of 1655 where it states: 'scituate lyinge and beinge between postbridge and a nutake of on Richard Leeres.'"

Clapper bridge at Postbridge

Clapper bridge at Postbridge

Postbridge, Dartmoor

A little farther up the road is the hamlet of Two Bridges, where a medieval bridge sits just a stone's throw from the Prince Edward Bridge, built in 1931. It is commonly believed that the hamlet takes its name from these two bridges sitting so close together, but as Tim Sandles explains: "The first documented record of the place-name Two Bridges was in 1573 when it appeared in a court roll as Tobrygge. This has been taken to mean ‘at the bridge,’ as the word ‘to’ is a Devonshire term for 'at,' as in 'Where’s ee to?'"

Two Bridges, Dartmoor

Legends surround most of the bridges on the moor, which are focal points not only for the local trolls but also witch hares, whist hounds, will-o-the-wisps and piskies up to their usual mischief. At Two Bridges (above), two disembodied Hairy Hands are said to force travellers off the road: grabbing at the reins of horses in centuries past, and at car steering wheels today. Fingle Bridge near Drewsteignton (below) is also an uncanny spot, for on certain nights when the moon is full it is the site of wild Faerie revels. Humans who stumble unwittingly on these rites vanish forever.

Fingle Bridge, Drewsteignton

The bridge over the River Dart at Holne is also best avoided by night, for undines dwell in the water underneath. These creatures steal mortal men who take their fancy, and drown those who earn their displeasure. South Down Bridge near Tavistock, by contrast, is a place of good fortune, white magic, and luck. This bridge belongs to the Queen of Faerie, who fashioned it out of waterdrops from a rainbow arched over a stream. The clapper bridge at the Wallabrook (below) is haunted by the ghost of a Dartmoor tin miner -- a sad rather than frightening apparition who merely wants to go home to Chagford. He's been haunting the spot since medieval times, for he cannot cross running water.

Clapper Bridge near Scorhill

With or without a supernatural attendent, bridges themselves carry a magic of their own.

"When we stand on a bridge," says Brian Froud, "we stand neither on land nor water; we stand in a symbolic space. Faerieland is always approached in places or moments where opposites are in balance. Edges, borders, boundaries of all kinds are where we encounter the faery realm, where land and water meet, where forests begin, and in twlight when the dark meets the light."

Earth and Water by Brian Froud

The clapper bridge near Scorhill

Trolls by Brian & Wendy FroudThe text by Wendy Froud, and the art by Brian Froud, is from their delightful book Trolls (Abrams, 2012), which I highly recommend. The two quotes by Tim Staples are from the Legendary Dartmoor site. The photographs of Dartmoor bridges are mine -- except for the one of me sitting on a clapper bridge near Stiniel, taken by Ellen Kushner. That's Howard & Tilly in the last two photos, on the Wallabrook Clapper near Scorhill Stone Circle last spring.



More than once kind friends
Make bridges in the air - They are
Artists, writers, actors, muses,
They keep all the secret trolls
Alive and watchful and necessary.

These trolls I know are of course
Secretly kinder than we think.
Who else could hide under stones
On wet weeds and mud, to call out
"Who goes there?" Who indeed?

Artists, writers, actors, children and
Also jugglers; all on the edge of
The stories we cherish, for children
And any seeker on a quest; road
Stops and becomes the bridge.

Do you not in dreams, search
Among good and evil, and find
The something in between, Troll
Who puzzled you, and as trickster
Gives you riddles and tales.

In green country, with stone bridges
And fairy gifts are nearby, we see
Where we need to go. But first
Meet the Troll, Change into who
You never knew who you could be.

such beautiful old stone in those clapper bridges and I can't imagine how many men and horses it would take to move one into place, let alone 200!

Such a rich post, in beauty and information, and the great treat of a glimpse of "the lurker", not to mention Howard and Tilly. Thank you, Terri.

Myself and Clare have walked over many of these beautiful bridges during holidays spent in Devon. The clapper bridges particularly hold a strange fascination. There was a a bridge on the isle of Skye that was equally 'otherworldly', but I suppose that's hardly surprising for an island that has its very own Fairy Flag the 'Am Bratach Sith'.

The Troll Maiden

to spend short lives dancing on the hills or haunting the bridges and stepping-stones of streams and rivers that flow between the two worlds.
Wendy Froud

Where would I be found
on a certain Spring day?

Lingering beneath a bridge
built with stone slabs upon pillars
of the same stone, Listening to echoes
that call within the rock:

those of tinsmith, warrior, prince
farmer and monk --
the lost maidens of my kin.

They tell me their stories. The rivers
they feared to cross. The paths they wouldn't pursue.
The corners and borders in-between
that compromised their will.

And how would I look ( upon them)
on that certain Spring day?

My tresses grown as the willow
long and swabbing water,

my back to the wind
snubbing any storm or frost
that might threaten the heat

and between my shoulders,
branches sprouting instead of wings
to welcome birds -- and leaves

sparked by the sun. Votive lights
to honor those who have passed;
and if they should like

to lead them back, shepherd their way
through the shadows.

Hi Phyllis

I love the parable you create with the imagery of bridges and trolls. This is beautifully done with voice, character and wisdom. That last stanza really sums up the gist of this poem perfectly --

In green country, with stone bridges
And fairy gifts are nearby, we see
Where we need to go. But first
Meet the Troll, Change into who
You never knew who you could be.

Thank you for sharing,
I really enjoyed this!

Aaaw, just lovely - tinsmith, warrior, prince, farmer, and monk - the lost maidens of my kin....This could become a longer amazing poetic tale as each of them have their story to tell.

Humbly thank you. intoxicating prompt - waltzing around with Trolls under the bridge and over it with fairies let out to become unexpected words.

That's my favorite verse, too, Wendy.


Tresses like willows--YES!!!


Troll Maiden on the Bridge

Water, as fleeting
as human life,
flows beneath her feet.

She cannot breath deeply
because of the sorrow
that dams her soul.

Alone of her clan
she seems a human girl
as long as you do not look closely.

She has a tail, small and black,
that curls like a question mark
above her perfect buttocks.

There is a small forest
of unbudded twigs
pushing out of the skin in her back.

She is neither troll nor human,
but the bridge between,
which is why she sits there

letting the whole world
walk across her heart,
her grieving heart.

©2016 Jane Yolen all rights reserved

Hi Jane

Love, love your depiction of "the troll maiden on the bridge" and the way you characterize her composition, half creature and half human, a bridge between the two worlds, a compromise between myth and reality, a bridge to vulnerability on either side.

She is neither troll nor human,
but the bridge between,
which is why she sits there

letting the whole world
walk across her heart,

Thank you for sharing this!
enjoyed it very much!

My Best

Nice one, Jane. To be alone of her clan, neither troll or human,,, and that black sad.
Piercing, Hans Christian Andersen sad.

Dear Phyllis and Jane

Thank you both so very much for reading and commenting on this poem! I deeply appreciate and am so glad you took an interest in this poem!

Take care
My Best always,

And mine.

It's not surprising, really, that legends have grown up around the clappers attributing the building of them to supernatural forces. Particularly when you think how remote the moor was in centuries past...almost a country apart.

Here's another Lurker for you Cheryl, the troll I spotted on Postbridge Clapper this week. (A troll dressed in winter clothes in late April because it's still so darn cold here now. Brrrr.)

Next time you have a holiday down this way, be sure to let me know. We'll walk those bridges together. (I should add, "If health permits," having just missed visits from three different friends in the last two months for precisely that reason. *sigh*)

Absolutely magical. I'd like to pass it on to Wendy, if I have your permission?

This description is so perfect it gives me shivers:

"She has a tail, small and black,
that curls like a question mark
above her perfect buttocks.

"There is a small forest
of unbudded twigs
pushing out of the skin in her back."

Another one to pass on the Wendy & Brian if I may? And Phyllis, yours too? I'm sure they'd enjoy reading them.

Hi Terri

Absolutely!!! I would love to see this poem shared and deeply appreciate your lovely comments!!

Take care
My Best always

That's a lovely idea, Terri.

Absolutely magical, the post, the photos and illustrations, the poems in the comments. Thank you all!

Being half Swedish, I grew up with these tales and believed myself to be a troll maiden. I used to look for my tail.
Sometimes I still wonder if I am one...
Thank you for that, magical, beautiful, wonder-full

I would be very pleased if you sent my poem to Wendy & Bryan. They have, of course,
given me loads of joy, charm and exactly what I needed in dour times. Gnomes, trolls, fairies and marvels often saved my soul.

Absolutely-and honored.


Love, love this post and the mythology. We should all endeavor to find a bit of Troll Maiden beneath the bridges of our souls. The poems that your readers share are always so splendid, secreted away under the "comments" bridge. It's a whole other world down here!

love, and identify.

And that you for your charming and very magical art, Karin. I love "Celestine and the Hare"!

For any here who don't yet know it:

Thank you all for your kind comments and Troll Appreciation. :)

The "comments bride." I love that.

The comments to this entry are closed.