Ambitious in its effort to confront a variety of contemporary issues, Nancy Farmer’s 2005 The Sea of Trolls is at heart a YA adventure tying together the history and epics of the cultures it sources. A triangle created of Anglo-Saxons, Northmen, and Jotun societies and beliefs, it is through the eyes of Jack the reader experiences all three and how they are interrelated and adapted to. Not a simple black and white exercise in contrast or re-telling of myth, Farmer’s worldview comes shining through the three societies and their prejudices and biases: in order to survive in this world, the differences of opinion, including religion and culture, must be understood and comprised, a “force of life” binding us all together.
At the outset of The Sea of Trolls, all seems well-enough for Jack and his Anglo-Saxon family. But not long after, Northmen come raiding and kidnap he and his younger sister, Lucy. Initially intended to be sold as slaves to the mysterious Picts, Olaf, the leader of the raiding expedition, takes a liking to Jack, and decides to make him his personal bard—much to the chagrin of Thorgil, a young comrade who oozes distaste for not only Jack, but for life itself. Thinking to make her bile felt, Thorgil decides to give Lucy to King Ivar the Boneless and his half-troll wife, Queen Frith, as a gift. But when the boats arrive back at court and Lucy is presented, everything falls apart, and Jack, far, far from home, must do what he can with what little talent he possesses to fight for he and his sister’s survival.
Openly visible in The Sea of Trolls is Famer’s usage of Norse mythology and religion. Aside from informing the cultures existing in those parts of the world today (see the deeds of Odin, Freya, and Loki imprinted on the walls of Oslo’s town hall), they are also scattered throughout Farmer’s text. Valhalla, Beowulf, and the Yggdrassil tree play prominent roles in the book, in particular informing the Northmen’s mode of living and their rather specific goals in life: maintaining honor and place in stories that will be told to future generations. Contrasting this are the beliefs of the Anglo-Saxons and Jotuns. Jack’s father, an Anglo-Saxon, considers any talk of magic or of the bezerkers blasphemy, the beliefs of the Isle of Hope instead foremost on his religious agenda. The Jotuns have a more peaceful connection to the earth than do the bezerkers, and is a belief wholly rooted in nature when compared to the practices of the Anglo-Saxon’s and their gods.
But for as mad and violent they can be at times, Farmer does not portray the Northmen (read: Vikings) in a wholly negative light. That courage, bravery and dying in battle is honored among them is also respected by Farmer. While Thorgil’s childish hopes for death in glory seem ludicrous, Olaf’s life is a testament to the balance the author sees in him and his culture; despite his pillaging ways, he also remains fair, honoring his oaths, caring for his family and children, albeit in a unique way, not to mention having a mostly healthy relationship with the Jotuns.
The Jotuns are comparable to the stereotypes of elves. They remain aloof from human society, have their own culture, and live in a kind of utopia. While they do attack the random Northman, Farmer makes it clear it’s only when provoked, and as such they usually only bite off the legs, much the same as when in primitive eras a hand might be chopped off for stealing, the message clear. Otherwise, the Jotuns avoid human affairs, preferring their stronger connection to the “force of life” which binds all things, as well as acting as semi-guardians of the tree of life.
But throughout the novel, aside from that of Frith the half-woman, half-troll, the sources of fear remain the same: false stereotypes. The Anglo-Saxons are afraid of magic and witchcraft as it is not part of their culture, and likewise the Northmen are also afraid, Thorgil referring to Jack in contemptuous tones whenever he uses his magical abilities. Not many details are given about the tattoo covered Pict people, but Jack remains skeptical of them based on their appearance only, he in fact knowing nothing about them or their culture to have any realistic reason for being afraid. In fact, it takes Jack nearly the whole novel to come to an appreciation of the Northmen’s culture. Only after being immersed in his journey, witnessing most facets of Viking life, and after putting aside his stereotyped opinions does he come to terms with his experiences.
The other important motif of the novel is the life force, introduced to Jack by the Bard. Like George Lucas’s Force, so too is Farmer’s a supernatural ether enveloping and permeating all things with life. That this life force supersedes the religions and beliefs of the Anglo-Saxons and Northmen and informs the Jotun’s utopian way of life privileges the idea as being center to the book’s message—particularly that it is in coming to understand the concept that Jack’s relationship with Thorgil and Lucy improves to the tune of willingness to sacrifice one’s happiness for the benefit of others. Farmer implies individual cultural systems and beliefs can co-exist, a universal current flowing through them all. Not a bad message, The Sea of Trolls is a fine YA adventure for it.