When my parents told me we were going to see the troll under the bridge, I was a little worried.
For one thing, I was five years old, the age when one still imagines that monsters live under the bed. Also, I’d originally been told that we were going to the beach: as recent transplants from New Jersey, my parents failed to realize that Washingtonians don’t visit any kind of seaside locale outside of August, and so they’d promised to drive the family to Alki Beach on February 15th, 1995. You can imagine my dismay when we arrived and found a grey waste of fog and mist hovering over the steely edge of the Puget Sound. As I recall, my tiny Hawaiian shirt, flip-flops, and white tube socks (essentially the miniature version of a middle-aged man’s attire during a vacation to Miami) were particularly unsuitable for the situation. Since there was little point building sandcastles in 30 degree weather, my parents came up with a backup activity: visiting the Fremont Troll.
Though the Fremont Troll has become a major Seattle landmark, back then it was a relatively new addition to the city. The troll (which, for no apparent reason, I’ve always imagined was named Filbert) was completed by artists Steve Badanes, Will Martin, Donna Walter and Ross Whitehead in 1990, about a month before I was born. The sculpture was the winning entry of a Fremont Arts Council contest, originally held to beautify the rather dubious empty space beneath the Aurora Bridge by selecting an appropriate art installation. The idea of installing an ominously lurking, legless troll clutching a Volkswagon Beetle was apparently an overwhelming favorite with the Council, and so Badanes and his team were commissioned to construct the 18-foot, concrete, and steel rebar version.
Since that time, the sculpture has become a favorite fixture of the Fremont neighborhood (which, it’s worth mentioning, also installed a delightfully divisive Lenin statue in 1988). In autumn, residents celebrate a Troll-a-ween festival, while the summer sees the neighborhood stage popular (if elusive) Shakespeare at the Troll productions. Once Christmas rolls around, the troll dons a stylish, oversized Santa cap. In terms of national media, the troll is something of a modest celebrity: he enjoyed a roughly seven second cameo in 10 Things I Hate About You, one of the more popular additions to the long and proud tradition of films that distort reality to make the Space Needle appear 50 feet taller than the rest of Seattle. Indeed, the troll has become so popular that Fremont’s website refers to it as if it were a living entity, even going so far as to speculate on the extent of troll immigration to the neighborhood.
Of course, none of this information was particularly relevant to me when I first encountered the troll. All I knew was that, rather than dropping me off at a sunny resort beside the sea, my parents had decided to drive to the underside of a bridge deep in Seattle’s foggy interior and encourage me to check out a hulking behemoth crushing an automobile. And so, there I was, standing out in the cold in my Hawaiian shirt and flip-flops, staring at the one-eyed troll beneath the Aurora Bridge. While my brother and sister had no qualms in scurrying all over the troll’s hunched shoulders, I could do nothing but clutch my beach pail and shovel and nervously keep my distance.
Based on this initial encounter, you might find it surprising that the Fremont troll has become one of my favorite Seattle landmarks. Indeed, I like nothing better than purchasing a hot coffee at one of Fremont’s many excellent cafes and strolling down through the fog and drizzle to consider my 18-foot tall stone and rebar neighbor. Part of the reason I love this ritual is because, no matter how many times I visit the troll, he always looks slightly different. When seen in the context of winter fog and rain, the troll seems like the menacing inhabitant of some distant mountain wilderness. On a fresh day at the beginning of spring, he looks rather more mischievous and whimsical. Though the troll and I grew up more or less side-by-side (remember that the old goat is only a month older than me), I still can’t quite determine what I think of him, which is perhaps why I like him best.
Of course, none of this really explains why the troll is such a perfect addition to Seattle, and I’m not sure anyone will ever be able to come up with a satisfying answer to that quandary. However, if I were to guess why the troll is so popular, I would say that it is because he exemplifies the exact spirit and atmosphere that makes life in the Northwest so enjoyable. Like the Puget Sound itself, the troll displays a certain playful irreverence that can’t quite be defined but is nonetheless vital to the region’s culture. It’s also a reminder of the mysterious, bittersweet melancholy of Seattle’s seemingly endless drizzle. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the troll illustrates the Northwest’s penchant for imagination, for turning something plain and ordinary (the underside of a bridge, perhaps) into an occasion for play and artistic creation.
Those are my reasons, and most will undoubtedly find them unsatisfying. The only way to decide whether or not the troll is worth seeing is to visit him beneath the Aurora Bridge. Just don’t trick your kids into coming by making sunny, beach-filled promises you’ll never be able to keep.
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