The day Sweden’s trolls and fairies wept

On November 20th, 1918, a tragic ferry accident claimed the life of a Swedish artist whose enchanting depictions of folk and fairytale creatures still capture the imagination.

The day Sweden’s trolls and fairies wept
Photo: Svenskt Pressfoto/TT
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In the seemingly infinite forests of the Swedish province of Småland, artist John Bauer lived for much of his life among the gnomes, trolls, fairies, fair maidens and gallant princes he brought to life in his art. As a child, his summers were spent exploring the forests around his family's summer villa near Lake Rocksjön in Jönköping. After a period of European travel, he and his wife Esther, also an artist, settled down in a similar location not far away at Lake Bunn near Gränna.

“He was inspired by the areas around Södra Vätterbygden and used to always return to these places. It was here that he captured the environment [for] his ‘Bauer forests’, which he populated with fairy tale-like creatures like trolls and giants, knights and princesses”, according to the Jönköping County Museum.

His reputation as an artist was founded on the countless captivating illustrations he created of these mythical creatures during the early 1900s for the Swedish folk and fairy tale annual Bland tomtar och troll (Among Gnomes and Trolls). Between 1907 and 1915, Bauer’s art captured the spirit of Nordic mysticism and “reflected… a world where the physical reality and the mythical are present at the same time”, according to Sweden’s ​National Encyclopedia. ​

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Bauer's llustration of Walter Stenström's The boy and the trolls or The Adventure in anthology Among pixies and trolls, 1915, Public Domain

However great his love of the forest, by 1918, life there was far from a fairy tale. After the couple’s son was born in 1915, Esther had put her own art career on hold, and became increasingly unhappy with life in Bauer’s enchanted but isolated forest. Bauer himself was often away, pursuing new genres of art. The couple’s marriage was in danger. The solution was to move to a new home in Stockholm.

It is said that a horrific train accident near Norrköping in October 1918, which claimed 42 lives, persuaded the family that it would be safer to make the journey from Gränna, near Jonköping, to Stockholm by boat. So, on November 19th, 1918, the couple and their three-year-old son boarded the steam ferry Per Brahe.

In addition to the 24 passengers and crew members, the small ferry was so overloaded with cargo, including Husqvarna stoves and sewing machines bound for sale in Stockholm, that much of it had been placed on deck.


The dangerously unstable boat stood little chance against the storm that hit within hours of its departure. In sight of the port at Hästholmen, located some 33 kilometers upland from Gränna, the Per Brahe capsized in Sweden’s Lake Vättern during the early hours of November 20th. Everyone on board perished.  

Today, the site of Bauer’s childhood summer villa in Jonköping is the John Bauer Park, and the 46 kilometre John Bauer Trail between Gränna and Huskvarna passes through Bunn, where the Bauer’s lived before their tragic deaths in 1918. In these locations, as well as in the Jönköping County Museum, which holds the world’s largest collection of John Bauer’s art, it is still possible to discover both the real and imagined worlds he inhabited more than a century ago.

Victoria Martínez is an American historical researcher, writer and author of three historical non-fiction books. She lives in Småland county, Sweden, with her Spanish husband and their two children.

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Why is Sweden called Sweden? The Local answers Google’s questions

Why is Sweden called Sweden? Why is Sweden so depressing? Why is Sweden so rich?  In a new series of articles, The Local answers some of the most common questions that appear when you type "Why is Sweden..." into the Google search engine.  

Why is Sweden called Sweden? The Local answers Google's questions
Why is Sweden actually called Sweden? Let's find out. Photo: Google screenshot

The short answer to “why is Sweden called Sweden?” is that it’s not. It’s called Sverige

When The Local asked Henrik Williams, a Professor of Scandinavian Languages at Uppsala University, he also gave the question a short answer: “Because it’s inhabited by Swedes.” 

We can trace some form of the name back to at least the 13th century, when it was called Swearike in Old Swedish. That translates to “the kingdom of the Swear”.

Two thousand years ago, some of the people living in what is now known as Sweden were called Svear or Suiones, depending on which language you spoke and on how you spelled things (spelling varied greatly). 

The Roman historian Tacitus gives the first known description of the Svear in a book written in the year 93 CE, Germania

Everything comes down to this word, Svear, the name of the people. It means ‘we ourselves’. The Svear lived in Uppland just north of where Stockholm is now, until about the 11th century when they started expanding their territory. 

“It’s very common that people call themselves, either ‘we ourselves’ or ‘the people’” said Professor Williams. 

“We are ‘the humans’ and everybody else is something else. Everyone else is ‘them'”.

Of course, nobody uses the word in that way now, but it still forms the basis of the word Sweden.

The 8th century epic poem Beowulf gives the earliest known recorded version of the word Sweoland, land of the Swear

But at that time, there was no Sweden. Instead, the land was occupied by little kingdoms of Swedes and Goths (in present-day Götaland) and warring tribes of Vikings.

It’s unclear when the King of the Swear started referring to himself as the king of a country called Sweden, but it was probably around the time the country adopted Christianity in the 11th century. 

“Sweden” only came into regular use after 1750, when it replaced “Swedeland” in English. But in Scotland, “Sweden” had been used since the beginning of the modern era.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary in the early 17th century, people would use Sweden as the name of the people, and Swedeland as the name of the country. 

The first attested use of ‘Sweden’ was in a Scottish timber accounting log in 1503, which refers to “Sweden boards.” 

Most countries went from the Old Norse word Svíþjóð (which is still used to describe Sweden in Icelandic today) and turned it into something in their own languages, like the Old English Swíoríce, the Middle Dutch Zweden and High German Schweden

But it’s not called Sweden everywhere. 

In Finnish, Sweden is Ruotsi, in Estonian it’s Rootsi, and in Northern Sami Ruoŧŧa.

This comes from the root-word Rod, as in modern day Roslagen the coastal part of Uppland. It means rowing, or people who row. And because Finland was invaded by people from Roslagen, that’s how Finns referred to them.