On a recent trip to Norway, I became fascinated with Scandinavian folklore and the stories of trolls, which date back to the very earliest legends and sagas.
A troll is a class of being in Norse mythology and Scandinavian folklore. In Old Norse sources, beings described as “trolls” dwell in isolated rocks, mountains, or caves, live together in small family units, and are rarely helpful to human beings.
Later, in Scandinavian folklore, trolls became beings in their own right, where they live far from human habitation in caves, mountains, under bridges or even underground, are not Christianized, and are considered dangerous to human beings and not very friendly to people who cross their paths. Trolls can be scared away by lightning and the sound of church bells. Depending on the source, their appearance varies greatly; trolls may be ugly and slow-witted, or look and behave exactly like human beings, with no particularly grotesque characteristic about them. The slide show below displays different depictions of trolls:
Trolls are sometimes associated with particular landmarks such as mountains and rocks, which at times may be explained as formed from a troll turning to stone when exposed to sunlight.
Many mountains in Norway are named after trolls, for example: Trolltindy (Magic Truth), Trollholm (Fairy Hill), Trollheimen, Jotunheimen, and many others. There are also places in Norway that are associated with the trolls: Trollvey (“Troll Road”), Trollbotn (“valley of trolls”), and Trollvann (“lake trolls”).
One of the most popular natural tourist attraction in Norway is Trolltunga (translation “Troll Tongue”) which is about 700 metres above the Ringedalsvatnet Lake in Odda, Hordaland county. Each year, about 150 000 tourists visit the spectacular mountain area during the Summer.
Trolltunga, Odda, Hordaland County, Norway
When visiting Norway, you can learn to spot trolls yourself. They are everywhere in nature, big and small, and you just need to combine imagination and what your eyes see. The troll may be in the form of a mountain, forest hill or a giant boulder, covered with moss and heather, and sometimes trees.
The Ombo Troll, Rogaland, Norway
Holmenkollen Troll, Oslo, Norway
As legendary creatures, trolls have a long history of being depicted in folk art and, along with the Viking, have become a prominent tourist symbol in Norway.
During my visit to Norway, I had seen some modern trolls made from clay with fluffy hair for sale in the tourist gift shops. However, since I wanted to acquire my own authentic hand-carved piece of Scandinavian folklore, I did some searching for Norwegian hand-carved trolls when I arrived back home in South Africa. Within the search results, I came across some very peculiar looking wooden troll sculptures made by Norwegian woodcarver, Anton Sveen. This immediately peaked my interest, as I am an avid collector of the strange and unusual. After some further research, I was not able to find a single site dedicated to the artist, which is a pity. I then decided that I would write my own article from the bits and pieces of information scattered throughout the world wide web. Below is my attempt at uncovering the life and story of Anton Sveen, a renowned Norwegian woodcarver.
Anton Sveen is well-known for his unique hand-carved trolls. He lived most of his life in the small hamlet of Lora, in the mountain district of Lesja – a small village in Oppland county, Norway, which is part of the traditional region of Gudbrandsdal.
I recently made contact with Anton’s nephew, Magne Sveen, who had the following to say about the Sveen farm and family, “I own the childhood farm where my uncle Anton was born. Uncle Anton and Aunt Jenny built a house on the farm which is still there and is now owned by a young member of Anton’s family. The farm is located in Lesja, in the very northern part of Gudbrandsdalen.”
An aerial photograph of the Sveen farm in Lesja.
Photo credit: Magne Sveen
“The farm was bought by my grandfather, Ole Leirmo, in the 1890s. He changed his surname to Sveen, the name of the farm. Ole was extremely talented and completed his studies at the Academy of Arts in Oslo and continued for another two years at the prestigious Academy of Arts in Copenhagen. He moved back to Lesja, married Marie and they had 14 children, of which 11 grew up to adulthood. Ole devoted his time to carving jewelry boxes and other fine arts that were sold in the valley as gifts for baptism, confirmation, wedding presents, etc. He also carved his own style of decorations into chairs, tables, mirrors, etc. He must have been a great motivator, as he inspired many of his children to go the art way.”
An old family picture of the 11 children around their mother, Marie Sveen. The picture was taken at her husband Ole Leirmo Sveen’s funeral in 1942. Front from left: Oskar (died 20 years old), Marit, Marie, Olga and Otto. Back from left: Ragnvald, Edvin, Jørgen, Jakob, Magnus and Anton. Photo credit: Magne Sveen
Anton began making wooden sculptures in the 1930s, but he only started making the troll characters we know and love today in the 1940-1950s.
Anton Sveen at a young age – ironically standing with one hand holding a walking stick and the other in his pocket, which is how he depicted many of his wooden trolls.
Photo credit: Magne Sveen
The expert carver that he was, Anton turned his attention to trolls early on and built a career that eventually involved his entire family in the production process. His troll sculptures became extremely popular, and their value rose as the worldwide interest in anything “troll” grew in the late 20th century.
Each troll is carved from one piece of hard mountain birch wood. The birch tree is only found in the Northern Hemisphere and is commonly found in Norway.
Birch tree – commonly found in Norway
Anton began the troll creating process by carving a rough design of the trolls with an axe in the cellar of his house. They were then taken up to the kitchen where he had a separate table for further work on the details for the characters.
Anton Sveen at the kitchen table carving a troll while his children, Else and Oskar, observe the process.
Photo credit: Anything Troll
Many of the trolls are similar in design, however, each troll has its own unique features and characteristics. When it comes to collecting Norwegian hand-carved trolls, it seems the uglier they are, the more people want them.
Anton’s male trolls are most often designed in a walking motion with a hunched back, pipe in their mouth, walking stick in one hand and the other hand is most commonly found in the trolls pocket, however, I have come across some unique trolls with the other hand holding a key, axe, or a sack. The trolls often have checkered patches where they have torn their pants by the knees or on their shirts by the elbows. There was also a small portion of unique trolls made with suspenders or in a sitting position on a rock.
The way Anton carved the troll’s eyes and eyebrows added life to the character, it made them look curious like they were peeking around a corner spying on someone or perhaps shocked because they had encountered a human.
Anton’s female trolls are most often designed in a straight standing pose with a broomstick in one hand and the other hand is usually hanging free at the side.
It is said that Anton carved the male and female troll couple from a single block of birch wood, making them a perfect match.
There are many different faces, as well as types of stances they were carved in and the attention to detail in the carving is simply amazing. The care given to the way the wood was finished is obviously with lots of love and plenty of skill.
Anton Sveen carving trolls with his son, Arnfinn Sveen, in the 1960s.
Photo credit: Carey Sveen
When the carving process was finished – Anton’s wife, Jenny Sveen (1922-2004), had the job of staining the wood with different colors and hand rubbing and buffing the trolls with Danish oil for many hours. According to Magne Sveen, “Uncle Anton was a very kind man with a great sense of humor. He was married to Jenny, who sat by his side for all their 40 years of production, painting the trolls. They were my godparents. Anton produced one set of trolls, with the same colors, fashion, and face in 4 sizes, small, medium, large and then the tall “gubber”, mail trolls of 50-60 cm (or more) tall. Anton and Jenny sold thousands of trolls and based on the earnings brought up a family of 5 children.”
The design and clothing of these troll is typical of Anton’s work. They have a natural patina-like finish applied. You can also note the different sizes he made from the same set in this photo.
Photo credit: Magne Sveen
Anton’s signature (ASv) can be found carved under the foot of his trolls. However, some trolls have not been signed, but can still be authenticated by the quality, type of wood used and unique style of the artist.
Through my research, I identified that Anton marked his trolls with Roman Numerals (I, II, III). Although it is uncertain as to what these markings indicate, my guess would be that the number indicated either the decade in which the troll was made or the batch of trolls from which the troll was made with. Examples of these markings can be seen below:
I managed to make contact with another of Anton’s grandchildren, Jackson Sveen, who had the following interesting information and family stories to share; “Arnfinn Sveen was my father and Jenny and Anton’s youngest child. Unfortunately, my family stories are limited. My grandparents never spoke any English and my Norwegian was and is still pretty limited. Still, I loved them very much! They had very fun, quiet, and calm
personalities. It seemed that Jenny was much more of a talker than Anton was. My favorite story about my grandfather was from 1982-3ish when my grandparents came to the United States (US) to visit. When he was going through security he was wearing a belt with all his carving knives attached. Of course, they told him he wouldn’t be able to bring them and apparently, he demanded that they travel with him. He said that there was no way that he was leaving without them. Sure enough, Anton and the knives made it on the flight. These tools were more to him than wood and metal. They were his livelihood. They were a part of him. Of course today you’d be put in the airport jail for trying to do that.”
A picture taken during Jackson’s last visit to Norway in 2004. (From left) Jenny, Arnfinn and Anton.
Through further investigation, I was told quite an interesting story by a collector on ebay who has sold many Anton Sveen trolls on ebay in the past. The collector wished to remain anonymous, but they did shed some light on their parents experience of visiting Anton Sveen in Norway in the 1980s:
“My parents were avid collectors and travellers. They took an extensive 3-month vacation through many Scandinavian countries and Norway was one of them (my parents and myself live in the US). My parents had looked at a variety of trolls to purchase on their journey, but just couldn’t find one that satisfied them until they walked into a random hotel in Geiranger, Norway and saw two of Anton Sveen’s trolls (one male, one female) on a shelf in the lobby and just loved them… so much so that they bought them from the hotel.
A few days later, they were on the Trollstigen Mountain Road where trolls are thought to live in the surrounding hills and valleys and they stopped at a gift shop there where they saw more Sveen trolls to their surprise. They bought a couple of them there and the owner of the shop mentioned that if they are in Lora, Anton Sveen doesn’t mind visitors. When they arrived in Lora, the people in the town gave my parents directions to Mr. Sveen’s house. When they got there, they walked right up to his house and knocked on the door and his wife answered and invited my parents in and there he was, sitting at his workbench working on trolls.
My parents commissioned Mr. Sveen to produce about 40 unique trolls, and he shipped all of them to my parents in the US. About half of the commissioned trolls were given away as gifts, another portion was sold on ebay, and my mother still has a few on display at her home and the rest are in storage. My mother remembers that Mr. Sveen had a humongous pile of birch wood blocks in his backyard for future trolls. He also had various trolls around his house, which were part of his personal collection and were not for sale.”
Photos taken during this visit to Anton Sveen’s home in Lora, Norway, including a picture of his house, Mr. Sveen at his workbench, and the interior of his house showing some of his personal trolls (a large troll holding a key and a unique troll sitting on a rock) can be seen below. There are many interesting small details to look at in each picture, including some trolls in various stages of creation.
Anton’s older brother, Otto Sveen (1910-1997), was also an accomplished carver.
Otto making a fire in the Norwegian woods.
Photographer: Per Jordhøy
Otto was famous for creating sculptures and decorating churches. He spent several years decorating Lesjaverk church in Gudbrandsdalen. He made the altarpiece, pulpit, and baptismal font in the church.
Otto Sveen with the woodwork he created for Lesjaverk church.
Photo credit: Magne Sveen
Otto also produced carved trolls, quite unique, but simpler than the trolls Anton made. Otto’s trolls were usually shorter, had a smaller round nose, and were happier looking with a smile. Whereas Anton’s were taller, had a longer nose, and harsher looking face. Otto also signed his trolls beneath the foot with “Øsv”, but like Anton trolls – not all of them are signed.
Below are some pictures of the trolls created by Otto Sveen:
Here is a mixed collection of Anton and Otto Sveen trolls – see if you can tell them apart.
Photo credit: Cliff Sharp
Anton’s trolls were sold by specialty retailers in Norway, on Norwegian cruise ships and at selected shops around the world. Today, these collectible wooden trolls can be evaluated using the criteria below:
- The size of the sculpture – From my research, I have established that Anton charged more for larger sculptures and less for smaller sculptures, this was due to the amount of birch wood he utilised and the amount of effort taken to make the sculpture. His larger trolls are somewhat rare, as he did not make that many of them to sell.
- If the sculpture is in original condition – Wooden sculptures often break and get repaired. This is usually easily noticeable and will affect the value.
- The condition of the sculpture (the points below can affect the value of a sculpture):
- Fading of the color detail – over the years when the sculptures are handled or cleaned, the color detailing often becomes faded and not so prominent. This can also happen if the sculpture is exposed to direct sunlight. You can do a comparison of your troll sculpture/s with the many pictures found on Google images.
- Damages to the wood – if the sculpture has any cracks, chips, or scratches to the wood. Things such as cracks/chips/scratches are very typical for hard wood carvings, but the placing of the crack/chip/scratch and the size of the crack/chip/scratch can impact the value differently (e.g. if it is underneath the base of the sculpture or on the back, then this will not impact the value very much, as it would not detract from the troll’s sheer, um… beauty! However, if it is on the sculpture’s face or easily noticeable when displaying the sculpture, this can impact the value significantly. The same goes for the size of the crack/chip/scratch; the larger the crack/chip/scratch, the more impact it will have on the value of the sculpture).
Below is a slide show of photographs of Anton’s trolls found on the internet:
Through my research, I also managed to find a 4-minute video from the 22 August 1970 of Anton and Jenny Sveen explaining the different stages of the troll making process. Their interview can be seen at 26:24 – 30:14:
According to Magne Sveen, “Anton’s son, Oskar Sveen (born 1942), is the only artist remaining from the family who brought the tradition of carving trolls through to our generation. He has his own style of trolls and has produced his own style of fine art. Oskar was a teacher at the the Oslo Academy of Architecture and specialised in wood carving and art furniture. Oskar built and carved the chairs for Pope Paul’s visit to Oslo, Norway and to our Crown Prince when in Parliament. He also led projects in USA decorating churches.”
Oskar Sveen carving at his desk.
Photo credit: Magne Sveen
Oskar’s hand-carved trolls.
Photo credit: Magne Sveen
Anton pour his blood, sweat and tears into each of his unique trolls, that have since made their way around the world. And as long as they are around, and people love trolls, he will be remembered.
Today these wooden sculptures are very collectible and highly valued by those who own and love them.
Old Anton Sveen sits carving trolls from hard mountain birch wood in Lora. Having done this for most of his adult life, his trolls have provided him with a living to support the whole family. Anton passed on in 2009.
If any readers have any information or pictures regarding Anton Sveen, please do not hesitate to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org