Selma Lagerlöf was the first woman to win the Nobel prize for literature, in 1909. The origins of The Wonderful Adventure of Nils Holgersson, her much-loved children’s story first published in 1906-07, do not inspire confidence: it was commissioned by the Swedish National Teachers’ Society as a geography textbook. But Lagerlöf’s interpretation of this potentially tedious didactic task breaks the limits of the form. It is full of poetical phrasing, with a strong moralistic undercurrent that yet allows for the naughty spirit of childhood to remain true. The whole of Sweden forms the adventure’s backdrop: landscapes, seascapes and towns enriching and informing the narrative, while agriculture and animal life are carefully and lovingly observed.
Nils Holgersson is, initially, a cruel and charmless boy: he locks his parents in the shed, trips up his mother as she is carrying milk and teases all the animals on the farm. One day he traps a gnome, and is cursed: shrunk, his perspective is altered drastically in the kind of body horror familiar to us from Alice’s metamorphoses in Lewis Carroll. “He was no longer human, but a monster,” Nils realises about himself. The sense of alienation is shocking.
This leads to the essential component of a good children’s book: an expansion of the child’s worldview. “Where would he get food and who would give him shelter, and who would make his bed?” he wonders. Torn from the safe domestic space, Nils realises that the basic human needs he took for granted are hard to win.
Nils is accidentally borne away by a farm gander who wants to follow the wild geese to Lapland. TH White used a similar device in The Sword in the Stone, as the future King Arthur is sent to learn about peace and community among the geese. Here, Nils witnesses the interdependencies of the natural world, and dashes about righting wrongs. There are nods to other fairytales – the Pied Piper, as Nils leads rats away with a tiny pipe, and, of course, Tom Thumb.
The plot is necessarily episodic. Lagerlöf weaves Swedish folklore into her narrative; barely a place goes by without its story being told in an interesting way, by talking bronze statues, or storks, or similar. Yet it must be said that the children of today, used to faster and less descriptive writing, may find some passages wearisome: near the beginning, for example, a newly shrunk Nils jumps into a student’s pocket, and is taken round a castle on a tour: “It was a slow tour. The teacher stopped at every moment to explain and instruct”, and indeed he does, embarking on a lengthy explanation about house building.
Nevertheless, the book is grand, beautiful, exciting and poignant. The strangest passage sees Nils wandering the streets of a city where everyone is wonderfully dressed. They offer him riches in return for a single coin. He rushes off to find one, but when he returns, the city has vanished. A stork tells him that it was a city drowned for its greed: it appears for an hour once a year, and if someone buys something for one coin, it can return to reality. Nils, devastated that he cannot save the city, bursts into tears. The child’s greed matches the city’s, and yet we are not encouraged to despise but to understand.
What gives the book its spice, and rescues it from moralism, is the way Lagerlöf eschews simplistic solutions. When Nils has been nice for a week, the gnome offers to return Nils to humanhood the boy refuses, wanting instead to be wild and free. As a metaphor for breaking away from the family, it is stark, but for any child, immediately enticing. This wise, rich text is a welcome addition to Penguin’s Classics series, but Puffin ought to issue an abridged version for younger readers.
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