Title: The Wonderful Adventure of Nils Holgersson
Author: Selma Lagerlöf
Published: 2016 (originally 1906)
Language: English (originally Swedish)
The tale of the little boy Nils Holgersson and his adventure to the North on the back of a gander is, after the Pippi Longstocking-series, probably the most famous Swedish children’s story. I had never read it but it was on my TBR list for ages until this edition crossed my path. I was making my regular visit to one of my favourite book shops when my eye fell on this stunning cover, created by the talented Coralie Bickford-Smith. I had searched the internet before, but beautiful editions of Lagerlöf’s classic were nowhere to be found. Thanks, Coralie and Penguin!
According to the Internet, Selma Lagerlöf was commissioned to write a geography text book, but was struggling with the book’s structure. Eventually, she decided to incorporate various folklore, legends and local fairy tales in the book, and created the main character Nils. Nils Holgersson is an insufferable boy. He maltreats animals, is rude to everyone including his parents and a bully to the other kids. One day, when his parents are off to church and Nils is expected to read the sermon at home, he sees a gnome rummaging through his mother’s things. Being his mean self, he catches him and only lets go of the gnome when the gnome promises to help him learn the sermon. The gnome however, punishes Nils and makes him shrink to gnome-like dimensions.
Nils then flees from his parent’s house and the village because he fears their reaction now he is no longer his old strong self. He barely escapes the farm animals that he used to give a hard time and are now even less likely to help him out. He eventually meets a domesticated gander who wants to fly to Lapland like the wild geese. Nils’ adventure and topograhpy lesson starts when they take off and fly over Sweden. Of course he learns more as much about Sweden as about himself and eventually regrets the things he has done. The book does not end with Nils returning to his parents, but does so quite suddenly when Nils and the gander are only halfway. Lagerlöf has written a sequel though, so it isn’t too strange.
Instead everyone, both those with wings and those without wings, wanted to rise up above the clouds, seek what was beyond there, leave the heavy body that pulled down towards the earth, and soar towards the unearthly. Such longing for the unreachable, for what was hidden behind life, the animals felt only once a year, and it was on that day when they saw the Great Crane Dance.
I do have quite a few reservations considering this book. Firstly, I did not know that Lagerlöf was asked to write a geography book when I started reading, but it is very clear that this is not your regular fairy tale. It might have been an awesome school book because of the folklore, but as a piece of fiction it can be a bit dry and, well, educational. Secondly, although it is amusing at times, it is more often repetitive and slow, while some other parts would go too quickly. Because the main aim of this book is to educate children and teach them morals, it is less of a story than a lesson. That keeps Nils from developing into a more layered character and makes him a stereotype instead.
Then why 3 stars? Although I’m not a fan, I did enjoy reading it. It’s different than the fairy tales by Andersen and the Grimm brothers and it is a very nice way to learn more about Swedish folklore. I only wish I had read this when I was a child – I would have loved it more. I would recommend this to anyone who is interested in folklore, fairy tales and classic children’s books but I would suggest to skip this one if you’re not particularly interested in these genres.