1906 – The Wonderful Adventures of Nils

1906. Sweden is in the middle of a national crisis. The previous year, Norway voted to dissolve the Swedish-Norwegian union, and form their own independent country. This was done diplomatically and without any bloodshed, but many in Sweden thought that their national honor was tarnished as a result of this move.

A postcard from around the time of the Norwegian plebiscite. Ja, vi elsker dette landet (“Yes, we love this country”) are the opening words of the Norwegian national anthem.

Around the same time, there were strong liberal forces in Sweden that wanted to reform society. Universal male suffrage was being debated in the Riksdag, the Swedish legislature. The Swedish army was reorganized, land taxes were abolished, and compulsory workers insurance was introduced.

To address these issues, in 1902, the Swedish Elementary Schoolteachers’ Association commissioned from Selma Lagerlöf a new geography textbook for primary school children. The book needed to present Sweden in such a way that it would capture the pupils’ imagination and make them fall in love with their country. At the time, large numbers of Swedes were emigrating to the United States, and there was hope that this book would help reduce the the trend. After four years, in 1906, Lagerlöf completed her task by writing The Wonderful Adventures of Nils.

Selma Ottilia Lovisa Lagerlöf (1858-1940), was a Swedish author and teacher. Born to an upper-class family, she was homeschooled as a child. Her grandmother helped raise her and induced in her an early love for fairy tales and fantasy. When she grew up, she studied to become a teacher in Stockholm, and worked as a high school teacher for girls, and that is when she began writing.

Lagerlöf published her first novel, Gosta Berling’s Saga, in 1891, after winning a magazine contest. This jumpstarted her career, by attracting financial backing that enabled her to focus more on her writing. She traveled a lot, and the locations she traveled to ended up as the focus of her novels. A visit in 1900 to the American Colony in Jerusalem became the inspiration for Lagerlöf’s book, Jerusalem. Critics started comparing her to Homer and Shakespeare, and eventually she was awarded the Nobel prize for literature for her writing. Lagerlöf was the first woman to win the prize.

Back to 1902. Lagerlöf was approached because she had a background in teaching. However, writing the book turned out to be a bigger challenge than she anticipated. She was used to writing fiction, and had no previous experience writing something that had to be 100% factually correct. And while she herself was a native Swede, the book itself still required an immense amount of research on all aspects of each of Sweden’s many different provinces. The committee that commissioned the textbook sent her a lot of material, and Lagerlöf also made two separate journeys through Sweden in 1903 and 1904.

When she eventually finished in 1906, she had in her hands a school textbook that told the story of young Nils Holgersson, a lazy teenage boy who preferred mischief over study and hardwork. Early on in the book he runs afoul of a gnome who shrinks him down to the size of a small squirrel to teach him a lesson. After he’s shrunk, he discovers that he can talk to animals. This is the start of his journey, in which he and a tame goose from Nils’ farm, Morten Goosey-Gander, join a pack of wild geese who fly through every province in Sweden as part of their annual northwards migration to Lapland. In the process, Nils’ and the reader learn many valuable lessons about the country and about being kind to animals and people.

The book had a huge impact on Swedish life. It helped reestablish the Swedish national pride which was struggling after Norway’s secession, and immediately became the most popular book in the country. And while it was initially criticized for some factual errors regarding animals (geese do not live to be over 100 years old), and the incorporation of fairy tale elements into a school textbook, they did not diminish from the book’s popularity. The Wonderful adventures of Nils has been translated into several languages, adapted into animated films, live action films, and also an Anime which was was translated to Hebrew and broadcast in Israel during the eighties and nineties (see trailer below). Until 2015, Nils image also appeared on the reverse side of the 20 Krona bill.

This book was a challenge for me to read for several reasons. The book is a textbook, not a storybook, and I suspect it was meant to be read/taught over the course of a school year, not in a single week. While Nil’s journey is the overarching theme of the book, too frequently, his story is pushed aside to tell the reader an interesting piece of Swedish lore completely unrelated to the story, and completely irrelevant to whatever is going on at that particular moment. My other issue was that I was reading a translation written in English that even for that time period would have been considered old. The book was translated in 1913, yet read like children’s books published during the 1850s, as if the past sixty years of evolution in children’s writing had skipped over the translation.. Nils is constantly referred to as “thumbie-tot”, and his companion as “Goosey-gander,” which was a pain to get through. Finally, I was reading a Swedish geography textbook, and I had no clue about Swedish geography. The book did not include a map, and I was too frequently forced to pause and look up the area I was reading about to get a better understanding of the story. I suspect, I would probably have enjoyed the book more if it were retranslated into modern English with color photos of the different areas in Sweden, but that’s not the book I read.

The omer today is foundation in chessed, and this book gives you a lot of both. After reading “The Wonderful adventures of Nils,” you’ll know more about 1906 Swedish geography and history than you could ever possibly desire, and in the process you’ll learn some very valuable lessons on kindness to animals and humans, assuming you don’t fall asleep in the process. Possibly, you’d be better off watching the anime to learn these lessons.

The Wonderful Adventures of Nils

Author: Selma Lagerlöf

Translator: Velma Swanston Howard

Publisher: Harold Heartt Foley

Published: 1907 (Original 1906)

Pages: 240

Format reviewed: Digital