One of the biggest perks of being a member of a Public Library is discovering unknown gems which aren’t current bestsellers. I’d never heard of The Wonderful Adventures of Nils Holgersson which was first published in 1906, and I don’t think I would have chanced upon it anywhere else. It had a beautiful hard bound cover, which was a huge determining factor in choosing it, along with the fact that it was a pristine copy which hadn’t been borrowed before. On rifling through the pages, I realized that it was written for children. But I liked the style of the author and decided to take it anyway. Imagine my delight when I later came to know that Selma Lagerlof was the first female writer to win the Nobel Prize, in 1909!
She was commissioned by the Swedish National Teacher’s Society to write about the landscape and flora and fauna of the country for a Geography textbook. Thankfully Selma found the usual format of textbooks too boring and decided to write her own version. She created the story of a boy flying on the back of a goose from one end of the country to another.
Nils Holgerrson is a young boy who happens to accompany a flock of wild geese on their yearly journey to Lapland. Nils is a very selfish and willful little boy who is cruel to the animals in his father’s farm and plays pranks on his mother. One day while his parents were not at home, he tries to trap a gnome who not only escapes but curses Nils in the bargain. Nils finds to his utter horror that he has shrunk to the size of a gnome. This physical change leads to the biggest adventure of his life, which sees the gradual transformation of Nils to a kind, thoughtful and brave person.
Nils and the geese fly across the country, over a rich and varied landscape and meet a number of animals and birds. Nils gets involved in one adventure after another, which are initially for his own selfish reasons. Over the journey, Nils’ outlook on life and the world changes and he starts to enjoy helping those in need. The author has subtly brought forth the importance of a sojourn outside our comfort zone to understand people better.
The wild geese are initially scornful of Nils, but they change their opinion when they see his exploits and propensity to help others. It’s an adventurous and challenging ride for Nils. The geographical descriptions are woven skillfully into the story and beautifully enrich the narrative. The names of places (most of which I haven’t heard till now) sound exotic and fun – Smaland, Tjist, Borgholm, Blekinge etc.
Selma has also been able to incorporate folk tales from different parts of Sweden into the narrative which makes it very interesting and prevents it from getting overpowered by mere descriptions. Some of the folktales are heart wrenching. There’s one about an island which was supposedly an enormous butterfly whose wings fell off. The man who is recounting this tale says wistfully, “I’d like to know whether anyone else has realized that all that yearning comes from the fact that the whole island is a butterfly, longing for its wings.”
Typical of children’s books, each tale has a moral or a life-lesson associated with it. Selma touches on a wide range of topics, from environmental conservation to caring for the elderly. The beauty lies in the fact that none of these are in the form of moralistic lectures. They are presented as vignettes of life which carry the story forward and keeps the reader engrossed. As the geese keep flying and the story proceeds, we see a remarkable change in Nils and we feel proud to see the transformation. He learns all his lessons from Nature and the birds and beasts.
This story does not go the usual way of children’s books. Selma treats them as intelligent people and the narrative is such. She shows Nils’ selfishness and wilfulness juxtaposed with his compassion and bravery. Children are complex and are shown like that. There’s a point where the gnome offers to transform Nils back to his original size, but he refuses, preferring to be wild and free to see the world. He does not go back to his parents, which might show him as a willful child, but he also puts himself in mortal danger while helping others. So the author gives us a protagonist who is representative of children all over the world.
Today’s children might find the descriptions a tad lengthy in certain sections, but I found them to be full of life and vibrant. My only disappointment after reading was that I never had a textbook like this in school !