Translated by Paul Norlén
Reviewed by Annabel
We don’t feature many children’s books here at Shiny, but occasionally new editions of much-loved childhood favourites or rediscovered classics will emerge. As adult readers, we leap on them – hoping that they’ll transport us as they did when we were young, but also, that they’ll stand up as books that can be read and enjoyed by all ages.
I’d not heard of this book until I spotted that Penguin were publishing a new translation by Paul Norlén in their Classics hardback series, with a gorgeous cover by Coralie Bickford-Smith and using the 1931 illustrations by Bertil Lybeck.
The Wonderful Adventure of Nils Holgersson is a Swedish children’s classic, written in 1906. Lagerlöf, who went on to win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1909, had been commissioned to write a geography textbook for schools, but struggled to come up with a structure for it. She had the inspiration to build a story around Swedish folklore and legends of the various provinces, and the story of Nils Holgersson who flies around the country on the back of a gander was born.
There once was a boy. He was about fourteen years old, tall and lanky and flaxen-haired. He wasn’t good for much; most of all he liked sleeping and eating, and after that he liked stirring up mischief.
While his parents go to church, Nils is left at home. He is meant to be reading the sermon but is on the brink of nodding off when he sees a little gnome on the chest in the corner. He’d heard of gnomes and that every house had one (a forerunner of Rowling’s Dobby methinks?), but had never seen it. He catches it, but is persuaded to let it go in return for the gnome conjuring the sermon into his head. He wakes up to the horror of finding himself transformed into a miniature version of himself!
When he manages to get outside, all the farm animals and birds rib him, ‘Look at Nils Holgersson Thumbkin!’ Nils can now understand them, and is instantly regretful of the hard times he had given the creatures – although he has a close shave with the cat who pounces on him – but lets him go.
‘I’ll let you get away this time for the sake of my mistress. I only wanted you to know which of us has the power.’
When the wild geese fly in and stop to feed, a young domestic gander decides to fly away with them and Nils leaps on his back, beginning his real adventure over the ‘chequered piece of cloth’ that is the topography of Skåne’s fields and meadows. Travelling with the geese on their migration north towards Lapland for the summer, Nils learns all about nature, the geography of the land, and how all the animals live together. Nils experiences all the joys and perils of being an honorary gosling, interfacing with all the different animals. Akka the lead goose advises Nils to try to get on good terms with the all the small animals, but Sirle, the squirrel is wary:
‘Don’t you think we know that you are Nils the goose-boy, who has every year tore down the swallow’s nest, crushed the starling’s eggs, threw baby crows into the marl pit, caught thrushes in traps and put squirrels in cages. You can help yourself as best you can, and you should be happy that we don’t gang up against you and chase you back to your own kind.’
So Nils also has a moral journey as well as the educational one. He has to make amends for his previous naughtiness, earn the small animals’ trust and become their friend instead of tormentor.
Of course, there are predators too. Nils has already had a run-in with a cat, but it is Smirre Fox who has designs on him and the geese. Smirre will become a slinking fixture in the background of many chapters. Will Nils eventually be able to outwit the sly old fox?
The chapters of Nils’ adventure are quite self-contained. Each features a particular aspect of the region’s geography or encounter with different animals. Most are under fifteen pages, some with sub-chapters within. The illustrations at the beginning of each chapter are charming too. This would be a lovely book to read aloud to a child.
With its aspects of folklore and local legend built into the story and Lagerlöf’s appreciation of nature and landscape, I adored reading this novel now, but wish I had discovered it as a child. My only disappointment was that this volume doesn’t give us the resolution to Nils’ story – it stops suddenly half way, one month into the geese’s migration. It transpires that Lagerlöf wrote Nils’ adventure in two volumes, of which this is the first. I do hope Penguin publish the other half, his ‘Further adventures’ – SOON!
Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Selma Lagerlöf, The Wonderful Adventure of Nils Holgersson, trans Paul Norlén, (Penguin Classics, 2016), 978-0241206089, 288 pp..hardback.
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