This article appeared in the 2011:2 issue.
There is no scene in The Wonderful Adventures of Nils more remarkable or more indicative of its fruitful ambiguities than that concluding its third chapter, ‘Vildfågelsliv’ ‘Wild Birds’ Life’. It is 27th March. Nils, the fourteenyear- old farmer’s son transformed into a midget, has now spent a whole week with the wild geese, and has behaved not just well, but with consistent respect, kindness and courage. True, his change in size means inability to practise his usual spiteful tricks. But the deeper truth is that, for the first time ever, despite his many frustrations and bewilderments, he feels happy – and, amazingly, is the object of others’ gratitude. The birds have not yet left Nils’s native province of Skåne, and he desperately wants to travel with them up to Lapland. The obstacle to his doing this is an unexpected one. His good conduct has so impressed the leader of the geese, Akka from Kebnekaise, that, unknown to him, she has sought out the tomte (house-elf) who cast the spell and, after some difficulty, obtained Nils’s release. As soon as he turns back home, he will be restored to human form.
Nils’s reaction to Akka’s trouble on his behalf is extraordinary. At once he protests to the old goose that he does not care about becoming human again, (‘Jag bryr mig inte om att bli människa,’); he wants only to stay on with her geese. Akka warns him that the tomte will likely not relent a second time; Nils might never regain his humanity. He is unmoved. It’s strange, observes Selma Lagerlöf, but here’s a boy who, his life long, has failed to be fond of anybody, not his father or mother, not teacher, schoolmates or neighbourhood boys, and even those two children he’d liked best – Åsa and little Mats – hadn’t meant all that much to him. And yet for the sake of continuing with the wild geese he is willing to jettison humanity itself. When Akka consents to his remaining with them, he cries with relief and joy.
But what the author terms strange (‘besynnerlig’) makes good enough sense when we reconsider the events of the book’s unforgettable first chapter.
It is 20th March, and a Sunday morning. Nils’s parents don’t force him to come to church, but instead insist that, for all the wonderful weather and burgeoning season outside, he spend the time they are away reading the morning lesson in the New Testament and the appropriate fourteenand- a-half pages of Luther’s Commentary. Given the kind of boy Nils is it’s extremely improbable that he could have understood, let alone benefited from, a single line of these texts, as his mother and father must have realised. Yet the author presents the pair as good people, admirably industrious smallhold farmers burdened with an unsatisfactory son. Father finds him lazy and incompetent, Mother deplores his general unkindness, his propensity to cruelty to animals. It never occurs to them – nor, overtly, to their creator - that, at a significant level, they are unfeeling towards him, never considering what would bring out the best in him. That must be the real explanation of why Nils has felt so strangely little love for them.
As we look back over the first chapters, we appreciate that the tomte, far from spoiling Nils’s life by metamorphosing him in punishment for callous behaviour, has done the boy an enormous favour. Only a handful of days away from home, and Nils is showing himself strong and resourceful, ready to carry out any task however exacting or risky. Able now to understand animal speech, he is alive with curiosity about the places he sees, their pasts, and the indigenous lives they sustain. What, we may ask, was his school doing not to appeal to his latent responsiveness? (And Selma Lagerlőf herself trained as a teacher, later teaching school in Landskrona.)
That his mother was justified in her sorrow at Nils’s unkindness to animals is borne out later in that same first chapter by the remarks of the farmyard beasts when they see him reduced to elf-size, and gloat, rather than commiserate. Yet only his first night away from Västra Vemmenhőg – admittedly, there’s self-interest here too – he worries about the white gander on whose back he has jumped, and rescues him from death. In no time at all he is going out in friendliness to the other geese and their wildlife associates, performing such offices as providing a caged squirrel with the babies for whom she is pining; empathy with animal feelings has come to him naturally. Cruelty to animals in children is generally an index of serious disturbance; invariably we learn that it characterised the early years of criminal sociopaths. If we accept the many instances of Nils’s earlier cruelty - they rather challenge credulity given the age of the perpetrator - and then set them beside the numerous kind acts that fill the book after he has left home, we can only conclude that the first are an expression of great unhappiness and intolerable boredom. The society to which he belongs has chosen simply not to attend to the emotional or imaginative development of its young. Only when thoroughly outside it (in this case, among wild creatures in wild surroundings) can this last be achieved. Selma Lagerlöf was friend and associate of Ellen Key (1849-1926), radical feminist social critic who declared in the title of a seminal work that the twentieth century must be The Century of the Child (1900), and so it is impossible to believe that she did not appreciate the subversive conclusion to be drawn from her story. But she never comes into the open about it.
This conclusion is surely compounded by the happenings in the book’s penultimate chapter (LIV, ‘Hos Holger Nilssons’ / ‘At Holger Nilsson’s’). Mårten the white domestic gander returns to his native farm in Skåne, along with the female partner he found on his northward journey, Dunfin (‘Finedown’). His former owners recognise the bird, and Holger Nilsson is glad of his reappearance for it means that his son did not, as he’d suspected, steal the gander when he vanished earlier in the year. But his wife reminds him that St Martin’s (Mårten’s) Day, when geese are traditionally eaten, is imminent; they should therefore kill the pair of birds immediately to get them to the market in the morning. Holger Nilsson is horrified – it would be a real sin, he says, to slaughter a bird that has made his way home – but his wife’s counsel prevails. Thus Nils, still midget-sized, arrives back to see his beloved companion of eight months and his mate being carried to their deaths by his parents. (The gander’s courtship and pairing off with Dunfin and the birth of their goslings constitute some of the book’s most delightful pages, and are exemplary for the growing young human male such as Nils.) Nils remonstrates aloud, and in doing so is restored to his proper human form - except that he has grown in the missing months and become more handsome. In their delight at having so fine a specimen of boyhood back, Nils’s father and mother now spare the gander and Dunfin, and the chapter can end with a tableau of reconciliation and joy. But can it be adequate for the author’s purpose? Nils’s mother, however rightly disapproving in the past of her son’s ways with animals, has been revealed as pitiless towards them herself, putting cash before compassion, revealed as a victim of that selfsame narrow outlook which made the fourteen years of her son’s life so loveless and so thwarted.
Nils – whose attitude to non-human sentient creatures differs from his parents’ and who is yet to experience even profounder feelings about them in the last chapter of all, LV - would seem then to have undergone a significant education during his absence from Västra Vemmenhög, such as that community, and others like it, would not, possibly could not, give him. Should we therefore follow Marguerite Yourcenar in her fine essay on Selma Lagerlöf in The Dark Brain of Piranesi, (1985) – one distinguished by her own literary kinship to the Swedish writer, in interest in myth and epic, in the fusion of aristocratic loftiness of mind and democratic sympathies – and call The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, a novel recounting its hero’s education?
No, not really, for this genre – from Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister to Hans Christian Andersen’s The Improvisatore to Dickens’ David Copperfield and Great Expectations - traces that education through a sequence of episodes, escapades, adventures, at the end of which their beneficiary emerges a changed, happier, wiser man. Nils’s story does indeed contain episodes etc. a-plenty, yet they do not in themselves alter him – though some, like his terror at being kidnapped by crows or his realisation that his one-time playmate, little Mats, is dead – move him. Rather, as we have noted, Nils’s complete transformation into a better person happens within a very few days of his initial physical transformation. He has, one can say, been swiftly restored through this magic to his realer self., and we can only trust that after his restoration he will be able (probably against considerable cultural opposition) to keep it intact. What Nils’s many adventures add up to is not so much an education about selfhood as about Sweden and the natural world of which it is an organic part. In order to see this more fully we should turn to the remarkable Chapter XLIX, ‘En Liten Herrgård’ / ‘A Little Manor- House’, the coincidence at the centre of which constitutes an early, if not vanguard, post-modernist mise-en-abyme.
To the eponymous manor, in Värmland, there comes, at the very time when Nils and the geese are passing over it, a woman who wants to write a book about Sweden, but who, after much brain-work, is suffering a block. She doubts her own ability to carry out the project, hasn’t penned a single line, and is understandably tempted to give up on it entirely. The little manor she is now visiting was once her childhood home, abandoned for economic reasons. Seeing it again she is filled with memories not only of her own life there but of the rhythms and rituals of the country-folk working on the estate or in the locality. But how and where properly to start? And then, as if in answer to her self-questioning, she comes across a midget struggling in the lethal grip of a brown owl. Herself saturated in folklore and fairy-tales, she is perhaps less surprised than another would have been at this encounter. After hearing him (Nils) declare himself a bewitched human being rather than one of the ‘Little People’, she begs him to tell her his story. Her worries are now over. All she has to do is to write down the adventures of the boy on gooseback as he travelled very nearly two lengths of Sweden: all the way up the eastern side from the southern tip of Skåne to the Arctic regions of northern Norrland, and then down the country’s west flank, the mountains forming the Swedish-Norwegian border, as far south as this manor in Värmland (on roughly the same latitude as Uppsala).
Every reader could be expected to identify this woman writer, indeed care is taken that they should, and many could fill out her picture more amply. Selma Lagerlöf had been commissioned by the National Teachers’ Association to write a book familiarising children with their country’s geography and traditions as early as 1902. She spent the greater part of the period between agreeing to their proposal and the publication of the book itself in research and contemplation: the first part of The Wonderful Adventures of Nils appeared only in December 1906, the second in early 1907. Thus the idea of sending a boy on goose-back to illustrate Sweden’s scale and variety came comparatively late on in her relationship to her given task. It was, of course, an utterly brilliant stroke of invention, and has captivated generations of readers ever since, however accustomed to air travel. They emerge from Nils’s journey not merely better informed but enthused by the author’s deep rapport with her country, especially with its natural features, and determined to see it for themselves. (I myself as a child had precisely this reaction.)
The varying height at which the geese fly provides a not merely physicalgeographical perspective from which to look at the requested subject. Now we feel ourselves truly above a world its denizens take for granted, able to see that Skåne is like a rich patchwork quilt, or that the forest-and marshland of Västerbotten, so monotonous to the non-Norrland Swede, is in fact terrain of great biodiversity. But at other times the geese are revealed as vulnerable to the land they fly over – to predatory humans or animals, to elemental dangers – in ways readers more rooted in domicile or more sedentary in lifestyle might well not appreciate. Sometimes, as in the passages about the crossing of Mälaren, the landscape is interestingly particularised; at other times, as when earlier, we flew with the flock over Småland, we see the country more impressionistically and therefore – witness the story of the old giant who lived on the third and topmost step of the geological staircase that makes up that province - able to understand its subjective effect on residents.
But her device posed a problem to the author. How, in a book, which was to be, first of all instructive, about a real country, with a real past, real human and non-human inhabitants, was she to manage the excursion into the supernatural which it insuperably imposed on her – and her readers?
A tomte is a very useful member of the Little Folk, for he looks after a farm or a property in return for respect and small favours; in British folklore he is called a ‘brownie’, a ‘hob’, ‘lob’, or ‘puck’. In Nils Holgersson’s Skåne, as in Norway and Denmark, a tomte is also called a nisse, and indeed our metamorphosed Nils is occasionally hailed as Goa-Nisse (roughly Puck or Robin Goodfellow). But Nisse is also the commonest pet form of Nils. Hence the Nils at the centre of this book has literally been turned into a diminutive form of himself. The paradox is that it is when diminutive that he shows his innate goodness, that ability to identify with fellow-creatures which eluded him when his proper size. The Nisse he becomes is the corporeal home of the true, the mature and responsible Nils - as he reveals himself to be when, his own size again, he stops his parents slaying the two loved and loving geese. The socio-psychological contradictions this led the writer into we have already noted. However for the body of the book Nils’s possession of those qualities most desirable in a mature (maturing) human becomes a veritable donnée. For, while able, like any tomte or nisse, to mix with wild creatures, and to explore remote natural places accessible to them but not to us - caves, crevices, pinnacles, sea-depths - Nils ceaselessly displays appreciation, sympathy, responsibility, from the moment that Akka has agreed to his foregoing his humanity and joining the flight north onwards. These desiderata make him as reliable a guide as we could wish for. While he has indeed lessons from his adventures to impart to us, in a strict sense his journey offers us no Bildungsroman-style development. Nils is throughout the work the trustworthy clear eyes, sharp ears and receptive, expanding brain through which readers can experience the territory of his travels, in all its complexity of life.
He provides moral discernment too. He defends the great ironworks of central Sweden against accusations of unsightly enormity, because he can see them as manifestations of human ingenuity and endeavour. He understands the folkloristic curiosity that inspired the creation of Skansen, that pioneer open-air museum, but is made unhappy by its tendency to imprison through preservation. He deplores the conditions in which many of the poor try to survive, knowing Åsa and little Mats as he does, and through him we have a plea for a wider-spread recognition of the early symptoms of the blight of the indigent, tuberculosis. He sees that too much dependence on luxury, evident in the inhabitants of the drowned city of popular Baltic history, Vineta, leads to decadence and auto-destruction, that it’s always better – as in the next city, he visits, Visby, then still full of ruins – to put up with things even if troublesome or uncomfortable, and go about life cheerfully. And he reaches out, with equal moral, compassionate intelligence, to other sentient beings. Selma Lagerlöf, it has to be admitted, is not always consistent here, though the responses of Nils himself to what he witnesses are largely unaffected by this. She is at her least satisfactory, I believe, when coming nearest to her admired Jungle Books (1894 and 1895) of Rudyard Kipling. The Great Crane Dance, which Smirre the fox violates by killing a goose despite the agreed truce among all animals, is obviously inspired by Kipling’s Law of the Jungle broken by the tiger, Shere Khan. The idea of a cross-species code defied by one transgressing animal who is thenceforward a pariah is a factitious one, and in Kipling’s case springs from a complex psychic make-up and a beliefsystem which annexed itself to British Imperialism. Selma Lagerlöf – whom P-O Enquist believes to have been the first employer of the term folkhem – had a very different personality and set of values, which, without denying, or smoothing over, the pains and savageries of Nature, places active sympathy above all other virtues.
This receives its most potent, its most artistically wrought expression in the last two chapters of the whole book. Before Nils, still midget Tummetott, ventures forth to his parents’ farm, Akka – a wonderfully realised character, in all her age and femininity – begs him always to plead for room in the world for her fellow creatures, for places in so large a country as Sweden where they are free to be themselves without human interference. Nils is stirred by this. More moving still is his eventual farewell to the wild geese. He is human now, he cannot understand their language nor they his, and at first he fears that ‘his’ flock of geese, now, on 9th November, about to leave Sweden for a sunnier climate, cannot recognise him. But they do. They fly down to him, and he is able to take old Akka in his arms, and let the other geese stroke him. Then they depart. Of course, he knows that their lives will never converge again, that they have, emotionally as well as literally, their own ways to go, yet he is assailed in the book’s beautiful last sentence by a wave of yearning to be back with them, almost too strong to bear. And there Nils can stand for us still, just over a century later, as an example of the moral rewards of caring about other living beings as we should care for each other.