The Wonderful Adventures of Nils

In 1906-1907 Selma Lagerlöf published The Wonderful Adventures of Nils (orig. Nils Holgerssons underbara resa), a book she had been commissioned to write as a geography textbook for Swedish school children. Rather than writing a normal, boring, textbook she wanted it to be exciting and interesting, while still being educational. The result was the story about Nils Holgersson, who angered the local tomte on his family farm in southern Sweden, and as a punishment got shrunk until he too was small as a tomte. In this new miniaturized state, he travelled with the wild geese all the way from his family home in the far south, to the mountains in northernmost Sweden and back, visiting all the Swedish regions along the way.

While the plot itself is simple, shaped like a classical morality tale, what stands out is Lagerlöf’s storyteller abilities and the way she makes the landscapes come to life. In a time when few children would have travelled much farther than the next village, it must have been especially fascinating to follow Nils’ travels (and by air no less!). Lagerlöf gives all Swedish regions memorable and accurate descriptions (Skåne seen from above is e.g. described like a chequered cloth, with fields and pastures forming the squares) and tell not only of Nils’ many adventures along the way but also retells old myths and stories from each region. The result is a novel which has not only been used in Swedish schools but which has been reprinted again and again, translated into 40 languages, listed on Le Monde’s list of 100 books of the century, and filmed multiple times. It is very far from your ordinary geography textbook. In 1909 Selma Lagerlöf was the first woman to be awarded the Noble Prize in Literature (although not primarily for Nils Holgersson).

I had read about Nils, adventures as a child, but unfortunately not in school where we instead read a bland story about a boy and his cat travelling through Sweden, clearly inspired by Lagerlöf but with none of her genius. However, I wanted to reread it as an adult and therefore added it to my Classics club reading list. This summer, when I was finally able to return to Sweden for vacation after months of closed borders, it was lovely to imagine travelling freely with the geese. It ended up being one of my favourite reads this summer.


22 thoughts on “The Wonderful Adventures of Nils

    1. Thank you! Writing it this way was a brilliant idea from Lagerlöf. I wish more text book authors had similarly high artistic ambitions, although even if they had they would have a hard time reaching her story telling abilities.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. It’s about crossing disciplines isn’t it, everything in the UK seems to be rigidly within its subject area instead of thinking about a rounded education. . .

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I wish this type of cross-disciplinary work was standard in Swedish school but Lagerlöf’s work is unfortunately an exception. Of course it is not usual to have a Noble-prize level author, with a teaching background, who is willing to take-on this type of project…

        Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad to hear that others are reading it, how are you liking it so far?

      If your sequel is by Lagerlöf it is probably the second part of the book, it was originally published in two parts (I guess due to its length). Otherwise I believe there has been one or two more modern adaptions by other authors but no proper sequel.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Can you imagine what life would be like if all textbooks were half as creative as this?? I read so many articles that say, given the prevalence of technology and phones and streaming services and all that, the majority of the reading many children do is for school. How wonderful it would be if THIS was the sort of stories they found waiting for them when they “had to read” for school!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That would be so great! I don’t understand why not more good fiction authors are involved in textbook creation. After all storytelling has probably been a key way for sharing information for most of human history.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I wonder if it’s the publishers of textbooks? Maybe they aren’t looking for great fiction writers to do so? Or maybe the fiction writers themselves aren’t looking to write that way? However it breaks down it is such a missed opportunity. Because you’re right! We are people of stories. We always have been. For better or worse, no facts and figures can move our hearts and touch our souls like a good story. And to combine those experiences – the facts we need to know with a story that thrills, entertains, and/or moves us – has so much potential.

        Liked by 1 person

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