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.