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His chief delight was to eat and sleep; and after that — he liked best to make mischief.

The Wonderful Adventures of Nils

By Selma Lagerlöf (Translated by Velma Swanston Howard)

18 Feb, 2015



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I didn’t expect my second review of a novel by a Nobel Laureate to arrive so soon after the first but … not only did author Selma Lagerlöf win a Nobel, she was the very first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, which she accomplished in 1909. Go, Lagerlöf!

That’s not an approving gaze I am getting from the author 

so let’s just move on to the review.

When we first meet the young Nils Holgersson, we are told that his chief delight was to eat and sleep, and after that he liked best to make mischief.” Aforesaid mischief includes various acts of sadism committed on animals. The mean little reprobate is a lot more than either of his long-suffering parents can manage. When he refuses to go to church, his father settles for assigning him religious homework to be finished while the older Holgerssons are off Lutheraneering [1].

Perhaps Nils would have benefited from finishing his assigned section of the Bible and the relevant bits of Luther’s Commentary (though I am inclined to doubt it). But he falls asleep while reading. When he does wake again, he is distracted by the sudden appearance of an elf. Nils manages to capture the little elf and extorts a ransom from the fellow. The unprincipled boy doesn’t keep his side of the deal; he doesn’t let the elf go. Outraged by the fourteen-year-old’s perfidy, the elf throws a spell at Nils and vanishes [2].

It takes Nils longer than it should to realize that the elf has transformed him into a tiny, elf-sized Nils. Like an elf, he is able to talk to and understand animals, but he has no other elvish magical powers. It takes the animals around him very little time to realize that the elfin Nils has lost any advantage of size and strength over the animals he has spent so much time tormenting.

In another author’s hands, this would be a short story, one that ends right after the cat pounces on little Nils. Luckily for Nils, his author seems to be generally kind-hearted. Nils does not die a terrible and yet well-earned death at the claws of the family cat. He escapes on the back of a domestic goose who has taken it into its foolish head to join a flock of wild geese.

As Nils, the boy was nothing but bad news. As the elfln Thumbietot, the boy turns out to have a surprising capacity for good deeds, whether it’s rescuing a squirrel from captivity, foiling rascally predators, or even redeeming himself with his long-suffering parents. During his adventures, Nils will get to demonstrate bravery and quick thinking. He will also see a fair bit of Sweden in the process.

I will just skip past the subplot about the Gypsies except to say there’s a subplot about Gypsies. And it doesn’t reflect well on the author. 

By nature of having been translated from one language to another, this cannot be the book the author wrote. That acknowledged, my eyebrows rose when I got to the translator’s introduction, which says:

Some of the purely geographical matter in the Swedish original of The Further Adventures of Nils has been eliminated from the English version.
The author has rendered valuable assistance in cutting certain chapters and abridging others. Also, with the author’s approval, cuts have been made where the descriptive matter was merely of local interest.

No, no, no! The story that I read is engaging but I kept wondering what was lost in the editing process. I mean, I know translation involves transformation (or betrayal: traduttore, traditore) but this was just leaving stuff out. 

I will admit up front that one reason I enjoyed this story is a petty one: it just so happens that Nils is adventuring in the same part of Sweden that a certain depressive detective will be trudging over some decades later. It amuses me to think of the lachrymose Wallander wandering through landscapes filled with magic and wonder, blind to it all because he has the misfortune to be written by the lugubriously pessimistic Mankell. The moral is, pick your author carefully!

Which isn’t to say this book is all happiness and summertime buttercups. While Nils’ negative attributes are more talked about than shown, the world he lives in is one where sudden death is always a possibility, where perfectly pleasant people are trapped in poverty, and where orphans might well find themselves thrown out to wander the nation’s roads, starving. 

Now, when I was a child, I owned a delightfully macabre book of Japanese children’s stories — the story that sticks in my mind is the affecting tale of the dog whose happy ending was that after he was beaten to death protecting his master’s secret, a peach tree grew on his grave. If I had happened to read the book under review when I was younger, the peculiar heartlessness of Nils’ world wouldn’t have bothered me at all. Parents whose tender-hearted children might be haunted by scenes of desolation or astoundingly abrupt demonstrations of mortality may not want to put this at the top of their reading pile. That said, I can assure parents that while her world may at times be heartless, the author herself is not. Nils works towards redemption and he is not the only one who does.

This is a children’s book and I think it would read better if doled out episodically. Nothing helps children drift off to happy sleep more reliably than ending each night’s story on a cliffhanger. Unless it’s warning them that if they do not go to sleep quickly, the Thing In the Closet will surely eat them [3].

The Wonderful Adventures of Nils is available on Project Gutenberg.

1: I now know Lutheraneering’ is in the default dictionary of the word processor I am using. Gosh. Is it there because I have used it before or is it really a word?

2: You may wonder why, if the elf could transmogrify Nils with one zap, he didn’t just free himself from the boy straightaway. My suspicion is that the elf, being a creature of magic, was bound to follow certain rules even when they might be inconvenient. Having been caught, he had to pay a ransom despite having the power to reduce Nils to soot with a baleful glare. It was only after Nils broke the agreement that the elf regained the freedom to zap him with a magic spell. Same reason that turning your coat inside out will hide you from the Fair Folk. It’s stupid but it’s how magic works.

3: It’s odd that for the last fifty-four years, I don’t think I have ever been asked to babysit kids or even read them a bedtime story. I wonder why.