Brian Alderson on a giant work: Nils Holgersson’s Wonderful Journey
‘What’s it all about? What’s it all about?’ ‘That dratted boy! That dratted boy!’
Peering from above
on the landscape of Sweden you’d find a varied prospect: much water in rivers and lakes, good farmland, barren moors, conifer forests and broadleaf forests, a coastline dotted with islands and archipelagos, mountains bashing against the border with Norway and curving into the northern wastes
Peering from above
on the six hundred pages and more of Nils Holgersson’s Wonderful Journey you will find an equivalent diversity very properly matching its subject. For this giant work, first published in two volumes, the first in 1906, the second a year later, did not emerge as the complex development of an inspired authorial idea but as the painstaking and necessarily patchy working-out of an educational commission for which an idea had first to be discovered.
unexpectedly arriving at a crucial moment in her own book, more or less tells us this herself. She does not give exact details, but it seems that the Swedish school authorities, fed up with the dull fodder that was being served up to their nine-year old readers (nothing surprising about that) asked her to write what they hoped might be a more enjoyable textbook about her native land – she was at the time of asking Sweden’s best-known novelist and would later go on to become the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature. But textbooks are not obvious territory for creative talents and – as the chapter in Nils Holgersson has it – she was stuck and it was only when she met her hero himself that she found the way to go about the job.
She met him
in the garden of her old home in the countryside of southern Sweden and rescued him from being eaten by a tawny owl. He was, at the time, only a few inches high and he told her that he had been transformed thus by an elf-wizard from being a rambunctious boy to a midget person, but one with the gift of being able to converse with animals. He had met up with a skein of geese and was travelling with them on a trip round the whole country, a journey that, in her hands, would prove to be his redemption. For how better to fulfil her commission than to model her account of Sweden on his ‘flight from the enchanter’?
She later confessed
that none other than Rudyard Kipling was also instrumental in the making of the book for she was much impressed by the way in which the animals of The Jungle Books could ‘retain their animal ways’ and so disguise within a story their didactic purposes. Immediately after his transformation, for instance, Nils has run-ins with the creatures on his parents’ croft who upbraid him for his former casual cruelties, but now that he is more or less one with them he has to modify his ways. Taking off by accident with an immigrating flock of wild geese he becomes Lagerlöf’s mediator in her kaleidoscopic tale.
inherent in the region-by-region geographic itinerary is solved through the creation of Nils in a variety of ways. Central to the whole book is, of course, his own story, first as he experiences the shifts of fortune (the tough and unreliable weather, say, or that imminent slaughter by a tawny owl) and then through the nurturing of the reader’s hopes that he will survive as the midget Thummitot before regaining his place as the reformed Nils. Alongside this are other narrative threads, such as the regularly-frustrated machinations of Smirre the fox to get at both the geese and their helpful protector, or the moving tale of two bereft childen, Little Mats and Åke Goose-girl, travelling north to try to find their lost father.
Within these narratives
fall a succession of storytelling devices designed to vary the way in which a region may be characterised. Nils comes to overhear both animals and people telling anecdotes, or even chapter-length stories, about a particular topographic feature or historic event. Sometimes, as with the Paradise Garden of Stora Djulö he dreams himself into a legend; and sometimes Lagerlöf herself, as in the visit to her old home, or through an alter ego – an old schoolmaster say – will retell a local legend or will seek to impart necessary facts. Her profound affection for her homeland glows throughout the book with no hint of chauvinism and the travails of Nils and the geese come alive through her gift for characterisation – most of all in the hundred-year-old lead goose, Akka from Kebnekaise, whom Bettina Hürlimann reckoned ‘one of the unforgettable characters of children’s literature’. (It is Akka and her flock who engage in the doubling exchanges that are a feature of animal conversation: ‘The white one’s falling behind. The white one’s falling behind.’)
How far the Wonderful Journey itself
is unforgettable, especially for readers a long way from Sweden, is questionable. Its episodic form as well as the diversity of forms which the episodes may take (didacticism can creep in) made the story tough going from the start and I doubt the attention span of many nine-year-olds is up to coping with it today. What can be said though is that the new translation by Peter Graves is not just more comprehensive than its predecessor but also one whose English avoids any sense of its being a translation. That and the novel but well-integrated semi-silhouette drawings by Bea Bonafini have given Nils the best chance possible for a renewed life.
Nils Holgersson’s Wonderful Journey: Volume 1 Selma Lagerlöf translated by Peter Graves illustrated by Bea Bonafini Norvik Press, 380pp 9781870041966 £12.95 and Volume Two 9781870041973 380pp £12.95
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Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and a former Children’s Books Editor for The Times.