A curse sets a boy free in this Swedish folktale by the first woman to win the Nobel prize for literature, a welcome addition to Penguin’s Classics series
Selma Lagerlöf was the first woman to win the Nobel prize for literature, in 1909. The origins of The Wonderful Adventure of Nils Holgersson, her much-loved children’s story first published in 1906-07, do not inspire confidence: it was commissioned by the Swedish National Teachers’ Society as a geography textbook. But Lagerlöf’s interpretation of this potentially tedious didactic task breaks the limits of the form. It is full of poetical phrasing, with a strong moralistic undercurrent that yet allows for the naughty spirit of childhood to remain true. The whole of Sweden forms the adventure’s backdrop: landscapes, seascapes and towns enriching and informing the narrative, while agriculture and animal life are carefully and lovingly observed.
Nils Holgersson is, initially, a cruel and charmless boy: he locks his parents in the shed, trips up his mother as she is carrying milk and teases all the animals on the farm. One day he traps a gnome, and is cursed: shrunk, his perspective is altered drastically in the kind of body horror familiar to us from Alice’s metamorphoses in Lewis Carroll. “He was no longer human, but a monster,” Nils realises about himself. The sense of alienation is shocking.