Nils Holgersson – An example of Swedish litterature’s reputation


Have you heard about Nils Holgersson? In the sketch I made yesterday the text says: “Nils Holgersson on (the back of) Mårten Goose.” It’s taken from a famous Swedish story that was published in two volumes 1906 – 1907. Back then there lived a female author in Värmland, western Sweden, on the mansion Mårbacka. Her name was Selma Lagerlöf, (1858 – 1940). She grew up in a wealthy family, studied to become a school teacher, was working as that and became very appreciated, but also for her story-telling skills. In 1891 her debut novel was published “Gösta Berling’s Saga”. In 1909 she recieved the Nobel Prize in litterature from the hands of king Gustav V and in 1914 Selma Lagerlöf was elected as one of the 14 members in the Swedish Academy. Moreover she was the first woman. She wrote several books and in 1906-1907 her story “Nils Holgersson’s Wonderful Journey Through Sweden” was first published. It was originally intended as a book for children, teaching them Swedish geography, but Selma Lagerlöf had forgotten one county in the story – Halland. Nevertheless the novel became immensely popular, both in Sweden and abroad.

The story about Nils Holgersson takes place between March 20th and November 8th 1898. It’s about a 14-year old boy who lives with his parents on a farm in Västra Vemmenhög near the southern edge of Sweden in southern Scania, not far from Malmoe where I live. Nils is lazy and cruel to the animals on the farm. He’s dragging the cat in its tail, chasing and throwing stones on the geese etc. He refuses to follow his parents to mass in church this Sunday and is given a Bible to read in the meantime since his father will interrogate him when they come back. Nils is dozing over the book when he suddenly notices a small house gnome in a corner. The boy catches the gnome who gets very angry. As a punishment the house gnome turns Nils into a Brownie, the same size as himself. Nils is then told that he won’t be made big again until he has proven that he will be kind to the animals on the farm.

One of those animals is Mårten Gås/Martin Goose. He’s a white tame goose who longs for following the wild geese on their journey from Europe up to Lappland in the north of Sweden. When one pack of wild geese passes above the farm Mårten wants to join them. Nils tries to stop the tame goose but ends up sitting on his back as the big bird flies away. The leader of the pack is called Akka. The pack is aiming for Mount Kebnekaise, the highest mountain in Sweden in the far north west of the country, near the Norwegian border. This way Nils gets to see many parts of the country. In the beginning the wild geese led by Akka are irritated on Mårten and Mårten is irritated on Nils who has bullied him so many times. Gradually Nils becomes a nice boy. He is helping the geese evading Smirre Fox who becomes his mortal enemy and chases them through the story. Nils also meets poor children, is chased by the statue of Charles XI in Karlskrona, meets the sad student in Uppsala, helps the eagle Gorgo escape from captivity in zoo and much else. He is lost on the way but rejoins the geese in Lappland. Nils tries to persuade Mårten to go back to the farm, and finally he succeeds. Back home his father wants to decapitate Mårten and make him into food. Nils is now very fond of the bird and tries to stop the execution. This is noticed by the house gnome who turns Nils into a normal-sized boy again. Finally Nils can join his worried parents as a nicer, more humble and mature boy.

The original story by Selma Lagerlöf is very detailed and describes many things, folklore, history, wildlife, geography, but many details have been changed or removed in later adaptations. In 1939 Einar Norelius made a short animated version of the book called “Nils Holgerssons underbara resa”/Nils Holgersson’s wonderful journey”. The book by Lagerlöf has also been translated into several languages and appreciated in various parts of the world. In 1955 a 46 minute animated version of it was made in the Soviet Union and given the title “Zakoldvaniy matchik”/The enchanted boy. Seven years later in 1962 a new Swedish film was made. It combined live actors, trick filming, a fairly accurately built goose and a description of Sweden in the early 1960’s. The movie was directed by Kenne Fant. Twenty years later it was time again, but now in Japan. A Japanese studio made an animé called “Nirusu no fushigi na tabi”/Nils’ miraculous journey. This version was also made into a comic book published by German Bastei Verlag in 1981-1983. The drawings were made by InterPubli in Barcelona, Spain, and Atelier Roche in Munich, Germany. Here in Sweden that version was published by Atlantic Förlag. The Japanese/German version though contained some strange elements and animals that didn’t really belong in the original story, but that would not be the last time. In 2011 a TV-version in two parts was made in co-operation between German and Swedish Television. Nils was played by a German boy actor and later dubbed in the Swedish version. Here Nils is bullied by class mates, is enchanted while walking outside and they have also introduced some sidestory about a girl who fancies him. All the same the general story is roughly the same.

Nils Holgersson is part of the modern Swedish litterature treasure, and it is a good example of how a good story both can reach popularity both because it touches a feeling of pride on a national basis, but also how it becomes popular worldwide for its general validity. The morals of the story and the quintessence is recognizable for most people around the world. I would say that in times such as these an improved attitude towards both animals and humans is of the essence, as well as the environment. We only have one world. That would be the value of a story such as Nils Holgersson for our and the coming generations.

Anders Moberg, March 4th 2013



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