Background to the commission to write
The Wonderful Adventures of Nils

Selma Lagerlöf was commissioned in 1901 to write the book that was to be The Wonderful Adventures of Nils (Nils Holgerssons underbara resa). Behind the proposal was a school textbook committee set up by the Swedish Elementary Schoolteachers´ Association.

At that time there were strong liberal forces in Sweden that wanted to reform Swedish society, and the schools were considered to be part of an outdated system that only reinforced the existing hierarchies. School textbooks were criticised as well, and special criticism was directed against “The Elementary School Reader”, which was called `a national disaster´ by the writer Ellen Key. She criticised this book for its shortcomings in teaching methods and imagination and its inability to capture the pupils´ interests because it was written in language that did not appeal to many children.

As a result, the Swedish Elementary Schoolteachers´ Association set up its school textbook committee to investigate the possibilities of getting a new textbook/geography book that above all would have greater pedagogical and literary value. One of the members of the committee, a teacher named Alfred Dalin, proposed Selma Lagerlöf as the writer of the new school book. He thought that her language was suitable for a textbook, and in addition, Selma Lagerlöf had worked as a schoolteacher and had been trained at the Teachers´ Training College in Stockholm, which meant that she had the necessary knowledge of teaching methods.

This new textbook was intended to teach children Swedish geography, but it was also important that the country was presented in a positive manner. It was to have “a popular Swedish atmosphere throughout”, an opinion that was shared by both Selma Lagerlöf and Alfred Dalin. The pupils were expected to grow “spiritually” by being given impressions of the most beautiful things that the Swedish countryside and Swedish culture had to offer. At this time, too, large numbers of Swedes were emigrating to the United States, and there was a desire to reduce this wave of emigration. One way was to present Sweden in a school textbook as positively as possible.

In addition, Sweden was undergoing a national identity crisis during the years when Selma Lagerlöf was writing The Wonderful Adventures of Nils. The Norwegains said no to the Swedish-Norwegian union, which was dissolved in 1905. Sweden as a nation was left standing alone and confused, and many writers and artists thought that it was their duty to re-establish Sweden´s honour and culture. Selma Lagerlöf´s Wonderful Adventures of Nils was considered to be the most successful contribution to this end.

It took several years for the work on the book to be completed. Selma Lagerlöf had never previously worked under such conditions, requiring that what she wrote should be factually correct. The school textbook committee did its best to help, sending her all sorts of material about Sweden: geography books, history books, natural-history books and so on. Also, Selma Lagerlöf herself had her own experiences of the various Swedish provinces to fall back on. She was born in Värmland, lived for a while in Skåne and lived in Dalarna when The Wonderful  Adventures was being written; and her brother worked in Bohuslän. To gather information about other provinces, Selma Lagerlöf undertook two journeys through Sweden, to the south in 1903 and to Norrland in 1904.

School poster from 1947 showing the imagined journey on a map of Sweden. Drawn by Lennart Carstenvik and Gunnar Niland (Gumpert Publ. Co.). - Click to open poster in a separate windowIt was Selma Lagerlöf´s intention to present a description of Sweden and the Swedish landscape in which animals and plants would be placed in the provinces where they belonged. She also wanted to describe Sweden “through small, localised tales” and each part would be incorporated so as to form a part of a whole. She wanted to create a homogenous whole, an entertaining book that was not just a dry and boring collection of texts.

Gradually, Selma Lagerlöf discovered that she could not treat all the provinces alike. Some of them, like Värmland, Dalsland, Härjedalen and Jämtland, have only one chapter each, while others, like Dalarna and Skåne, run into page after page. She could not write about every aspect of a province but in some cases had to make do with what was representative, such as the manor houses of Skåne, the lakes and rivers of Värmland and Dalsland, and so on. The Wonderful Adventures began in the south, in Skåne, not in the north, as she had first planned.

Presenting the material was problematic, but in the end it was Kipling's animal tales that provided the solution by giving Selma Lagerlöf the idea of using migrant birds as a way of moving from one province to another. Nils and his travelling companions, the wild geese, are the unifying theme in the story, creating unity in a tale that otherwise might easily have become just a list of Swedish provinces, lined up one after the other.

The first part of The Wonderful Adventures of Nils was published in 1906. To begin with, it had been planned to publish the whole story in one volume, but due to a shortage of time it was decided to publish the first chapters in 1906 and the remaining chapters in 1907.

When the book first came out, it was the subject of a good deal of criticism. In the first place, people were critical of factual faults concerning animals and the countryside, as well as of the fairy-tale nature of the story. The Adventures was at this time unique in its genre in using fairy-tales and fantasy as teaching material, which was not looked upon favourably by some people. School textbooks were not supposed to be funny. Reading for pleasure and day-dreams in the classroom should not be encouraged, but rather combated. School books should be clear and well organised, not fantastic tales about bewitched boys riding on the backs of talking geese.

Considering that it is a school textbook, there are many fairy-tale elements in The Wonderful Adventures of Nils. The various provinces and their geography are presented by means of myths and legends; in the chapter about Jämtland, it is the pagan god Asator who creates the landscape when he competes with a giant about who is the more powerful of the two. The geography of Småland is presented through a legend about how the landscape was created by Saint Peter, who unfortunately was not as clever as God the Father and only managed to produce a landscape of rocks and stones. The lakes and rivers of Värmland and Dalsland are brought to life by the story of the man who gave his seven sons the task of creating the most beautiful and straightest plough furrow. This was a pedagogical device that appealed to many readers

Israeli book cover (Source: Mårbacka)Chineese book cover (Source: Mårbacka)Even today people learn about the geography of Sweden by reading The Wonderful  Adventures of Nils , but hardly any Swedish schoolchildren any longer. Instead, it has been a great success abroad and is Selma Lagerlöf´s most frequently translated book

Read more about Selma Lagerlöf

Source: Marina Andersson, Mårbacka Manor

SNA 2011-11-03