My rating: 10/10
My biggest regret upon turning the last page of this book is that I did not discover it when my children were in the midst of the read-aloud years. They would have loved it, voraciously appreciative little listeners that they were.
It has everything – a magical transformation (as punishment for a misdeed), a quest for redemption, animals wild and tame, a deeply dastardly villain, continual and varied adventures, restrained amounts of sentimentality, and absolutely painless lectures on natural history, geography and Swedish folk legends.
Hey, homeschooling parents – take a look! The cross-curricular connections are many and quite brilliant. And I think it would be hugely enjoyable for the reader-alouder as well.
Fourteen-year-old farm boy Nils is beloved by his hard-working parents but also a huge disappointment to them. He neglects his chores, he lies, he torments the animals, and he dodges going to church. What will become of him, they sigh to each other in sorrow? Will he ever see the error of his ways?
Apparently not, but fate takes a hand when Nils offends the farmstead elf, who then transforms Nils into tiny elf-size himself. As Nils runs hither and yon about the farmyard in absolute distress, he realizes that he can now understand the language of the animals. They in turn are pleased to see that their tormentor has had his comeuppance, and let him know a few home truths about their views on his past behaviour.
Nils is at first shocked and resentful, but then as the true consequences of his fourteen years of misbehaviour become clear, he experiences something of an epiphany. “I am sorry!” he cries. “Please forgive me!” But the animals ignore his pleas.
As Nils mourns his sad fate, a flock of wild geese fly over, and the farm’s big white gander, stirred to wanderlust by their call, rouses himself up and prepares to take flight. Nils, with his newly aroused conscience, immediately grasps what a tragedy the loss of the gander would be for his parents, and leaps onto the gander’s back in an attempt to hold him back. The gander – very predictably, as we already know what is going to happen – manages to take flight with Nils on his back, and we are off on the wonderful adventures promised in the title.
This book is a marvelous series of dramatic vignettes, tied together by Nils’ desire to redeem himself so he may break the elf’s curse and be returned to human size, and by his acquisition of a mortal enemy who follows him over sea and land, Smirre Fox.
Even without an audience of enthralled young listeners, I found this book immensely appealing as a private read-to-my-adult-self story. Selma Lagerlöf avoid excessive sentimentality, and while she makes it obvious that Nils is being taught a lesson and that he is working towards repentance to his parents, to the animal world, and ultimately to God (for Nils’ previous neglect of religious observances), she never preaches. The morals are discussed, and then let go – the reader is given the respect by the author that he or she will “get it” without being pounded over the head by repetition. And Nils is believably far from perfect, even after his epiphany, and lapses from grace frequently, usually with bitter consequences to himself and to others, though occasionally an outside party will intervene just as things seem to be going most desperately awry.
Smirre Fox is a gloriously frightening villain, almost supernatural in his powers as he follows the flight of the wild geese, and the sense of danger that we feel for Nils and his companions is intensely real throughout.
This books transcends its origins – it is a very Swedish book, and I feared would be a bit unrelatable to the non-Scandinavian reader – and its age – it is well over one hundred years old – to be fresh and engaging. While there are the expected styles and attitudes of its era of writing, it is a very worthwhile read for anyone at all interested in the “fairy tale transformation” type of genre. This is decidedly a classic.
Oh, and the ending is not what one would expect, leaving us still in mid-air, as it were, though with some good clues as to the final resolution to Nils’ greater quest for redemption.
I loved this one, and will be saving it for my (at this point extremely hypothetical) grandchildren.
One last note. I would hesitate to give this to a youngish child to read to himself/herself. Though the interest level I anticipate would be from 5 or 6 years of age through the primary years, the text would be hard going for such a young reader, what with the general old-fashioned phrasings and grammar and the many Swedish place and character names and terms. There is a handy glossary of pronunciation in the back of the Dent edition, and it would be well to refer to that before starting on your read-aloud.