EXTRACT FROM: Selma Lagerlof The wonderful adventures of Nils Holgersson. Available on the Guttenberg Project.
To start with, the boy intended to climb a sand-hill and see how the land behind it looked. But when he had walked a couple of paces, he stubbed the toe of his wooden shoe against something hard. He stooped down, and saw that a small copper coin lay on the sand, and was so worn with verdigris that it was almost transparent. It was so poor that he didn’t even bother to pick it up, but only kicked it out of the way. But when he straightened himself up once more he was perfectly astounded, for two paces away from him stood a high, dark wall with a big, turreted gate. The moment before, when the boy bent down, the sea lay there–shimmering and smooth, while now it was hidden by a long wall with towers and battlements. Directly in front of him, where before there had been only a few sea-weed banks, the big gate of the wall opened. The boy probably understood that it was a spectre-play of some sort; but this was nothing to be afraid of, thought he. It wasn’t any dangerous trolls, or any other evil–such as he always dreaded to encounter at night. Both the wall and the gate were so beautifully constructed that he only desired to see what there might be back of them. “I must find out what this can be,” thought he, and went in through the gate. In the deep archway there were guards, dressed in brocaded and purred suits, with long-handled spears beside them, who sat and threw dice. They thought only of the game, and took no notice of the boy who hurried past them quickly. Just within the gate he found an open space, paved with large, even stone blocks. All around this were high and magnificent buildings; and between these opened long, narrow streets. On the square–facing the gate–it fairly swarmed with human beings. The men wore long, fur-trimmed capes over satin suits; plume-bedecked hats sat obliquely on their heads; on their chests hung superb chains. They were all so regally gotten up that the whole lot of them might have been kings. The women went about in high head-dresses and long robes with tight-fitting sleeves. They, too, were beautifully dressed, but their splendour was not to be compared with that of the men. This was exactly like the old story-book which mother took from the chest–only once–and showed to him. The boy simply couldn’t believe his eyes. But that which was even more wonderful to look upon than either the men or the women, was the city itself. Every house was built in such a way that a gable faced the street. And the gables were so highly ornamented, that one could believe they wished to compete with each other as to which one could show the most beautiful decorations. When one suddenly sees so much that is new, he cannot manage to treasure it all in his memory. But at least the boy could recall that he had seen stairway gables on the various landings, which bore images of the Christ and his Apostles; gables, where there were images in niche after niche all along the wall; gables that were inlaid with multi-coloured bits of glass, and gables that were striped and checked with white and black marble. As the boy admired all this, a sudden sense of haste came over him. “Anything like this my eyes have never seen before. Anything like this, they would never see again,” he said to himself. And he began to run in toward the city–up one street, and down another. The streets were straight and narrow, but not empty and gloomy, as they were in the cities with which he was familiar. There were people everywhere. Old women sat by their open doors and spun without a spinning-wheel–only with the help of a shuttle. The merchants’ shops were like market-stalls–opening on the street. All the hand-workers did their work out of doors. In one place they were boiling crude oil; in another tanning hides; in a third there was a long rope-walk. If only the boy had had time enough he could have learned how to make all sorts of things. Here he saw how armourers hammered out thin breast-plates; how turners tended their irons; how the shoemakers soled soft, red shoes; how the gold-wire drawers twisted gold thread, and how the weavers inserted silver and gold into their weaving. But the boy did not have the time to stay. He just rushed on, so that he could manage to see as much as possible before it would all vanish again. The high wall ran all around the city and shut it in, as a hedge shuts in a field. He saw it at the end of every street–gable-ornamented and crenelated. On the top of the wall walked warriors in shining armour; and when he had run from one end of the city to the other, he came to still another gate in the wall. Outside of this lay the sea and harbour. The boy saw olden-time ships, with rowing-benches straight across, and high structures fore and aft. Some lay and took on cargo, others were just casting anchor. Carriers and merchants hurried around each other. All over, it was life and bustle. But not even here did he seem to have the time to linger. He rushed into the city again; and now he came up to the big square. There stood the cathedral with its three high towers and deep vaulted arches filled with images. The walls had been so highly decorated by sculptors that there was not a stone without its own special ornamentation. And what a magnificent display of gilded crosses and gold-trimmed altars and priests in golden vestments, shimmered through the open gate! Directly opposite the church there was a house with a notched roof and a single slender, sky-high tower. That was probably the courthouse. And between the courthouse and the cathedral, all around the square, stood the beautiful gabled houses with their multiplicity of adornments. The boy had run himself both warm and tired. He thought that now he had seen the most remarkable things, and therefore he began to walk more leisurely. The street which he had turned into now was surely the one where the inhabitants purchased their fine clothing. He saw crowds of people standing before the little stalls where the merchants spread brocades, stiff satins, heavy gold cloth, shimmery velvet, delicate veiling, and laces as sheer as a spider’s web. Before, when the boy ran so fast, no one had paid any attention to him. The people must have thought that it was only a little gray rat that darted by them. But now, when he walked down the street, very slowly, one of the salesmen caught sight of him, and began to beckon to him. At first the boy was uneasy and wanted to hurry out of the way, but the salesman only beckoned and smiled, and spread out on the counter a lovely piece of satin damask as if he wanted to tempt him. The boy shook his head. “I will never be so rich that I can buy even a metre of that cloth,” thought he. But now they had caught sight of him in every stall, all along the street. Wherever he looked stood a salesman and beckoned to him. They left their costly wares, and thought only of him. He saw how they hurried into the most hidden corner of the stall to fetch the best that they had to sell, and how their hands trembled with eagerness and haste as they laid it upon the counter. When the boy continued to go on, one of the merchants jumped over the counter, caught hold of him, and spread before him silver cloth and woven tapestries, which shone with brilliant colours. The boy couldn’t do anything but laugh at him. The salesman certainly must understand that a poor little creature like him couldn’t buy such things. He stood still and held out his two empty hands, so they would understand that he had nothing and let him go in peace. But the merchant raised a finger and nodded and pushed the whole pile of beautiful things over to him. “Can he mean that he will sell all this for a gold piece?” wondered the boy. The merchant brought out a tiny worn and poor coin–the smallest that one could see–and showed it to him. And he was so eager to sell that he increased his pile with a pair of large, heavy, silver goblets. Then the boy began to dig down in his pockets. He knew, of course, that he didn’t possess a single coin, but he couldn’t help feeling for it. All the other merchants stood still and tried to see how the sale would come off, and when they observed that the boy began to search in his pockets, they flung themselves over the counters, filled their hands full of gold and silver ornaments, and offered them to him. And they all showed him that what they asked in payment was just one little penny. But the boy turned both vest and breeches pockets inside out, so they should see that he owned nothing. Then tears filled the eyes of all these regal merchants, who were so much richer than he. At last he was moved because they looked so distressed, and he pondered if he could not in some way help them. And then he happened to think of the rusty coin, which he had but lately seen on the strand. He started to run down the street, and luck was with him so that he came to the self-same gate which he had happened upon first. He dashed through it, and commenced to search for the little green copper penny which lay on the strand a while ago. He found it too, very promptly; but when he had picked it up, and wanted to run back to the city with it–he saw only the sea before him. No city wall, no gate, no sentinels, no streets, no houses could now be seen–only the sea. The boy couldn’t help that the tears came to his eyes. He had believed in the beginning, that that which he saw was nothing but an hallucination, but this he had already forgotten. He only thought about how pretty everything was. He felt a genuine, deep sorrow because the city had vanished.
END OF EXTRACT
Selma Lagerlof (1858-1940) was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, not for a single book, but rather for the whole of her work. Lagerlof’s father was against her furthering her education, but in her Nobel Prize speech she mentioned the debt of gratitude she owed him for the songs and laughter he brought into the family home. As a supporter of women’s suffrage movement, she did much to pave the way for other creative women in the public domain. The Gosta Berling Saga, centrepiece of her oeuvre, is one of the most fascinating books I have read, but the Adventures of Nils, one of the favourite books of my childhood, is a truly wonderful work. In it farmer’s son Nils is punished for his naughtiness by being made small. He flies away with a group of migrating geese and has lots of adventures, learning about the places he passes on the way. This magical book was written in 1902, the result of a request by the National Teachers’ Association for a work which would help teach Swedish geography to school children.