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Literature / The Wonderful Adventures of Nils

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The Wonderful Adventures of Nils (original title: Nils Holgerssons underbara resa genom Sverige, literally "Nils Holgersson's wonderful journey across Sweden") is a Swedish children's book, originally published in two parts in 1906 and 1907, written by Nobel Prize-winning author Selma Lagerlöf. She wrote the book with the intention to teach children about the geography and natural history of Sweden in an entertaining way.

The story follows a mischievous 14-year-old boy named Nils Holgersson, who lives on a farm with his parents in Scania, the southernmost part of Sweden. As a punishment for his bad behavior, particularly his habit to abuse farm animals, a tomte (a small magical creature resembling a gnome or an elf) puts a curse on him that turns Nils into another tomte, becoming only a few inches high, but capable to talk to animals. To escape the animals that want to take revenge on him, Nils leaves the farm on the back of a white gander named Mårten Gåskarl, joining a flock of wild geese who are traveling to their breeding grounds in Lapland, the northernmost part of Sweden. What follows is a wonderful journey across Sweden where Nils learns valuable life lessons.

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The book has been adapted to screen multiple times, including a 1955 Animated Adaptation from Soviet Russia and a 1962 Live-Action Adaptation from Sweden, but it's probably best remembered from the 1980 anime series by Studio Pierrot. Nils has become a cultural icon in Sweden, even appearing on the back of the 20-crown note (until he got replaced by another Swedish children's icon, Pippi Longstocking).

The book is in the Public Domain now; the English translation can be read online here.


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Tropes in the book and its various adaptations include:

  • Adaptation Name Change: The anime series drops the Numerical Theme Naming of the geese and gives them more typical Swedish names such as Ingrid, Gunner, Gustav, Siri and Lasse.
  • Animal Talk: All animals understand each other, but only pets like dogs and cats understand humans. When Nils is cursed by the tomte, he suddenly understands the animals.
  • Arch-Enemy: While he only appears a few times in the book, Smirre still is the most recuring antagonist, and has a personal grudge against Nils due to being humiliated by him twice. In the anime he makes even more appearances.
  • Badass in Distress: Gorgo, a mighty eagle, is held captive in a zoo in Stockholm, until Nils releases him.
  • Because You Were Nice to Me: Gorgo, as a baby eagle, was raised and taken care of by Akka after his real parents died, and came to consider her as a mother figure. As a result, he makes himself a rule of never attacking or devouring geese out of respect for her.
  • Big Eater: In the anime, Lasse the goose has an enormous appetite.
  • Bratty Half-Pint: Nils acts like one in the beginning, despite being 14 years old.
  • Bullying a Dragon: The entire plot of the book is initiated because Nils thought it was a good idea to torment a tomte, a magical creature which even he admits he is a bit afraid of. This goes about as well as you'd expect.
  • Canon Foreigner: Krummel/Carrot, Nils's pet hamster, is a cute Non-Human Sidekick who is created for the anime series.
  • Cats Are Mean: The cat nearly kills Nils after he is shrunk, to avenge all the times Nils pulled his tail.
  • Cool Old Lady: Akka of Kebnekaise, the old female goose, is a smart and competent leader of her flock. Not to mention she raised an eagle chick when she was younger.
  • Cunning Like a Fox: Smirre the fox. He only appears a few times in the book, but becomes a recurring antagonist in the anime, constantly stalking the geese.
  • Curse Escape Clause:
    • Nils finds out he can be turned back into a real boy if he manages to become a better person.
    • In one chapter, Nils stumbles upon a weird city where everyone seems desperate to sell him things, but since he doesn't have any money, he can't buy anything. He later finds out it's the city of Vineta, cursed for its citizens' greed to only manifest once every hundred years unless they manage to convince someone to buy an item and release them. By the time he learns this, the city has sunk back into the ocean.
  • Giant Flyer: The geese are this compared to Nils, who gets to ride on Mårten's back during the journey.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: As the book was written in 1906 and translated to English in 1922, some of the expressions might be amusing for a modern reader, such as Nils thinking that his transformation is a "queer fancy" (i.e. a strange fantasy), and calling the cat "dear pussy".
  • Incredible Shrinking Man: Nils gets shrunk to a few inches tall by the tomte.
  • Interspecies Adoption: Gorgo, an eagle was raised by Akka, a goose.
  • Jerk-to-Nice-Guy Plot: At the beginning of the story, Nils is lazy, selfish and cruel to animals. Over the course of his journey, he becomes a much nicer person with a lot of respect towards animals and nature.
  • Jumped at the Call: Mårten, upon hearing the call of wild geese to travel north, discovers that he can fly and leaves the farm to join them.
  • Karmic Transformation: The tomte turns Nils into a small tomte who understands animal talk, so that he can learn a lesson to be more selfless and respectful toward others, especially animals.
  • Kids Are Cruel: Nils abuses the farm animals in the beginning.
  • The Leader: Akka, the elderly female goose, is the leader of the flock that Mårten and Nils join.
  • Love Interest: Mårten falls in love with a female goose named Dunfin. The two hatch a nest of goslings when they arrive to Lapland.
  • Meaningful Name: Dunfin. "Dun" is the Swedish for "downy feathers", and "fin" means "pretty" or "nice", and she is described as having very pretty, soft feathers.
  • Nameless Narrative: In the book, the narrator only ever refers to Nils as "the boy" and Mårten as "the goosey-gander"; we only learn their names from conversation with other characters - and, in the case of Nils, the book's title.
  • Nice Hat: Nils wears an iconic red hat.
  • Not-So-Harmless Villain: Smirre's initial performance as a villain are less than stellar, with Nils humiliating him the first time he attacks Akka's flock, while his second attempt has him stupidly attack the flock in the middle of a sacred truce, which results in him becoming a pariah among his own kind. When he comes back after this however, he proves remarkably smarter, tricking other animals into attacking the flock to do his bidding and coming pretty close to killing Nils at one point.
  • Numerical Theme Naming: In the book, the geese in Akka's flock are named Yksi, Kaksi, Kolme, Neljä, Viisi and Kuusi - which are simply the numbers between one and six in Finnish.
  • Pale Females, Dark Males: In the anime series, male wild geese are portrayed with black head, neck and wings, whereas females have brown or grey neck and head. The only exception is Akka, a female goose with a black head, which can lead to some Viewer Gender Confusion.
  • Scenery Porn: Sweden looks gorgeous - and the anime series does it justice.
  • She's a Man in Japan: In the Hungarian dub of the anime series, Akka is voiced by a man.
  • Skintone Sclerae: Nils is portrayed with these in the anime series, rather than the usual big eyes seen in anime shows.
  • Super-Persistent Predator: Smirre in the anime series. While he only attacks the flock a few times in the book, he becomes a recurring antagonist in the anime, who follows the geese all the way from Scania to Lapland.
  • Weasel Mascot: In the anime, Nils has a hamster sidekick called Krumel who usually provides the voice of reason.
  • What You Are in the Dark: In order to escape his curse, Nils has to find someone who'd be willing to become a tomte in his stead. He finally encounteres a volunteer - a student who landed into a terrible predicament (he accidentally scattered the manuscript of his friend's brilliant novel across the city) and would welcome any escape, even such a bizzare one. But Nils refuses to take advantage of his distress and instead helps him recover the manuscript.

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