Have you ever been so consumed by a book that it almost felt like travelling to the story’s places?
Walking alongside the protagonist across a busy marketplace, glancing over their shoulders on snowy mountain tops or feeling the cold sea spray during a stormy ship passage?
Through literature, we can travel in our minds to places we might never see ourselves or that are fictitious in the first place. In times of the COVID-19 pandemic, discovering far-away places can be hard – so let’s travel to new horizons in Europe with the help of historic works of literature.
Selma Lagerlöf and Nils Holgersson
A prime example for getting to know new places through the written word is ‘The Wonderful Adventures of Nils’ by Selma Lagerlöf, one of Sweden’s most famous authors of the 20th century and the first woman to win the Nobel prize.
Her book takes you on a journey through all of Sweden’s historical provinces, following in the footsteps of Nils Holgersson, a naughty young boy from Southern Sweden who is shrunk to the size of a thumb and travels the country on the back of geese.
In 1902, Lagerlöf was commissioned by the Swedish National Teachers’ Association to write a geography reader for public schools in Sweden. At that time, she was already an acclaimed author having published several novels, such as ‘Gösta Berling’s Saga’.
Although she only published her first novel at the age of 33, she had been a keen reader and poet since her early childhood. Although the family struggled with her father’s alcoholism and illness, Selma found her way as a teacher and became involved early with the women’s movement.
When she won a prize from the Swedish magazine Idun, focusing on women’s equality and literature, she was able to publish her first novel – immediately kicking off her career as an author.
For her novel about Nils Holgersson, she researched the Swedish geography and folklore, flora and fauna for three years.
Her protagonist lives among wild animals and follows the wild geese along their annual journey to northern Sweden, getting to know local fairytales and legends, meeting people such as the Swedish king and Selma Lagerlöf herself.
Cultural heritage plays an important role in the novel. Nils gets to know the regional highlights, such as Visby, Lapland, Karlskrona, the landscape of Southern Öland and the Falun Mine – which today are world heritage sites.
The contemporary newspaper ‘Ny Tid’ reviewed the novel enthusiastically after its publication in 1906/07: ‘It acquaints the children with Sweden’s nature; interest them in its bird world, both tame and wild; in its domestic and forest animals, even in its rats. It explains its vegetation, its soil, its mountain-formations, its climatic conditions. It gives you customs, superstitions, and the folklore in the different sections of the country. It takes in farming industry, manors and factories, cities and peasant-cabins, and even dog-kennels. It has a word for everything; an interest in and for everything.‘
Do you want to travel along Nils and his feathered friends? Follow his route through the chapters with this map:
Explore Europe through literature
There are of course many other writers who have dedicated their stories to places across Europe.
Browse through this overview of openly available novels that include especially vivid and detailed descriptions of landscapes, towns and villages in Europe – and share your own favourites with the hashtag #DiscoverEurope!
– James Joyce: Ulysses. On Project Gutenberg.
– Thomas Mann: Death in Venice. On Project Gutenberg.
– Bolesław Prus: The Doll. On Polona – Polish digital library (in Polish).
– José Maria de Eça de Queiroz: The Maias: Episodes of Romantic Life. On Project Gutenberg (in Portuguese).
– Mary Wollstonecraft (1796): Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. On Project Gutenberg.
– Selma Lagerlöf: The wonderful adventures of Nils. On Internet Archive.
– Benito Pérez Galdós: Fortunata and Jacinta. On Project Gutenberg (in Spanish).
By Larissa Borck, Swedish National Heritage Board
This blog is part of Europeana’s Discovering Europe season featuring cultural jewels and hidden gems from across the continent.
This blog post is a part of the Europeana Common Culture project, which explores varied aspects of our shared cultural heritage across Europe.