Nils Holgersson and Dante Alighieri

Covenant Chris Craft University and Pietisten continue this series of selections from the writings of Dr. Karl Olsson (1913-1996). This selection is from his column in Covenant Weekly, December 14, 1956.

Uppsala, November, 1956

The Wonderful Adventures. Sweden is currently celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Selma Lagerlöf's The Wonderful Adventures of Nils. Designed as a reader in Swedish geography for the grammar schools, the book far transcended its original purpose and became the most distinguished textbook in the history of primary education. Briefly its story is this: A farm boy in southern Sweden who through his mischief has grieved his parents and alienated the animal population of the farm is suddenly reduced to the size of a Tom Thumb. The event takes place one Sunday morning in the spring when Nils' parents are in church and he is home alone. Nils is kidnaped by a flock of wild geese who land near his house; he follows the geese north on their mysterious pilgrimage. When the summer is over, he follows them south and is finally deposited at his own doorstep. He returns to his normal size, but he is now a changed person. He has become perceptive, humble, and eager to learn.

The book is a parable of the power of education. The disclosure of the mysteries of space and time, the unfoldment of the inexhaustible wonder of the plane and animal world, the penetration into the graying riddle of human history‹all this is the gift of learning, says the book. And we are brought to this adventure by a reversal in time, by growing down, by stripping away the layers of wickedness in which we have been clothed by time and perhaps by people and by becoming once more our original simple self‹the self we have in common with starlings and crocuses.

The Great Reversal. This is the motif common not only to Socrates and Plato but to the much older world of myth and fable. In fairy tales we frequently encounter the theme of "growing down," and the phenomenon of wanting to be a child again is a psychological commonplace. I have a bruising experience from my own childhood of discovering how shockingly I had outgrown a baby quilt. I can still recall with what anguish I wished that I might return to its guarding warmth and how exposed I felt by its undeniable meagerness. Hence the stories of Liliputians and Tom Thumbs, elves and fairies who can hide in bluebells, and a spate of sentimental poetry about cradles and old oaken buckets. Hence also the heroic efforts of parents and nurses and teachers to encourage the child to "grow up," to be a "man" or a "big girl." The enchantment of the lost paradise burns on every horizon. Something within us urges us back‹back to the beguiling simplicities and unchallenged coziness not only of the nursery but of our mother's womb. What Nicodemus proclaims as an absurdity is thus the reduction for which the human race longs, at least with part of its being.

Know Thyself. But mischief results when we try to transform a psychological fact into a way of life. The urge to grow down does not provide us with a reliable method for mastering life. It presupposes that behind and beyond our infancy lies a realm of truth which we once inhabited. This realm must be recollected or recovered, our original self must be known, that is, entered into if we would be saved. I do not burden either Plato or Socrates with this clumsily expressed doctrine of recollection. But whether or not the noble Greeks held this view, it has been shared by quite a few people since. Among them is Selma Lagerlöf. And the advent-ures of Nils Holgersson is a graceful statement of its principles.

Return of the Prodigal. The intriguing quality of Selma Lagerlöf's doctrine is its closeness to central Christian ideas. Jesus, too, had something to say about a conversion to childhood, and in his most appealing parable he tells the story of a bad boy, like Nils Holgersson, who came home again. Those who yearn to build bridges between Athens and Jerusalem have found similarities between the Greek axiom "know thyself" and the experience of the prodigal in "coming to himself." But there is vast and irreducible difference. The return to "one's mother's womb" however psychologically plausible, is not the new birth. The new birth begins in a more terrible humiliation. It begins in crucifixion and in a descent into and an emergence from Hell. The self-acknowledge of the prodigal son and of Dante in the Inferno is not the self-knowledge of Nils Holgersson. And the pilgrimage to blessedness is not made on the back of an amiable goose. It is made with naked and bleeding feet.