Nils and the social mother as a migrating goose

  • Anna Bohlin
Trefwoorden: Selma Lagerlöf, Nils Holgersson’s Wonderful Journey through Sweden, citizenship, social motherhood, affective economies


This contribution explores the ideals of citizenship in Selma Lagerlöf’s Nils Holgersson’s Wonderful Journey through Sweden (1906-1907).[1] The social morals taught by Akka the goose – possibly one of the world’s most famous female leaders – influenced Swedish school children and children around the world for decades. The analysis shows that Akka is an example of Ellen Key’s concept of the ‘Social Mother’, promoting early ‘folk ideology’. Taking the cue from Sara Ahmed’s theory of ‘affective economies’, I investigate the function of fear in building a nation. A comparison with Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book (1894-1895) makes clear that although power struggle is a common theme in these two children’s books, fear has an equally important but opposing role in each book in the founding of society. In The Jungle Book, fear installs a constitutional order and guarantees Man’s supremacy over the animals, while fear in Nils Holgersson fosters community across different species; in Lagerlöf’s affective economy, fear does indeed establish boundaries, but also functions as a means to transgression and as a source of social virtues. Contrary to Berggren and Trägårdh’s claim that independence is at the core of ‘the Swedish ideology’, the experience of dependence and fear is necessary to achieve a responsible form of independence. Nils’s progress reflects a psychologically informed process of development of moral virtues in several steps, initially motivated by self-preservation, then self-assertion, habit, and finally by an ethics of love. The story also portrays different forms of government, opting for democratic rule that is intent on creating a home for the people. The nation-building function of fear is to balance the power struggle for a citizen’s right to recognition with an insight into the vulnerability of life and the need for transgressive love.

[1] This is an abbreviated and partly rewritten version of Anna Bohlin (2018). Нильс Хольгерссон и национализм. Transl. into Russian by V.A. Petrunicheva. In T. Torstendahl-Salytjeva, Marina O. Dubovitskaya & Diana B. Koblenkova (Eds.), Секреты мастерства: Этика, религия, эстетика в творчестве Сельмы Лагерлёф (The Secrets of Artistry: Ethics, Religion, and Aesthetics in Selma Lagerlöf’s Authorship). Moscow: The Russian-Swedish Center at the Russian State University for the Humanities, 25–46. I am grateful to Stephen Svanholm and Henrik Bohlin for proofreading the text on very short notice.