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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Dorothy Brewster

By Selma Lagerlöf (1858–1940)

SELMA LAGERLÖF, the only Swede who has received the Nobel prize for imaginative literature, and the only woman who, in the two centuries of the existence of the Swedish Academy, has been admitted to be one of the Eighteen, is unquestionably among the most eminent of living writers in the world. She was born on November 20th, 1858, in the province of Värmland, a labyrinth of big forests and long narrow lakes, scattered farms and mining settlements, poor in wealth, but rich in men and in dreams. Mårbacka, her birthplace, she describes in ‘The Story of a Story’ as a little homestead with low buildings, overshadowed by giant trees—a peaceful, restful place, where they had a greater love for books and reading than elsewhere. The delicate girl, of sensitive imagination, found her greatest delight in reading of the heroes and heroines of saga and legend, and in listening to the traditions of the countryside, the stories of strange adventures and remarkable people. These stories she heard so often that they seemed commonplace, and when she tried to write, she went to books for inspiration and modeled the heroes of her plays and romances after those of Sir Walter Scott, the Arabian Nights, and Snorri Sturluson. When she was about twenty-two years old, she decided to go to Stockholm to be trained as a teacher. Perhaps, as she whimsically suggests, the story of her own people, which was waiting to be told, grew impatient with her and decided that this blind person needed the experience of cramped city rooms and gray stone streets before she could see what was waiting outside the gate of her home. And in fact, the idea of writing the story of the Värmland Cavaliers came to her as a sort of inspiration soon after her arrival in Stockholm. But during the ten years of teaching that followed, she had little leisure to carry out the idea. Parts of the story took shape in her mind from time to time; she planned it as a saga, then as a drama, then as a novel; a chapter here and there got itself written. But the literary atmosphere of the time was not friendly to romance.

All this occurred during the eighties, writes Miss Lagerlöf, when stern Realism was at its height. Science claimed to have solved the riddle of the universe; the books of Darwin were as the Bible to many of the leading novelists and playwrights; there was no place for dreams and visions, aspirations and fancies, in the minds of those whose gaze was fixed upon the stern and ugly facts of heredity and environment. Sweden had a master of the naturalistic drama in Strindberg, whose unflinching vision of the most brutal facts of life had all the force of a nightmare. Miss Lagerlöf admired the masters of that time, though she really liked the Romanticists best. But she could not think of reviving their style. “Although her brain was filled to overflowing with stories of ghosts and mad love,” she writes of herself, “of wondrously beautiful women and adventure-loving cavaliers, she tried to write about it in calm realistic prose.” A visit to her old home, which was about to be sold, suddenly determined her to write the story in her own way, for herself; it was a way of preserving something from the old homestead. She felt that she was making a great sacrifice, that she was giving up all hope of being read. Fortunately, doubt of the final certainties of science was beginning to creep into many minds and was fostering doubt of the final perfection of naturalistic art. The pendulum was beginning to swing towards romanticism again. Maeterlinck was soon to summon us to rejoice in the incomprehensible; Yeats was to urge the teller of tales to seize whatever prey the heart longs for, since “everything exists, everything is true, and the earth is only a little dust under our feet.” When Miss Lagerlöf decided to give herself up to all her childishness and all her dreams, to “go in for romanticism,” she was unconsciously steering towards, and not away from, popularity.

In 1890, when Miss Lagerlöf had finished about twelve chapters of ‘Gösta Berling,’ the magazine Idun offered a prize for the best short novelette submitted. Miss Lagerlöf sent in what she had ready, and received the prize. But the novel was still unfinished. She read her manuscript to the Baroness Adlersparre, the woman who had done most to help the League inspired by the work of the feminist Fredrika Bremer—the “Mam’selle Fredrika” of Miss Lagerlöf’s delightful fantasy, in whose honor all the dead and gone old maids of Sweden assemble at a ghostly midnight mass, because she had lifted from them the burden of ridicule and unrequited service. The Baroness continued her good work for feminism by making it possible for Miss Lagerlöf to take a leave of absence and finish the book. ‘Gösta Berling’ was completed and published in 1894.

The story (dated over a hundred years ago) gives in episodic form the traditions of Värmland, clustering around the figure of the fascinating, gifted, reckless ex-priest, Gösta Berling. He is a man of strong emotions, quick to do good and evil. The Major’s wife, who owns all the mines in the district, saves Gösta from suicide when he has reached the lowest depths of degradation, and makes him one of her pensioners at Ekeby. A strange group these pensioners are, gifted and eccentric each in his own way, and many grotesque and wild adventures they have. Some of the episodes are full of humor; others thrill us with supernatural fear, or with the beauty of romantic love, or with the excitement of daring enterprise. Much of the material is such as might appeal to the realist—there is drunkenness, obstinacy, stupidity, and mean intrigue. But though unpleasant facts are not ignored, they are transfigured by Miss Lagerlöf’s deep understanding of the human heart and her serene faith in spiritual values.

Since the publication of ‘Gösta Berling,’ Miss Lagerlöf has written three important novels,—‘The Miracles of Antichrist,’ ‘Jerusalem,’ and ‘The Emperor of Portugallia’; a fairy book, ‘The Wonderful Adventures of Nils’; and many short stories, both realistic and purely fanciful, of which several collections have been published in English (‘The Girl from the Marsh Croft,’ ‘Invisible Links,’ ‘From a Swedish Homestead,’ ‘Christ Legends’). Miss Lagerlöf’s style, especially in the ‘Christ Legends,’ is of the most naïve simplicity; these legends are quaintly unreal and fanciful, yet profoundly reverent in tone and full of deep spiritual significance. The only fault in her novels—that the episodes are sometimes rather clumsily linked together—is absent from her short stories. By the time she was fifty-two years old, she had written nine volumes, had received the Nobel prize (1909), had been honored by the degree of Ph.D. from Upsala University, and had become the most popular and best-loved writer in Sweden.

The work that has made her most widely known in Europe is the glorified geography book, ‘The Adventures of Nils’ (1906). She was asked to prepare a textbook for the schools, and after four years of hard study of the geography, the natural history, and the legendary lore of Sweden, she wrote the adventures of the bewitched little boy, Nils, who travels on the back of a wild goose all over Sweden. It is the most fascinating of fairy books. Nils is the Swedish Peter Pan. Like Hans Christian Andersen and like Barrie, Miss Lagerlöf is able to look at the world with the eyes of a happy child. She has an intense perception of life in everything, and can make the clouds and the forests and the animals as real as the Swedish peasants themselves.

In her handling of the Swedish peasant, one is reminded of Björnson. In this almost inarticulate peasant, she divines the heart and the conscience and pictures them to us with the utmost simplicity. She knows just what is happening to the inhabitants of the red farms and the cottages in the forest valleys. She is deeply interested in the mysticism of the peasant. Her greatest work, ‘Jerusalem,’ is the saga of peasant fanaticism. The prologue introduces us to Ingmar Ingmarsson, the last of a race of clumsy, sturdy, silent peasants, who have lived on the same farm for generations, and have always walked in the ways of God. In such a race, the tie to the land is strong. But the religious call is stronger. Into the parish comes a Methodist from America. Religious zeal spreads among the people. The saved come to believe that they are called to go to Jerusalem. We watch the spread of the religious fever until at length a group of colonists give up everything in Sweden to seek salvation in the Holy Land. For the scenes and episodes in Jerusalem Miss Lagerlöf made a special trip to Palestine. Many of the pilgrims are disillusioned, and some come back to Dalarne,—among them Ingmar. The religious element is observed objectively, with seriousness and fidelity, but with no sign of approval. The book portrays the soul of the country, realistic and visionary at the same time.

‘The Emperor of Portugallia,’ a simple story, presented in forty-six episodes, has as its chief figure an old crofter, Jan, a stupid man, whose master passion is his love for a little daughter who comes to him late in life. Forced to go out into the world to earn enough money to save the little cottage from confiscation, the daughter is ruined, and does not return to her parents for fifteen years. The old man’s imagination, working on vague rumors, and feeding on pleasantries about his daughter’s fate, slyly whispered about, builds up a dream world in which she is a princess—the princess of Portugallia—and he, of course, an emperor. In plain terms he goes mad, and is the butt of the countryside. When the girl, now a worldly woman, does return, she attempts to take her mother away from the mad father to the city. But in her spurning of him, he sees only a plot of her enemies, and follows her to the pier in an attempt to rescue her from them. He falls into the water and is drowned. It is only after a gruesome vigil of weeks at the pier, while men search for his body, that the daughter comes to a purifying realization of her father’s love. In this book also, the sober and orderly life of the little community, with its parson and its schoolmaster and its prosaic peasant life, has a mystical background. We have a sense of “flickering weirdness” behind it all. Madness and poverty and vulgarity are illumined by the perception of spiritual beauty that transforms the story.

Miss Lagerlöf’s method is to throw into obscurity, without ignoring, human frailties and vices, and turn the light upon what is biggest and strongest in men. And when she leads us into far-off fantastic worlds of her own creation, her ultimate purpose is to open our eyes to the “inner spiritual meanings of the over-emphasized superficial actualities of our existence.” She has the courage and ability to dream and feel and aspire; but she has also the grasp upon the facts of life that is the legacy of the naturalists to the idealists.