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Lagerlöf and public health education

This week we’re highlighting two translations from our ‘Lagerlöf in English‘ series: Nils Holgersson’s Wonderful Journey through Sweden (1906-07), available here; and The Phantom Carriage (1912), available here, both translated by Peter Graves.

This blogpost is adapted from a longer essay by one of our directors, Claire Thomson. If you read Swedish, you can download it for free here.

As we begin to understand Covid-19, this dreadful new disease afflicting humankind, there is some comfort to be found in the thought that within the last century, great leaps were made in the treatment and control of another scourge: tuberculosis. In Sweden alone, half a million people died of tuberculosis between 1900 and 1950. In 1904, the Swedish National Association Against Tuberculosis (Nationalföreningen mot Tuberkulos) was established to coordinate public health education about the disease. One of the association’s founders, alongside Crown Prince Gustav, was the author Selma Lagerlöf.

In its first few decades, a key activity for the Association was to organise peripatetic lectures and film and slide shows educating Swedes about hygiene and other preventative measures against tuberculosis. Money was raised for research and education through the sale of stamps and the majblomma flower pin. But a subtler means of raising awareness was Lagerlöf’s writing; she was encouraged by the Association to write the novella The Phantom Carriage (Körkarlen, 1912), a ghost story which lays bare the sickness, poverty and misery engendered by tuberculosis. The novella was adapted for the silver screen in 1920-21 by the great Swedish director and actor Victor Sjöström. A blockbuster of its day, it was one of the first films to use double exposure, and inspired the young Ingmar Bergman to take up filmmaking.

Feature films and literature can, of course, indirectly promote public health messages. But in the days before television and social media, purpose-made short films were widely used in public information campaigns. In 1952, twelve years after her death, Lagerlöf’s writing again played a role in educating the Swedish populace about the fight against tuberculosis. By this time, half a century of research had resulted in effective prevention and treatment, and Sweden had been one of the countries to pioneer a nation-wide screening and vaccination programme in the 1940s (including the use of miniature x-ray machines in buses). The dramatist Martin Söderhjelm was commissioned by the National Association Against Tuberculosis to make a short film reminding Swedes of the work of the Association, encouraging them to participate in medical screening programmes, and looking to the future. The sixteen-minute film, shown in cinemas around the country in autumn 1952, was Medan det ännu är tid: ‘While there’s still time’.

In order to engage its audience, Medan det ännu är tid opens with a tale that every Swedish cinema-goer would remember from their school days: an episode from Lagerlöf’s Nils Holgersson. Chapter XLIV of the epic novel fills in the back-story of two recurring characters, Åsa the goose-girl and her little brother Mats, and the film devotes its first five minutes to the sad fate of these fictional children. Åsa and Mats are from a poor Småland family. Their siblings and mother are infected by a traveller and die one by one, and their father flees. The orphaned Åsa and Mats attend a lecture explaining the symptoms, prevention and treatment of tuberculosis, and they realize that their family died of the disease, not of the sick traveller’s curse. Åsa and Mats embark on their own journey through Sweden to find their father, navigating forests, towns and frozen lakes (see below), and along the way they tell the people they encounter about the need for good hygiene in combating the spread of tuberculosis. The film thus stages the historical phenomenon of travelling public health lecturers, an authentic detail already embedded in the novel by an author who was herself a founding member of the National Association Against Tuberculosis. But in typical Lagerlöf style, public health education is also framed in Nils Holgersson as a kind of mythical or folktale-style wandering across the national map, undertaken by the good citizens Åsa and Mats.

Both in Lagerlöf’s novel and Söderhjelm’s film, the fight against tuberculosis thus emerges as a collective undertaking for Swedish society, a battle that is fought not only by scientists and medics, but by ordinary people doing simple, everyday things – like washing their hands.

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For Peter Graves’ translation of Nils Holgersson’s Wonderful Journey through Sweden, Norvik Press commissioned original illustrations from the illustrator Bea Bonafini. Bea comments here on her illustration for chapter XXV, which depicts a dramatic episode in Åsa and Mats’ trek through Sweden:

Possibly my favourite image, I chose this tragic moment for its visual power, as well as for how poignantly Lagerlöf depicts the race for survival of the brother and sister. I imagined the aerial view of the running children, seen from the perspective of the gander and the boy as they direct the children out of the maze of cracking ice. The image evokes the precarious balance between life and death as the children try to avoid running into dead ends while making their way across. It is the first inverted image I use, where the picture of the iced lake fills a negative space, causing an initial sense of disorientation appropriate to the nature of the image.

‘The Ice Breaks Up’, illustration by Bea Bonafini for Nils Holgersson’s Wonderful Journey through Sweden