Monday, 28 February 2011

Muse Monday – The Nis by Katherine Langrish

This week the unicorn is delighted to welcome fantasy author Katherine Langrish to tell you all about her own muse and her fabulous new book West of the Moon

Over to you, Kath…

Muses take different forms. Traditionally they were visualised (mostly by men?) as classically beautiful women. Robert Graves even wrote:

No Muse-poet grows conscious of the Muse except by experience of a woman in whom the Goddess is to some degree resident…

I don’t know what Graves’ lovers, such as the poet Laura Riding, actually made of this. Mostly, I wouldn’t externalise inspiration. Wherever it comes from – the back of the North Wind or the back of my head – it feels like oxygen or water or life-blood, something my work requires in order to live, rather than an embodied Other.

But on the other hand, I can characterise it as capricious: sometimes sprightly and helpful, sometimes stubborn and sulky. My host Katherine Roberts’ Reclusive Muse is a unicorn – glamorous and noble (Muse: and glittery!) My own muse, I realise, is well-meaning, touchy, proud: sometimes childish, sometimes wise: loving, loyal, but ultimately detached by reason of his long life, an observer by nature. He has crept into every book I’ve written so far. He is a nis. A house-hob. A brownie.

Before I met the Nis, I was struggling with the manuscript of my first book which I’d envisaged as a fantasy involving the Norse gods and goddesses, Odin and Freya and Thor. It simply wasn’t working. Then one day at a church bazaar (in France, believe it or not), I picked up a small brown book from a stall for a couple of francs. It was the 1850 edition of Thomas Keightley’s ‘Fairy Mythology’, and in it I found dozens of stories from Scandinavian folklore about trolls – and nisses. I fell in love with the Nis at once. He and his fellows, the trolls, took over the book. I got rid of the gods, and ‘Troll Fell’ (followed by its sequels ‘Troll Mill’ and ‘Troll Blood’) was born.

The three ‘Troll’ titles have just been republished in one volume as the trilogy ‘West of the Moon’, and you can meet the Nis there. Like the English brownies, he is a house or hearth spirit who will clean and tidy for you in return for a bowl of food. English brownies, boggarts and hearth hobs prefer cream: the Norwegian nis’s favourite food is a bowl of ‘groute’: barley porridge, with (this is very important) a large lump of butter.

And there are other differences. Of course English brownies and hearth hobs can be practical jokers, but on the whole, if their routine isn’t disturbed they are placid creatures. Nisses, it seems to me from the stories, are particularly volatile – playful, but easily upset. Like children they can fly into a tantrum yet quickly feel sorry. In one story, a nis who lives in a farmhouse is forever playing tricks on the maids, who in turn try to get their own back. One evening a drover comes to the house with a large ox. Seeing it in the stable, the nis ‘took a prodigious fancy to ride on it’, climbs up and teases the animal till it breaks loose and gallops about the yard, tearing his hat (all nisses wear a little red hat) and hurting his leg. The poor nis screams and howls, wakening the maids who run out and laugh at him. But on Sunday, when they dress in their best clothes to go to a dance, he gets even with them. He dirties their faces, so everyone now laughs at them.

In ‘West of the Moon’, the Nis is a constant companion to my hero, Peer – who nevertheless has to expend quite a lot of energy and tact to keep the little creature sweet. The Nis’s ‘voice’ came to me as a gift, and for each book of the trilogy I was afraid it might not come back, but it did… Here, having eaten the cold, unbuttered groute supplied by Peer’s miserly uncles, the Nis sets to work:

Now for the housework!” it said suddenly. “I has to do the housework, Peer Ulfsson. As long as they feeds me, I has to do the work. But I doesn’t have to do it well. See me!”

…the little Nis seized a broom bigger than itself and went leaping about the room like a grasshopper, sweeping up great clouds of dust. It cleared the dishes from the table and hid the bones under Uncle Baldur’s pillow. It polished the plates with one of Uncle Grim’s shirts, and shook the stale crumbs into his best boots. …Finally it put three wooden spoons and the frying pan tidily away under Uncle Grim’s straw mattress.

No Dobby, he.

The presence of this muse in my life was reaffirmed in my standalone medieval fantasy Dark Angels
(US title ‘The Shadow Hunt’) in which a gruff but good-hearted hearth hob absolutely insisted on appearing.

And a couple of years ago, Sotheby’s of New York emailed me. They had a picture for sale, an 18th century oil painting. The subject was uncertain, but they thought it might be a nis. Could I confirm?

Enchanted to discover I had become a world authority on nisses, I looked at the painting and was able to tell them it definitely was. The naked, William Blake-like figure, human sized, wasn’t quite my own idea of how a nis might actually look, but there he is sitting by the fire with his bowl of groute, his red hat and his broom, while two women recoil in some alarm from his glowing eyes.

My husband was rather thrilled too. He suggested we might try and bid for it, but as the reserve price was $15,000, cough, cough, I thought we’d better not. And you know what he did?

He went to a local sculptor, and asked her to make me this. So here is my muse, my little red-hatted Nis, sitting on our own hearth and – no doubt – keeping a sharp eye on all that we do.

Thank you, Kath! I certainly like to keep my eye on all that my author does. If you would like to follow Katherine’s "West of the Moon" blog tour, her next stop will be over at Scribble City Central tomorrow.
For more about her work, see Katherine Langrish’s website and be sure to visit her wonderful myth-and-fairytale blog Seven Miles of Steel Thistles.


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