"A strange sound crept into Peer’s sleep. He dreamed of a hoarse little voice, panting and muttering to itself, ‘Up we go! Here we are!’ There was a scrabbling like rats in the rafters, and a smell of porridge. Peer rolled over.
‘Up we go,’ muttered the hoarse little voice again, and then more loudly, ‘Move over, you great fat hen. Budge, I say!’ This was followed by a squawk. One of the hens fell off the rafter and minced indignantly away to find another perch. Peer screwed up his eyes and tried to focus. He could see nothing but black shapes and shadows.
‘Aaah!’ A long sigh from overhead set his hair on end. The smell of porridge was quite strong. There came a sound of lapping or slurping..."
The Scandinavian Nisses are my personal favourites among house spirits. The painting above is by the 18th century Danish painter Nicolai Abraham Abildgaard, and I was once contacted by a New York auction house who asked me to confirm that the subject is indeed a Nisse. Though he isn't quite as I imagined the Nis in 'Troll Fell' you can see he wears a red cap and is sitting by the fireside with his broom, eating groute, or buckwheat porridge. However the women of the household are clearly startled and uneasy in his presence.
Where the painting is now I do not know, but hope the lucky owner will not object to my sharing the image, considering I lent a hand in identifying the subject.
I first met Nisses in Thomas Keightley’s 1828 compendium ‘The Fairy Mythology’, and was charmed by their mischief, vanity, naïvety, their occasional bursts of temper and their essential goodwill. Here is a typical story from Denmark:
There lived a man at Thrysting, in Jutland, who had a Nis in his barn. This Nis used to attend to the cattle, and at night he would steal fodder for them from the neighbours.
One time, the farm boy went along with the Nis to Fugleriis to steal corn. The Nis took as much as he thought he could well carry, but the boy was more covetous, and said, ‘Oh, take more; sure we can rest now and then?’ ‘Rest!’ said the Nis; ‘rest! and what is rest?’ ‘Do what I tell you,’ replied the boy; ‘take more, and we shall find rest when we get out of this.’ The Nis then took more, and they went away with it. But when they were come to the lands of Thrysting, the Nis grew tired, and then the boy said to him, ‘Here now is rest,’ and they both sat down on the side of a little hill. ‘If I had known,’ said the Nis as they were sitting there, ‘if I had known that rest was so good, I’d have carried off all that was in the barn.’
[from ‘Scandinavian Folklore’, William Craigie, 1896]