Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Michael Shea: Nifft the Lean

Michael Shea's Nifft the Lean is the type of work that I seldom read. It's fantasy with a strong tinge of the horror tale about it. Actually, I should say tales since it's not a novel, but four separate stories with a linking device. Each of the stories is told by Shag Margold, a historian, about the exploits of his friend Nifft, known as the Lean. Margold tends to be on the fussy side, a bit pedantic, but don't let Margold's "Eulogy" and prefaces discourage you. Once he gets beyond the academic blather, he turns into a very good story teller. He did not witness the events of the stories for as he tells us, most of the information comes from Nifft himself and from Nifft's friends.

The four stories are really separate tales, linked only by the presence of Nifft and his friend Barnar.
The work probably could be described as a "picaresque novel," even though not considered a novel in the traditional sense. According to the Wikipedia entry, picaresque comes from the Spanish picaro which translates into English as rogue or rascal. The novel is a series of stories, therefore, about a "hero of low social class who lives by his wits in a corrupt society." The article also points out that "[s]ome science fiction and fantasy books also show a clear picaresque influence, transported to a variety of invented worlds—for example, 'The Dying Earth" series of Jack Vance [and] Fritz Leiber's 'Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.' " I think a number of role-playing games have adopted this format.

Warning: I will discuss some significant plot elements and events, and in some cases, the ending.

First Adventure: "Come then Mortal, We Will Seek Her Soul"

This tale has a more complicated frame structure than the other three. Presumably Shag Margold is presenting us with a tale that is "Nifft's own composition" but is obviously written by a professional scribe, implying that Nifft had someone else take dictation. Once into the tale, we find that the tale is actually a frame for another story.

Nifft and Barnar are on the road and make camp. That night, Nifft tells Barnar of an adventure that began years ago on this same campsite. It is about the time that Nifft and Haldar Dirkness, Nifft's companion before he met up with Barnar, went down to Hell. In fact, it is the tale of his last adventure with Haldar.

Nifft becomes part of a long and illustrious fellowship when he makes his journey into the underworld: Gilgamesh, Odin, Orpheus, Odysseus, Aeneas, and, of course, Dante, among others. Once there, his experiences do not differ greatly from the others. All have to cross water by boat, and all get the chance to talk to some of the inhabitants, and no doubt, come away wiser than before, probably. And
, as always, there is a price to be paid.

Nifft, though, has a slightly different reason for his trip. The others go down to hell either to bring back someone or at least to get information which would help them on their quest. Nifft has a different task: he is to bring a living person down to the underworld as the bequest of another already there.

The person making the request is Dalissem. She has come back to beg Nifft and Haldar to bring her lover Defalk down to join her where she resides, in the Place of the Raging Dead. She was destined to be a priestess and therefore had to remain a virgin. However, she and Defalk fell in love and, eventually, were caught. They swore a suicide pact. When she got the opportunity, she killed herself, but Defalk reneged when he got off with only a warning. That was seven years ago (the magic number seven pops up everywhere), and she was tired of waiting for him. She promises them the Wizard's Key, a device of great power, if they would capture Defalk and bring him down to Hell.

As is typical of other trips to the underworld, there is a toll to be paid. Nifft gives up his left ear (with all the blood spurting about, the demons don't notice that they didn't get the entire ear, just the lobe--that's why Nifft volunteered to do the cutting himself). Haldar sacrifices his index finger, while Defalk loses an eye. That Defalk gains some wisdom on this trip reminded me of Odin in Norse mythology who goes down to the underworld to gain wisdom and must lose an eye as payment.

There are strong resemblances to Dante's Inferno in this tale. They, like Dante, had a guide. And, on their journey through the underworld, the three see numerous examples of souls being tortured by demons. In Dante's underworld, these are sinners and we are told why these souls are being punished. In Shea's story, it's not clear why many of these are here or why they are punished. At times I wondered if this is the fate of all, not just the evil ones. But, this is not true for all. Some earn a special place in Hell. Dalissem, for one, is condemned to the Place of the Raging Dead.

The Place of the Raging Dead is "a dim cauldron of gales" where "the winds wrestled and surged and blew in constant contradictions." It is a place where those with strong emotions are condemned to be blown about by winds that surge first one way and then another, as these people are by their emotions.

In Dante's Inferno, the first circle of Hell itself is for the carnal sinners "who are blown about forever on stormy winds. . . "

from Canto V

I came into a place of all light dumb
That bellows like a storm in the sea-deep
When the thwart winds that strike it roar and hum.

The abysmal tempest that can never sleep
Snatches the spirits and headlong hurries them,
Beats and besets them with its whirling sweep.

. . .

I learnt that in such restless violence blown
This punishment the carnal sinners share
Whose reason by desire was overthrown."

In both works, the sinners, or those doomed to reside here for eternity, are those whose emotions are strong and contrary, sufficient to overthrow reason. Their fate is to be blown about forever, never to rest, a symbol of their life on earth which also found them uncontrollably tossed about by their emotions.

The fates of the three--Nifft, Haldar, and Defalk--differ, as befits their differing souls. Haldar, whose strong passions and high-minded principles, echo those of D
alissem, gains his chosen fate. Defalk learns too late what he has lost when he abandoned his Dalissem and the suicide pact and loses all therefore, but he accepts his fate with a courage and valor that were not evident when we first meet him. And Nifft, ever the pragmatic one--his only concern is getting out of hell, alive, as quickly as possible, and he, also, gets his wish.

To be continued in my next post.


  1. Fred, does your professed aversion to horror-fantasy extend also to H. P. Lovecraft's work, which I suppose must be included in that genre category? As for myself, I very much enjoy Lovecraft even though I really have no interest in others from that genre.

  2. R. T.,

    No, I enjoy Lovecraft's works. In fact, I think I'm close to having a copy of all of his works.

    Perhaps I should have qualified my comment that I don't particularly care for modern horror/fantasy. Too much of it is now vampire/zombie/slasher/gore.

    I prefer the earlier works, late 19th and early 20th century stories, by Algernon Blackwood and MR James and Lefanu and William Hope Hodgson, and, of course, Lovecraft, among others.

    If you enjoy Lovecraft, then you might like some of the others. Try Algernon Blackwood's "The Willows." It's my favorite horror/fantasy short work.

  3. Thanks, Fred, for the suggestions. I am now off to the library (well, via the website) to seek out authors and titles.

  4. Fred,
    Could you please tell me whose translation of the Inferno you quoted?
    I have been looking for that translation (which I read as a borrowed book) and can not track it down.

    ("I learnt that in such restless violence blown
    This punishment the carnal sinners share
    Whose reason by desire was overthrown.")

    I remember this translation as being so enjoyable.
    Thanks a lot!
    L Jensen

  5. L Jensen,

    No problem. It's the _Viking Portable Dante_ text with the complete Divine Comedy, along with various poems, as well as La Vita Nuova,and some prose works.

    The translation of the Divine Comedy is by Laurence Binyon.

    The SBN number is 670-01032-4. That's not a typo. The original pub date is 1947. This is the revised Edition which came out in 1969.

    I have looked at several other translations and always decided to stay with this one. It's actually the third copy I've had.

    Hope this helps. If you need more information, let me know.