REYKJAVIK – In Iceland, a land of fire and ice where fog-shrouded lava fields form a spooky landscape in which anything might lurk, stories abound of the “hidden folk” — elves — making their homes in Iceland’s wilderness.
So perhaps it was only a matter of time before 21st-century elves got political representation.
Elf advocates have joined forces with environmentalists to urge the Icelandic Road and Coastal Commission and local authorities to abandon a highway project building a direct route from the Alftanes Peninsula, where the president has a home, to the Reykjavik suburb of Gardabaer. They fear disturbing elf habitat and claim the area is particularly important because it contains an elf church.
The project has been halted until the Supreme Court of Iceland rules on a case brought by a group known as Friends of Lava, who cite the environmental and cultural impact — including the effect on elves — of the road project. The group has regularly brought hundreds of people out to block the bulldozers.
And it’s not the first time issues about “Huldufolk,” Icelandic for “hidden folk,” have affected planning decisions.
They occur so often that the road and coastal administration has come up with a stock media response for elf inquiries, which states that “issues have been settled by delaying the construction project at a certain point while the elves living there have supposedly moved on.”
Scandinavian folklore is full of elves, trolls and other mythological characters. Most people in Norway, Denmark and Sweden have not taken them seriously since the 19th century, but elves are no joke to many in Iceland, which has a population of 320,000.
A survey conducted by the University of Iceland in 2007 found that 62 percent of the 1,000 respondents thought it was at least possible that elves exist.
Ragnhildur Jonsdottir, a self-proclaimed “seer,” believes she can communicate with the creatures through telepathy. “It will be a terrible loss and damaging both for the elf world and for us humans,” she said of the road project.
Although many of the Friends of Lava are motivated primarily by environmental concerns, they see the elf issue as part of a wider concern for the history and culture of a very unique landscape.
Andri Snaer Magnason, a well-known environmentalist, said his major concern was that the road would cut the lava field in two, among other things, destroying nesting sites.
“Some feel that the elf thing is a bit annoying,” said Magnason, adding that personally he is not sure they exist. However, he added, “I got married in a church with a god just as invisible as the elves, so what might seem irrational is actually quite common” with Icelanders.
Terry Gunnell, a folklore professor at the University of Iceland, said he was not surprised by the wide acceptance of the possibility of elves. “This is a land where your house can be destroyed by something you can’t see (earthquakes), where the wind can knock you off your feet, where the smell of sulfur from your taps tells you there is invisible fire not far below your feet, where the northern lights make the sky the biggest television screen in the world, and where hot springs and glaciers ‘talk,’ ” Gunnell said.
“Everyone is aware that the land is alive, and one can say that the stories of hidden people and the need to work carefully with them reflects an understanding that the land demands respect,” he added.
Gunnell said similar beliefs are found in western Ireland, but they thrive in Iceland because people remain in close contact with the land. Parents still let their children play out in the wilderness, often late into the night. Vast pristine areas remain, even near the capital, Reykjavik.
And at Christmas, Icelanders await not just one Santa Claus, but 13 trolls known as the “Yule Lads” who come to town during the 13 days before Christmas. Each has his own task, putting rewards or punishments into the shoes of little children. They include Stufur, or Stubby, who is extremely short and eats crusts left in pans; Pottaskefill, or Pot-Scraper, who snatches leftovers; and Hurdaskellir or Door-Slammer, who likes to slam doors at night.
“If you ask an Icelander about elves, they might say they don’t believe,” said Jonsdottir. “But we always have stories of them, if not from ourselves then from someone close like a family member.”
Hilmar Gunnarsson, a writer in Reykjavik, fondly remembers a story his grandmother told him about a mischievous elf.
“She told me about (a pair) of her scissors that went missing and she was certain that an elf borrowed them,” Gunnarsson said. “She would not believe that they were just lost and she would not buy (new) scissors. She said the elf would give them back when he was finished. She said they were returned.”