Iceland’s Real Elves

warrior elvesI’ve always wanted to visit Iceland.

Not simply because it’s the most sparsely populated country in Europe . . . even though I’m not big on crowds.

Not simply because of its spectacular glaciers and volcanic activity . . . even though these natural wonders inspire genuine awe.

Not simply because it is home to the world’s most ancient parliamentary democracy . . . even though I believe representative democracy is the best sort of government available.

Not simply because they colonized Greenland, from which the Norse were the first Europeans to discover the Americas . . . even though Leif Erikson deserves the accolades rendered to others.

Not simply because 40,000 of my fellow citizens are of Icelandic descent . . . even though I’m pleased they have contributed to our national “melting pot.”

Not simply because Iceland’s tenth largest city is called Fjarðabyggð . . . even though that vivid name is sure to capture the imagination of any writer.

Not simply because the Icelandic alphabet actually includes a runic letter (Þ, þ) named thorn . . . even though this too makes the nation of Iceland unique.

And, not simply because J.R.R. Tolkien and his friend C.S. Lewis established a group called Kolbitar which was devoted to reading Icelandic and Norse sagas. The word itself means “coal biter” and refers to those in a harsh environment drawing so close to the fire’s warmth they can almost bite the coals.

When the Lord of the Rings (as a work in progress) was being in read at meetings of the Inklings, one of the groups members at some point blurted out, “Oh no, not another –– elf!” [I only mention this here because that impetuous comment is often incorrectly attributed to Lewis—a genuine fan of Tolkien’s masterpiece. It was actually voiced by Hugo Dyson, another WWI veteran who taught English at Merton College.]

In the past, all of these reasons have contributed to my curiosity about the Land of Ice, but now I have added one more reason to someday visit.

It turns out that some Icelanders believe that elves, called by them Huldufólk (hidden folk), are real!

The elves have a large enough human constituency, that they are able to block highway construction due to the impact on the local Huldufólk!

Technically, the preservation of the elvish solitude is only the secondary concern in the lawsuits, the first being protection of one of Iceland’s numerous lava fields. Iceland’s Supreme Court has vacillated on the case, which can only raise the ire of any elves that may reside there.

elf houseIf the proponents of the reality of the Huldufólk are right, there remains one shortcoming to the Icelandic elves. Apparently, if the elf homes that dot the countryside are any indication, the northern island breed are a diminutive race. As in tiny, what Americans would think of more as a gnome or perhaps even a fairy.

My problem is that I’ve been spoiled by J.R.R. Tolkien’s version of the elvish races. I see them a tall, noble, and wise. The kind of folk you’d want for a friend, if you could get past the aloofness that is apparently characteristic of beings who live centuries rather than decades.

I fear that these Icelandic elves are (pardon me, any Huldufólk who may be reading this) a rather inferior lot. More like leprechauns than warriors. If you live in Iceland and can correct my errors about the hidden folk there, please contact me. Even better if you happen to know some elves personally.

29 thoughts on “Iceland’s Real Elves

  1. That is rather fascinating how some areas have actually been protected with elves in mind. I share your lifelong want to go to Iceland, for all of those reasons. have already been lucky enough to go to Yellowstone, but Iceland’s geothermal activity is supposed to be on par.

  2. Intriguing post, Rob. Mathair (my writing partner and mother) told me I’d love this blog and she was right. C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was the first books I was given and I still have the copy my mother gave me when I was four. I’m also a huge J.R.R Tolkien fan and I can confidently state that they are the forefathers of fantasy in the fiction world. I, too, have been influenced greatly by Tolkien’s Elves. I always believed them to be lithe, graceful, ethereal beings rather than what Iceland portrays them to be. Sorry to Iceland, though Mathair and I are dying to visit, our elves will always be of the Tolkien persuasion. Great post!

  3. Fascinating, isn’t it? I learned about this a while back, but I recently learned that the Cherokee from my region believed/believe in a very similar people. The stories are truly fascinating and make me very curious. There are tiny, militant folk that inspire fear, and more human-sized and rather friendly ones as well.

  4. Iceland is a bit otherworldy – the environment certainly influenced the myths, legends, and tales from there.
    Grew up with the Norse mythology – along with the others and wandered the woods. We used to create little neighborhoods for elves and fairies along the creek – with green moss for yards….tiny ones as eveyone knows they are tiny! (and they secretly watch so don’t harm their woods. giggles!)
    Lovely post

      1. We must have been very strange children…we thought everyone did. Some of the “communities” we built were quite elaborate.
        Guess we read too much and were told to go out and play and find something to do, too much?

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  8. Anthony

    I actually fell in love with an elf her name is Akoko and she was the one I danced with when the elves made an appearance to me to preform their ritual dance here in midgard it was spectacular and very alluring and now I’m a norse pagan and I have something in common with thor whom is our thunder god because he is married to an elf named Sif

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  10. d houston

    You wrote above: “Not simply because the Icelandic alphabet actually includes a runic letter (Þ, þ) named thorn . ”
    There are other letters in use (that were also used in Anglo Saxon) edth ð Ð a second th sound and aesc æ Æ pronounced ash.

    1. Excellent. Are you a student off either of those languages? I would suppose so. Thank you for sharing.

      Working with other languages possessing alternative alphabets that don’t closely correlate to our own is fascinating. My Classical Greek prof in the university tried to persuade me to study Coptic. “You could become one of a handful of American experts in the field.” (Apparently he could tell quite how hard I was working to do “B” work in his class.)

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