Archives For Nature

Beware of British Cows

January 26, 2016 — 15 Comments

cowMad Cow Disease is no laughing matter. Because my family and I resided in the United Kingdom during the early nineties, we have never been eligible to donate blood back home in the States.

Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy is a truly terrible, and always fatal, affliction. In a grotesque abuse of these docile herbivores, it turns out that the disease was introduced to cattle via mixing contaminated bone and tissue from sheep into their feed. (Whoever came up with that idea should be in prison.)

I seldom think about the possibility of this disease lying dormant in my body’s cells, and each year the likelihood of that being true diminishes. Frankly, since I’ve never heard of any of the Americans stationed there during that period contracting the disease, I consider it nearly certain that it is not present.

Still, just when I’ve finally accepted the notion that British cows are not a threat to me, I come face to face with the fact that they actually are.

Recently, an official report in the United Kingdom revealed that during the past fifteen years, cattle are responsible for the deaths of seventy-four people. Seventy-four!

That means they kill more Brits than sharks! And I doubt that most of those victims were taunting the cattle like the foolish young woman pictured above.

If you’ve never spent much time around cows, you may not realize how large and heavy they are. They can trample or crush people accidentally, and since they are not aggressive by nature, I assume that most of the deaths they are responsible for are just that, accidents.

Best, I suppose, to avoid farms, unless you crave a life of adrenalin-fueled risk on the edge of disaster.

C.S. Lewis reveals how deceptively innocent cattle can appear. In a letter written to a close friend in 1916, he described the calm pastoral setting for his life.

In fact, taking all things round, the world is smiling for me quite pleasantly just at present. The country round here is looking absolutely lovely: not with the stern beauty we like of course: but still, the sunny fields full of buttercups and nice clean cows, the great century old shady trees, and the quaint steeples and tiled roofs of the villages peeping up in their little valleys–all these are nice too, in their humble way.

Lewis should have been more cautious. It seems to me the cleanliness of the cows was a clear evidence they may have been up to no good.

In 1925 Lewis wrote to his father that the deer at Magdalen College were taking the place of the cattle he had left at home.

My external surroundings are beautiful beyond expectation and beyond hope. . . . My big sitting room looks north and from it I see nothing, not even a gable or spire, to remind me that I am in a town. I look down on a stretch of level grass which passes into a grove of immemorial forest trees, at present coloured with autumn red. Over this stray the deer.

They are erratic in their habits. Some mornings when I look out there will be half a dozen chewing the cud just underneath me, and on others there will be none in sight–or one little stag (not much bigger than a calf and looking too slender for the weight of its own antlers) standing still and sending through the fog that queer little bark or hoot which is these beasts’ ‘moo.’ It is a sound that will soon be as familiar to me as the cough of the cows in the field at home, for I hear it day and night.

Lewis obviously possessed a fondness for the cattle that framed his youthful memories. Likewise the deer that meandered through college grounds without fear for their safety.

Having an uncle who was a farmer, I enjoyed some small exposure to gentle, albeit not quite “clean,” cows when a boy. Today I enjoy many a day when deer leisurely cross in front of my study window to munch on some of the thick grass that we planted more for their benefit than our own.

Obviously, I do not hold bovine diseases against the poor cattle. And, at least for the present, I choose to believe that cattle (unlike cats) do not harbor any plans for world domination.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that I’m foolish enough to trust them where I haven’t already planned a potential escape route . . . especially when I’m in the U.K.

_____

Check out this post for another entertaining C.S. Lewis observation about cows!

I’m informed by my lovely wife that “clean cows” are dairy cows that need to be kept clean for hygiene reasons. Makes sense to me, but I still think that it’s an odd adjective to associate with cattle.

Puppies in Heaven

January 1, 2016 — 13 Comments

pupWill dogs and other fauna have a place in the new creation? It’s an interesting—and controversial—subject.

I just reread a delightful essay in which the author, an Orthodox theologian, describes a debate he had with a Roman Catholic scholastic on the subject.* I enjoyed the following description of the discussion so much that I had to share it.

I was once told by a young, ardently earnest Thomist . . . you know, one of those manualist neo-paleo-neo-Thomists of the baroque persuasion you run across ever more frequently these days, gathered in the murkier corners of coffee bars around candles in wine bottles, clad in black turtlenecks and berets, sipping espresso . . . this young Thomist told me that not only could my dog not love me (since he lacks a rational nature), but I could not love my dog (something about there needing to be some rational equality between lover and beloved).

Now, while I admitted that I could only presume the former claim to be incorrect . . . I was adamant that I could be absolutely certain of the falsity of the latter. But my friend was not deterred: “Oh, no,” he insisted, “you don’t really love him; you just think you do because of your deep emotional attachment to him.”

Of course. Foolish of me. Leave it to a two-tier Thomist to devise a definition of love that does not actually involve love. If you can believe in pure nature, I suppose you can believe anything.

{More on the question of animals in paradise below . . .}

Debates (civilized variants of arguments) can be fascinating when they are dissected and examined. Theological debates are particularly enthralling.

C.S. Lewis appreciated the value of debate in sharpening one’s position. This approach to learning can be traced back to the Socratic Method, which is based upon asking and answering questions.

In 1941, the Oxford Socratic Club was formed to “follow the argument wherever it led them.” C.S. Lewis was its first president (faculty sponsor), serving until 1955 when he moved to Cambridge University. In the first issue of the Socratic Digest, Lewis wrote:

In any fairly large and talkative community such as a university, there is always the danger that those who think alike should gravitate together into coteries where they will henceforth encounter opposition only in the emasculated form of rumour that the outsiders say thus and thus.

The absent are easily refuted, complacent dogmatism thrives, and differences of opinion are embittered by group hostility. Each group hears not the best, but the worst, that the other groups can say.

Some of the debates conducted by the club were legendary. You can read a fine article about these “University Battles” here.

Returning to the Question of Animals in Heaven

I wrote on this subject several years ago. That post is worth checking out if only for the amazing graphic that graces it.

You can read my own perspective on the question there, if you are interested.

Today I wish to end, instead, with the summary of my kindred spirit, who debated the philosopher.

The final sentence in this next section is priceless.

The occasion of the exchange, incidentally, was a long and rather tediously circular conversation concerning Christian eschatology. My interlocutor was an adherent to a particularly colorless construal of the beatific vision, one that allows for no real participation of animal creation (except eminently, through us) in the final blessedness of the Kingdom; I, by contrast, hope to see puppies in paradise, and persevere in faith principally for that reason.

His sentiment reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ thoughts in Mere Christianity.

I sometimes like to imagine that I can just see how it might apply to other things. I think I can see how the higher animals are in a sense drawn into Man when he loves them and makes them (as he does) much more nearly human than they would otherwise be.

Hart offers another delightfully sarcastic comment about the weight of different authorities the two debaters were citing. And with that observation, we shall end.

On his side, all the arguments were drawn from Thomas and his expositors; on mine, they were drawn from Scripture; naturally, limited to the lesser source of authority, I was at a disadvantage. . . . [arguing] that the biblical imagery of the redeemed state is cosmic in scope and positively teeming with fauna (lions lying down with lambs and such)—that Paul’s vision of salvation in Romans 8 is of the entirety of creation restored and glorified—things of that sort. All in vain, though; nothing I said could rival the dialectical force of his ringing sic Thomas dixit [so Thomas said].

_____

* The author, David Bentley Hart, is not anti-Catholic. In fact, he has taught at several Roman Catholic universities. The article quoted appears here.

 

Using Your Entire Brain

November 4, 2015 — 13 Comments

Brain1
Have you ever wondered just how much of your own brain you effectively use?

Unfortunately, the percentage of our brains harnessed for daily work remains a bit of a mystery, based upon unproven theories.

One thing is certain though—the frequently repeated notion that human beings only utilize 10% of their brains is nonsense. Despite the fact that this myth has never been supported by scientists, it has gained a proverbial life of its own.

Though an alluring idea, the “10 percent myth” is so wrong it is almost laughable, says neurologist Barry Gordon at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine . . .*

Another neurologist adds another interesting perspective.

Although it’s true that at any given moment all of the brain’s regions are not concurrently firing, brain researchers using imaging technology have shown that, like the body’s muscles, most are continually active over a 24-hour period. “Evidence would show over a day you use 100 percent of the brain,” says John Henley, a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic . . .

Which Half Runs the Show?

Assuming you use nearly all of the gray and white matter stuffed in your cranium, there is another question that begs an answer. Which hemisphere is dominant?

Medical scientists have identified numerous mental functions with particular regions of the brain. As the illustration above suggests, because of that the human mind relies on different hemispheres for different activities.

Most of us have already determined whether we are “right-brained” or “left-brained.” And, since we often know ourselves rather well, we’re probably correct in our assessment.

Still, there are some online tests capable of answering the question of just how well balanced we are in using whatever portion of our minds to which we have access. I recently took two of the assessment instruments and learned that I am a reasonably balanced individual.

You just may be more balanced than you think. Not that “balanced” is better than having one or the other side dominant. In fact, it feels a bit like being a “jack of all trades.”

Brain 2The first test—available for you to take here—gave me the wonderful news that my “right and left hemispheres seem to have reached a level of perfect harmony.”

It sounds almost like attaining Nirvana, if one believes in such things.

It was amazing what they were able to discern about my deepest being with twelve simple questions.

Brain 3

The second test—available here—gave me the following result. It reveals the mental equilibrium I have achieved with this informative graphic.

I really enjoyed the image (yellow is my second favorite color) . . . until I realized the uncolored portions of my brain suggested they were dormant. (I suspect the very fact that I’m concerned about the possibility implies it might be true.)

Lewis on the Human Mind

C.S. Lewis wrote about many aspects of human nature. That included, of course, the least understood organ, the brain. In the following passage from a 1921 letter, he describes the way our memories possess the power to transform the realities of the past.

I still feel that the real value of such a holiday is still to come, in the images and ideas which we have put down to mature in the cellarage [cellar or basement] of our brains, thence to come up with a continually improving bouquet.

Already the hills are getting higher, the grass greener, and the sea bluer than they really were; and thanks to the deceptive working of happy memory our poorest stopping places will become haunts of impossible pleasure and Epicurean repast.

The following argument is found in 1944’s “Is Theology Poetry?” His thoughts on how the human brain supports the existence of a Creator are well worth considering.

When I accept Theology I may find difficulties, at this point or that, in harmonising it with some particular truths which are imbedded in the mythical cosmology derived from science. But I can get in, or allow for, science as a whole. Granted that Reason is prior to matter and that the light of that primal Reason illuminates finite minds. I can understand how men should come, by observation and inference, to know a lot about the universe they live in.

If, on the other hand, I swallow the scientific cosmology as a whole, then not only can I not fit in Christianity, but I cannot even fit in science. If minds are wholly dependent on brains, and brains on bio-chemistry, and bio-chemistry (in the long run) on the meaningless flux of the atoms, I cannot understand how the thought of those minds should have any more significance than the sound of the wind in the trees.

And this is to me the final test.

This is how I distinguish dreaming and waking. When I am awake I can, in some degree, account for and study my dream. The dragon that pursued me last night can be fitted into my waking world. I know that there are such things as dreams: I know that I had eaten an indigestible dinner: I know that a man of my reading might be expected to dream of dragons. But while in the nightmare I could not have fitted in my waking experience. The waking world is judged more real because it can thus contain the dreaming world: the dreaming world is judged less real because it cannot contain the waking one.

For the same reason I am certain that in passing from the scientific point of view to the theological, I have passed from dream to waking. Christian theology can fit in science, art, morality, and the sub-Christian religious. The scientific point of view cannot fit in any of these things, not even science itself.

Even with my limited mind, which too often seems to run on only six of its eight cylinders, I recognize the wisdom of Lewis’ contrast between dreaming and waking. He is brilliant.

I imagine that our favorite Oxford dean’s online results might have looked something like this.

Lewis Brain

_____

* This quotation, and the one which follows it, come from Scientific American.

I have blogged in the past about the human brain. You might find one of the following posts interesting:

Engage Brain

Distant Fathers

Mensa & C.S. Lewis

Malapropistic Entertainment

Africa Comes to America

September 23, 2015 — 9 Comments

saharaYes, you read the title correctly; it’s no typo. Africa itself arrived in America this summer—and it’s an event that apparently takes place every year!

In a recent post by one of Mere Inkling’s earliest subscribers, I learned about the annual Saharan Air Layer. It is an enormous dust cloud that transits the entire Atlantic Ocean and is vital to the western hemisphere, especially the Amazonian rain forests. More about the SAL below.

I find this phenomenon fascinating. It reveals how intricately balanced and interconnected God has created this amazing ecosystem we call earth.

I appreciate this fact, even though I don’t consider myself an environmentalist. That doesn’t mean, of course, that I don’t recycle. What’s more, I would actually like to see brazen polluters incarcerated and tasked with personally cleaning toxic waste dumps . . . but that’s not the theme of this reflection.

It seems to me that part of being truly human, is possessing an appreciation—or even a love—for the world in which our Creator has allowed us to dwell. By love, I mean a deep affection for the flora and fauna, and even the mountains and valleys themselves.

I am not proposing idolatry.

I am in good company in valuing nature. C.S. Lewis found time spent walking in the countryside to be invigorating. It was renewing, for body, mind and soul.

Several years back a book was published with the peculiar subtitle, The Environmental Vision of C.S. Lewis.

The authors of Narnia and the Fields of Arbol explores the way Lewis displays his “ecological” concerns, particularly in his fiction. They also consider J.R.R. Tolkien’s similar attitude.

It is no coincidence that these two men, as soldiers during the Great War, had seen the worst violence humanity could do to nature. The ravages wrought by the orcs surrounding Isengard were echoes of the lifeless terrain of shell-shattered Western Front.

Writing this now, I recall a poem I wrote for Curtana: Sword of Mercy.

“A Foreshadowing of Epics” begins:

Filthy trenches greeted the novice soldiers’ eyes,

their two imaginations envisioned greener lands.

Crimson combat splashed red their vision,

and colored portraits one day painted with their words.

The frontlines were barren,

scarred earth stripped of all life.

Fallen trees mimicked casualties,

not even the smallest of creatures escaped death.

It may seem ironic to some that those very fields now are green, and teeming with life. It is the mercy of God that restores the scarred and heals the broken. And, as impressive as those miracles are evident in nature, they are far more wondrous when it is human lives that are transformed and resurrected.

So it is that I find the wonder of the barren and seemingly lifeless Saharan dust bringing nutrients to hungry forests on the other side of the earth amazing. No mere accident that.

If Jesus delays his return and this globe continues to spin for more centuries still, I would not be surprised to see the Americas returning to Africa a similar gift of life.

_____

Weather.com has a short video about the Saharan Air Layer here.

Malacandra CraterMere Inkling recently named a crater on Mars, in honor of C.S. Lewis. The crater’s name is Malacandra, which was the name for the red planet in the first volume of Lewis’ Space Trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet.

The naming of Malacandra Crater was done through an organization preparing the map which will be used by the Mars One Mission. Mars One is the optimistic international effort to establish a permanent human settlement on the red planet, beginning in 2024.

The über-adventurous (or foolhardy) are able to apply today for consideration to become an astronaut.

The crater naming project is not sponsored by the International Astronomical Union (IAU). Instead, it is coordinated by Uwingu, a for profit company that has a goal of raising $10,000,000 for grants to scientists and educators promoting space exploration.

Due to its limited* budget, Mere Inkling was only able to name a small crater. However, it’s not the expense, it’s the thought that counts.

In addition to Malacandra Crater, I named the impact mark directly to its south in honor of my grandchildren. The process allows one to include a dedication for each named crater. For theirs, I wrote:

Stroud Crater is named in honor of the brilliant grandchildren of Rob & Delores Stroud. Andrew, Ariana, Dominic, Arabelle, Rachel, Rebecca, Kaelyn & Asher. Whether they grow up to be astrophysicists, veterinarians or educators, we know they will all make this world a better place. Soli Deo Gloria.

The tiny basins named above lie in Aurorae Chaos. It’s a rugged neighborhood, but there are surprisingly few craters in the immediate vicinity. I’m always seeking opportunities to encourage my grandchildren to study science, and I hope this will pique their interests, both now and in the years to come.

C.S. Lewis is not primarily known today as a writer of science fiction, but his series (also known as the Cosmic Trilogy, or the Ransom Trilogy, after its protagonist) is quite good. In fact, it was the very first of Lewis’ works I ever read. I was introduced to them by a Christian friend during my college years.

Several influences converged to move Lewis to venture into science fiction. In 1938, he thanked a friend for his praise of Out of the Silent Planet, and wrote:

You are obviously much better informed than I about this type of literature and the only one I can add to your list is Voyage to Arcturus by David Lyndsay (Methuen) which is out of print but a good bookseller will probably get you a copy for about 5 to 6 shillings. It is entirely on the imaginative and not at all on the scientific wing.

What immediately spurred me to write was Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men and an essay in J. B. S. Haldane’s Possible Worlds both of which seemed to take the idea of such travel seriously and to have the desperately immoral outlook which I try to pillory in Weston.

I like the whole interplanetary idea as a mythology and simply wished to conquer for my own (Christian) point of view what has always hitherto been used by the opposite side. I think Wells’ 1st Men in the Moon the best of the sort I have read.**

Lewis then appends a comment referring to the other planets in our solar system, but intriguing in light of the recent discovery of numerous planets throughout the galaxy. “The more astronomy we know the less likely it seems that other planets are inhabited: even Mars has practically no oxygen.”

One of Lewis often overlooked science fiction short stories, “Ministering Angels,” is set on Mars. It begins in the following way.

The Monk, as they called him, settled himself on the camp chair beside his bunk and stared through the window at the harsh sand and black-blue sky of Mars. He did not mean to begin his ‘work’ for ten minutes yet. Not, of course, the work he had been brought there to do. He was the meteorologist of the party, and his work in that capacity was largely done; he had found out whatever could be found out.

There was nothing more, within the limited radius he could investigate, to be observed for at least twenty-five days. And meteorology had not been his real motive. He had chosen three years on Mars as the nearest modern equivalent to a hermitage in the desert.

He had come there to meditate: to continue the slow, perpetual rebuilding of that inner structure which, in his view, it was the main purpose of life to rebuild. And now his ten minutes’ rest was over. He began with his well-used formula. ‘Gentle and patient Master, teach me to need men less and to love thee more.’ Then to it. There was no time to waste.

There were barely six months of this lifeless, sinless, unsuffering wilderness ahead of him. Three years were short . . . but when the shout came he rose out of his chair with the practised alertness of a sailor.

The Botanist in the next cabin responded to the same shout with a curse. His eye had been at the microscope when it came. It was maddening. Constant interruption. A man might as well try to work in the middle of Piccadilly as in this infernal camp. And his work was already a race against time. Six months more . . . and he had hardly begun.

The flora of Mars, these tiny, miraculously hardy organisms, the ingenuity of their contrivances to live under all but impossible conditions—it was a feast for a lifetime. He would ignore the shout. But then came the bell. All hands to the main room.
(“Ministering Angels,” Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories).

Malacandra Crater may be a small feature on a vast and curious planet, but it is a tribute to an author of immense and lasting talent.

_____

* i.e. nonexistent

** The following titles mentioned by Lewis are available for free digital download:

Voyage to Arcturus

Last and First Men

The First Men in the Moon

Beware of Moths

March 27, 2014 — 12 Comments

mothI try not to hate moths. They’re obviously not so pretty as butterflies, but I remind myself that’s not their fault. They’re a nuisance around the porch lights on summer evenings, but that’s instinct, not choice.

I strive to see the best in moths, like C.S. Lewis, who was able to capitalize on their impulsiveness in his 1933 poem, “The Naked Seed.”

Oh, thou that art unwearying, that dost neither sleep

      Nor slumber, who didst take

All care for Lazarus in the careless tomb, oh keep

      Watch for me till I wake.

If thou think for me what I cannot think, if thou

      Desire for me what I

Cannot desire, my soul’s interior Form, though now

      Deep-buried, will not die,

—No more than the insensible dropp’d seed which grows

      Through winter ripe for birth

Because, while it forgets, the heaven remembering throws

      Sweet influence still on earth,

—Because the heaven, moved moth-like by thy beauty, goes

      Still turning round the earth.

I really want to give moths the benefit of the doubt . . . but that’s become virtually impossible since I learned some of them are vampiric!

Before we consider their blood-sucking rituals, I want to share a traumatic moth encounter my wife and I experienced several years ago when we lived in Eastern Washington.

We had a huge fragrant collection of plants that ran across nearly the whole of the front of our house. There was a bush at the far end, and some delightful quail nested there. The flowers brought us other welcome guests. Hummingbirds would crowd around them as sun was setting, and savor their nectars.

We loved watching them hover near the blooms, and wondered precisely what species of hummingbirds they were, since they were slightly smaller than the ones we were accustomed to.

One day I was getting a close up view of their activity and I saw something that shattered my sense of reality. Instead of a beak, these hummingbirds had tongues that curled and uncurled, not unlike those “party horns” that children blow at celebrations.

My wife said I had to be imagining what I’d seen. I assured her that I hadn’t seen anything like this in the scifi shows I regularly watched, and I was pretty sure that these abominations weren’t hummingbirds.

Eventually I persuaded her to look for herself, and she too was aghast at the question of what they might be. Some of you already know, because you’ve had the misfortune of growing up where these creepy things thrive. For the rest of you—the fortunate ones who’ve been spared the curse of hemaris sphinx moths—let me assure you, their maladapted proboscises are grotesque.

I thought they were the worst thing the world of the moths had to offer. (Well, aside from the 1961 Japanese film “Mothra.”)

That’s what I thought, until recently, when I learned that some misbegotten moths had followed mosquitoes in their descent into parasitical evil by drinking the blood of other creatures.

The calyptra moths are another proof of the fall. No longer do they flutter around from plant to plant, seeking sustenance as a proper herbivore. The aptly named “vampire moth” has chosen to adapt its proboscis to pierce the skin of other animals such as buffaloes . . . and human beings.

In the equal opportunity world of the corruption of the natural order, while female mosquitoes drink blood, it is male moths that do so. Apparently, they’ve already infested Malaysia, the Urals and Southern Europe. Now they are adjusting to the climate of Scandinavia. The question arises, where can be we safe from these monsters?

Returning to C.S. Lewis, he records an incident that occurred in Narnia involving mistaken identity.

It is a very funny thing that the sleepier you are, the longer you take about getting to bed; especially if you are lucky enough to have a fire in your room. Jill felt she couldn’t even start undressing unless she sat down in front of the fire for a bit first. And once she had sat down, she didn’t want to get up again. She had already said to herself about five times, “I must go to bed,” when she was startled by a tap on the window.

She got up, pulled the curtain, and at first saw nothing but darkness. Then she jumped and started backward, for something very large had dashed itself against the window, giving a sharp tap on the glass as it did so. A very unpleasant idea came into her head—“Suppose they have giant moths in this country! Ugh!”

But then the thing came back, and this time she was almost sure she saw a beak, and that the beak had made the tapping noise. “It’s some huge bird,” thought Jill. “Could it be an eagle?” She didn’t very much want a visit even from an eagle, but she opened the window and looked out. Instantly, with a great whirring noise, the creature alighted on the window-sill and stood there filling up the whole window, so that Jill had to step back to make room for it. It was the Owl. (The Silver Chair).

Fortunately for Jill, and the rest of the children who visited Narnia, there is no record of them ever encountering giant moths . . . vampire moths . . . or moths deceptively impersonating hummingbirds.

_____

Note: The monster moth pictured above is not (to my knowledge) a blood or flesh eater. But I still wouldn’t want one that size landing on my shoulder.

Iceland’s Real Elves

January 21, 2014 — 21 Comments

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.