Okay, so I’m planning a little trip to Iceland in about seven weeks.** Because of this, I was looking for “something Icelandic” to read and started googling and found this book. I’ve always enjoyed reading folklore and “fairy tales” so I thought it would be a great light-reading snack in the midst of all my book club reading obligations, and… it was!
Author Sigmundsdottir tells us at the beginning of the book that she finds the media’s assumption that Icelanders have an “elf fixation” a bit annoying. One anecdote she relates is how she was contacted by a representative of the media doing a story about how construction of a building had been halted because it was on a site where Icelanders believed elves lived. As it turns out construction was halted to confirm that no critical archaeological sites would be disturbed – a much less sensational story. She shares the stories in this book to help “set the story straight” regarding the role of elves in Iceland’s history, saying:
“Iceland’s elf folklore, at its core, reflects the plight of a nation living in abject poverty on the edge of the inhabitable world, and its peoples heroic efforts to survive – physically, emotionally and spiritually. That is what the stories of the elves, or hidden people, are really about.”
She goes on to say that the stories helped the early Icelanders “soldier on” during their period as an “oppressed colony.” She says, “The stories helped. A lot. They were the Icelander’s Prozac, providing refuge from the cruel circumstances people faced.” I suppose much folklore is born in such situations.
(below: [from Goodreads.com] – author Alda Sigmudsdottir)
I really liked how the book was organized, too, as each tale was followed by notes and the author’s explanations and observations. I was intrigued by many of the legends and beliefs, such as that “in those days (it was believed) that everyone was born with the ability to see the hidden people, but when the baptism water entered peoples eyes, they lost that ability.”
Also of interest to me was the concept of the “changeling” – where an elf might “switch out” one of its own race with a human child. This legend is not unique to Iceland either, but it could be taken to extremes there, as Sigmunddottir muses in her notes after one story titled “Father to Eighteen in the Elf World”:
“… an elf might come into your house and put her decrepit old husband who does nothing but howl all day long in your child’s place, after making him look exactly like your child so you can’t tell the difference. Remember that. Meanwhile, I have been pondering the significance of this “old people” business. I mean, why decrepit old people? Then one evening I was watching a telethon for UNICEF, where they were showing images of all these starving, malnourished children. They were so small, yet their faces looked so old. Like they had aged a lifetime from all that suffering. And it made me think. Were the children in Iceland back in the day also so malnourished that they looked old before they were even past infancy? The thought was rather disturbing, as was the idea that those children would be flogged mercilessly until “something happened.”* Something. But what if nothing happened? What if they were starving, malnourished children, and were flogged mercilessly because someone thought they were changelings? It hardly bears thinking about.”
*Earlier in the book we learn this was the prescribed treatment for how one could determine if their child had indeed been “replaced” with a changeling.
(Below: gratuitous pop culture reference: In the Star Trek episode, “The Changeling” Captain Kirk suspected that’s what the interstellar probe known as “Nomad” was.)
Many stories seemed to me to be transparently contrived to keep children – or even adults! – from straying too far from home in a dangerous landscape. Who knew what dangers – natural or supernatural – awaited them when they were away from shelter? All in all, a quite enjoyable read, and I will certainly keep my eyes and ears open when I travel there in April. 🙂
Other google searches by me found a popular trail which goes through a valley known as “The Land of the Hidden People.” See picture below. Looks beautiful!
(picture credit: http://www.iceland24blog.com/2014/11/viknasloir-trail-land-of-hidden-people.html)
**Why am I going to Iceland? Part vacation and partly to play in the 32nd edition of the storied “Reykjavik Open” chess tournament. I’m an amateur player, but on my good days can play competitively with the masters. Not grandmasters, though, and so far there are 35 grandmasters registered for this tournament. I’m only the 110th(!) seed the last time I checked. My goal is score >50% in the tournament. Hey, it could happen. 🙂