Issue #21, November 1, 2022
Author: Stefan Jonasson
“This book is a love song for Iceland,” said Nancy Marie Brown about her new volume, Looking for the Hidden Folk: How Iceland’s Elves Can Save the Earth, during a webinar on the eve of its publication. She was presenting to a webinar hosted by the Icelandic National League of the United States on September 30. “The first time I went there, in 1986, it was like I had found a piece of myself that, even if I hadn’t quite lost it, it had been long supressed.” So, she first imagined that her latest book would be a collection of travel essays based on her journals, and it began to take shape back in 2009. But on her 21st trip to Iceland, she took a walk with an elf seer and that’s when, she says, “my collection of travel essays was hijacked by the elves.”
Nancy described a hike she took through a lava field with Ragnhildur Jónsdóttir, who was instrumental in protecting the field from destruction by a proposed road project. “We didn’t talk much about elves or the hidden folk,” she recalled. Instead, they photographed the rocks, listened to the wind and the birds, experienced some of Iceland’s famously variable weather, took in its distinctive smells, and observed its bountiful flora. “We talked about art and inspiration. Why do some places attract artists and spark creative thought? Why are some places beautiful? And how do you define beauty? And we shared an experience I still can’t explain.” As they left the lava field, Ragnhildur asked, “Now, do you believe in elves?”
Looking for the Hidden Folk is Nancy Marie Brown’s attempt to answer that question. “It’s a question that seemed to get harder to understand the more I tried.” She used to work as a science writer and, after offering a long list of ways she’s sought to understand the world, she acknowledged, “my quest took some unusual turns.”
“Believing in elves, I learned, is a lot like believing in quantum mechanics. It is a way of perceiving and valuing the world around us.” She came to realize that the travel essays she had been working on shared one theme: “Icelanders see nature in different ways than I had been taught to see it. In Iceland, where the geology and the weather patterns are as fantastic as anything Tolkien thought up, the imagination is set free, and the mind is urged to pay attention.”
Nancy felt more open to wonder and beauty while in Iceland because, “to the Icelanders that I met, the world around us, every rock and every hill, is inhabited – by elves, yes, but also by stories. Stories shape how you see the world; they determine not only how you think of elves, but how you think of real things, such as hills and mountains and volcanoes. The stories we tell protect a place or permit its destruction. That’s why it seems to me we make a critical mistake when we laugh off an Icelander’s belief in elves.”
“What immaterial beings are we allowed to believe in,” she asked, “and who is allowed to do the believing?” She noted that a 1974 survey of Icelanders revealed that one in 20 had seen an elf, while one-third of them were prepared to entertain the possibility of their existence; thirty-two years later, the percentage of people who reported seeing an elf was the same, but more than half of the people entertained the possibility of their existence.
She recalled experiencing Eyjafjallajökull as having been like a dragon. “When I say I saw a dragon, I’m speaking metaphorically. Elf-seer Ragnhildur Jónsdóttir is not. But the elf she sees may not look like any elf you might see. Elves have always been shapeshifters. … Throughout history and across cultures, elves can only be seen when they wish to be seen, and they can take on whatever shapes they like. Or perhaps what’s true about mountains is also true about elves: we see what we’ve been trained to see, what our education allows us to see.”
After a short journey through how the human understanding of elves and trolls changed from the time before the Christianization of Iceland to the present day, Nancy observed, “In our day, elves are not so much evil as trivial. Our world has been disenchanted. Everything can be understood by science, we think; everything can be tamed, even if we haven’t tamed it or understood it quite yet.” Although she’s never seen an elf or troll herself, she says she’s had several encounters with the supernatural while in Iceland. She described one experience of feeling eyes on her neck while crossing the highlands on horseback, which she describes at length in her book. She also recounted her experience of being drawn towards Snæfellsjökull, a feeling about certain mountains that she suspects in universal.
“Wonder is an emotion,” Nancy says, and it’s the source of religion and science and art, adding, “it’s wonder that is at the heart of looking for the hidden folk. We all tell stories; we always have. But we don’t always take responsibility for the effects of our storytelling. The purpose of a story is not to pass the time; the purpose of a story is to help you lead a good life. In looking for the hidden folk, I invite you to join in intimate conversation about how we look at and find value in nature. I hope to reveal how the words we use, and the stories we tell, shape the world we see. … Our beliefs about the earth will preserve or destroy it.”
And therein lies why she believes that Iceland’s elves can save the earth. “Climate change will lead to the mass extinction of species unless we humans change course. Iceland suggests a different way of thinking about the earth, one that to me offers hope. Icelanders believe in elves. And you should, too.”
A robust question and answer period followed Nancy’s presentation, which was hosted by Carrie Kozubal, and we will report on it in a future issue. Nancy Marie Brown’s Looking for the Hidden Folk: How Iceland’s Elves Can Save the Earth is published by Pegasus Books.