Nancy Marie Brown’s Looking for the Hidden Folk: How Iceland’s Elves Can Save the Earth is a fascinating inquiry into the Icelandic belief in elves. Brown has a deep attachment to and knowledge of Iceland, its otherworldly landscape, its people and their beliefs. (She is the author of multiple Nordic cultural histories, and she has Icelandic horses and an Icelandic sheepdog on her farm in Vermont.) However, rather than defending elves’ existence, this compelling and highly readable book offers a thought-provoking examination of the nature of belief itself, drawing compelling connections among humans, storytelling and the environment.
Looking for the Hidden Folk begins and ends with a visit from Ragnhildur Jonsdottir, a famous Icelandic elf-seer and advisor to construction projects. While not everyone can see the Icelandic elves like Jonsdottir can, many people have witnessed the damage the elves have supposedly caused (putting boulders in the paths of cars, flooding roads, damaging bulldozers) when the elves’ homes in the rocky lava fields are destroyed in order to create highways for Iceland’s booming tourist economy. Brown chronicles the many ways elves protect their environment, guarding the land from unwise or hasty modernization. (Although it is apparently possible to negotiate with them.)
How do we come to believe in the reality of unseen things? Quantum physics and dark matter are now principles of reality, previously unknown until they were discovered by scientists. Could it be, Brown wonders, that we can learn to see elves through a similar shift in perspective? By valuing elves as guardians of the land, might we learn to live more respectfully and sustainably in nature?
If all this sounds a little high-concept, do not fear; much of the book is grounded in captivating stories from Icelandic sagas, particularly those that detail the relationships among the people, flora, fauna and geology of Iceland. In the end, Brown may believe more in elf stories than in elves, but that is precisely the point. Storytelling is the real, otherworldly magic of Iceland, a place where elves, humans, volcanoes and rocks are intertwined.