Merry Christmas! From Santa and his “Huldufolk” (I mean “elves”).A merry Christmas to all! For Part 2 of my series on J.R.R. Tolkien, I take you to the frozen rocks of the North: to Iceland, the land that inspired so much of Tolkien’s Middle Earth.
I stumbled upon a fascinating article in today’s Montreal Gazette. “Concern for elves delays Icelandic road” by Jenna Gottlieb (Associated Press) caught my attention on page A21, and for more reasons than you might think. Perhaps the editors thought it fit to include an eccentric article on elves two days before Christmas, but the elves in question are not necessarily Santa’s North Pole helpers. Rather, they are spirits of the Icelandic landscape, the so-called hidden folk, or “Huldufolk.”.
In Iceland, a road is being built that will bisect a lava field. The bad thing is that the lava fields are where these “Huldufolk” nest. Building the road would drive the elves away and bring environmental ruin to the landscape they inhabit. A group called “Friends of Lava” are protesting the highway, citing the environmental impact and its negative effects on the elves as reasons why the bulldozers should stop in their tracks.
This sort of protest may seem strange, but according to Gottlieb, 62% of 1,000 respondents to a University of Iceland survey in 2007 said that is was “at least possible” that elves exist. I wonder if that is more or less than the percentage of North Americans who believe in Santa Claus. I’m inclined to believe there’s a lack of faith on this continent, although I consider those results skewed that exclude children from polls.
I simply love Terry Gunnell’s explanation of why so many Icelanders still believe in elves. “This is a land where your house can be destroyed by something you can’t see (earthquakes), where the wind can knock you off your feet, where the smell of sulphur from your taps tells you there is invisible fire not far below your feet, where the northern lights make the sky the biggest television screen in the world, and where hot springs and glaciers ‘talk,’” he said.
Above all, it is the Icelanders’ connection with the land and the frightening powers that lie under the ground that cause these superstitions. (Or are they superstitions?) Icelanders still feel, on some level, that nature has power over them. That’s hard to believe, in cities like Montreal, New York, or worse, Los Angeles. Yet, according to Gottlieb, Icelanders still let their children play in the wilderness after dark. I can imagine a childhood there would be fascinating, especially around this time of year.
Take Christmas for example. Gottlieb describes how Icelanders have “13 trolls known as the ‘Yule Lads’ who come to town during the 13 days before Christmas. Each has a task, putting rewards or punishments into the shoes of little children. They include Stufur, or Stubby, who is extremely short and eats crusts left in pans, and Hurdaskellir or Door-Slammer, who likes to slam doors at night.” I think waking in the middle of the night, sneaking over to your kids’ bedroom(s), and slamming their doors hard to their surprise and consternation beats milk and cookies any year. Better yet, the joy of doing this can continue into their adolescence!
Perhaps what inspired me most about this article is how Icelanders are still connected to traditions. Christmas today is stressful, materialistic, and filled with Disneyfied glitz. In Iceland, Christmas is haunted by the homegrown traditions born in a landscape of weather-scarred rocks and volcanoes. There is something more primal and genuine about these traditions that capitalism and marketing has not sought to twist to its own advantage (at least to my knowledge).
Indeed, the “Friends of Lava” engage in an age-old struggle of traditional worldviews versus those of science and progress. Once upon a time, Europe was traditional, but that sense faded during the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century and Scientific Revolution. However, certain pockets of what we might call “superstition” persist. I would call those worldviews simply another way of connecting to nature and the environment we all rely upon.
Icelandic elves also testify, I fancy, to the reality of our unconscious, which emerges in dreams and mythology. Dennis Lee—the Canadian theorist and poet—claims that landscape has a cadence one feels on an unconscious level, deep in the pit of one’s stomach. I would go farther than Lee and say the music of cadence can impact out dreams and mythology. These “elves,” in whatever capacity they exist, are, after all, unarguably a part of the cadence of Iceland: creaking glaciers ‘talk’ to one another, windy gusts whistle over barren treeless landscapes, earthquakes and volcanoes shake the very earth your tread upon.
As a penultimate thought, let me tell you that these protesters using elf legends to stop a road being built are far from a unique. Although Wikipedia is my only source in this regard, I learned a long time ago that in New Zealand, the indigenous Maori have family guardian spirits called “taniwha,” large-mouthed, lizard-like creatures generally inhabiting oceans, lakes, and rivers. There have been incidents where Maori have blocked half-built roads in protest, because the bulldozers were about to plough through forests glades sacred to the taniwha. Newspaper writers claim it is the Maori using their traditional beliefs to provide reasons to fight the agendas of construction companies. Their argument subtly implies that even the Maori do not necessarily believe their own traditions anymore, but only reinvigorated the idea of the taniwha to make themselves stumbling blocks to “rational” progress.
Similar incidents occur in Northern Quebec during First Nations protests along logging roads. My impression is that spirits are never far from First Nations consciousness, but they do not explicitly emerge as factors of reckoning in the newspapers. I speculate that in indigenous communities, faith in the “manitou” has waned after generations of subjection and suffering in Residential Schools, which were designed by the Canadian government to assimilate or annihilate their traditional culture. “Science” and “progress” try to stamp out traditional beliefs and then call those people irrational who use those same beliefs to protest further ravaging of the environment at the hands of their oppressors. Tradition and science seem locked in eternal war, even though it is my belief that this need not be so.
Whether “manitou,” “taniwha,” or “Huldufolk,” unseen spirits that lie within the landscape are endangered, as are those people who believe in them. Icelanders may not have been repressed culturally to the extent of Native Americans, but the power of science—though it can help us build bridges and send satellites into space—exerts a constant psychological pressure on use to impose a disbelief in the numinous. One sneaky way “modernity” does this in mainstream culture is by converting Christmas into the secular, capitalistic holiday into which it has decayed.
If we are going to save our environment, can science really hold the entire answer? Although I maintain that science has a crucial place in the war to protect our earth, I challenge that it holds the entire answer. The cases of Iceland, New Zealand, and Quebec show that believing in a super-reality that runs beyond that of the mere physical environment may inspire us with the passion we need to protect our environment. When culture is deeply connected to the landscape and environment, then a struggle to protect nature can become not only a fight for some unseen, invisible spiritual beings, but for our own communal identities.
And if consumerism seeks to erase those identities and traditions, whether around Christmas or any other time of year, then we have a responsibility to strike back with anything that lies outside that shallow worldview. For some, this might involving going to Advent masses rather than shopping, or volunteering one’s sweat and energy at a soup kitchen. For others, it might mean locking arms in a crowd of a hundred people on a lonely stretch of asphalt near an elven nesting ground.
P.S. : If this article articulates one of the ways in which “fantasy” enters history and traditional beliefs come into direct conflict with the scientific worldview. It is part of the subversive potential of fantasy to be able to plant traditional discourse in the midst of rationalistic discourses. I explore fantasy’s subversive potential in my other post “Is Fantasy Heresy?”
P.S. : If you click on the “Doubtful News” article, you will see what I mean about the press. The press imposes rationalism onto the situation to show their contempt for traditional beliefs, without ever pausing to ask why these beliefs exist. It is far more interesting to explore phenomenon and express a more nuanced opinion about something that appears to be folly than to simply dismiss that phenomenon out of hand because “elves don’t exist.” It’s reductive, and, I hope my readers will agree, irrational to dismiss what one considers irrational simply because it does not fit within one’s understanding of the universe. The world’s a much larger place and can be seen from a thousand different angles.