What Icelandic Elves can tell us about Christmas and the Environment

Merry Christmas! From Santa Claus and his "Huldufolk."

Merry Christmas! From Santa and his “Huldufolk” (I mean “elves”).

J.R.R. Tolkien
J.R.R. Tolkien

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.”

An set of elf houses in Iceland.
A set of elf houses in Iceland.

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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.

Elf house near a bicycle track in Iceland.
Elf house near a bicycle track in Iceland.

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.

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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.

Iceland
Icelandic volcano erupts behind grazing horses.

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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).

Icelandic landscape frequently calls to mind Middle Earth.
Icelandic landscape frequently calls to mind Middle Earth.

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.

Taniwha spotted by observers. I wonder if they actually took a picture of the beast?
Taniwha spotted by observers. I wonder if they actually took a picture of the beast?

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.

taniwha2.

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.

Will Ferrel as Buddy the Elf in Elf. A modern case of an elf-changeling?
Will Ferrel as Buddy in Elf. A modern case of an elf-changeling?

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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.

It cannot be a coincidence that Peter Jackson filmed The Lord of the Rings in New Zeland, a land with a landscape that on occasion invokes Iceland.
It cannot be a coincidence that Peter Jackson filmed The Lord of the Rings in New Zealand, a land with a landscape that on occasion invokes Iceland.

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Photo Credits:

Tolkien: http://www.nndb.com/people/511/000022445/

Santa:http://annanimmity.com/thrifty-framed-art-coke-ads-from-life-magazine/

Iceland: http://www.backroads.com/trips/WIEI/iceland-hiking-tour

Volcano Horses: http://thefrem.wordpress.com/2010/04/21/iceland-volcano/ss-100417-iceland-07-ss-full/

Elf House: http://doubtfulnews.com/2012/10/bike-path-wont-disturb-elf-home-in-iceland-whew-what-a-relief/

http://samdailytimes.blogspot.ca/2012_10_09_archive.html

New Zealand: http://satoriexpeditions.com/expeditions/new-zealand/

Taniwha: http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/artwork/10874/the-kawautahi-taniwha

http://www.unexplained-mysteries.com/forum/index.php?showtopic=208567

Elf: http://whstherebellion.com/?attachment_id=38109

King Arthur Conqueror of the Arctic? Historical Fantasy and Early British Imperialism

John DeeQueen e.

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John Dee was Queen Elizabeth I’s court astrologer, mathematician, and geographer–and he might have become the first lord of the North American territory we now call Canada.

Dee is known as a “Renaissance man” for the breadth of his knowledge and for his tendency towards the occult. On a trip to the Continent, he supposedly attempted to summon angels with fellow sorcerer Edward Kelley. Back home, he was a respected courtier whom Elizabeth would often consult–he set the day for her coronation, for example, based on favourable astrological conditions. His knowledge of geography enabled Sir Francis Drake to circumnavigate the globe. In addition to coining the term “British Empire,” Dee is known for employing a spy network, being the first to sign his name under the code “007.”

limits of british empireOne gift Dee gave to his Queen was a book called The Limits of the British Empire, or in Latin Brytanici Imperii Limites, which he wrote between 1577 and 1578. A wonderful edition of his work, with an introduction, was printed in 2004 by editors Ken MacMillan and Jennifer Abeles based on a manuscript copied by an amanuensis in 1593, which I have consulted.

Sir Walter Raleigh
Sir Walter Raleigh

Among the things Dee claims in the book is that Queen Elizabeth had rights–the justification for which go back to ancient times–to most of the territory we now call North America. Dee claims that King Arthur and his knights  conquered lands near the Arctic Sea, even a territory we now identify with Baffin Island. He also negotiated that he should be allowed ownership of all lands above the 50th parallel. Except for a thin interval of land just above the Canadian border with the modern U.S., that would encompass all of Our True North Strong and Free!

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Of course, at the time, England’s colonial strength in its first decade of New World settlement was not a powerful  force. Sir Walter Raleigh’s settlement on Roanoke Island proved, in the end, to be a disaster, although it produced a few fascinating discoveries and occasioned John White to paint a series of watercolours of Native folk. Roanoke Island was abandoned mysteriously and no one to this day knows why.

John White watercolourJohn White watercolour2

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Aside from such ephemeral settlements, England’s imperial strength was mostly limited to the occasional raid on Spanish ships. Privateers such as Sir John Norris and Sir Francis Drake were both explorers and ship-plunderers. Martin Frosbisher and Humphrey Gilbert were given licenses to start overseas colonies close to the Northwest Passage. However, there was a distinct lack of overseas activities through much of the 1590s, when the surviving manuscript of Brytanici Imperii Limites was written.

John Dee’s book advocated for the recovery of ancient British lands, including the North Atlantic, the British Isles, Scandinavia, the Iberian Peninsula, and half of North America. His sources ranged from Byzantine Emperor Justinian, Geraldus Mercator, Jacobus Choyen of s’Hertogenbosh, Hector Boece, and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Brut–a chronicle of Arthurian legends.

It was becoming urgent that England compete with Spain for the New World, which Dee occasionally named “Atlantis” or “Meta Incognita.” The Spanish empire was at its height and came to be associated with the cruelty that it was inflicting on its Native people and the barbaric human-sacrificing rituals of the Aztecs. (Of course, when England did settle the New World, they spread another wave of cruelty across the Native populations, in addition to the spreading of lethal diseases. ) While Spain sought to conquer through papal bulls, planting markers, and reading texts of conquest to often illiterate indigenous peoples (that never goes down well), the Brits divided their land with fences and houses.

Frosbisher’s plan to settle parts of North America was a state secret, but also an object of interest to the Spanish ambassadors in London. Any settlement in the New World, which was seen as territory partitioned between Spain and Portugal, could lead to an act of war.

Rodrigo BorgiaAlexander VI (aka Roderigo Borgia) wrote the famous papal bull Inter Cetera in 1493 (a hundred years before Dee’s manuscript was written) and the still more famous Treaty of Tordesillas. Both these documents split the territories in New World between the two Iberian countries along an arbitrary line in the Atlantic Ocean. None of this allowed England a toehold.

How could Dee overcome this opposition? Through sneaky legal loopholes and little imagination.

Basically, he alluded to a section of Justinian’s Digest that might well be the foundation of that oldest and dearest piece of legislation: finders keepers, losers weepers. Next time you find a penny on the ground, you can tell your irate friend that “what presently belongs to no one becomes by natural reason the property of the first taker.”

Of course, the land was owned–by hundreds of thousands of Native American peoples. In all fairness, John Dee might not have been aware of this truth, since the New World was still vastly undiscovered. But he might have taken the hint from Raleigh’s Virginia settlement that other people might already live there.

Although Lord Burghley doubted Dee’s accuracy, he laid the legal groundwork for England to claim everything from Terra Florida (which is Florida) to the territory of the Duke of Moscovia in Russia.

Arthur's knights stranded in the Arctic.
Arthur’s knights stranded in the Arctic.

Now the imagination came in. Tracing the ancestry of Britain from Troy through the legendary founder Brutus and down to King Arthur, Dee referred to how Arthur conquered thirty kingdoms in the North Atlantic and Scandinavia. Since Arthur conquered these lands for Britain first, Elizabeth had a right to them now, so long as she settled the land. Arthur, a Welsh king, was supposedly an ancestor of the Welsh Tudors, whose arrival on the English throne in 1485 signaled the revival of the “British” empire, after a long domination of England under the Saxons.

Dee’s mysterious Welsh source book–supposed to be the same nonexistent book on which Monmouth bases his History of the Kings of Britain–claims that King Arthur conquered the Arctic regions in the 530s. Arthur’s conquests of the Arctic, in which he encountered pygmies (Sibereans? Proto-Inuit tribesmen?), are recorded in Arthuri Gestis, or The Deeds of Arthur. During Arthur’s voyages, he encountered many troubles, including fast-flowing seas that blocked his passage to Northern Norway. Four thousands knights lost their lives in these treacherous passages among the straits of Norway. In the mountains around the North Pole, there were cities in Arthur’s time. The lands he conquered include Iceland, Ireland, Greenland, Shetland, Orkney, the Faroe Islands (Friseland), Grocland (NW corner of Greenland), Icaria (an island off of either Ireland or Labrador), Estotiland, and Drogio.

Baffin islandEstotiland is Baffin Island. Dee’s source about the Estotiland came from the journey of two Venetians to the Arctic region in the thirteenth century, Niccolo and Antonio Zeno. In 1558, Niccolo Zeno, a relative of the pair, published an account of this extraordinary story.

Zeno describes Estotiland as an island smaller than Iceland with a mountain in the middle and four rivers. It was ruled by a king in a beautiful, populous city, who kept interpreters. Legends told of a famous library of ancient texts in a strange language only two people in the city could speak, though the library was eventually destroyed. This Scandinavian civilization had gold mines, cultivated and brewed beer, and spoke like Europeans, trading with Greenland for skins. Possibly the texts were in Latin, a language uneducated commoners could not speak.

When most Canadians think of Baffin Island, they probably think of an expansive wasteland filled with ice and snow. But who knew it once had a king?

SaguenayThe Zeno brothers also discovered the “province of Drogio,” which likely corresponds to Labrador. How about we sign a petition to make Newfoundland and Labrador to change their name to Newfoundland and Drogio? They even supposedly landed in Saguenay, Quebec (or “Saguenaya”) two hundred years before Jacques Cartier did in 1535!

In addition to this fascinating Canadian content, I find how Dee’s book absolutely busts the myth that Christopher Colombus discovered the New World to be particularly gratifying.

His other sources for Brytanici Imperii Limites come from semi-legendary figures, such as Saint Brendan, who sailed from the British Isles in 560. He landed in Bermuda, which he called Insula Demonum, or “Island of Demons.” Should we be surprised that he claimed to see supernatural frights on an island known to exist in what is now known as the “Bermuda Triangle”? (Fun fact: Cambrien Machutus, a sailor on Brendan’s ship, became St. Malo, which became the name of the city in which Jacques Cartier was born in 1491!)

Devil's BackboneIn 1170, Lord Madoc, a Welsh prince, an ancestor of Queen Elizabeth, was outraged that his father would leave him no inheritance. So he set sail across the world. He settled, of all places, in Mobile Bay, Alabama! “Devil’s Backbone,” a mound in Indiana, is attributed to the Welsh Prince. This was the first British colony in the New World and Dee used it as precedent to establish England’s rights to conquer the new continent.

There is such a wealth of stories in these legends … but how to separate reality from myth? I’m afraid I do not have the answers. A king on Baffin Island, a Welsh nobleman settling Alabama, John Dee as Lord Canada, and King Arthur as Emperor of the Arctic … these are only a few of the truly radical stories out there. Supposedly Egyptians sailed up the Mississippi, which I cannot confirm or deny, though Neil Gaiman certainly confirms this in American Gods.

I would certainly like to credit these tales. They are the type of stories archeological evidence can do little to confirm.

In conclusion, Brytanici Imperii Limites is a fine example of “historical fantasy” used to justify imperialism and the “rights” of the English to settle North America. It reveals that the justification the British first used for their settlements in North America was based on a 900-year-old lie in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain.

“Dee built an empirical edifice of pseudohistorical sources to provide practical political advice to the English State,” say MacMillian and Abeles (26). But after a certain point, pseudohistory becomes real history. I imagine that Dee’s book can provide available inspiration to writers of historical fantasy or alternate history for generations to come.

The British would later found the Thirteen Colonies that would becomes the United States--and conquer Canada from the French.
The British would later found the Thirteen Colonies that would becomes the United States–and conquer Canada from the French.

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Image Credits:

http://www.luminarium.org/renlit/ralegh.htm

http://www.erroluys.com/America/Images.htm

http://www.amazon.com/John-Dee-British-Military-International/dp/0275978230

http://www.strangehistory.net/2012/12/15/king-arthurs-last-men-stranded-in-the-arctic-north/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Devil%27s_Backbone_%28rock_formation%29

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Dee

http://www.raremaps.com/gallery/archivedetail/23290/North_America_and_the_West_Indies_A_New_Map_Wherein_The_British_Empire/Bowles.html

http://danaenatsis.com/2012/05/15/rocks-and-stones-skin-and-bones/

http://www.artexpertswebsite.com/pages/artists/white.php

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baffin_Island

http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2011/may/16/those-bad-borgias/