About this time last summer, a lot of us clicked on Netflix’s Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga because, well, we were a lot of weeks into a stay-at-home order and Will Ferrell’s blond wig and Dan Stevens’ bare chest seemed like decent enough distractions. The flick takes place—and was mostly filmed—in Húsavík, a 2,300 person town in northern Iceland, and it was nice to get a glimpse of something more picturesque than the poorly assembled IKEA furniture in our apartment.
If you managed to not watch it, the film is about struggling musician Lars Erickssong (Ferrell) who dreams of representing Iceland at Eurovision. He and his bandmate/love interest/possible relative Sigrit (Rachel McAdams) get their chance after a deadly boat explosion (don’t ask), and the film spends the rest of its runtime riffing on stereotypes about both the song contest and about Iceland itself. There’s an ultra-long-running joke about a schlager-pop song called “Ja Ja Ding Dong,” a surplus of sweater-wearing locals, and a brief subplot involving Icelandic elves who are willing to straight-up murder a guy on Lars’ behalf.
Since the movie hit the streaming service last year, Húsavík has embraced its newly acquired name recognition. A Eurovision museum will open later this summer, and visitors can take an hour-long Eurovision-inspired walking tour of the town and its harbour. Örlygur Hnefill Jónsson, the owner of the Cape Hotel and its “Ja Ja Ding Dong”-themed bar, even built a replica of the tiny turf-roofed “elf houses” where Lars went to ask for help, which he hopes will attract visitors “of this world or otherwise.”
“[Before working on the replica], I did not consider myself a believer in elves,” he wrote on Facebook. “But as we have become more familiar with this house, I have become more aware of this remarkable faith.”
The relationship between Icelanders and elves is a complicated one that can fall somewhere between faith and folklore, depending on who you ask. For some people, the elves (and the larger-but-similar huldufólk or Hidden People) are real beings—or as real as supernatural entities can get. For others, they’re a superstition, the main characters of centuries-old folktales, or an inoffensive (if imaginary) annoyance that appeals mostly to tourists.
“I think there’s this whole perception of the Icelanders as being a little bit odd, a little bit kooky and weird, and it’s been propagated a little bit by the singer Björk and her elfin kind of thing,” said Alda Sigmundsdóttir, an Icelandic journalist who wrote The Little Book of the Hidden People: Twenty Stories of Elves from Icelandic Folklore. “I have no idea why [the elves] become such a big thing outside of Iceland, but the foreign media does latch onto it. There seems to be a perception that we converse with the elves on a daily basis, and that couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Sigmundsdóttir partially attributes the re-established connection between Icelanders and elves to a 2009 Vanity Fair article by Michael Lewis. Roughly 8,500 words into the piece, which explores the country’s economic collapse a year earlier, Lewis wrote that the aluminum company Alcoa had to “scour” the site where it hoped to build a giant smelting plant to “certify that no elves were on or under it [and paid] hard cash to declare the site elf-free.”
According to Sigmundsdóttir, that misrepresents what actually happened, which was an archaeological survey to ensure that there were no historically important relics or ruins on the planned construction site. To be thorough, this involved a cross-check of Icelandic folktales—including the ones that involve elves—to see if the location had been mentioned in that literature. “But to say that the construction was paused because elves lived on the site is completely ridiculous,” she wrote.
Regardless, that part of Lewis’ story went 2009’s version of viral, and was picked up by news outlets on both sides of the Atlantic. That, along with the frequently copied-and-pasted statistic that 60-plus percent of Icelanders believe in elves, have continued to strengthen the perception that Icelanders are all part-time Elf Whisperers. In Eurovision, the guy who’s knifed by an unseen elf even complains that “half this country still believes in elves” and that it “has one foot in the Dark Ages” just before he takes a blade to the back.
To Sigmundsdóttir, out-of-context anecdotes about elves and Icelanders turn the country’s “profound” folklore into a one-note parody. “I think there’s a psychological component to this mythology that goes much deeper,” she sighed. “Academics who have studied our beliefs and folk stories believe it was our way—the Icelanders’ way—of coping with an incredibly harsh life.”
The most poignant examples that Sigmundsdóttir mentioned were the stories about elves abducting kids and raising them to live in the elf world. She explained that “in the old days” in Iceland, children could be put to work watching sheep when they were as young as five or six years old, and there were countless tragedies that could happen to an unattended kid on a remote pasture. “They could get lost in the fog, fall into a crevasse or a river, and they would die,” she said. “My take on it is that in order to process that grief of losing a child, the Icelanders made up some of these stories about elves.”
The first collection of Icelandic folktales, including some now-familiar-to-Icelanders elf stories, appeared in print in the mid-1800s. “A hundred years ago, we were the poorest country in Europe, with extreme poverty, starvation, and unforgiving weather,” Sigmundsdóttir continued. “It was really, really rough. In order to survive mentally and psychologically, they had to create some sort of...kind of like a Prozac they could have in their minds to give them hope and a form of escape. That became this belief that there was this parallel universe right next to theirs where everything was much better.”
In another dimension right next door, elves had everything a lot of 19th century Icelanders didn’t: ornate, well-appointed homes that were always warm; fabulously glamorous clothing; and tables overflowing with food. If the elves raised sheep, they were woollier and more valuable than the humans’ flocks, and the elves’ cattle gave richer, creamier milk—and more of it. The stories also underscored life's violent unpredictability, like a tale Sigmundsdóttir categorizes as “DEATH BY ELF.” Sometimes, the elves are just completely dicks: They can cause chaos, completely ruin your life, or even kill you for no real reason.
I didn’t tell Sigmundsdóttir that I’d been sucked into The Elf Thing after reading some online articles that would’ve made her eyes roll out of her sockets. I also remembered a years-old CBC interview with Magnús Skarphéðinsson, the headmaster of an “Elf School,” who had an international reputation as perhaps the country’s highest-profile Elf Evangelist.
When I was in Reykjavik a couple of weeks ago, I signed up for that Elf School, which promised to teach “everything that is known about elves and Hidden People, as well as gnomes, dwarfs, fairies, trolls, mountain spirits as well as other nature spirits and mythical beings in Iceland and in other countries.” Skarphéðinsson, a former college history professor, founded the school more than 30 years ago as an extension of the Paranormal Foundation of Iceland, which he also runs. He still teaches every single class. (A quick clarification: Skarphéðinsson differentiates between elves and Hidden People, while Sigmundsdóttir—and the folktales that she’s collected—use the terms interchangeably.)
The school is southeast of the city center, on the second floor of a drab gray building that also houses a shop that rents off-brand cartoon character costumes. (Their window display seemed to both ask and answer the question “What would Squirtle look like after an industrial accident?”) Inside the school, floor-to-ceiling shelves are packed with hardback books, elf and elf-adjacent collectibles, and random shit—an oversized puffin figurine, a statue of a briefcase-carrying businessman, a transistor radio wrapped in a plastic bag—that give it a strong ‘Your Uncle’s First Apartment After the Divorce’ vibe.
On the unseasonably steamy afternoon I attended class, there were 15 students crammed into the room: 11 Americans, three Romanians, and one German—although the Romanians dipped out during the mid-lecture break, possibly because Skarphéðinsson kept asking them questions about Dracula.
Skarphéðinsson kicked off the class with that statistic about how many Icelanders believe in elves, before adding that even elf-agnostics probably know a “witness,” his term for someone who has had an encounter with the elves. “We are losing the elves fast, though,” he added. “In 100 years, we’ll be like other countries. Most academics don’t believe in elves, and the rest of us can’t talk about them anymore [because] they think you’re crazy.”
He said his interest in Hidden People began when he was 11, when his grandmother told him about visiting a dimension “away from reality” where they lived, and his own aunt often talked about her friendships with them. Since then, Skarphéðinsson has interviewed more than 1,300 people who’ve had their own elf encounters or know someone who did—but he’s never met an elf himself. He thinks that’s because the elves know who he is, and they’re not psyched about him. “Hidden People have described me as their worst enemy,” he said. “They think I’m some kind of maniac.”
Despite the fact that the class stretched on for four hours—only slightly shorter than my flight from Boston to Reykjavik—I didn’t learn “everything that is known” about elves or huldufólk. Instead, Skarphéðinsson bounced from topic to topic, from elves to the “karmic debt” of eating meat, from questionable theories about mental illness to paranormal encounters. The only time he frantically made his way back to whatever point he was making was when the German woman enthusiastically started to share her anti-vax conspiracy theories. “BACK TO THE ELVES,” he boomed, cutting her off before she got to the final syllable in “microchip.”
Although he’s definitely a showman and a skilled storyteller, you get the feeling that he’s not bullshitting you: When he says there’s “no doubt in his mind” that scientists will discover this Elf Dimension, he believes it. Or at least he desperately wants to believe it.
Despite Skarphéðinsson’s tireless enthusiasm for his “witnesses,” it seems unclear what role their recollections could possibly play in 21st century life. “Science has taken us so far that it’s hard to go back to when you could explain things away by saying, ‘Well, it was the elves.’” Sigmundsdóttir said. “Generally, we live an elf-free life. There are streets and places named after elves, so we all know about it, and realize the importance of this facet of our history, but apart from that, we’re a thoroughly modern society.”
Even though she admits that she doesn’t personally believe in elves, she’s not about to judge those who do. “The emotional component is really strong,” she said. “Those beliefs could be connected to someone you love very deeply, like a grandparent. If they say [they believe in elves], then you don’t want to dishonor their experiences. I would never disparage someone else, and I also acknowledge that I may be wrong!”
All that said, she’d very much appreciate it if non-Icelanders would take a sec to realize that Icelanders don’t knock on rocks to ask elves for advice, and that the majority of people are aware that the stories of the huldufólk are just that: stories. “My sort-of instinctive reaction every time [elves are mentioned] is just ‘Oh god, not again,’” she said. “I held off for a long time watching that Eurovision movie, and the elf thing was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, very silly,’ but I did laugh. I actually thought it was hilarious.”