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How Icelandic Elves Help Protect the Environment

Construction of a road in Iceland has been halted over concerns for elf habitats, but what's really at stake is the wider environment.
December 23, 2013, 12:00pm

Could elves live in this Icelandic landscape? Image via Flickr/Pantheroux

In Iceland, elves aren’t just for Christmas—for many, they’re a constant presence in the country’s unique volcanic and glacial landscape, and they’re a force to be reckoned with. Now, elf advocates (themselves human) are lobbying for authorities to abandon plans to build a new road out of concern for the hidden creatures’ habitat.

This isn’t a joke, or something out of a Björk video: The construction project has in fact been halted pending a ruling by the Icelandic Supreme Court on a case brought by an activist group known as Hraunavinir, or Friends of Lava.

It’s also not unusual; the road and coastal authorities are so frequently challenged on the issue of elf welfare that the AP reports they have developed a stock media response to the situation, which states that “issues have been settled by delaying the construction project at a certain point while the elves living there have supposedly moved on.”

But while elves—also known as Huldufólk, or “hidden folk”—are a big deal to many Icelanders (the AP story cites a 2007 study that found 62 percent of people though it was possible they could exist), this defence also has a more general motive behind it. Because protecting the elves’ environment means protecting the environment, period.

The Friends of Lava group is in fact primarily concerned with environmental issues, and concerns for “elf culture” are inextricably linked with concerns for the natural landscape. After all, the proposed highway, from Álftanes, in Greater Reykjavik, to the outskirts of the capital city, wouldn’t just threaten a potential elf church; it would split a lava field in two, and permanently damage the landscape. In fact, the “elf church” itself must also be of value even to non-believers; as a particularly distinctively-shaped rock, it forms part of the uniqueness of Iceland’s topography.

In this way, “elves” become something of a metaphor for the Icelandic terrain. But it’s somehow easier to care about the welfare of anthropomorphised magical creatures (and the Icelandic genre of elf is remarkably similar to humans) than about the vague intangible concept of “the environment.”

This sentiment is captured in comments on the story by folklore professor Terry Gunnell, at the University of Iceland. “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 sulfur 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. “Everyone is aware that the land is alive, and one can say that the stories of hidden people and the need to work carefully with them reflects an understanding that the land demands respect.”

That’s not to say some people don’t actually believe in the existence of elves; a story in the Atlantic earlier this year gives a good overview of the folklore, and quotes a “seer” who is convinced she can sense the “light energy” of the same elf church.

But a relationship with elves is necessarily a relationship with the environment itself, and if these folkloric beings encourage authorities to think twice about tearing up the landscape, and the public to engage with environmental issues on an emotional level, then they're undoubtedly a valuable tool for environmentalists. Move over Greenpeace.