In the Land of the Fairy King: Iceland’s Elf School
By Ann H. Waigand
Magnus Skarphedinsson’s cheeks are round and rosy. His enthusiasm and childlike wonder make him bound around the room and forget the clock when he’s teaching his class. Add a cone-shaped hat and turned-up toes on his shoes and he might appear, for all the world (except Iceland), like an elf or gnome, albeit a relatively tall one.
What he doesn’t look like is one of the more controversial men in Iceland. But he is. Magnus is both the brother of the leader of one of Iceland’s most influential political parties and the head of The Icelandic Elf School.
That’s right, Elf School. With a curriculum, classrooms, textbooks, diplomas, and ongoing research, Álfaskólinn (Elf School)teaches about the five different types of elves, hidden people, and other invisible beings that inhabit this island nation.
There are elves, light-fairies, hidden people, dwarfs, gnomes, and mountain spirits, and, thanks to my Elf School textbook, I have drawings to tell me how each type appears.
Long Spindly Legs
Icelandic elves, for example, can have long, spindly legs, big ears, or crazy hair but they don’t wear pointed hats or shoes. Such garb is found on an Icelandic dwarf, perhaps, but he could just as well be wearing a long cloak or a beard.
Hidden people are dressed like old-time, country folk, even though these same hidden people have been known to label us regular mortals as the “primitive” ones. In fact, there are so many variations that an entire flora has been described: 13 types of elves, 3 kinds of hidden people (including the Blue People), 4 varieties of gnomes, 2 forms of trolls, and 3 types of fairies.
Since, according to Magnus, only 4% of Americans believe in hidden people, it seems quite logical when our small group attending Elf School questions the need for his institution.
It’s obvious we don’t know the statistics, as our Elf Master is quick to point out. Today, 54% of Icelanders believe in elves and hidden people and a full 90% of the population “takes notice” of this shadow community, which is said to number anywhere from 7000 to 20,000 inhabitants.
“Take notice” is no small matter, it turns out, as Magnus illustrates with our field trip to Grasteinn, a rock on the side of the road outside Reykjavik.
Don’t dismiss the last part of my statement; “on the side of the road” is the essential part of this story, for the entire multi-lane highway was delayed while the Public Roads Administration gingerly moved this rock, said to be owned by dwarfs, out of the construction zone.
Presumably the move saved considerable expense, as other road projects that have threatened hidden people’s homes have encountered unexplained equipment breakdowns and even illness and injuries to workers.
There was even a time when the road works employed its own folklorist, to help deal with issues such as misplaced elves or soon-to-be-homeless hidden folk, who have been known to resort to sabotage.
No Personal Encounters
Interestingly our guide and teacher, Magnus, can’t report having his own personal encounter with an elf, hidden person, or fairy, but he has spent years taking the testimony of others who have met or spoken to a hidden person.
A small boy told of being invited inside the home of a hidden couple and playing with their children, whose toys were considerably more advanced than the mortal’s normal playthings. Not surprising, says Magnus, as the hidden people are quite advanced (their calendar has already reached the year 5022).
Hidden people have even intermarried with humans (although it’s always the human who disappears into the hidden world). And, though they have a life span that is roughly double that of humans, their population is decreasing due, we are told, to “some biological problem” that is causing a declining birth rate.
In our further explorations of Iceland, it’s not difficult to imagine how a belief in a hidden life or fairy people could have developed here. This is a land of stark, virtually unexplainable contrasts where conditions have long been harsh and the need for diversion obvious.
Iceland experienced an extended Dark Ages which kept the people in such dire straits that the average Icelander did not encounter the wheel until a mere 130 years ago.
This national history finds its way into the lore of the hidden world as well. The rumor among the hidden people, claims Magnus, is that when the Vikings came, they tried to kill and enslave the Irish peasants who were already living in Iceland. To escape, these Irish settlers fled into a hidden world, and there they have remained.
At the end of our half-day of Elf School training, Magnus presents each of us with a personalized, ready-to-frame diploma, proclaiming, I think, (it’s in Icelandic) our distinction of knowing more than most people about Iceland’s hidden realm.
My dilemma now is finding the appropriate spot to hang my certificate. It has to be right, I fret. Remember what happens when the hidden people get offended?!