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Sunday, November 27, 2022

Book Review: ‘LOOKING FOR THE HIDDEN FOLK,’ by Nancy Marie Brown

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Brown asks those who snicker at this national predilection to examine their own assumptions: “Are gravity and dark matter real? What do we mean when we say something is real?” These questions are not purely rhetorical. At a cultural moment when fantasy and physics continually conjure the multiverse, the medieval theory that there are “nine overlapping worlds, one being the home of the elves,” ought not to be ruled out, she suggests. When the first Icelandic sagas emerged in the 12th century, their interconnected stories of elves, warriors and mortals helped people find an organized logic to the hardships they endured in their rugged land. Lately, ethnographers have plotted the ancient tales onto a topographical map, and discovered that the elves “come across as embodiments of the landscape itself.” Or, as she explains, “Each folk tale gets a dot on the map.” Contrasting the belief systems of Norse mythology with the theories of Newton, Einstein and contemporary physicists who explain the universe through invisible phenomena, Brown argues that an elf-curious attitude is not “silly”: “It’s the physics of the 21st century.”

Brown fell under the spell of Iceland’s dramatic mountains, glaciers, volcanoes and saga-steeped citizenry on her first visit to the country, in 1986. Since then, she has returned 30 times, walking heaths cushioned by thyme, riding horseback across “high deserts of lava and snow,” and driving to watch a volcanic eruption, its flame cut by steam coils that “jetted up pink in the glow.” Her immersion in the country’s fantastical terrain has led her to write half a dozen lyrical nonfiction books rooted in Icelandic myth and history — her record of a parallel universe that feels to her like a magical “Otherworld.”

A few years ago, Brown accompanied the activist elf-seer Ragnhildur Jonsdottir on a tour of the Galgahraun lava fields outside Reykjavik. Jonsdottir came to international attention in 2013, when she waged a campaign to block the construction of a road that would have destroyed an elf church (which looked to the unexalted eye like rocks). Writing a letter on behalf of the congregants to Iceland’s president and other politicians, she demanded that they uphold the “pact between men and elves.” The elves won: In 2015, the road was rerouted to skirt the church, and a 75-ton boulder chapel was moved by hydraulic crane to sit beside it. The elves, Jonsdottir reported, were content with the arrangement.

As much as Brown relishes the blurring of the “nature/culture divide” in Iceland, she does not herself believe in elves. Nonetheless, she shares Jonsdottir’s inclusive vision of a society that respects “worlds, gods and stones.” Even confirmed skeptics are likely to come away from this deeply mined literary, sociological and philosophical excavation of Iceland’s heritage with a new appreciation of the place the huldufólk occupy in the country’s identity, and of the role that similar spirits once served for ordinary people across the globe. How, she asks, did this belief “evolve from perilous to ridiculous?” How did elf-seers go from being cursed quarterly by priests — even burned at the stake — to being labeled kooks?

In “Looking for the Hidden Folk,” Brown overlays a glowing web of connections on Iceland’s folkloric — and literal — landscape of ice and fire, illuminating the answers to the many questions she poses. Her passionate defense of the huldufólk would gratify the most sensitive elf. Following the successful opposition to the Galgahraun road, Jonsdottir dubbed herself the elves’ “speaker in the human world.” In Brown, they have found another.

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