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Of trolls and elves: Icelandic folklore

September 15, 2019


One of the more intriguing tasks of a storyteller is studying the folklore of other cultures. Learning about the magical creatures of another culture is fascinating for two diametrically opposed reasons: 1. studying how these creatures resemble those of other cultures and 2. how they are uniquely different.

Trolls and elves have become a major tourist attraction in Iceland. This is not hard to understand; many of the fantastical creatures in modern books and movies can be traced directly back to ancient roots in Iceland. But beneath the plastic figurines and kitschy key chains is a much more interesting story: how these creatures are really connected to Icelandic culture… and what their stories tell us about Icelanders and how they have survived in a harsh and unforgiving land.


All the trolls in Iceland are said to be large. The reason? Over twelve hundred years ago, when they came from Norway with the early settlers, only the large ones made it across the North Atlantic. The small trolls chickened out; stayed home… and the middle sized trolls drowned. Only the large trolls made it: those who are large and ugly and mean.


I’m working on a wonderful troll story called “Hallgerdur of Blafell”. A man, Olafur, crossing the mountains in a blizzard, meets a huge troll wife. She stalks toward him, shrieking threats. But Olafur holds his ground… doesn’t retreat. Instead, he greets her and she’s stunned; no human has ever treated her that way before. So, they walk along together. Soon, he notices blood in her tracks. He offers to let her ride his pack horse – provided she leaves it unharmed! She accepts, with a wonderful line: “Pain’s felt by all, even the troll”… and she leads him out of the storm to safety.

While working on the story, first – it’s great fun to work on the character of the troll wife. But the tale also tells us a lot of things about Olafur; the Icelander. He’s brave, but prudent: i.e. he doesn’t pick a fight with her, but instead, chooses to reach out to her. Also, he’s compassionate and kind. Despite her ugly face and fierce reputation, he offers help when she is hurting. He does these things simply, in a straight-forward way; no hesitation, no fuss. I found that same straight forwardness, that matter of fact manner in many of the Icelandic men I met: farmers, bus drivers, fishermen, scholars. Thus, it is very easy for me to imagine any of them as Olafur in the story.

Humor is also present – if you look for it. The troll wife first addresses him as “Olafur Mouth”! I can just picture him, standing there with his mouth agape in surprise and fright! And, after all the excitement, the story ends in a total deadpan: “Olafur went back north… and there are no more stories of him.” Ferreting out all these marvelous characteristics is – for me – what storytelling is all about!



Icelandic elves are much more benign. They are called “alfar” and one source describes them this way: “The elves who live in the area (Hraunsnef) are similar in size to ten and twelve year old children. They have a delicate bearing, are colorful, cheerful, and friendly. Music is frequently heard coming from their dwellings.”

A farmer from Hraunsnef, a man with a droll sense of humor and a dry wit, told us of his introduction to the huldufolk, the hidden people. He grew up in the city, but married a girl who lived on her parents’ farm. When the farm passed to the young couple, he began to sense – particularly among the older people – a tacit acceptance of the presence of hidden people among the mounds, hummocks, and rocks of the area. He said nothing, but dismissed it as nonsense.

One day, he decided to remove a large rock from one of his fields. He brought his brand new tractor out – but it broke down. So, he fixed it and tried again; it broke down a second time. Pushing aside jibes and veiled warnings from his neighbors, he fixed the tractor for the third time – and tried again. The same thing happened. Now, doubts began to creep in…. He decided to leave the rock where it was. As he told us with a grin, “best not to disturb the elves”.

But there are other elves… totally unlike the little people of Hraunsnef. These are noble creatures: handsome men, beautiful women, regal in their bearing who inhabited Middle Earth and played crucial roles in JRR Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings”. There was Celeborn and his wife, Galadriel, of Lothlorien and Celebrian, their daughter and her husband, Elrond, Lord of Rivendell.

Celeborn2                                                   Elrond and Celebrian

It took twelve years (1937 – 1949) for Tolkien to forge them out of his extensive research, much of it now traceable to the mythology and folklore of Iceland. Finally published in 1954 – 55, the trilogy went on to sell over 150 million copies in 56 languages. Because of the adaptation of the story into movies, television, and the theatre, images of these characters are now instantly recognizable all over the world. The next time you hear someone scoff, saying that folklore and mythology are nothing but children’s stories – think about that.


A Meditation

August 28, 2019


“I feel my body become the earth,

The richness and the rock.

From my scant depth of dark topsoil

Spring the fruits for all.

But rock am I

As well as soil,

And at my center flows

The fire of molten mystery

Kindled long ago.

What consciousness

Begat that fire

Bringing me to now?”

The Essene Book of Days: August 28th    Danaan Parry







Iceland Part II…featuring a glorious introduction to Viking history and folklore

August 12, 2019


Yes, we did many of things that Icelandic tourists (2 million a year vs 440,000 native Icelanders) do:

visited the waterfalls and geysers and hot springs…

crunched our way through the ice caves at Langjokull Glacier

swam in the Blue Lagoon….

But, for me, the most exciting sites were the historic ones:

the Settlement Centre in Borganes: a recreation of Iceland’s earliest history  and “Egil’s Saga”…

Reykholt: home of Snoori Sturluson: 13th century statesman and saga writer…

Eriksstadir: a recreation of the original longhouse of Erik the Red and birthplace of his son, Lief Eiriksson…

Thingvellir National Park: the site of the Althing, Europe’s first Parliament AND…

a wonderful session with an Icelandic farmer who – with deadpan manner and a droll wit – entertained both adults and kids with tales of trolls, dwarfs hermits, elves and all manner of “huldufolk”, the “hidden people” of Iceland.

The Settlement Centre was a great beginning. As I moved through the displays, I became immersed in Iceland’s medieval history. I “swayed” in a longboat as the earliest settlers from Norway did, passed grisly horse heads on poles evoking early pagan rituals, and watched those first settlers survive; carve a life out of this land. I had read “Egil’s Saga” before I came, but the exhibit fleshed out the story…with characters marvelously created of pieces of rough wood and bits of cloth. In the gift shop, I found a wonderful book of Icelandic folk and fairy tales – and dove in. I also had a really good discussion with Erika about mutual support of each other’s activities. She “got it” – and for the rest of the trip, we genuinely enjoyed each other’s passions – and were both enriched by the experience.


At Reykholt, we had a fascinating lecture by pastor and scholar, Geir Waage, on Norse mythology and Snoori Sturluson. *The book I got there connected Snoori and the mythology to: the 19th Century English Gothic novel, the world’s first fantasy novel published in 1894, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm and their work as researchers and authors, Richard Wagner’s “The Ring” (and an unfortunate link with Nazism and even present day Neo-Nazi groups), and J.R.R Tolkien’s’ wonderful “The Hobbit”, “The Lord of the Rings”, and “Silmarillion”. Who knew????

Later, our trip leader, Kristin, told a moving story about the return of ancient manuscripts from Denmark. It took persistence, years of demands by Iceland, Denmark’s former colony; they wanted their manuscripts back. Kristin described the scene in 1974 when a Danish ship brought several manuscripts back. “The docks were black with people”, she said. Thousands more watched on the initial broadcast of Iceland’s first national television station.



Eiriksstadir was fun for both kids and adults. A costumed guide led us inside (and out of the wind!).


As we sat in the dimly lit interior, she showed us bone toys and tools, weapons (spears, shields, and broadswords that the kids were allowed to wave around…carefully), helmets and coats of mail they could try on (hilarious!) and the weaving room and the kitchen.


The building was constructed (after vigorous research) of blocks of earth with a grass roof. Only the beams and doors were wooden (wood was precious) and the latter were held together with wooden pegs. There was a large iron hook over the “fire” for the lamb soup, a dish still prepared today for special occasions. In the kitchen was a barrel for meat preservation – in whey, because there was no salt in Iceland. The whole experience was a wonderful evocation of Viking domestic life.


Thingvellir National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is where Iceland’s Parliament, the Althing, was founded in 930 AD. Looking down into the valley (above is a modern view) in 1856, visitor Lord Dufferin wrote, “The Geysirs are certainly wonderful marvels of nature, but more wonderful, more marvelous is Thingvellir….”

I agree. Standing on the site of a parliamentary meeting place over a thousand years old is a powerful experience.


Looking up at the spot where the Lawspeaker read the laws, I pictured Snoori Sturluson pontificating while below, peddlers and sword sharpeners shouted prices, clowns performed tricks, and beggars pleaded for alms.


I saw images of the “booths” (family tents) described in “Egil’s Saga” and pictured people milling about, making deals, sealing marriage contracts, and – everywhere – politicking.

I gazed glumly into a pool where women who bore illegitimate children were drowned – a horrific aftereffect of the introduction of Christianity around 1000 AD. I would love to be able to visit this site of one of the world’s oldest legislative assemblies in mid-winter – alone; would I then… somehow… be able to sense even more clearly the ghosts of the past?

And… the hidden people….

Before I left the US, an Icelander here on Whidbey told me about the continuing belief in “huldufolk” among her countrymen. Her own grandmother refused to move a large rock on her land because an elf lived there. A street crew building a modern road ran into so many problems removing a rocky area that they built the road around it – to placate the dwarfs that lived there.

From a poster card: “ Alfar (Elves) are similar in size to ten and twelve year children. They…are colorful, cheerful and friendly…”

The farmer/humorist who told us about the huldufolk said he was trying to move a rock in his field. But his tractor kept breaking down. Finally he abandoned the task. “Best not anger the elves,” he said with a grin.

JRR Tolkien first heard the Icelandic tale, “Sigurd and the Dragon Slayer” as a toddler. At 16, he picked up a copy of the “Volsung Saga” – in Icelandic – and started trying to translate it. By 1925, he was a professor at Oxford, having late night sessions with friend, C.S. Lewis, discussing Norse gods and goddesses, dragons, and whether myths were simply lies – or something bigger. Many of Tolkien’s characters were not invented, but adapted from Norse mythology and the works of Snoori Sturluson. Gandalf, the wizard, was the same old man with a hat and a staff that wandered the nine worlds in Snoori’s tales. His dwarfs were Snoori’s: living underground, creating fabulous weapons. Tolkien’s dragons, shape-shifters, trolls…and many other creatures came from Snoori’s work and other medieval Icelandic and Norse sources. But perhaps most surprising was Tolkien’s adaptation of the saga style: “…it’s ruthless violence, it’s tangle of laws and family trees, it’s emphasis on revealing character, not developing it….” It’s been a long time since I read, “ The Lord of the Rings”, but that is EXACTLY how I remember it.

And so… to our fearless leaders, KRISTIN who created and executed this rich, diverse program and MARK who can count to 29 and really knows adolescents. To the grandparents: JULIE who shared stories of work in developing countries and grandmother hopes, MAIDA and the beautiful Icelandic sweater she will knit, JOE, the only engineer I know who also knows hogs, KEN who swapped Peace Corps stories, SALLY, who has a sister I know, ARLETTE who taught me to see art in a whole new way… and all the others that I shared this adventure with – thank you. It truly was a grand one….


(*The book I bought in Reykholt was “Song of the Vikings” by Nancy Marie Brown. I have quoted from and am indebted to this book. And yes, I HIGHLY recommend it!)

Iceland – Part I …International travel with a fifteen year old

August 10, 2019


This trip was a culmination. When grand-daughter, Erika, was eleven, we took our first trip away from home – a Road Scholar Inter-Generational (grandparent and grandchild) vacation at a dude ranch in Arizona. As the years passed, we took other trips: another Road Scholar trip in Oregon, a trip up the coast of the Pacific Northwest. Then, two years ago, we went to Canada; people still spoke English, but the money, road signs, accents and words were different. Erika was gradually assuming more and more responsibility: keeping a journal and currency and expenses straight, dealing with packing and laundry, making decisions about attitudes towards other kids and activities she didn’t like or understand and learning patience when things went awry.

By 2019, she was ready – for a Road Scholar trip to Iceland – a place neither one of us had been to or knew anything about. Her reason for going: Islandic horses; Mine: Viking history and folklore. The trick: to satisfy both these desires and support one another in the process… and we did it.

We landed at Keflavik Airport, a day ahead of all the other participants. It was a good chance to rest and deal with jet lag before they arrived. Keflavik, formerly a US base (when we took over the country as peaceful “invaders” during WWII), was flat windswept prairie with low ridges of lava everywhere; I thought this was what all of Iceland was going to look like… how wrong I was.

Day 2 did not begin well. We went to the airport, waited for the others…no show. Sensing that something was wrong, I contacted one of the group leaders. They had already left for Arnbjargarlaekur, our home stay, two hours away. The issue: miscommunication between the home office and the program site: a classic problem encountered many times by any conference co-ordinator (as I had been). A taxi ride brought us all together. But Day 2 ended splendidly, because Erika found two soul-mates: Lorien from Virginia and Ella from Massachusetts.



For the next ten days, they were in-separable – and gradually, they merged with the other kids aged 11 – 15 until they were just one big happy noisy mob. No cliquey clusters; no one left out; it was one of the highlights of the trip.


Arnbjargarlaekur… I still can’t pronounce it and the kids never really grasped it’s importance… but we adults did. We had landed in one of the most unique home stays I have ever experienced.


The owners, David and Gudrun, are the fourth generation to raise sheep in this place. But they are so much more than that. David had been a member of the Icelandic Parliament. Gudrun has held several important positions in local and regional government. They have a library filled with beautiful books – oxblood leather with gold lettering – on Icelandic history, the sagas, literature, politics, and government. Their entire house is filled with art: reproductions of Picasso and Monet, beautiful still life paintings, portraits, a vast narrative painting of the disastrous 1783 Laki eruption which killed 9000 people and caused global temperatures to drop, and on and on.

Gudrun is an excellent chef and all of our meals were made from scratch: barbecued lamb, broiled cod, and luscious desserts. They have five children; one is an ambassador, another a CEO, another a college professor. Yet they are warm and friendly, straightforward and down to earth. It was a privilege to be their guests and share – however briefly- their home and amazing family history.

Horses, horses, horses

“Oma…LOOK!!!” Erika was wriggling with excitement. We were in the taxi on the way to our home stay – and there were horses in the pasture alongside the road. For the next ten days, Erika’s enthusiasm never wavered; she took dozens of pictures – horses close up, far away, it didn’t matter. Some were wonderful (a mare with a new foal), but others were, well, ordinary. She refused to edit any of them. Her first chance to get up close and personal was at the Agricultural University in Hvanneyri. A rider and three Islandic horses appeared – and everything stopped.



But the finale came at the stables in Ovaldsstadir.


The Icelandic horse has five unique gaits: walk, trot, tolt (a smooth, running trot), quick pace (a fast pacing gait), and gallop. Erika DESPERATELY wanted to tolt. But, as I explained gently on the way to the stables, with a group of over 25 riders, that might not be possible…don’t get your hopes up. But my hopes went up as I watched the short, square stable manager quietly evaluate the riders. Maybe, I thought… maybe. I didn’t go on the ride (my riding days are over), so I didn’t see what happened. But I got a blow by blow description afterwards. Ten minutes into the ride, one of the riding assistants quietly separated Erika and her friend, Lorien, from the others. What followed was almost an hour of tolting, quick pacing, and galloping along the Hvita River in glorious sunshine. Erika returned to the stable, her face suffused with joy. After a quick hug, she calmly helped the assistants put saddles away. But the picture that is burned into my brain is this one.


Eighteen months ago, I saw her leaving the ring at her first horse show, weeping tears of frustration and rage because she couldn’t get her horse to obey. Now, I watched as she proudly led three horses out of the barn and through a crowd of people and horses into the pasture. I didn’t even get the shot; I was in the wrong position. But, Julie, Lorien’s “Mimi” did and sent it to me….

Farms – and Baby Animals

This trip visited six Icelandic farms: everything from a completely computerized greenhouse tomato farm, to sheep and dairy farms (one of which included a talking raven), to the only farm in the country raising Icelandic goats. With care and attention, Haafell Farm has brought this breed back from near extinction. We adults learned about herding techniques and farming life; the kids played with the baby animals: calves, rabbits, lambs, and goats. For a grandchild who has wanted to be a vet since age 6, this was heaven.


As our bus traveled through Western Iceland and the Snaefellsnes peninsula, the terrain was constantly changing. Sometimes the changes were subtle: hillocks which gradually turned into grassy ridges and sometimes they were stark: mountains of absolutely smooth basalt and ash – and nothing else – and behind them, higher craggy peaks capped by glaciers. The valleys are carved into fields by deep crevices, worn down by creeks in the ashy soil. Some areas were deep green and gold; haying season was in full swing. Others looked like the scrub areas of the Western US. I was really surprised at the number of trees, carefully planted in the lee of ridges to protect them from the wind. We participated in a tree planting program which, in the uneven soil, was harder than it looked! Some of the adults in the program felt the terrain was boringly similar; I couldn’t understand how they could “see” it so differently than I did.

Coincidence or…?

June 15, 2019

Crazy Horse

I had just finished a rehearsal of an upcoming presentation. One of the stories I was rehearsing was a beautiful Dakota story about how fawns developed spots. In the story, a doe pleads with Wakan-Tanka, the Great Mystery, to give her fawn something to protect it from their enemies. She speaks the most powerful sentence in the story: “If my children do not live, how can my people survive?”

As I sat in my office looking out the window, a lovely young doe came into view. She stopped, briefly and I found words coming out of my mouth; I murmured, “well, little one, and where is your fawn?” Two seconds later, a tiny little creature came into view. It was covered with spots. It walked slowly up to it’s mother and then stopped.

OMG… where is my cellphone? Where is it!? Do I have time to go get it? No, they’re moving again… So, I jettisoned these thoughts racing through my head and just watched. The doe lowered her head and began nuzzling and licking her fawn. The fawn rested it’s head against it’s mother. Moments later, she lifted her head and continued walking. The fawn paused and turned, facing my window. I knew it couldn’t see me, but I could see it. Then it too turned and began to walk away….

I have lived on Whidbey Island for almost twenty years. The island is covered with forests, very rural, and deer are commonplace. I have seen dozens: young and old, male and female. But never have I seen a fawn that young nor a doe show that kind of care and affection for her fawn. Thank you, Creator….

doe and fawn


May 15, 2019


This day was going to be different. It was one of the last days of my Hawaiian vacation: no cameras or cellphones: just a towel, some sunscreen, – and a beach. It was mid-morning at Napili Beach on Maui, but the sand was already crowded: families with brightly colored towels and beach chairs and umbrellas – and huge coolers of “snacks”, young couples lying close together, smiling and touching, and older couples with snorkels and fins and determination on their faces.


But, as I looked out to sea, the people faded away…a quarter mile off-shore, breakers crashed into jagged rock reefs, white against the aquamarine sea. Gentled by the breakers, the water then undulated towards the shore, glinting in the sun. As I walked toward the water, the breezes cooled my face.


But the shore was quite slanted and I could see that the surf pull-back was strong. I crept forward, the sand and water thrashing around my shins, and wondered: can I do this? It had been many decades since I faced a warm tropical sea. I remembered that moment of fear at the edge all too well. But I didn’t have the strength or the confidence I’d had when I faced the seas off the Solomon Islands or in Limbe on the coast of Cameroon in Central Africa. I didn’t need the tourist book’s warning never to turn my back on the sea. I had learned that as a child – from my grandmother – as I faced the Atlantic surf on Nantucket’s South Shore.

I looked out and there were people everywhere, bobbing in the water. I wanted to be one of them. I looked down. The water was so clear I could see every small rock on the bottom. It looked so inviting, but….

So, I waited, watching the rolling of the waves, and slowly, it began to flatten out a bit. A lady with wet gray hair smiled and beckoned to me. Now… I thought – do it. I dipped down into the trough made by the waves and pushed off…. Memories and sensations came flooding back… the incredible colors of the reefs of the Solomons, my two children – as young adults – larking in the surf in Limbe, the shouts of adult encouragement from the Nantucket shore as I faced a curling wave. “DIVE UNDER IT!” I did, and emerged, triumphant, on the other side. Now, so many years later in Hawaii, it felt so good: to taste the salt, to dip and sway, to be in rhythmn with the sea once again.





Bringing It Home

April 26, 2019


St Croix River

This is the St. Croix River. It flows 164 miles between Minnesota and Wisconsin before it joins the Mississippi. This is the river of my childhood. When I look at this picture, I see myself holding onto a rope on a bluff working up the courage to jump. My younger brothers are yelling catcalls at me; Mom looks worried and Dad’s got a big smile on his face… that’s my girl. I don’t know whether I can do it. “Jump!” yells Dad – and I fling myself out over the river and let go. For a brief moment, I’m flying. I can see the sky and the clouds and the river below me… I did it…I did it! – and I hit the water.



As a child, the river – and the small town of Marine, Minnesota on it’s banks – were a playground. When the family took the canoes upriver, I sat in the bow, trying to imitate Dad’s powerful stroking, paddling and sweating, and hoping against hope that we would stop soon for lunch. I remember sitting on the riverbank eating egg salad sandwiches, my toes digging into the warm, brown mud. My father’s family has lived in Marine for three generations. When I visited my great-grandmother every summer, I remember reading: sitting on the porch overlooking the river, glancing up every now and then to see the sparkling on the water filter through the trees.




I haven’t lived near the St Croix and the little town of Marine for over fifty years. But I visited – and each time I did, I learned a little more about the history of this place and it’s significance to the people who lived – and continue to live – here. My youngest brother has a beautiful “cabin” on the river. It’s one house down from where my great grandmother lived. He is the third generation of my family to live there and, like the generations before, he has become a strong member of and advocate for the community. As a storyteller, I have fused some of my childhood memories together with some of the history I discovered in my research and the result is a story – which has become rather a signature story for me. But it’s never been told in the actual site of the story – until now.



In late June, I will journey back for a visit. It will be the first time in many years that all three of us kids will be together in this place. It seems a perfect time to bring the story back to it’s origins. So, on a warm summer night, we will gather – with others – in Marine’s Village Hall and I will share my story.




The librarians of the small adjoining community library will have set up a display of books on Marine history for people to look at. I will look out at that audience of Minnesota folk… and remember so much more than what is in the story. After over twenty years of work as a storyteller, I will be bringing one of my stories HOME.


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