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Of trolls and elves: Icelandic folklore

September 15, 2019

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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.

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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.

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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!

 

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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.

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