Wednesday, April 6, 2022

How Iceland's Elves Can Save the Earth

Icelanders believe in elves. Does that make you laugh?

I used to find it funny too. I used to think Icelanders who spoke of elves were playing tricks, poking fun, talking tongue-in-cheek, telling tall tales.

Then I met Ragnhildur Jónsdóttir, a well-known elf-seer. We took a walk in a lava field she and her elf friends had protected from destruction when a new road was built nearby. We didn't talk much about elves or the Hidden Folk as we walked. Instead, we photographed lava crags and stacks and pillars, pillows of silver-green moss, caves and clefts and individual lichen-splashed rocks.
It was by turns warm and sunny and cloudy and cool, a fine summer’s day. The breeze was light—just enough to keep the gnats at bay. The land smelled of peat, with hints of salt and sea.

We wandered about pointing out plants. I didn’t keep a list, but two hours later, back at my hotel when I wrote up my recollections, I remembered blueberry, crowberry, stone bramble, violet, dandelion, mountain avens, buttercup, butterwort, wood geranium, wild thyme, willow shrubs with pale fluffy catkins, and several kinds of grass, including sheep’s sorrel, which we tasted—it was sour as limes. Elves’ cup moss was the only sign of elves I saw.

We listened to the wind sighing in the knee-high willows and the incessant cries of seabirds: black-backed gulls barking now! now! now! and arctic terns, many terns, with their piercing kree-yah cries.

We talked about art and inspiration. What is inspiration? Why do some places attract artists and spark creative thought? Why are some places beautiful—and how do you define beauty?

And we shared an experience I still can't explain.

Said Ragnhildur, as we left the lava field, "Now do you believe in elves?"
In my next book, Looking for the Hidden Folk: How Iceland's Elves Can Save the Earth, I explore Iceland's "elf question." My quest took me wandering through history, religion, folklore, and art, circling back to explore theology, literary criticism, mythology, and philosophy, stopping along the way to dip my toes into cognitive science, psychology, anthropology, biology, volcanology, cosmology, and quantum mechanics. Each discipline, I found, defines and redefines what is real and unreal, natural and supernatural, demonstrated and theoretical, alive and inert. Each has its own way of perceiving and valuing (or not) the world around us. Each admits its own sort of elf.

Illuminated by my encounters with Iceland's Otherworld over the last 35 years—in ancient lava fields, on a holy mountain, beside a glacier and an erupting volcano, crossing the cold desert at the island's heart on horseback—Looking for the Hidden Folk offers an intimate conversation about how we look at and find value in nature. It reveals how the words we use and the stories we tell shape the world we see. It argues that our beliefs about the Earth will preserve, or destroy, it.

Scientists name our time the Anthropocene, the Human Age: Climate change will lead to the mass extinction of species unless we humans change course. Iceland suggests a different way of thinking about the Earth, one that to me offers hope. Icelanders believe in elves, and you should too.

Looking for the Hidden Folk: How Iceland's Elves Can Save the Earth will be published on October 4 by Pegasus Books. It is now available for pre-order through Simon and Schuster distributors or through my shop on Disclosure: As an affiliate of, I may earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

I'm currently putting together my book tour, scheduling both online talks and (let's hope) in-person appearances. Let me know at if you'd like to organize an event to help get the word out about Looking for the Hidden Folk.


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