Of Swamp Monsters and Men

Iceland's elvishness trumps American magical thinking

Fever dreaming with Icelandic rock band, Of Monsters and Men, in their video, Alligator.

vol. 1 issue 33


At first, while traveling along Iceland’s ring road, also known as the mythical sounding “Golden Circle”, I wondered if I was seeing things wrong. But the second time I saw a fairy-sized house not far off the side of the road, I concluded it wasn’t a trick of the eye. Little white houses with little windows, lit from the inside. I definitely saw them.

How these tiny dwellings came to be, I do not know.

Probably, as is a common practice in the Land of the Vikings, they were a gift of a human friend to the huldufólk – the Hidden People – but who can be sure?

Iceland is a nation where diviners of elves and fairy villages are taken as seriously as the roadworks crews they travel along with so as to ensure that new roads or repairs don’t interfere with the huldufólk habitats.

Research consistently indicates that for well over half of Iceland’s roughly 360,000 residents belief in ogres, trolls, fairies, elves, and dwarves prevails. Such belief is a glittering thread woven through daily life, shaping Icelanders’ attitudes toward environmental protection and cultural values. We might not see them, goes the conventional Icelander wisdom, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there. In fact, they help us, bring us luck. And so, space is made for them. Respect is paid to them.

For nearly an entire decade, one of the nation’s biggest environmental disputes hinged on whether a proposed road would disrupt an elven chapel housed in a lava-rock formation. There was real fear that to disrupt the etherial altar would incur the destructive wrath of the Magical Beings6.

Eventually, a compromise between authorities and the elves and their human friends was reached: the elves agreed to move to another location if their rock-church was moved for them and if they were given enough time to sanctify it before the road construction began. All’s well that ends well, and apparently it is and did.

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As an American visiting Iceland for the first time, I found this modern day Viking approach to bridging what is seen and unseen a rational thing, refreshing even. That’s because in my homeland, mythical tales and fantastic beasts do not yield the promise of a fairytale ending, even if the depths of lunacy surrounding a certain Swamp Monster certainly do seem mythical.

In Iceland, despite there being no tangible evidence of the huldufólk’s claim on the land, what was the harm in proceeding as though their claim was real? The environmental feature in question was preserved, the road was built, and everyone’s egos were left intact. The elves got to keep their church.

Yesterday’s dyspeptic blah-blah-blah spewed forth by P45 was hardly that kind of magic. It was, however, a lot of make believe.

The emoluments clause is not phony, despite his monstrous claims; having the G7 meeting “at cost” at his failing resort property would not have constituted “something very good for this country” even if it was by his own admission, whiplash like, to avoid the said phony emoluments clause. And so on. And on. And on. And 71 minutes on.

Who will save our own sacred rock — the Constitution — from the pounding and grasping claw-fists of our fulminating Swamp Monster?

There is, of course, Pierre Delecto, aka Mitt Romney. Mssr Delecto is at present the only elected Republican fairy (who has not yet resigned) willing to sprinkle a little reality dust over the national scene, as much as a man with a silly made-up name can actually throw shade on anything of use to a nation 100s more populous than Iceland, not counting the elves.

Iceland seems an eminently sensible place right about now.

The ongoing and nearly united Republican support for this soon-to-be four year-long freak show, hardly equates with the sensible harmlessness of catering to elves and fairies. Who can possibly end up ahead if the Swamp Monster is allowed to swallow the whole of Washington?

Damn the magical thinking American style. Whither our fantastical beasts of good conscience and how might we empower them?