“Every time I see a local ripping off a tourist for some ‘authentic’ experience, I think, ‘Who the hell is going to fall for that?’” Dylan, my ex-roommate, remarked a few months ago over breakfast. “And then I think, ‘Oh wait. There’s you.’”
“Why?” I asked.
“You paid money to shear a sheep in New Zealand,” he replied.
“So what? That was a great experience,” I said. (It was disgusting.)
“You’re the kind of person who would pay money to see the ‘fairies’ on Ireland’s marshes,” he insisted.
“No, I’m not,” I said. “Wait, are they real fairies? Tell me more.”
“Exactly,” Dylan said.
I couldn’t resist the pull of elf school.
Elf school in Iceland costs $48. This would be a steal if you walked out of the classroom transformed into a full-fledged elf; however, nearly $50 to listen to a non-elf tell you about Iceland’s so-called “hidden people” does not seem like a great tradeoff.
Infamously, 54 percent of Icelanders are said to believe in elves. (Icelanders protest that this ‘fact’ originates from a very carefully phrased question which asked, “Can you be 100 percent sure that elves do not exist?” Logically, 54 percent of them concluded that just because they have never seen an elf, that doesn’t mean that elves do not exist).
Before I attended elf school, I spent two weeks driving around Iceland looking for elves with my husband Sam, reveling in the 24-hour daylight that occurs during the height of summer. This meant approximately 12 extra hours during which I could be on the lookout for elves. Finding none, however, I turned to the locals for some insider knowledge.
Somewhere off The Ring Road, we stayed at an Airbnb house that belonged to a blond, burly Icelander named Börkur. In his early 20s, Börkur liked to drink and chew tobacco. His English, like most Icelanders’, was excellent. After he let us into his apartment, he crossed his arms and leaned back against a wall, eyeing me up warily. When I asked about the tattoo of a ram on his arm, he explained that he’s an Aries.
“Me too,” I said.
“Really?” he asked, his icy demeanor breaking. “That’s cool. That’s really cool.” He looked at me with approval, until I blurted out:
“Do you believe in elves?”
The look on his face showed that I’d lost all the points I had gained by being born in March. “No,” he said, sighing.
“Not at all?”
“No, but the woman next door thinks they live in a rock on the hill.”
Over the course of our 14-day road trip, I found that elves and “hidden people” (or huldufólk) are always spoken of together and the terms seem to be interchangeable, representing supernatural Icelandic beings (apparently they exist elsewhere, too, but the rest of the world is too jaded to see them). According to lore, they’re people just like us—we just can’t see them. To them, we are the hidden people.
That’s a little too convenient, even for me. I have two older brothers. I know how these things work.
The Elfschool, or Álfaskólinn in Icelandic, is located in the most un-elvish place in the entire country: adjacent to a parking lot, upstairs from an empty storefront, in a musty room stuffed with papers and elf tchotchkes. Elf school shouldn’t be like this. Elf school should be held on a grassy hill surrounded by trees. It should have maypoles and frolicking. The teachers should play music on little carved pipes. Elf school should be like Zooey Deschanel’s best acid trip ever.
Instead, we have Magnus. A former historian, Magnus is the “headmaster” of elf school. 60 years old and gray-bearded, he described himself as “a strange man” and has spent his life collecting paranormal experiences (4-5,000 to date). When I met him, he was wearing tracksuit bottoms, a blazer, and socks without shoes.
I probably could have bought into elf school just a little bit more if Magnus had been different. He made a lot of jokes about American Republicans. In fact, that was his main joke. He laughed very hard at these jokes, which are technically not even jokes, unless adding “because you’re a Republican” to the end of people’s sentences and snorting qualifies as a joke.
As soon as I met Magnus, a new fear developed. What if I’m the only person at elf school? As Magnus took my money with a gleeful “I bet you’re a Republican,” I felt my desperation rise. Please don’t let me be the only one. Please don’t let me be the only one, I thought frantically.
Eventually, I heard the unmistakable sound of other Americans. Three couples walked in behind me: six lawyers in their late 20s from Washington, D.C. They came because a coworker told them elf school was “a hoot.” The men wore boat shoes and polo shirts. It was clear they were not ready for elf school.
We sat in a circle around Magnus. He started off with a rehearsed spiel, explaining how he interviews people all over Iceland about elf sightings. While sightings do occur in other countries, we learned that most occur in Iceland because it’s a special place, so remote that the Age of Enlightenment—with its crazy ideas about science and reality—was late to reach its shores.
Unsurprisingly, Magnus told us that he believes in the paranormal and in elves, even though he’s never seen them. But “my children have,” he said. “Look, did any of you have an invisible friend as a child?” One of the male lawyers raised his hand. Prompted by Magnus, he shared that it was his sister’s imaginary friend. The story made Magnus feel justified. Point proven.
After this, we were given a book full of illustrated elf stories and typos. Magnus explained that elves can be all different shapes and sizes. They can fit on the palm of your hand (flower elves, or Blómálfur), they can be slightly smaller than humans (tree elves, or tréálfur), or they can fit inside your house (house elves, or búálfur); some are as tall as buildings. Overall, there are 13 different types of elves.
“Can you tell us a story you’ve personally heard?” I asked Magnus. He told us a tale from the 1980s, of a child who got lost on his way to a neighboring farm when a snowstorm struck.
“After six hours of wandering in the snow, he nearly gave up when he spotted a farm with lights in the windows. He’d never seen the house before but he knocked on the door and begged to come in. A family let him in and gave him dry clothes. But these were very old clothes, as were the ones they were wearing themselves. He said, ‘Where am I?,’ and they said that he was in his own neighborhood. ‘But I’ve never seen you before. You must be new.’ ‘No, we’ve been here longer than your family.’”
They were, of course, a family of hidden people. They wore old-fashioned clothes and ate old-fashioned food. The boy was nursed back to health and returned home, and, despite looking, never found them again.
“Does anyone have any questions?” Magnus asked.
“Do elves eat human food?” I asked. The lawyers stared at me. Yes, we were all technically in elf school, but they were there as a group, which meant that for them it was joke activity—a lark. A future shared anecdote. I was there alone. If this was elf high school, they were the cool kids and I was the nerdy loner, desperate to capture the teacher’s attention.
“Of course,” Magnus replied.
“And what about—do they…do the elves…” I trailed off, looking down at my notes. The only thing more humiliating than paying money to attend elf school is actually sitting in elf school, in front of six judgmental lawyers, asking about the mating rituals of elves.
Before the session, I had reviewed my questions with my husband, a typically skeptical Englishman who was completely against elf school but was also totally opposed to me asking any inappropriate questions about elves. “Do not ask if they have sex,” Sam said. “You just can’t ask that.”
But I had to. “Do they…multiply?” I finally asked.
Magnus looked at me, and snorted. “Yes. Elves fuck.”
His words hung in the musty air. The lawyers said nothing. Neither did I. No one laughed.
I had to cut out of the session early because the class was running over, and Sam was due pick me up to return our rental car (if you think it’s hard to find elves, try to get an Englishman to go with you to elf school. You’ll locate at least sixteen elves before that happens). As I left, Magnus shouted after me, “Is it because you’re a Republican?”
I’m not sure there was much to learn at elf school that you can’t find online or in a decent history book. (Although online reviews say that Magnus serves pancakes after the session, so there is that consolation prize.) Unsatisfied, I picked up The Little Book of the Hidden People by Alda Sigmundsdóttir. According to Alda, life was a bitch in Iceland back in the day. People lived in abject poverty under harsh conditions: brutal weather, volcanic eruptions, possible starvation, lice infestations, oppressive governments. Elf stories strengthened Icelanders’ “heroic efforts to survive—physically, emotionally and spiritually.”
The elf stories made them feel better. According to legend, hidden people ate sumptuous food and wore glamorous clothes and were far more attractive than normal, seen people. They lived in hills and inside boulders—which explains why Icelanders have been known to protest if a new building project will disturb known homes of the Hidden People.
Hidden people stories are often morality tales in which a human helps an elf or vice versa, but it definitely got complicated. At times, the hidden people would manifest as lovers of despondent women in Iceland. And sometimes the tales turned weirdly dark, with hidden people murdering non-hidden people on Christmas (it’s also said that eventually tales of outlaws and elf folklore began to merge, which explains a lot about the stories that end with “and then the elves murdered her”).
My friend Dylan will not be surprised to hear that I’m with the 54 percent of Icelanders who can’t say without a doubt that elves do not exist. Although believing these stories is akin to taking the Brothers Grimm fairytales as fact, I like the idea of elves. I live in London. It’s dirty, and loud, and every Saturday morning my front door is covered in urine. I’m comforted by the idea of some magical creature helping out when all hope is lost.
Elves fucking, though? Not so much.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.