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Highway In Iceland May Be Sidetracked By Elves

New Line Cinema
Reuters /Landov

Here's a sentence we didn't expect to read today:

"Elf advocates have joined forces with environmentalists to urge the Icelandic Road and Coastal Commission and local authorities to abandon a highway project building a direct route from the Alftanes peninsula, where the president has a home, to the Reykjavik suburb of Gardabaer."

According to The Associated Press, "they fear disturbing elf habitat and claim the area is particularly important because it contains an elf church."

As All Things Considered reported back in 2007, elves are a big part of Icelandic culture. They reportedly make their homes in crags and rocks. We're not necessarily talking little guys like Hermey from that TV classic Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Some of the 13 types of elves in Iceland are "as tall as humans," Slate says. They also aren't likely to be as glamorous as Arwen, from Lord of the Rings. According to Slate, Iceland's elves are said to "often dress in old-timey, 19th-century outfits like homemade-looking ankle-length skirts."

Terry Gunnell, a folklorist at the University of Iceland, told the show that elves help Icelanders make sense of nature.

"Icelanders' houses can be knocked down by a force they can't see in the form of an earthquake," he said. "You look up at the sky, you've got the Northern Lights there. The wind can knock you off your feet. The wind can take shapes in the snow. So things can manifest themselves."

In 2006 and 2007, Gunnell directed a survey of 1,000 Icelanders. According to Iceland Review:

"Only 13 percent of participants in the study said it is impossible that elves exist, 19 percent found it unlikely, 37 percent said elves possibly exist, 17 percent found their existence likely and eight percent definite. Five percent did not have an opinion on the existence of elves."

Those who believe they've encountered elves take things very seriously. Last year, The Reykjavik Grapevine reported that:

"Member of Parliament Árni Johnsen recently arranged for the transportation of a 50 tonne boulder from the Hellisheiði mountain pass to his backyard in Vestmannaeyjar — a more ideal environment Árni says, for the family of elves who inhabit it. Yes, a set of grandparents, a couple of parents and three children, who stand no more than 80 centimetres tall, have reportedly joined the 4,000 people who live on the small island off the south coast of Iceland.

"Árni says he became acquainted with these particular elves after a high-speed crash in 2010, wherein his car torpedoed 40 metres off the highway, destroying the vehicle, but leaving him unscathed. '[The elves] told me that they wanted to be in the grass,' Árni says. 'Now they have windows looking toward the sea and the island, and some sheep as neighbours. Everything is under control.' "

So it's probably not too surprising that concern over the possible effect on "Huldufolk" (hidden folk) is one of the issues raised in a legal challenge to the proposed highway. According to the AP:

"The project has been halted until the Supreme Court of Iceland rules on a case brought by a group known as Friends of Lava, who cite both the environmental and the cultural impact — including the impact on elves — of the road project."

Ragnhildur Jonsdottir, a self-proclaimed seer who says she can communicate with the elves, tells the AP it would be a "terrible loss and damaging both for the elf world and for us humans" if the road is built.

Another seer, though, thinks it's possible that the elves could be talked into moving their church out of the road's way. But Erla Stefánsdóttir also tells Iceland's Visir newssite that "they love this place." The local elves, trolls and fairies, she says, need to be consulted.

Another option might be to just wait. The AP says the elf issue is brought up so often that "the road and coastal administration has come up with a stock media response for elf inquiries, which states that 'issues have been settled by delaying the construction project at a certain point while the elves living there have supposedly moved on.' "

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.