Sun Pro­tec­tion

Ash­ley Joseph ex­plores Ice­land’s rich mythol­ogy of elves, trolls and ghosts un­der the mid­night sun.

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I’m stand­ing on a ledge at the end of Víðgelmir cave, a nearly 1,600-me­tre-long lava tube just un­der two hours by car from Reyk­javík in West Ice­land’s Hall­mundarhraun lava field. Above ground it’s sum­mer, a time when the sun hardly sets in this part of the world, but down here it feels like win­ter and it’s pitch-black. The tour guide lead­ing our ex­cur­sion in­structs us to turn off our head­lamps, the only source of light. “Now let your eyes ad­just,” he says. “You’ve prob­a­bly never ex­pe­ri­enced com­plete dark­ness be­fore, and your brain may start do­ing some weird things.” While my pupils ac­cli­mate to the black­ness (I’m start­ing to see faint light­like for­ma­tions), he tells us about Ice­land’s Hul­dufólk (“Hid­den Peo­ple”)—a ghost story of sorts.

In this tiny coun­try in­hab­ited by fewer than 350,000, the sto­ries about the Hul­dufólk are more than just folk tales and could date as far back as the Vik­ing pe­riod, when schol­ars first found men­tion of the word al­far (“elf”). These elu­sive be­ings are be­lieved to be ab­nor­mally beau­ti­ful, rang­ing in height from sev­eral cen­time­tres to a few me­tres, and re­side in an in­vis­i­ble di­men­sion in the cracks of rocks, caves and moun­tain­sides—and among Ice­landers, this be­lief is widely held. Ac­cord­ing to a 2017 poll car­ried out by lo­cal mag­a­zine The Reyk­javík Grapevine, 67 per cent of re­spon­dents said they be­lieve in elves, while a 1998 sur­vey found 54 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion to be be­liev­ers. Back in 1982, some 150 ac­tivists marched on NATO’s Ke­flavík base in search of elves thought to be en­dan­gered by the mil­i­tary oper­a­tions.

There’s a sense of ex­hil­a­ra­tion that comes with be­ing in a place on the verge of com­bus­tion.

Ac­cord­ing to folk­lore, the Hul­dufólk are nei­ther good nor evil and keep mor­tals in line, ex­er­cis­ing their power to re­ward good be­hav­iour and pun­ish mal­ice while en­cour­ag­ing the preser­va­tion of Ice­land’s many nat­u­ral won­ders. Passed on through gen­er­a­tions, these tales im­part a kind of moral code to life here and fig­ure as promi­nently in the nam­ing of land­marks and ge­o­graph­i­cal fea­tures as the Western world’s saints and states­men. The Snae­fell­snes Penin­sula, at the western tip of the coun­try—known for its goldand pink-sand beaches—honours half-troll half-man Bárður Snae­fell­sás, who is said to live in the Snae­fell­snesjökull glacier and serve as the area’s pro­tec­tor. You wouldn’t want to in­cur his wrath by build­ing, say, a condo pro­ject atop this na­ture re­serve.

Ice­land is lo­cated on a hot spot on the Mid-At­lantic Ridge. The sur­face of the earth be­neath this Nordic na­tion is un­usu­ally thin, which is the cat­a­lyst be­hind its geo­ther­mal ac­tiv­ity and the geo­ther­mal en­ergy that has been help­ing power it since the 1930s. It’s this en­ergy that al­lows the coun­try to re­main largely self-suf­fi­cient, and it has a bur­geon­ing agri­cul­ture in­dus­try. Ice­land is ac­tu­ally home to Europe’s largest banana plan­ta­tion, which puts that geo­ther­mal en­ergy to use heat­ing green­houses. Plans to share the wealth of clean en­ergy are al­ready in the works, in the form of a power in­ter­con­nec­tor be­tween Ice­land and the United King­dom. At 1,000 kilo­me­tres, it will be the long­est the world has ever seen.

There’s a sense of ex­hil­a­ra­tion that comes with be­ing in a place on the verge of com­bus­tion, with count­less hot springs bub­bling up ev­ery­where and a some­what apoc­a­lyp­tic land­scape of lava fields and scorched earth. The mid­night sun casts this al­ready oth­er­worldly place in a sur­real light from late May un­til July: A walk home from din­ner un­der pale blue skies at 11:30 in the evening be­comes any­thing but or­di­nary, while spot­ting white-beaked dol­phins danc­ing out of the wa­ter on a night­time whale watch­ing ex­cur­sion is al­most too mag­i­cal to be be­lieved.

Even un­der­ground, there’s a whole world to dis­cover, with net­works of lava caves carved vi­o­lently through the earth, the scar of vol­canic fury. As I climb up out of Víðgelmir into the sprawl­ing lava field, the warm air en­velops me and thaws out my ex­trem­i­ties; I might as well be on another planet. On the drive back to Reyk­javík, our tour bus makes a fi­nal stop, at Bar­nafoss wa­ter­fall. Travel is all about es­cape—from work, from monotony, from re­al­ity— and nat­u­ral won­ders are the ul­ti­mate an­ti­dote to anx­i­ety. No, your neg­a­tive thought pro­cesses won’t re­verse as you peer at a peace­ful wa­ter­fall, but watch­ing milky glacier wa­ter rush­ing over lava rocks just might melt your wor­ries away.

ICE­LAND EX­PE­RI­ENCES A MID­NIGHT SUN FROM LATE MAY UN­TIL JULY.

INSIDE A LAVA TUBE; BELOW, BAR­NAFOSS WA­TER­FALL

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