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In Iceland, Elf School Is In Session

SUSAN DAVIS, HOST:

There's a bunch of different ways you can spend a flight layover - get some sleep, get some food, check out the airport bookstore. But journalist Jelisa Castrodale had something a little different in mind when she was in Reykjavik, Iceland.

JELISA CASTRODALE: I was there kind of as a stopover before going to the Faroe Islands. And it just happened that my flight landed a couple of hours before the elf school took place on that Friday afternoon.

DAVIS: Elf school isn't something you hear about every day, but it highlights an important aspect of Iceland's culture - its mythical elves.

CASTRODALE: When you walk into the building, you're like, what is going on here? I mean, there are elves and gnomes and everything short of, like, Smurfs.

DAVIS: Elves, or as they're sometimes called, the hidden people, form a large part of Iceland's folklore. In stories, they're described as more elegant versions of humans that live in a parallel universe. Jelisa described the four-hour class as one of the most unique she's attended.

CASTRODALE: I did get a feel for kind of the oral tradition of how a lot of these stories even now are continuing to be passed down or to be documented.

DAVIS: And their influence extends outside the country, too. Iceland's elves had made a mark on pop culture for years from J.R.R. Tolkien's books, "The Lord Of The Rings" to Netflix's "Eurovision", where characters turn to the elves for help.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "EUROVISION")

WILL FERRELL: (As Lars Erickssong) Hey there, elf. It's me, Lars. I really messed up, and I just wanted to come up here to ask of you guys for any help you could give me.

DAVIS: But, sometimes, these depictions of elves can misrepresent or parody a significant part of folklore.

ALDA SIGMUNDSDOTTIR: Our sort of elf's mythology is much deeper, and more complex and is, you know, tied to a lot of trauma in our cultural history.

DAVIS: That's writer Alda Sigmundsdottir. She writes books on Icelandic culture, which includes elf stories. She said the stories were a way for ancient Icelanders to cope with a harsh environment and abject poverty. In the evenings, families would gather to tell stories of a better, more magical world where elves rewarded the humans who helped them.

SIGMUNDSDOTTIR: All these good things happen to them. So I think one of the ways that they escape their surroundings was to think that, you know, they could possibly win the lottery, as it were, you know, with an elf person coming to them and asking for help.

DAVIS: Alda said some people's perspectives of how Icelanders regard elves can sometimes be skewed.

SIGMUNDSDOTTIR: You know, we're a thoroughly modern society. And, you know, we believe in science. That being said, I know that there are people here who still believe the folklore and claim to have seen elves, and I would not disparage their experience at all.

DAVIS: Jelisa said she definitely left elf school impressed with how complex elfin culture is in Iceland.

CASTRODALE: There are places that are named after elves or that are connected to folklore in some way or are tied in with these myths that are, you know, a century and a half old or something. But there is a deeper backstory to a lot of it than just, oh, well, the Icelanders are really crazy about elves, huh?

DAVIS: That was journalist Jelisa Castrodale and author Alda Sigmundsdottir.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.