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In exploring how Icelanders interact with nature—and their idea that elves live among us—Nancy Marie Brown shows us how altering our perceptions of the environment can be a crucial first step toward saving it.
Icelanders believe in elves.
Why does that make you laugh?, asks Nancy Marie Brown, in this wonderfully quirky exploration of our interaction with nature. Looking for answers in history, science, religion, and art—from ancient times to today—Brown finds that each discipline defines what is real and unreal, natural and supernatural, demonstrated and theoretical, alive and inert. Each has its own way of perceiving and valuing the world around us. And each discipline defines what an Icelander might call an elf.
Illuminated by her own encounters with Iceland’s Otherworld—in ancient lava fields, on a holy mountain, beside a glacier or an erupting volcano, crossing the cold desert at the island’s heart on horseback—Looking for the Hidden Folk offers an intimate conversation about how we look at and find value in nature. It reveals how the words we use and the stories we tell shape the world we see. It argues that our beliefs about the Earth will preserve—or destroy it.
Scientists name our time the Anthropocene: the Human Age. Climate change will lead to the mass extinction of numerous animal species unless we humans change our course. Iceland suggests a different way of thinking about the Earth, one that offers hope. Icelanders believe in elves— and you should, too.
Nancy Marie Brown is the author of several highly praised cultural histories, including The Real Valkyrie, Song of the Vikings, and Ivory Vikings. These titles have been favorably reviewed in the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Economist, the Times Literary Supplement, the Wall Street Journal, and many other journals. Brown has spent decades studying Icelandic literature and culture. She lives on a farm in Vermont where she keeps four Icelandic horses and an Icelandic sheepdog.
"In Looking for the Hidden Folk, Brown overlays a glowing web of connections on Iceland’s folkloric — and literal — landscape of ice and fire, illuminating the answers to the many questions she poses. Her passionate defense of the huldufólk would gratify the most sensitive elf."
New York Times Book Review
"Haunting and enticing. The author's descriptions of the countryside are staggering — not just the images she conjures but the reactions they inspire in her. Ultimately, Brown seems to want to use Looking for the Hidden Folk to shake readers out of their comfort zones, encouraging us to slough off the protective layers of skepticism we have about the world. If we're open to it, we might catch a glimpse of something magical." Seven Days
"Nancy Marie Brown’s “Looking for the Hidden Folk" occupies a nice middle ground between the scholarly and popular. She takes elves seriously as a cultural belief, and knows how to tell a story about them and their role in the history and lives of Icelanders." Iceland Review
"A fascinating inquiry into the Icelandic belief in elves. This compelling and highly readable book offers a thought-provoking examination of nature of belief itself, drawing compelling conclusions among humans, storytelling, and the environment." Bookpage, starred review
"Wherever readers stand on the elf question, they'll come away with a new appreciation for Iceland and its
"For decades, cultural historian Nancy Marie Brown has been fascinated by Iceland, a nation of natural and
supernatural wonders. Her book Looking for the Hidden Folk is a mischievous guide to reclaiming sacred connections
to places as a way of sparking environmentalist commitments. Brown delights in the fact that, in Icelandic, the word for home is the same as that for world: heima. An impish literary handbook, Looking for the Hidden Folk takes Iceland as a model of how to treat the whole world as a precious, aweinspiring home." Forward Reviews
"Nancy Marie Brown reveals to us skeptics how rocks and hills are the mansions of elves, or at least what it takes to believe so. Looking For the Hidden Folks evocatively animates the Icelandic landscape through Brown's past and present travels and busts some prevalent clichés and myths along the way -- this book is my reply to the next foreign reporter asking about that Elf Lobby." Egill Bjarnason, author of How Iceland Changed the World: The Big History of a Small Island
"Using ideas and stories about the hidden folk in Iceland as a stepping stone into the human perception of our homes in the world where stories and memories breathe life into places, be it through the vocabulary of quantum physics or folklore, Nancy Marie Brown makes us realise that there is always more to the world than meets the eye. And that world is not there for us to conquer and exploit but to walk into and sense the dew with our bare feet on the soft moss, beside breathing horses and mighty glaciers in the drifting fog that often blocks our view." Gisli Sigurosson, Research Professor, The Arni Magnusson Institute, University of Iceland
“Nancy Marie Brown is a scholar and a pilgrim, and Iceland (plus much else) is here illuminated through her knowledge and passion.” Thomas Swick, author of The Joys of Travel
"This is a sweeping and moving journey across time and space – through myth and theory, language, and literature – into the world of wonder and enchantment. Beautifully written, Looking for the Hidden Folk offers a compelling and surprising case for the recognition of forces and beings not necessarily 'seen' in everyday life but nevertheless somehow sensed, exploring their complexity and why they matter." Gísli Pálsson, Professor of Anthropology, University of Iceland