David Russell Mosley
9 September 2016
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire
About a week a ago, a fellow Patheos Catholic blogger (Michael Pezzulo of Steel Magnificat fame) brought the article, “Iceland unearths rock to appease angry elves,” to my attention. And I’m quite glad he did. The story is essentially this: A road is being constructed in Iceland, but construction has had to cease. It appears that several mishaps have been happening ever since the construction words covered over an “enchanted elfin rock.” Work on the road has had to cease, at least in part due to the mishaps, and so that the rock could be uncovered in order to appease the angry elves. Truth be told, I’d be none too happy if someone covered over my home, the bakery where my wife works (where I do my grading, reading, and writing from time to time) or my church (in other words, I’m not sure of the significance of the rock to the elves but I assume to be something similar to a place of rest, worship, or leisure).
As I initially read this article two things sprang to mind. The first is C. S. Lewis’ Perelandra. The second is Pope Francis’ Encyclical Laudato Si’. I will, of course, turn to both of these. However, as I sit here to write this letter to you another thing has come to mind and I will share it in due course.
Toward the end of Perelandra, after Ransom has disposed of the Unman, he finds himself lost in the subterranean world of Venus. Ransom finds a tunnel after having first found two overly large rock carven thrones:
“There was a dark tunnel in which a wind from heaven knows where was blowing and drove sand in his face. There was also a place where he himself walked in darkness and looked down through fathom below fathom of shafts and natural arches and winding gulfs on to a smooth floor lit with a cold green light. And as he stood and looked it seemed to him that four of the great earth-beetles, dwarfed by distance to the size of gates, and crawling two by two, came slowly into sight. And they were drawing behind them a flat car, and on the car, upright, unshaken, stood a mantled form, huge and still and slender. And driving its strange team it passed on with insufferable majesty and went out of sight. Assuredly the inside of this world was not for man. But it was for something. And it appeared to Ransom that there might, if a man could find it, be some way to renew the old Pagan practice of propitiating the local gods of unknown places in such a fashion that it was no offence to God Himself but only a prudent courteous apology for trespass. That thing, that swathed form in its chariot, was no doubt his fellow creature. It did not follow that they were equals or had an equal right in the under-land” (P. 157-158).
I hope you’ll forgive me quoting the passage at length, but it is so very similar to what is going on in Iceland. They are seeking to propitiate not even local gods but elves, creatures of lower stature than a god. In fact this story was not at all unusual for me for one often reads such stories about the Icelanders. They have a real, at least on a practical level (and of course as David Bentley Hart would say, a rational), belief in elves. One that causes them as a society to take them into account. There is much more I could draw from Lewis’ passage but the key, as it connects to Iceland is this: this elf whom Ransom meets belongs to the under-lands, and they to him. There is an inherent association. So to the elves belong to the woods and the woods to the elves. Belief in elves here drives the Icelanders to consider how properly to care for the woods.
This of course returns me to themes I took in my two letters on Pope Francis in Elfland. Pope Francis reminds us:
“As Christians, we are also called ‘to accept the world as a sacrament of communion, as a way of sharing with God and our neighbors on a global scale. It is our humble conviction that the divine and the human meet in the slightest detail in the seamless garment of God’s creation, in the least speck of dust on our planet.'”1
So whether there are elves in the woods as well against whom we may be trespassing, it is certainly true that the woods themselves (as do our very selves) ultimately belong to God and so must be treated with proper care and respect. One might say with proper propitiation.
I intended originally to go much further down this line, but I cannot, this evening. For as I sit here and think about how Iceland seeks to propitiate its elves for covering up a stone sacred to them, we here in the US are doing far worse. It may be true that there are no elves in Iceland (though I think it rather sensible to hedge one’s bets in that corner). It is, however, unequivocally true that the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe have been egregiously violated by the Dakota Access pipeline. Here are real people, already so mistreated by our government, by our ancestors (both United States citizens and our European ancestors), who have had a burial ground destroyed. In Iceland, accidentally covering over an “enchanted elfin stone” has caused the cessation of work on road for creatures in which, lamentably, most of the world disbelieves. Yet here, we cannot get justice for people we can see, hear, and touch. People who perhaps have been made as invisible to us as the elves so often are because we have forgotten how to see them. We must, we Christians especially must, open our eyes and stop these atrocities (it is true that the Justice Department has stepped in, saving an important lake to the tribe; it has requested Dakota Access voluntarily stop construction 20 miles away from Lake Oahe).
We must open our eyes and see what is right before us. Failure to do so is not only sinful in and of itself, but will lead to no good for us in the long run. If the people of Iceland can stop road construction for the sake of elves, surely there is something we can do to aid our brothers and sisters, the native peoples of this land, in Dakota. Even if that something simply be to open our eyes and call evil evil publicly.
1 Praef. 9. Global Responsibility and Ecological Sustainability closing Remarks, Halki Summit I, Istanbul (20 June 2012).