The existence of elves in Iceland is almost as intriguing as the belief in elves by Icelandic citizens. Not to say that I don’t believe in elves. Actually, I do, but it’s rare to encounter a culture that still openly embraces these beings. Indeed, when I say that I believe in elves I say it very carefully because I know that it sounds silly and that admitting to such a belief completely destroys my credibility. At least in the United States.
But in Iceland, me and my belief in elves would fit right in.
The Elf Garden was on the top of my list of places to see in Iceland. I know a lot of people go to Iceland for the Airwaves Music Festival or the Blue Lagoon, but not so for our family. Though we were there during the Airwaves Festival and we stood in line for the Blue Lagoon, we spurned them both in favor of the Elf Garden, a small patch of earth amidst a rather normal-looking residential space in a tongue-twisting town called Hafnarfjordur.
It wasn’t easy to find said Elf Garden. We had to go to a nearby hotel and ask a woman about it. I felt a little foolish as I spit out my question across the tall hotel desk, “Can you tell me where the elves live?”
I waited for her to smile and look away, or perhaps snicker at me, but she simply pulled out a map from a drawer and with total seriousness, gave me directions to the park.
A part of me wanted to ask her more questions like, “Do you really believe in elves?” followed up by, “Seriously?” but like I said, I too believe in these wee creatures and I didn’t want to make her feel funny about it. Besides, according to legends and tales about elves, if you don’t believe, you won’t be able to see them. I didn’t want to jinx our experience.
On the way to the park, I was very tired. I may have even fallen asleep momentarily on the drive. Perhaps more than once. It was only five minutes between the hotel where we’d gotten directions to the garden, but still, I was nodding off. The sun hung low in the sky, as though it were about to set, even though it was only noon. Jetlag clouded my thinking and made me groggy. John parked the car about a block from the Elf Garden and we hesitantly opened the doors and stood up into the cold air.
A busy street ran past the Elf Garden and on all sides it was surrounded by houses. I’d expected a
more natural setting for magical creatures. A place with rolling green hills continuing in all directions for miles and miles. But the Elf Garden was relatively small. At the entrance, there was a fountain with a statue that peed unabashedly in the summer months (it was dry in winter). Bushes rendered naked by the freezing temperatures still clung to tiny white flowers. The garden was lush despite the cold. We marveled at the tiny caves and crevices in the rocks on the other side of the garden and wondered if they were elf houses.
I wished we had an Elf Garden at home.
The garden itself was lovely but the idea that people could believe in elves even lovelier. Not because they’re real or because they’re imaginary but just because it’s fun to believe in magical things. And perhaps by believing in elves, it’s easier to care for natural beauty, and find a reason to ask silly questions, and explore places that would otherwise be quite ordinary.
What could be more fascinating than finding out that something I’ve regarded as silly or perhaps even evil, but at the very least magical, is actually just okay and mostly ordinary in Iceland? The ordinariness of elves is what I enjoyed most about the Elf Garden (and Iceland). I’ll admit, I didn’t see any elves on our visit to the garden. But I did see that what we Americans believe to be true about elves, namely that they don’t exist and they are evil or the stuff of nursery rhymes, is not the case in Iceland. And Icelanders are not wrong. And we’re not wrong either.
Oh the possibilities!
This is what amazed me and interested me about the Elf Garden. So much of what we believe is a relative version of the truth. Almost anything is possible and in some parts of the world people believe in and experience things every day that Americans regard as impossible. Perhaps elves are evil. Perhaps they’re good. Maybe Icelandic elves are good and American elves are evil. It’s hard to say, but fun think about. Which is why I love to travel. It’s easy to forget that there’s a difference between what we know and what we believe when we surround ourselves only with people who believe precisely what we do.