Iceland: home of elves, trolls – and authors.

Photo of Iceland glacier

Glacier – plus Night Troll on the skyline.

I came home from our Iceland holiday very impressed by both the country and its people and I’ve already posted about some impressions. Several books of Icelandic folklore came home with me and as I’ve read my way through them my fascination has grown. 

Trolls and elves feature regularly in the folklore. Trolls come in all shapes and sizes and are creatures of the night – sunlight turns them to stone. Driving around the island it’s impossible to miss the spectacular mountains with the columns of rock ringing the summits. Many of those columns really do look like figures and are called ‘night trolls’, being those creatures caught in the open when the sun rose. Every mountain seems to have its own legend about how a local character, pursued or captured at night, managed to confound the trolls and trick them into being outside when the first rays of the sun turned them to stone. Trolls, it appears, are not very clever. Elves, however, are very different. 

Elves are known in Iceland as ‘huldufolk’ or hidden people. The traditional story is that Eve, the mother of all humankind, heard that God was going to visit. She set about washing the children, but some were still dirty when God approached and Eve hid them. God praised the children that were in view and asked if Eve had any more. Embarrassed, Eve denied the existence of the hidden children. Having had their existence denied before God, the hidden ones have stayed hidden forever, although they can make themselves visible to us if they want to, and when they do we find that they are, of course, very beautiful and highly intelligent. 

Given that Icelanders are one of the most highly educated races on Earth, the level of belief in the huldufolk is surprising at first glance. A recent study of supernatural beliefs throughout Western Europe found that 41% of Icelanders claim to have had contact with the dead and 53% believe in the huldufolk (or at least refused to deny their existence). These beliefs are less surprising when one remembers their extraordinary tradition of storytelling embodied in the Sagas. Those long, long winter evenings spent gathered around the fire, entertaining each other with stories have embedded the folklore in the subconscious. 

It’s not a belief that they are reluctant to share. 20th Century Trade Union leader, Tryggvi Emilsson, was happy to talk publicly about his experiences. As a young man he fell down a cliff face and lay injured in a gully. He was rescued by a huldufolk maiden whom he described as hauntingly beautiful. 

A steel sculpture depicting a traditional folk tale.

Sculpture commemorating a traditional folk tale.

Neither is it a belief that is without practical implications. All over Iceland are spots where the huldufolk are believed to live and that is taken into account in development projects. Roads turn sharply to avoid disturbing those areas. On a road in Grundarfjordur there is a gap between houses numbered 82 and 86. Number 84 is a rocky outcrop where the elves live. When the new road and tunnel were being built to the town of Akranes the heavy-duty construction equipment kept breaking down in one area. A woman known for her ability to talk with the huldufolk was called in. She confirmed that the huldufolk lived there, but said that they were prepared to move and only asked for a little more time. Construction work was suspended until the woman returned and announced that the elves had gone. Work was then completed without problem. 

It’s not surprising that this cultural, storytelling background leads to a love of books and writing, but an article on The Guardian Book Blog suggested that 10% of the adult population will be a published author – and that is traditionally published, in print format. If that is true, it’s a staggering statistic.

photo of food prepared outdoors.

Rye bread, boiled overnight in a hot spring, pickled herring, boiled eggs – and ice-cold Icelandic schnapps.

Sabine Baring-Gould: Super-Hero

Sabine Baring-Gould has long been my hero and for three main reasons. Firstly, for his extraordinary achievements in the preservation of English folk music; secondly, because he was a man of great intelligence and energy who made a major contribution in a number of widely different fields, with about 1200 publications to his name; thirdly, well, because I’m an old sentimentalist. More of this third reason later.

S B-G was born in Exeter in 1834. His father was a restless spirit who took his family on a thirteen-year tour of Europe. Between the ages of three and sixteen S B-G didn’t have a settled home and received very little formal education, but he learned five languages. They returned to England and after a brief spell at school he attended Cambridge University, graduating and then completing a further degree. He wanted to enter the church, but his father refused to allow it. He became a teacher, developing a reputation for eccentricity; for example, he taught with a pet bat hanging from one shoulder.

When he was thirty his father relented. S B-G joined the church, becoming a curate at Horbury in Yorkshire. While a curate he composed the hymns, ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’ and ‘Now the Day is Over’.

In 1870 he wrote ‘The Origin and Development of Religious Belief’ which, while upsetting every religious group in the country, greatly impressed Prime Minister Gladstone who offered him the position of rector of East Mersea in Essex. He accepted, but always wanted to return to Devon.

His father died and he inherited the 3,000 acre manor of Lewtrenchard in Devon, but very little money, and many of the buildings on the estate were in poor condition. An elderly uncle was the rector of Lewtrenchard and S B-G waited until the uncle died in 1881 before moving to Devon and becoming both the squire and parson of the manor. He acted as his own architect producing the drawings for the restoration of the manor house and the church.

He then threw himself into his main passion – the preservation of folksongs that he feared would disappear without trace if no one made an attempt to record them. He toured the Westcountry with musician friends persuading locals to sing the traditional local songs. S B-G wrote down the words while his friends wrote out the music. He wasn’t content just to make a record; he was keen to spread knowledge of the songs, so he booked theatres and arranged singers to perform them.

He published a collection of nearly sixty songs in 1889. For many years it was thought that this was all that remained, but in the late 1980s a personal manuscript was found in the library of Killerton House in Exeter. This contained hundreds of songs and a project was launched to make them all available via the internet. This is now complete and the Baring-Gould Collection is available free of charge. I attend very few gatherings of folk musicians where S B-G doesn’t get a mention.

So, that’s the first reason for my hero-worship.

The second is the sheer breadth of knowledge of the man. He had a passion for archaeology, was a member of the Dartmoor Exploration Committee of the Devonshire Assocation (he was President in 1895) and President of the Cornwall Association for ten years. He was keenly interested in folklore, touring England and Europe taking careful notes of unusual beliefs. He taught himself Icelandic so he could translate the Sagas and then travelled to Iceland (no easy trip in Victorian times) to check that his interpretation was correct. He published thirty-eight novels, seven collections of ghost stories and other folklore tales, three anthologies of nursery rhymes and fairy tales, thirty-seven reference books, dozens of short stories and hundreds of magazine articles. His output was even greater than this. In addition to the portfolio of songs found in Killerton House library there are a number of unpublished book manuscripts. The income from his writing was largely spent on restoring buildings on the estate and building new cottages for the workers.

Right, now it’s time to return to my third reason – S B-G’s relationship with his wife.

When he was a curate in Horbury he met and fell in love with Grace Taylor, a mill-girl less than half his age. His father vigorously opposed the relationship on the basis that Grace was ‘unsuitable’ to take up the position in society in store for his son’s wife. S B-G’s response was to arrange for Grace to spend two years living with a middle-class family in York where she received an ‘education’. At the end of that period Sabine declared her quite suitable and married her.

They had a long (48 years) and happy marriage. Grace gave birth to fifteen children. Very unusually for the time, fourteen of them survived to adulthood. The couple were devoted to each other. Despite the fact that he was sixteen years older, Grace died first in 1916. Sabine was devastated. He buried her in his own churchyard at Lewtrenchard. He had inscribed on her tombstone, ‘Dimidium Animae Meae’ – ‘Half My Soul’.

When he died in 1924 he was buried next to Grace. 

A few more facts about Sabine Baring-Gould: 

He was a friend of George Bernard Shaw and it was popularly believed that Sabine and Grace were the inspiration behind ‘Pygmalion’.

At the time of his death there were more books listed under his name in the British Library than for any other author.

He habitually wrote standing up.

He was so impressed by the unique Icelandic horse (see my blog post on Iceland) that he brought one home with him. He called it Bottlebrush.

Every October in Exeter he is commemorated by the Baring-Gould Folk Festival.

His grandson William Baring-Gould was a noted Sherlock Holmes scholar. He wrote a fictional biography of the detective basing Holmes’ early life on his grandfather’s.

Lewtrenchard Manor is now a hotel. His desk is still there.