On Sunday the Associated Press published a piece on Iceland's elf lobby, a group of believers who object to a road being built near Reykjavík. Media outlets on the island nation found fault with the piece.
In order to write about the interesting part of the story — loony elf "seers" trying to stop construction of a road being built — the AP story glossed over the actual purpose of fighting the road: it would disrupt construction in a protected area of untouched lava.
According to Jenna Gottlieb at the AP, the "elf lobby" partnered up with environmentalists to protect the elf habitat, which allegedly includes an elf church. The project would build "a direct route from to the tip of the Álftanes peninsula, where the president has a home, to the Reykjavik suburb of Garðabær," according to the AP.
The article goes on to say that the Friends of Lava, an environmentalist group, have brought "hundreds" of people to protest, impressive considering that Reykjavik has less than 300,000 residents. The Huffington Post, Salon, PBS, NBC, The Guardian and others all picked up the story. However, Benedikt Jóhannesson, writing for the Iceland Review, argued that's all false:
There have been many people protesting in the lava, but not hundreds. One of them is the self-confessed elf believer mentioned in the story, the others are environmentalists. The road is not from the tip of the peninsula, but rather a new connection from the main road to the existing road in the peninsula. The president does not have a property in Álftanes any more than Obama has the White House. Bessastaðir, the official residence of the President of Iceland, is on Álftanes.
The road has not been blocked. Work continues on it and the lava has already been crossed by bulldozers.
The Reykjavík Grapevine, another English language paper, said the story had "cobbling together" quotes to paint a picture of elf obsessed pseudo-environmentalists. The Grapevine also collected responses from Iceland's media. The state-run news channel, RÚV, said the AP story had "numerous misrepresentations," and implied that one woman quoted by the AP is not a representative source of Icelanders' view on elves. Then again, the AP introduces her as "a self-proclaimed 'seer,' [who] believes she can communicate with the creatures through telepathy." Alda Sigmundsdóttir of the Iceland Weather Report told The Grapevine that thanks to the AP article a conservation effort "is turned into something trite and superficial."
And that's the problem. Icelanders relationship with elves is an ongoing source of amusement to foreign journalists. In an essay for the Iceland Review, one writer explained "I’d rather be inclined to say that the belief in elves bears witness to our closeness to nature, our cultural heritage and our need to explain things we can’t understand." The rest of the world locks in on that bizarre sentiment and can't focus on anything else. Last month CNN published a cute story on Reykjavík's elf school, which has been around for years. Way back in 2005 the New York Times published "Building In Iceland? Better Clear It With the Elves First," which paints the same picture as this weekend's AP story. And even Michael Lewis' big 2009 Vanity Fair piece on Iceland's corrupt bankers describes the country as a whimsical place where people still believe in elves.
The actual issue here is that the lava fields at Gálgahraun in the Álftanes peninsula were officially protected in 2009, according to The Grapevine. But despite the lava field's protected status, construction for a new road was approved in September. Construction in protected lands has been a contentious issue in Iceland for years. Andri Snær Magnason, an environmentalist and author quoted in the AP piece, filmed a documentary called Dreamland on the environmental consequences of Iceland's Kárahnjúkar dam, which was built to provide the materials company Alcoa with low cost electricity. The film chronicled the tug of war between Icelanders' efforts to protect and profit from their beautiful "fire and ice" nature
As the writer Jóhannesson said, some Icelanders believe in elves, the way some grown Americans believe in Santa Claus, and some people say they do "because they think it is funny." Even Jóhannesson joked that he still believes in the Yule Lads, the thirteen trolls that are the country's equivalent of Santa Claus. The Review has been updating its Daily News section as the different Yule Lads arrive. (Today it's Meat Hook who drops hooks down chimneys to steal pot roasts.) Whether the paper's readers actually believe this is anyone's guess, but odds are it's just a funny little story. We might be the ones taking a folk tale a little too literally.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.