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Young World

In the land of elves

VIDYA MURALI

The small-made, big-eared elves of folklore...Do you know where they live? In Hafnarfjordur!

When the Christmas Season is over and Santa Claus returns to the North Pole, his helpers, the Elves, go home too. No, not to the North Pole. But to Iceland, to the city of Hafnarfjordur, to be precise.

Hafnarfjordur is the second largest port in Iceland, handling a major bulk of the country's import-export freights. It is also one of the country's largest fishing centres. This beautiful town has a literacy rate of 100 per cent and poverty is unknown. But the most amazing fact about the place is that it is the official Elf capital of the world. No, it is not like Disneyland where a costumed Mouse is the First Citizen. This is more matter-of-fact.

Elves are respectable citizens of Hafnarfjordur. They are acknowledged inhabitants with recognised civic privileges. The most important of these is their right to veto decisions made by the Municipality regarding new construction of any kind. No road, building or underground cable can pass through an elf lair without inviting their protest in the form of sudden mechanical problems or work-spot accidents. When such unexplained disruptions occur, an elf-medium (a human who can contact elves) is consulted and the road or cable is re-routed to bypass the elf dwelling. The city municipality has also marked off certain areas as elf localities where humans may not build houses. The Tourist Department issues elf-route maps and also arranges elf spotting tours. An elf festival is held every year with great pomp and ceremony, as they are thought to be the original inhabitants of Iceland. But in spite of such celebrity status, elves remain invisible. It is said that only those humans who are born with "second sight" can see them. Of course, this does not prevent tourists from coming to have a look.

Hafnarfjordur nestles on a 10,000 year old lava field where the raging elements of Nature have, down the ages, sculpted the lava deposits into an eerie moonscape — gaunt spire like mountains, vast, treeless wastelands and cave-riddled cliffs and glens. The ever-lively geothermal energy beneath the earth-crust activates a fantastic array of bubbling hot springs, boiling mud-swamps of different colours, fuming geysers and sulphurous steam vents. There is not much greenery, except where humans have cultivated. The scenery seems a perfect habitat for mysterious creatures like the elves.

Elves are the largest clan of the Icelandic Huldufolk. Huldufolk, meaning Hidden People, is the collective name given to all magical beings thought to inhabit Iceland. The name includes elves, trolls, gnomes, light-faeries and the like. They live in a "parallel world" with their own rules of etiquette and morals. So it is difficult to judge them as good or bad using the human yardstick. Among all the Hidden People, elves are the star favourites not only among the natives, but also in all other lands they migrated to along with the marching Vikings. The small-made, big-eared, beady-eyed elves were quickly adopted into the folk-lore traditions of all European countries and have become fairy tale characters much loved by children.

Today, Iceland is modern and prosperous, but the natives are reluctant to let go of their elves as superstition or fantasy. It looks like they have grown rather fond of their Invisible Neighbours. Though only about 23 per cent of the Hafnarfjordur citizens claim to have actually seen the Elves, the general populace is quite at peace with their oddly winding roads and forbidden hills. They accept elves as we do the forces of Nature.

Now that the world has suddenly woken up to the charms of magical beings, thanks to Harry Potter and The Hobbits, citizens of Hafnarfjordur must be feeling smug.

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