Iceland: Special Elven Edition

Michael Lewis has a piece (h/t) about Iceland and its economic collapse in Vanity Fair. Besides being fascinating, it’s also wonderfully written. Felix Salmon excerpted this bit, and I will too:

“Alcoa, the biggest aluminum company in the country, encountered two problems peculiar to Iceland when, in 2004, it set about erecting its giant smelting plant. The first was the so-called “hidden people” — or, to put it more plainly, elves — in whom some large number of Icelanders, steeped long and thoroughly in their rich folkloric culture, sincerely believe. Before Alcoa could build its smelter it had to defer to a government expert to scour the enclosed plant site and certify that no elves were on or under it. It was a delicate corporate situation, an Alcoa spokesman told me, because they had to pay hard cash to declare the site elf-free but, as he put it, “we couldn’t as a company be in a position of acknowledging the existence of hidden people.” The other, more serious problem was the Icelandic male: he took more safety risks than aluminum workers in other nations did. “In manufacturing,” says the spokesman, “you want people who follow the rules and fall in line. You don’t want them to be heroes. You don’t want them to try to fix something it’s not their job to fix, because they might blow up the place.” The Icelandic male had a propensity to try to fix something it wasn’t his job to fix.

Back away from the Icelandic economy and you can’t help but notice something really strange about it: the people have cultivated themselves to the point where they are unsuited for the work available to them. All these exquisitely schooled, sophisticated people, each and every one of whom feels special, are presented with two mainly horrible ways to earn a living: trawler fishing and aluminum smelting. There are, of course, a few jobs in Iceland that any refined, educated person might like to do. Certifying the nonexistence of elves, for instance. (“This will take at least six months — it can be very tricky.”) But not nearly so many as the place needs, given its talent for turning cod into Ph.D.’s. At the dawn of the 21st century, Icelanders were still waiting for some task more suited to their filigreed minds to turn up inside their economy so they might do it.

Enter investment banking.”


I wondered, though: could the bit about the elves possibly be true? According to Iceland’s Tourist Bureau, the answer is basically: yes, although they make the part about making sure that construction sites are elf-free sound more voluntary, and the ‘hidden people’ include not just elves but gnomes, trolls, fairies, and others:

“Builders of the country’s first shopping mall took care to lay electrical cables and other underground installations well away from the suspected homes of gnomes and fairies. Couples who are planning a new house will sometimes hire “elf-spotters” to make sure the lot is free of spirit folk. Such broadmindedness might be just self-protection. Tales abound of broken limbs, busted equipment and other woes befalling builders daring to go where elves and hidden people traditionally tread.

The Iceland road authority typically responds with sensitivity, routing roads around hallowed boulders or delaying construction long enough to give non-human constituents time to find new accommodations.

When bulldozers kept breaking down during work on a new road a few years ago at Ljarskogar, about three hours drive north of Reykjavik, road crews solved the problem in an unorthodox way but one which is fairly common in Iceland. They accepted an offer from a medium to find out if the land was populated by elves and, if so, were they causing the disruptions.

Viktor A. Ingolfsson, a spokesman for the road agency, says, “When Native Americans protest roads being built over ancient burial grounds, the U.S. listens. It’s the same here. There are people who believe in elves and we don’t make fun of them. We try to deal with them.””

Possibly the Icelandic banks should have made sure there were no hidden people lurking in their balance sheets, waiting to take revenge on anyone who disturbed them.

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