What does it mean to believe in something: A Conversation with Nancy Marie Brown


In her new book, Looking for the Hidden Folk: How Iceland’s Elves Can Save the Earth, veteran science writer Nancy Marie Brown examines how landscapes shape the stories we tell and, conversely, how our stories shape our relationships with the land. Brown visited Iceland for the first time in 1986 and fell in love with the country. Today, she makes the case that Icelanders’ openness to the possibility of magical beings existing around them makes them better poised to protect the natural world. She visits with “elf seers” and examines what it means to “believe” in something.

Brown has written six other books about Iceland’s rich history, dramatic scenery, and fantastical folklore, including The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman, A Good Horse Has No Color, and Mendel in the Kitchen: A Scientist’s View of Genetically Modified Foods.

I was delighted to speak with Brown via Zoom about how a science writer approaches the serious topic of elves and the limits of language, especially when trying to describe a place like Iceland.


The Rumpus: This book delves into so many diverse topics—physics, religion, neuroscience, history, folklore—and spans so many visits to Iceland over so many years, I’m curious how the idea came about. What’s the origin story of this book?

Nancy Marie Brown: Well, I’ve been going to Iceland since 1986 and keeping copious travel journals. So, I had tons of material and I kept thinking, “I need to do something with this, I need to make something out of this.” Sometimes when I came home from Iceland, I tried to write an article. But the concepts never seemed to fit in 2,500 words or 5,000 words. I wrote draft after draft after draft; it just never gelled.

In 2015, I was on the book tour for Ivory Vikings, which is a history of the Viking Age told through the Lewis Chessmen (a famous medieval chess set carved from walrus ivory). That summer, I met the elf seer, Ragnhildur Jónsdóttir, whose story starts this book. And I learned how this woman who sees elves—and tells stories about elves—had used her ability to protect a beautiful natural area right outside of the city of Reykjavik. It was pretty much going to be destroyed by a new road. Environmental groups had tried to approach the government and say, “No, you can’t destroy this beautiful natural area.” It wasn’t working. So, she came at it from another angle. She took the road authorities on an elf walk. She took them through the lava field and explained to them the beauty that she sees and the spiritual forces that she feels. It’s a spiritual place. It’s a place of energy. It’s a place of light.

On the bus to a reading, I took out my notes and realized, “Wow, what she was telling me about elves and this natural area is actually what I’ve been feeling every time I go to Iceland.” Every place I’ve been, every person I talked to, they related to nature through stories. It was the stories they told that made these places special to me—that made me want to go back—that made me see things differently. And I realized her ability to see elves and tell the stories of elves was actually what everyone in Iceland was doing. They just weren’t calling them elves, they were calling them giants, or ancestors, or dragons. It was so totally different from my American way of treating nature. There was this sense of wonder in everything, this sense of awe, not just beauty as some sort of painting you put on your wall, but as a feeling inside of you. So, I had this epiphany on the bus.

Rumpus: You’re a science writer and this is a nonfiction book about a topic that many people consider to be fictional. Did you approach this book differently from how you usually write nonfiction?

Brown: No, it definitely wasn’t a change. I saw it as a quest, a conversation.

I’m really interested in how the stories we tell make us see things differently, or make us accept things. Even when I get into gravity and quantum mechanics, dark matter—at a certain point, the mathematics runs out. You’ve got Newton and Einstein and they contradict each other. They can’t both be right. So how do you choose? As I end the book, I say, Everybody is an artist. We are all creating our own world, we are all creating our story of the world and how we see it.

Rumpus: You write about genre. You mention J.R.R. Tolkien, whose The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogy owe a lot to Icelandic folklore. But books like his are dismissed as childish or unserious. Nabokov is literature, as you say, and Tolkien is fantasy. I found myself wondering about modern Icelandic literature. Is it more inclusive of fantastic or speculative stories?

Brown: Yes, actually. I enjoy reading modern Icelandic as well. And you could call a lot of it magical realism. Because magic—and maybe not elves, as in little guys with pointy hats, but spirits you might find in the lava field—often comes in. There’s a really famous Icelandic writer, Sjón, which is his pen name, who has a book called The Blue Fox, in which a farmer in Iceland goes out hunting foxes. He has recurring engagements with this blue fox that is magical and mystical and part of himself but also in nature. There’s this complete blurring in the book of what is inside the farmer’s mind and what’s actually out there.

Other Icelandic artists also feel this permeability of the wall between the spiritual and the real, or the magical and the ordinary, where things can blur and shift and cross from one world into another quite easily.

I think some of that has to do with the nature of Iceland. The weather changes so fast. The fog rushes in and you have no idea where you are. Or, the rain comes down, and that big glacier that’s been looming over you, is suddenly gone. You wonder, did I really see that? Was that in my mind? When you’re walking through a lava field in the night, you see these faces or creatures in the stone, and you pass by them, and you wonder, did they move behind me? You feel like, okay, what else is in this world with me? You know you’re not seeing all of it. So yeah, Icelandic artists and writers do use that feeling quite a lot to show how precarious our life is and how very insignificant each person can be.

Rumpus: You’re a science writer and you note that writing about the environment is often laden with loss and disappearance. Do you feel like this project served as a sort of antidote to that? Or is it a different flavor of the same thing, that we’re losing the landscape of these stories, and perhaps we’re losing our willingness to see this magic around us, too?

Brown: I’d say it’s more the antidote. Because all the time that I was a science writer, I was simultaneously studying medieval Icelandic literature and going to Iceland and living in that world, as well. And most of my books have some sort of tension between the two—between sagas and archeology, between folklore and science, between medieval and modern. So that’s a wall that I’m used to scrambling across.

This book took it way farther. It’s one thing to contrast medieval sagas to modern archaeology, because they both tell us something about people living one thousand years ago. This book was trying to say folklore and science can tell you something about yourself, about modern people. And so, it really took a leap of faith for me to take the elf seer seriously. I talk in the book about how I came to see what she sees, though I actually have never seen an elf. I am now accepting that she does. So, there was this extra hurdle I had to get across.

Then again, I looked at, “So how do we decide what we’re going to believe in, in science?” You have to get across the same hurdles. Okay, this theory only takes you so far. It explains things to a point. Do we then overlook the fact that when you take it a little farther, you know, Einstein is predicting time travel? Do we accept that, too? It’s that question, again: “How do you decide what you believe? And what does it even mean to believe in something?” That word, believe, is used in all different ways. We have really no fixed understanding of what it means.

Rumpus: Right. Your friend, Ginger, sees a ghost in a hotel in Iceland, and it makes her believe that elves might exist, after all. Do you think people need to experience something magical firsthand to believe in elves or elf stories? Or do you think people can be open to it without seeing, perhaps by reading about it?

Brown: I hope so. I mean, that’s one of the reasons I wrote this book was to encourage people to see another way of looking at the world. It may not be for them, but they should be open to the possibility of it. It certainly is easier under certain circumstances. Children have no problem believing in elves and dragons and what we would call mythical beings. So, I guess the younger we get them, the better.

But this sense of being able to open yourself up to wonder is something you can do at any age. You just have to open yourself to it. Frankly, for me, it’s a whole lot easier to do that when you’re out in the middle of nowhere, you’re cold and you’re hungry.

Ginger’s experience was kind of a common one. She’s surrounded by New Age thought. She lives in the Bay Area of California. She’s heard all this woo-woo crystal stuff, she just doesn’t believe any of it. She comes over to Iceland. She’s tired. She’s jetlagged. She’s in this strange place. She’s staying up late at night. The sun hasn’t gone down—the sun never goes down. And she feels, sees, hears things that she can’t explain. A lot of people would just leave it at that. But Iceland’s folklore gives you ways of explaining them. So you can say, “That was a ghost,” or “That was an elf.” I mean, somebody else in her exact situation might have thought it was an elf sitting on the chair behind her, not a ghost. So, it’s just: How do you interpret these weird feelings?

Rumpus: And do you have that willingness to admit what you don’t know?

Brown: Yeah. A lot of times we are taught that’s a sign of weakness, a sign of irrationality. Whereas the Icelanders would say, no, it’s a sign of spirituality, a sign of growth, a sign of being larger, not smaller. So it’s a different way of approaching how you deal with the unknown. And again, we could contrast this to people who are religious, in terms of Christians who open themselves to Jesus or open themselves to God and have a personal relationship. In our country, we’re not used to making fun of people for being open to that kind of experience. And yet, we’ll make fun of somebody who’s open to a nature spirit.

Rumpus: We’re living in a time of disinformation. Some people deny climate change, for example. Do you worry that encouraging people to expand their beliefs beyond what we can see could give them license to ignore facts?

Brown: No, I think we already do that. So, I think the danger has already appeared. I see this as a way of confronting that. We may never have all the facts but we can feel that what we are doing is wrong, that what we are doing is harming the earth. If we can open ourselves to feeling the spirits of the earth and to seeing even something like a rock as having value and beauty, why would we then destroy it? Why would we pave over it to it achieve another imaginary good, which is money? I mean, money’s not real. Money is a concept that we all buy into.

Rumpus: People are becoming more thoughtful about who has ownership of stories and cultures. How do you approach writing about a culture that isn’t your native one?

Brown: That’s an interesting question because when I first started writing about Iceland, I was told in no uncertain terms that only Icelanders can write about Iceland. None of my books have been published in Icelandic or in Iceland. And there’s still this sense that I’m some kind of interloper. Except that over the years, after having written six or seven books that use Icelandic sagas or Icelandic history, I’ve also been told by many individual Icelanders that I know their history better than they do. When I’m visiting, they ask me to tell their kids the stories because they don’t know them as well as I do.

There’s this great Icelandic saying: “The guest’s eye is the clearest.” That’s a loose translation of it. They have this contrasting sense that only Icelanders can write about Iceland, but also that the guest sometimes sees things more clearly.

So, it depends who you ask. Icelandic publishers haven’t bought into it yet. But Icelandic farmers and friends and people I travel with are sometimes quite impressed that I know these things and they don’t.

Rumpus: So, are you writing for non-Icelandic readers? Or do you envision Icelandic people reading your books?

Brown: Well, it’s both. First, Iceland is a very small market, there are only 350,000 Icelanders. And they make a joke that every Icelander has a book in their belly. So, they publish a lot of books themselves. It’d be very hard to compete with Icelanders and get my book to sell enough copies to really make a difference there. America is a larger market and I’m writing mostly for Americans. I’m writing to share my love of Iceland. It’s a special place to me.

It’s very important to me that the Icelanders I write about are happy with what I have to say. My very first book was about buying Icelandic horses in Iceland. And I just spent a week at the farm I wrote about twenty-five years ago. And they’re still talking about the book, and about how happy they were to be in a book. It’s very important they’re part of the process. These are their stories.

One of the problems I have in writing these books is that I talk to people in a mix of English and Icelandic. And my Icelandic really isn’t good so sometimes I get things completely mixed up. And I want to know, “Okay, did I just totally misunderstand you? Is that really what you meant?” Sometimes their English isn’t good, either.

Rumpus: You write about the limits of language, lamenting that our most valuable places are guarded with sterile language such as preserve and environment. When faced with a landscape as otherworldly as Iceland’s, many of us don’t have adequate language to describe it. The hidden folk give you this whole other realm of language and description that you get to use.

Brown: I think it goes back to your idea of fiction and nonfiction. Because if you see the Earth as alive, you can write about it as a character. Whether it’s a fictional character or a non-fictional character doesn’t really matter. I do have problems with genre, I overlap them all the time. But if you see the Earth as being alive itself in terms of the trolls that are creatures that have turned into stone and may come back out of the stone, the elves that live in the stones are in the hills, along with the ancestors and the gods that live in the hills, it does give you a new way of telling a story, a new way of looking at the world.

It’s a very old language. We used to talk about the Earth in terms of wonder and magic a lot more than we do now. If you read medieval literature like I do, you find references to people who go through a door and end up in another world or who can become very tall or can change into an animal. There’s all kinds of permutations and transformations going on around you.

Rumpus: Often what we categorize as fiction endures longer than what we categorize as nonfiction. You point out that stories that last for thousands of years—Greek myths, sagas—tend to be not only vivid but preposterous and fun. Does this ever compel you to write fiction?

Brown: Actually, yes. I have a couple of novels in the closet and I’m thinking about writing fiction for my next book project because the person I’m interested in was a real person. She lived in the 13th century in Iceland, and we know almost nothing about her, so, in order to tell her story, I will have to make it up. That’s a bit daunting. But again, as you say, these are the stories that last. And before the Reformation, that’s really all you had in terms of literature—stories that had some sort of physical or spiritual or fantastic element to them.

Rumpus: In the book you jump between finding earthly explanations for things. A cyclops, a one-eyed vengeful giant, is a metaphor for an erupting volcano, for example. A dragon is a way of describing ineffable fear. Other times, you let magical beings like elves simply be magical and unexplained. I’m curious how much pressure you felt to come to firm conclusions while writing this book.

Brown: Well, I failed. That’s why I think of the book as a conversation because I’m reaching for a conclusion but I haven’t actually gotten there. The importance, to me, of the elf is: How can we use this concept in order to change how we value the world? Not, how can we fix this in concrete, how can we say what’s true and what’s not true?

I’m much more interested in the artistic side, the spiritual side. What can we learn from this idea that nature itself has a spirit? So, again, it’s more of a quest or a conversation than I think I know the answers.



Author photograph by Bjarney Lúðvíksdóttir

Lily Raff McCaulou is a writer in Bend, Oregon. She is the author of Call of the Mild: Learning to Hunt My Own Dinner (Grand Central Publishing, 2012) and her journalism has appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times, The Guardian, and Rolling Stone. She also works as a journalism advisor at a community college. More from this author →