On Elves in Pop Culture & Uvic’s Beck Lecture Series Celebrating 30 Years

26 Nov

By Ed Sum
(The Vintage Tempest)

The Beck Lecture series at the University of Victoria (located in British Columbia, Canada) celebrated 30 years and concluded this year’s offerings with a look into the Icelandic occult world by Dr. Guðrún Björk Guðsteinsdóttir. She gave the curious a look at elves, ghosts, and trolls from a cultural and literary perspective. Of the former, I sometimes feel like I’m one of the Huldufólk. One slide presented describes how people can tell if one visited the elf world. “You can tell by their love of ‘beauty, art and writing’ and by their wistful look as if having gazed into a disappearing world.” I had days where I’m in that zone. When asleep, my Astral form visits that realm.

Elves hail from a Germanic culture and their appreciation for the arts is especially well known in many a fantasy product. I could resume academic studies to examine the lore. Some material is available online, but more is gained by hearing an educator talk about them than from the Internet. Academic libraries help, but unless you are a student or alumni, I can not borrow them to read off campus.

This program offers more than the flights of fantasy. It reminds Icelanders living abroad about life back home and how it has influenced popular culture. Because of this recent series of lectures, I realize why I love Guillermo del Toro’s Trollhunters and Cressida Cowell / DreamWorks How to Train Your Dragon so much. The seeds which inspired both series hail from this region. When considering the final film to HTTYD is “The Hidden World,” respect to the traditions is made.

A Þrettándabrenna - a bonfire for twelfth night at Ægissíða in West Reykjavik.

Even without these modern-day children’s novel adaptations, Dungeons & Dragons, or literary works, the love for elves is evidenced on New Year’s Eve and on the Twelfth Night in Iceland. Works like Redhead the Whale (traditional folktale) and The Little Book of the Hidden People by Alda Sigmundsdóttir offer a traditional perspective, and I look forward to the information next year’s guest: Jón Karl Helgason will be presenting. His book, Echoes of Valhalla: The Afterlife of the Eddas and Sagas, will be explored. Could the thereafter following Ragnarok be the theme?

In the past, deeper examinations of the sagas, cinematic interpretations of this culture, and defining the Norse way of life make up a terrific gambit of subjects for students of Icelandic culture to explore or as an open learning experience.

The University of Manitoba also offers a similar open lecture series; both have the same goal to bring social awareness to the community about a world few understand. Richard and Margaret Beck started this program to promote a relationship between Icelanders living in America–more like with those living in Victoria, BC specifically–to home, and they have not returned to the old country. I will visit one year. My love has only grown due to hearing about my friend’s travels there and seeing pictures they post on Facebook. It’s not just about the hidden; There is more than volcanoes to marvel at. Magic is in the air. I hope to meet an elf and get spirited away!

For more information about this series, please visit the University of Victoria’s Germanic and Slavic studies homepage here.

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