J.M. Bedell, Hildur, Queen of the Elves and Other Icelandic Legends (Interlink Books, 2007)
Ever met a Christian elf? Have you ever been bridled by a witch and ridden to a meeting with the Devil himself? Have you ever seen a priest forgo blessing a mountainside because a troll begs him for a place to live? Ever seen books upon which the words were writ in fire? Climbed upon the back of a nennir (water horse) and found yourself drowned as a result? (Well, clearly not, as you’re here reading this thus-far slightly rhetorical review.) Settle down, then, and crack open J.M. Bedell’s Hildur, Queen of the Elves and Other Icelandic Legends. You’ll find yourself enriched, intrigued, and confused only by some Icelandic names and why exactly this book is named after Hildur.
Of course, before you can even find out who Hildur is, you’ll have to get through the somewhat (but only somewhat) exhaustive introduction. I recommend reading the first few pages of the Introduction and then skipping it until after you’ve read the folk tales, to be honest. Reading the first few pages will give you a feel for how the oral tradition among Icelanders was conducted, which is really all you need before jumping into the tales feet-first. The tales themselves can teach you quite a bit about the Icelandic tradition and culture: life is full of hardship and death, encounters with the supernatural often bring grief (although short encounters can be lucky), even the wicked must have a place to live, people are not always honest with each other, and you must always learn from your bad behavior (to name but a few of the encoded behavioral messages). In the end, you can return to the Introduction to read analyses of the different types of tales, definitions of contexts for the creatures and characters featured, and an authorial overview regarding the compilation of Icelandic folktales.
Once in the thick of the collection, you’ll find that the tales are divided up arbitrarily. If you like to skip around in your books, go ahead: no harm will come of it here. If you want to read all the ghost stories before getting to the magicians or the trolls, go ahead. While most of the stories fit into their categorization, I should warn you that some of the stories fit in only cursorily and can turn into a bit of a dry recounting of several different kinds of tale (all involving the same character). Along these same lines, cultural notes are also inserted into quite a few of the stories and can sometimes interrupt the flow. This is a flaw on a greater face of beauty, however, as the majority of the tales are rendered in an engaging and cohesive manner.
Westerners will find many of these stories familiar, but will also be surprised. This is reflective of the diverse composition of Icelandic culture as detailed in the Introduction. You’ll find name-guessing tales, magical objects that bring luck and woe, and deals with the Devil within this collection. You’ll also find that the elves are almost indistinguishable from regular people (apart from having nicer lives), that trolls proliferate across the rocky hillsides, and that the Icelandic brand of Christianity is quite comfortable coexisting with all this magic-using, Devil-tempting, and monster-existing. The raising and inheritance of ghosts also proves quite interesting, while the landscape of Iceland is populated with some monsters not quite like any found elsewhere in the world.
Going back to Hildur for a moment, I really am not sure why this book wasn’t named after one Saemundar. He cuts a much more important figure in Icelandic lore. He’s only known as Saemundar the Learned: wise, powerful, shadow-less, a regular triumphant adversary of the Devil, and a magician once believed to be a writer of the Edda. Yet this collection is named after Hildur, a simple servant who also happens to be Queen of the Elves and who isn’t mentioned in story after story (in this collection at least). Titling the book after Hildur simply puzzles me, but this may be due to my lack of previous knowledge of Icelandic folklore.
As a student of fairy tales and a novice in Icelandic lore, I found this book to be a satisfactory sampling of the current Icelandic tales translated into English. The collection of tales and accompanying introduction make this compilation accessible to any interested party, though I should warn you that the nature of the stories is like that of Iceland: breathtaking at times, but always dangerous. Exercise caution when reading these stories in view of immature or closed minds.
This review was originally published at Green Man Review on August 22nd, 2007.