The elves freeze as the shuttle chugs past their invisible homes in the volcanic rock on either side of the two-lane road. I squint hard. I may have spotted one. Or, it may have been a trick of the shadows - not an elf at all but a dwarf, gnome, troll, or skrimsli. I am not in Middle Earth, but what inspired it: Iceland. The land of sagas and Vikings. It is an astonishing landscape of volcanoes, geysers, waterfalls, and fjords. J.R.R. Tolkien hired Icelandic nannies to tell his children tales in a language unchanged for hundreds of years. I am here on a covert mission to be similarly inspired, and to find an elf or two.
It is 8 a.m. The moon is casting a soft, cloud-smoked gaze over the lava on either side of the bus. It is dark and cold, but the group of Icelandic women behind me is chatting excitedly, happy to be home. They are not looking out the windows. They have seen this moonscape before, and I'm guessing, a few elves. They turn their highly fashionable glasses toward each other, and continue to talk.
Icelandic elves do not march and whistle in groups of seven. Nor do they cheerfully distribute gifts at Christmas time. According to Memoirs of an Icelandic Bookworm, the novel I'm reading, the elves here resemble humans, but smaller, of course. And although they are invisible to people the majority of the time, they live in close proximity – in hills, cliffs, and large rocks. They keep to themselves, for the most part, busy with work on their farms. It is easier now, folks say, because most humans have moved into town, and the elves have more space to roam. This may be just as well, as elves are reputed to be temperamental. The more brazen have been known to abduct children and adults and add them to their brood. Since they favor first-born sons, I don't feel threatened. But if I should meet one, I am warned not to fall in love, as these arrangements between species usually end in heartbreak and disaster.
By 8 a.m., I have unloaded my bags at the hotel and set out on foot through the capital city of Reykjavik. It is still dark and the streets are nearly deserted on this early Sunday morning. I pull my hood up and forge ahead, Viking style, slowing occasionally to pick my way across a frozen pool of water. I march out to the Faxafloi Bay, and gaze across the slate gray water, where seagulls float blithely in pods like rubber duckies in the coldest bathtub imaginable. No self-respecting elf would be out here in this cold.
But on my walk back to the hotel I spot my first elves, peering through the kitchen window of a home. They are ceramic and stationary, but I am excited nonetheless; they are surely harbingers of what is to come. The passerby who spots me taking pictures of someone's kitchen is decidedly less amused.
The sun rises finally at 9:30 a.m., feebly pushing its way through the clouds and onto the moss that covers an expanse of lava fields. I have hopped onto a tour bus, which offers a jaunt around the Golden Circle, a showcase of Southern and Central Iceland’s natural wonders.