Folklorist Andy Lechter, in his "Folklore" journal article "The Scouring of the Shire: Fairies, Trolls, and Pixies in Eco-Protest Culture" (October 2001), describes ecological protests involving fairies that are very similar to the current controversy in Iceland. "Fairies have inspired a counter-cultural movement. The 1990s in Britain were marked by large and dramatic public protests against a government-sponsored programme of road building, and ... opencast quarrying," Lechter writes.
"A distinctive protest culture flourished in response to this, combining the politics of direct action and an anarcho-travelling lifestyle, with a definite neo-pagan sensibility. This culture adopted an important fairy mythology which placed protesters within an almost fairytalelike struggle between the benevolent forces of nature and a tyrannical and destructive humanity."
Lechter notes, "In this animistic view, the natural world ... is threatened by human encroachment. Protesters see themselves as aided by, or aiding, these nature spirits. Here, the forces of nature, which include fairies, are regarded as benign, as opposed to humanity, which is seen as malign, corrupt, and divorced from nature." (Science Fact or Fantasy? 20 Imaginary Worlds)
The evoking of fairies and elves in the struggle to preserve natural areas not only captures the public's romantic imaginations but also taps into deep pre-existing social and cultural concerns about environmentalism. The theme of threatening new changes and the idea that modern ways disrupt the natural order of things are universal, and appear explicitly in many classic literary works. Perhaps the most famous is J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" saga, in which the idyllic Hobbit homeland, the Shire, is threatened by dirty, polluting industrialization at the hand of evil wizard Saruman. The overcoming of peace and nature over-threatening change is a key theme in Tolkien's books, and conveys a powerful message of environmentalism.
It's easy to exaggerate the conflict and to caricaturize the protesters as crazy, lava-hugging environmentalists who are willing to be arrested to stop an imaginary elf village from being bulldozed. But disturbing the fairies is only one of several reasons offered by the protesters for why the road construction should stop; many challenge the legality of the road (the lava fields were officially protected in 2009, and may or may not remain so today), whileothers lament the impending destruction of a culturally significant local landmark (with or without resident elves).
Some Icelanders truly believe in elves, and many do not. Some of the eco-protesters in Great Britain, Iceland and Scandinavia are genuinely concerned about disrupting fairy villages, and some aren't. To most of them, it doesn't really matter; the important point is that the world's attention is drawn to what they see as an illegal and immoral destruction of pristine land.
Whether the road through the lava rocks will be completed remains to be seen, but if the protesters and elves can't resolve the situation, the legal system surely will.
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