Changelings in ‘Katla’

The new and the old Gríma in Katla

I’ve just finished watching the Netflix series Katla from Iceland- and decided to give a quick plug to a fascinating and clever modern faery story.

Without wanting to give too much plot away, the volcano called Katla has been erupting for a year, devastating the local community. Suddenly, people start to appear who are either dead or from the past. They are termed umskiftingar (translated as ‘changelings‘ in the subtitles)- although my Icelandic dictionary tells me the correct word ought to be skiptimenn and that the term used in the series means ‘transitions.’

Now, I’m no expert on the folklore of the Icelandic álfar (elves), although I’d certainly expect there to be some sort of changeling phenomenon very like that in British faerylore. Katla makes intelligent and quite modern use of the concept: these present-day changelings are born in a volcanic vent under a glacier and they appear in people’s lives where there is unfinished psychological business, grief and bereavement. They can be a violent and distressing presence, but they seem to be meant to help individuals resolve problems and recover- unlike the authentic changelings of British tradition which, as they are substitutes for stolen babies, bring loss and upset where there was none before.

Anyway, it’s weird and shocking in places, but recommended.

Gríma and the returned Ása

2 thoughts on “Changelings in ‘Katla’

  1. Elves are an interesting topic. A lot of folks believe they were originally Ancestor Spirits, some also suggest insist they’re interchangeable with Dwarves, but I personally think the most credible answer might be that they refer to Ancestor Spirits which are evolving or devolving in the reincarnation cycle. You get that feeling from Grønbech, and you certainly get the feeling from the Eddas that Elves were honourable and dwarves were not. For what it’s worth.

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    1. I’ve read the Eddas (quite some years ago now) but I think you’re right about the distinction. As for the dwarves, whatever the original Norse/ Germanic folklore, in Britain they definitely did become interchangeable with elves, in that the dwarves all but disappeared. They’ve left a slight trace in the duergars of Northumberland, although there’s essentially just one recorded story about them; otherwise, the name and the separate identity are lost. Possibly some of their ill character has been inherited by goblins like the redcap and the powrie (but even ‘goblin’ is a French word, not an English one). Of course, today, people think we’ve got hordes of dwarves because of Tolkien’s influence but (to coin a phrase) “it’s just not British.”

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