‘Tinker bell’,* by artist Brian Froud
Blá nótt yfir himininn
Blá nótt yfir mér
Horf-inn út um gluggann
Minn með hendur
Faldar undir kinn
Hugsum daginn minn
Í dag og í gær
Blá náttfötin klæða mig Í
Beint upp í rúm
Breiði mjúku sængina
Ég fel hausinn minn undir sæng
Starir á mig lítill álfur
Hleypur að mér en hreyfist ekki
Úr stað – sjálfur
“Blue night over the sky, blue night over me, disappeared out of the window. Me, with my hands, hidden under my cheek, I think about my day, today and yesterday. I put on my blue night-clothes, go straight to bed. I pull the soft covers over, close my eyes, I hide my head under the covers. A little elf stares at me, runs towards me but doesn’t move from his place – from himself- a staring elf.”
These are the lyrics for the haunting song Starálfur by Icelandic band, Sigur Ros. I was entranced the first time I heard it- and for two reasons. One is that it’s beautiful (which is reason enough for most fans of the band, obviously) and secondly because of what else the lyrics of the song evoked for me. As a life-long lover of fairy lore, I wanted to know what the wider significance of that staring elf might be.
Some of you will know that the alfar, the Icelandic elves, are still very much still alive and well in present day Iceland. Descendants of the Norse light and dark elves, they live under large rocks and hillocks and they are still treated with consideration and respect. These same alfar are also the distant relatives of our own English elves.
So, why is the elf in the song staring? It may be conscience, perhaps, or just a dream, but it’s worth noting that one theme of Icelandic fairylore is that at certain times of year, and especially over the period of Christmas and the New Year, the elves will be abroad and may enter human homes. Food and drink should be left out for them and they should be made to feel welcome (some readers may recall that a similar story applies to the trows of Shetland, and given their shared Norse heritage it is likely that the origins of both beliefs are shared). Be that as it may, perhaps what’s described in this song is that presence of an elf in the home over the long winter nights. Equally, it might merely evoke that feeling that the invisible people are always alongside us, watching and judging us; perhaps it is better that we are not aware of them, observing our actions, so perhaps this is why the speaker reflects upon his recent actions…
In the British Isles, we do not expect to be confronted with elves at such close quarters; they are usually banished to woods and even wilder, further places. Even the house haunting brownie tended to keep discretely out of the way and did its chores at night. This proximity, this invasion, is disturbing then.
What vocalist and composer Jón Þór Birgisson had in mind when he wrote this song, I don’t know; but I can say why it is affecting and memorable to me. There are several abiding themes of fairlore that are evoked for me by the lyrics:
- night is a time of peril, when our Good Neighbours are abroad. In the song it’s not clear if that “blá nótt” is a glorious sky full of stars and the swirling Northern Lights, or something blacker and more brooding. Night is properly their time, and that is when humans should be at home and asleep. During the hours of darkness the fairies dance and feast, disappearing at the first sign of dawn. If we trespass upon their time, we should expect to be punished;
- Nightmares can be brought to us by the fays at night. Queen Mab is the elf most known for this; she is known as the midwife of dreams. The dreams she brings may be pleasurable, but they may too be fearful and dismaying. Fuseli’s painting of The nightmare captures this aspect of supernaturally induced dreams perfectly;
- Following from this, I cannot help but see the creature sitting on the woman, pressing down upon her, as that Staring Elf. What is disturbing and alarming about the song’s apparently benign image is the incursion of Faery into the home, into the safety and security of the warm bed. The speaker pulls the covers over his head, seeking for cosy reassurance; instead he’s faced with an implacable and threatening presence.
There is, therefore, a curious disparity between the aetherial beauty of the music and the looming menace of the elf- always advancing, always imminent. Perhaps that’s the epitome of the nightmare, in which the fear is ever unresolved- you fall from heights, you’re chased by beasts- but never die. Both the tune and the images conjured will perpetually haunt me.
Henry Fuseli, ‘The Nightmare’, 1781
* A closing note on the headline illustration by Brian Froud. Froud’s representation of Tinkerbell, one of several paintings based upon Peter Pan, is perhaps the best of all works of art inspired by this play. Any reading of the story has to confess that Tink is not a pleasant character- she’s jealous and vengeful and she tries to kill Wendy. Disney’s blonde, busty, fluttering Tinkerbell wholly fails to capture the true character of the book.