Scholar explores Iceland for thesis research

Sep 17, 2013

As students return to classes and share stories of their summer adventures, Ian Wright ’14 is among those with the best tales to tell.

Wright spent three and a half weeks in Iceland conducting research for his College Scholar Honors Thesis. He explored areas of spectacular scenery while learning more about the connection between the harsh landscape of the country and the popular belief in the “hidden people” who dwell among rocks, cliffs and fields.

“Icelanders are raised with stories about the huldufólk, or hidden people, and the landscape is integral to the stories,” explains Wright, who’s majoring in global studies: Europe and in studio art. “They are part of Icelanders’ identity and inseparable from their culture. People hand down folk tales through the generations about seeing one of the hidden people.”

Wright interviewed Icelandic residents from all types of professions, including academics, clergy and a sorcerer, to ask about their beliefs in the hidden people. He wanted as many disciplines as possible to be represented in his findings. “They would say things like ‘I don’t personally believe but who’s to say that it’s wrong?’”

In one example, a road building crew that was blasting through rock near Reykjavik found that their machines were breaking down and workers were becoming sick. Such events are attributed to the hidden people. “They called in an intermediary to come in and talk to the huldufólk,” Wright explains. “People in government there take it very seriously.”

Most Icelanders speak both Danish and English, although aspects of the culture were influenced by early Viking settlers from Norway. The geology of the sparsely populated country is characterized by active volcanoes, sand and lava fields, mountains, glaciers and glacial rivers.

Wright first learned about the country’s folklore traditions when he visited on his way to Germany last year for his study abroad experience. After returning to campus, he wrote a proposal for a Richter Independent Study Fellowship and received approval for his research and travel.

As part of his thesis, Wright plans to present his findings in a multimedia presentation that captures the experience of visiting Iceland. This exhibit is scheduled for April 4 through May 4, 2014, in Meiley-Swallow Hall. “I want to help people experience Iceland visually and learn more about this beautiful country,” he says.