The Runes of Elfland by Ari Berk, illustrated by Brian Froud
Reviewed by Jordsvin
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Warning! This is not a specifically Heathen runebook. Nevertheless, once you get past that I think you just might like it anyway. First of all, there’s the artwork. Brian Froud is the author/illustrator of the well-known and much admired books Faeries and Good Faeries/Bad Faeries. He also collaborated on the films “The Dark Crystal” and “Labyrinth,” both of which are favorites of mine. He is a very fine artist, and does particularly well with fantasy, mythological and folklore subjects. When my nephew, who is now twenty, first started learning to read I gave him Faeries to show him there was something out there besides the Southern Baptist fundamentalism he was getting in Sunday School. It worked. He now wears a hammer and is engaged to a young woman who is studying Heathenry, runework, and galdr with me.
The runelore in this book is overall fairly good. Berk stays reasonably close to the historical meanings of the Runes in most cases. The staves are clearly drawn and are the Elder Futhark forms with the occasional use of Anglo-Saxon variants. On the down side, however, he does not present them in the Futhark order and presents the Runes as a sort of code substituting for the letters of the Roman alphabet.
The premise of the book is fascinating. Each Rune has its own section and is treated as a gateway into some aspect of the Elfish realm. Each section consists of a “Charm” to open that Rune’s gate, a “Telling” or story, and a “Gift” or lesson from that Rune. This could all be seen as a sort of journeywork, and I have at times used Runes as an accessory for my own journey and Seiðrwork. I have also journeyed to visit areas in the Spae-Realms associated with individual Runes as an internal aspect of my own runework.
It is by no means outside of Heathen belief to think of Elves having access to and using Runes. Hávamál 143 in the Poetic Edda states that after Oðin won the Runes on Yggdrasil, he shared them with representatives of various classes of wights. Among the Alfar, Dáin received the Runes and then presumably passed them on to others of his kind.
Berk makes it clear that the Elfish take on the Runes is not identical to that of human beings. Since each Heathen runester will quite normally develop his or her own slightly different understanding of the Runes, that could certainly be the case when non-human wights work with them.
The lore in The Runes of Elfland is reasonably coherent. Much Heathen religious lore and folklore are included. The bits and pieces brought in from elsewhere are Celtic and occasionally Greco-Roman, which are traditions which were long in contact with Germanic Heathenism and have elements in common, both from borrowing back and forth and from a common Indo-European heritage. Thus, they “clash” far less with our lore than most others would.
Each Rune is accompanied by a lovely drawing of a “faery” or if you will, Alf posed in the stoður of that particular Rune. Obviously, the author and/or illustrator have read enough of contemporary Heathen runework to be aware of the stoðar. This, for me at least, increases the book’s credibility somewhat, which is a good thing since Froud mentions that he considers Ralph Blum’s Runebook to be very wise. It may be that, but it isn’t much of a runebook in the narrower sense of the word “Rune” (a stave of the Futhark as opposed to a “mystery” in a broader sense). Blum also encouraged him to create artwork inspired by the Runes. At least Blum did one good thing; the resulting works are beautiful!
For the adult Heathen reader, I recommend this book for its artwork. The Heathen who is also a runester and/or a seiðhr and spae worker will find much to stimulate the imagination, to open possible new fields of exploration and new working techniques. These would particularly include initiating contact with Alfar, Landwights and Huldfok. These of course should be checked with and informed by lore studies and due caution should be exercised. Such workings and relationships are not always safe, especially to the ill-informed or inexperienced!
For the young Heathen, Froud’s art will also be appealing, as will Berk’s stories. There are little messages all through the book written in Runes, and since a transliteration key is also included in it, The Runes of Elfland could be a really fun way to teach runic literacy to a young Heathen.
Unlike many of the books I review, this one is in print and readily available at a reasonable price. If you note and move on from the non-Heathen bits of the book, I think you will enjoy it as much as I did!
last modified 01/13/2004