Elias Lönnrot (LURN-rewt) is one of those little-known individuals who through diligence and unusual ability help to re-create the past glory and artistic history of a nation. Born at Sammatti, Finland, on April 9, 1802, he labored throughout most of his career to preserve the old folk legends and poetry of Finland in readable form. His formal education, at the University of Abo and later at Helsinki, had been in medicine, and he qualified as a physician, but his abiding interest was in philology. By 1827 he was writing articles on the nature of the early Finnish language, and he soon began to collect old legends and folk tales. In 1833 he settled in the rural district of Kajana, ostensibly as a doctor, but most of his time was spent in touring the countryside of Finland, nearby parts of Russia, and even Lapland in search of fragments of old stories and verse to expand his collection of the national literature of Finland.
Lönnrot’s most important work was the Kalevala, a collection of folk literature that became the national epic of Finland. His work went far beyond simply collecting, which in itself was laborious and often had to be done on foot for days at a time; he also had to edit and connect the fragmented items of the epic, and often he needed to supply connective material as well. Most of the source material was preserved only in oral tradition, and his work involved careful research combined with truly creative imagination. He was rewarded for his labors by an appointment to the Chair of Finnish Literature at the University of Helsinki.