The Poem (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
After his mother created the land, the sun, and the moon out of sea duck eggs, Väinämöinen is born, and with the help of Sampsa Pellervoinen he makes the barren land fruitful, sowing seeds and planting trees. By the time Väinämöinen is an old man, he gained great fame as a singer and charmer. When a brash young man named Joukahäinen challenges him to a duel of magic songs, Väinämöinen wins easily and forces the young man to give him his sister Aino for a wife. Aino is greatly saddened, however, at having to marry an old man, and so she drowns herself, to Väinämöinen’s sorrow. He looks all over the sea for her and finds her at last in the form of a salmon, but in that form she escapes him forever.
In time he hears of the beautiful daughters of Louhi in the far North Country, and he decides to seek them out. On the way to Pohjola, the land of Louhi, his horse is killed by the bold young man whom he defeated in the duel of songs, and Väinämöinen is forced to swim to Pohjola. Louhi, the witch, finds him on the beach, restores his health, tells him that he will have to forge a magic Sampo (a mill that grinds out riches) in order to win a daughter, and then sends him on his way.
Väinämöinen finds one of Louhi’s daughters seated on a rainbow and asks her to become his wife. She gives him three tasks to do. After completing two, he is wounded in the knee while trying to complete the third. The wound, which bleeds profusely, is...
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The Kalevala was a part of a project of independence, providing the social mandate of the nationalist period in Finland' s history (1809-1917).
In Search of a National Identity
1809 marked a turning point in Finland's history. Following the Napoleonic wars of 1808-09, Finland was annexed to Russia as an autonomous Grand Duchy, a distinct political entity with its own governing body, subject to the czar's ultimate authority.
Finland had been ruled by Sweden for 600 years prior to the annexation, and the people of the central Turku region were so heavily assimilated into the dominant foreign culture that many of them thought of themselves as Swedes. Though over 85% of population continued to speak Finnish, Swedish had long been the official language of Finland's administration, education, and literature. Suddenly cut off from their Swedish affiliation, and having little in common with the new Russian rulers, the intelligentsia of Finland experienced something of an identity crisis.
Ethnic self-definition seemed to be based, at this point, on little more than a process of elimination. As a saying of the time went, "we are not Swedish; we can never become Russians; let us therefore be Finns." Educated Finns yearned for a national identity that would earn them respect and put them on the same footing as the other civilized nations of Europe; however, with no literature of their own, no history, and scarcely any...
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In 1835 Elias Lonnrot wrote, "Already while reading the songs previously collected, particularly those collected by Ganandre, I at least wondered whether one might not possibly find songs about Vainamoinen, Ilmarinen, and Lemminkainen and other memorable forebears of ours until from these had been got longer accounts, too, just as we see that the Greeks [in the Homeric poems] and the Icelanders [in the Poetic or Elder Edda] and others got songs of their forebears. On his research trips, Lonnrot heard hundreds of individual short poems (a typical Finnish rune or epic song ranges from 50-400 lines and treats a single episode), which he judged to be imperfectly preserved. Bits had been forgotten, and in many cases Christian interpolations had replaced original names and themes. His wish was to take these distorted and corrupted poems and, by comparing as many variants as possible, attempt to reconstruct the truest versions.
In traditional Finnish rune-singing or chanting, two singers sat together with hands joined, while a third accompanies them on a kantele, a stringed musical instrument. The first singer sings one line, then the second responds, both of them swaying back in forth in rhythm with the music. During his researches, Lonnrot sat near the singers, copying down their words by hand.
Lonnrot did not compose the Kalevala from complete poems; in fact, researchers have determined that Lonnrot took no...
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Compare and Contrast
Kalevala Period (c. 500 B.C.-c. 1200 C.E.): The Finns lived in a largely classless society organized by tribe. Tribes (like the Kaleva and Pohjola tribes depicted in the epic) consisted of people united by geography, culture, kinship bonds, and often a patronymic ancestor. There was frequent contact among tribes.
1800s: In Lonnrot's day, Finland was ruled by a foreign power: the Swedes. Finnish society was split into two groups: an urban, educated class of people who spoke Swedish as their first language, and the rural majority, who still spoke Finnish.
Late twentieth century: Finland is a modern, independent, industrialized European nation, whose population is united by a common language and culture. Its government is socialist.
Kalevala Period: Independent tribes occasionally waged war on neighboring tribes, using sword and crossbow.
1800-1918: The Napoleonic wars made Finland a pawn in the conflict between Russia and Sweden. While still a part of Sweden, Finland was left to defend itself against advancing Russian troops. Later, when Finland became part of Russia, young Finnish men were routinely conscripted to serve in the Russian army. Finland struggled for many decades to achieve independence, which was followed immediately by a civil war between rival political factions.
Late twentieth century: Finland, a sovereign nation since 1917, is at peace....
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Topics for Further Study
Various political factions have re-interpreted the Kalevala to suit their own ideological purposes. What elements of the Kalevala lend themselves to a political interpretation? How could both the political left and right use the same work of literature as a rallying point? Can the Finnish political parties' use of the Kalevala be compared to the Nazi propagandists' use of Nibelungenlied mythology during the 1930s and 40s? Do you know of analogous situations in other countries, where a work of imaginative literature has been pressed into the service of ideology? Is this an appropriate use of literature?
The Kalevala was a source of ethnic pride for the Finns who were struggling for national independence and recognition. Later generations of Finns, however, used the Kalevala to advance the aggressive, militaristic cause of "Greater Finland." Using examples from current world events, assess the benefits and the dangers of ethnic pride. You might consider the former Soviet republics, the Middle East, the United States, the former Yugoslavia, Serbia and Croatia, or Bosnia and Herzogovina. Is there a difference between ethnic pride and tribalism?
Some critics have argued that the Kalevala is anti-feminist. Do you agree, or would you challenge this assessment? Support your argument with examples from the text.
Lonnrot thought Finland's national soul lay with the oral traditions of the rural...
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The music of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) has introduced countless non-Finns to the Kalevala. Sibelius visited Karelia in the 1890s and was enchanted by the rune singers. He based many of his orchestras on Kalevala poems. An appendix listing his works can be found in Keith Bosley's 1989 translation of the Kalevala. Recordings of Sibelius's music can be found in the classical music sections of most music stores.
Though the Kalevala has inspired many Finnish film and television productions, most have not been translated for English-speaking audiences. The 1959 film The Day the Earth Froze is based on the Sampo cycle and Louhi's theft of the sun and moon (it is dubbed in English and available on videocassette from J & J Video, Wmtedstone, NY). A rather campy movie, The Day the Earth Froze is probably more familiar to American television viewers as episode #422 of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (produced by Comedy Central; original air date January 16, 1993).
Pathfinder, a critically acclaimed 1988 film from Lapland, is not based on the Finnish epic; nevertheless, it depicts a world similar in many ways to that of the Kalevala. It is the story of a young Laplander struggling to stop the marauding Tchude tribesmen who destroyed his village. In the film, which is based on a twelfth-century Lapp legend, one can recognize many cultural elements familiar from the...
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What Do I Read Next?
Elias Lonnrot's Kanteletar, a collection of lyric poems and ballads, was published in 1840-41 as a companion work to the Kalevala. The poems in the Kanteletar, which come from the same oral sources Lonnrot used for his epic work, give a vivid and varied picture of daily life in rural Finland: there are laments and jokes; songs of courtship, marriage, and loss; tales of hunters, heroes, women, and children; and much more. Keith Bosley translated one hundred of the Kanteletar poems into English for Oxford University Press's World's Classics series, 1992.
Lonnrot's Old Kalevala (1835) and Proto-Kaleva (c. 1835), along with excerpts from his 1927 university dissertation on Vainamoinen, have been translated into English by Francis Peabody Magoun, Jr., The Old Kalevala and Certain Antecedents (1969).
The American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) attempted to imitate the meter and spirit of the Kalevala in his narrative poem The Song of Hiawatha (1855), the tale of a wise and heroic leader of the Ojibway Indian tribe. Controversy surrounding Hiawatha—specifically, whether Longfellow had properly acknowledged the Kalevala as a source—brought the Finnish epic to many people's attention and and led to the first English translation of the Kalevala.
Selections from Eino Leino' s Helkavirsia, a collection of Kalevala-inspired poems written during the period of...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Sources for Further Study
Aaltonen, Hilkka (compiler). Books in English on Finland: A Bibliographical List of Publications Concerning Finland until 1960, Including Finnish Literature in English Translation. Turku University Library, Turku, 1964.
An exhaustive, unannotated bibliography on Finland. Now out of date, but some parts may still be useful.
Alfonso-Karkala, John B. "Transmission of Knowledge by Antero Vipunen to Vainamoinen in Kalevala and by Sukra to Kacha in Mahabharata," in Proceedings of the 7th Congress of the International Comparative Literature Association, Vol. 2, Comparative Literature Today: Theory and Practice, edited by Eva Kushner and Roman Struc, Kunst and Wissen, Erich Bieber, 1979, pp. 619-23.
Alfonso-Karkala examines the symbolism of Vainamoinen's quest to obtain three magic words and suggests a Jungian interpretation of the figure of Antero Vipunen.
Bako, Elemer (compiler). Elias Lonnrot and his Kalevala: A Selective Annotated Bibliography with an Introduction to the National Epic of Finland Second Edition, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, 19S5.
Published to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Kalevala, this twenty-nine-page bibliography is broken down by topic.
Books from Finland, Vol. 29, No. 1, 1985....
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Ahokas, Jaakko. A History of Finnish Literature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973. Demonstrates the importance of Lönnrot’s compilation of traditional Finnish folktales in giving the impetus for the formation of a Finnish literary tradition.
Honko, Lauri. Religion, Myth, and Folklore in the World’s Epics: “The Kalevala” and Its Predecessors. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1990. Collection of scholarly essays that takes a comparative and analytical focus. Occasionally difficult, but worthwhile for its illumination of how much intellectual reflection and debate the Kalevala is capable of inspiring among scholars.
Jones, Michael Owen. The World of the “Kalevala”: Essays in Celebration of the 150 Year Jubilee of the Finnish National Epic. Los Angeles: UCLA Folklore and Myth Publications, 1987. By far the best general book on the Kalevala. Provides a clear and cogent description of the story of the epic, as well as of its significance in Finnish literary history and cultural life.
Sawin, Patricia G. “Lönnrot’s Brainchildren: The Representation of Women in Finland’s Kalevala.” Journal of Folklore Research 25, no. 3 (1988): 187-217. A feminist exsmination of the epic. Examines such characters in the story as Aino, the daughter of Louhi, and Marjatta, and...
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