Elias Lönnrot Biography

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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.


(Epics for Students)

Elias Lonnrot was born in the southern parish of Sammatti, Finland in 1802, the fourth of seven children in a poor tailor's family. In spite of his humble background, Lonnrot managed to attend the University of Turku, where he studied folklore and linguistics while supporting himself with various jobs. At Turku, Lonnrot became involved with the Finnish nationalist movement. He was strongly influenced by the ideas of Professor Henrik Gabriel Porthan, a historian who encouraged the study of folklore and believed that a nation's cultural identity must be rooted in the language and oral traditions of its ordinary folk.

Following the Turku fire of 1827, the University relocated to Helsinki, where Lonnrot continued his studies and earned his medical degree in 1832. From 1833 to 1853 Lonnrot worked as district physician and travelling health inspector in the remote northern town of Kajaani. Though he was the only doctor in this part of northeastern Finland, the job did not occupy his full time except during outbreaks of epidemic, giving Lonnrot time to pursue his study of Finnish language and folklore.

Between 1830 and 1850 he took several leaves of absence to travel to rural Finland, Ingria, Estonia, and eastern Karelia, meeting traditional singers and gathering folk poetry. During one of his research trips, he was struck by the idea of arranging these poems and fragments into a single, coherent epic narrative, writing in 1834:

As I compared [the results of my collections on my fourth journey] to what I had seen before, I was seized by a desire to organize them into a single whole in order to make of the Finnish legends of the gods something similar to that of the Edda, the saga of the Icelanders. So I threw myself into the labors before me immediately and continued working for a number of weeks, actually months.

The result was The Kalevala, or Old Karelian Songs from the Ancient Times of the Finnish People. Published in 1835, it consisted of thirty-two runes (poems) totalling 12,978 lines. Lonnrot continued his field-work, and in 1840-41 he published the Kanteletar, a collection of ballads and lyric poetry intended as a companion to the Kalevala.

Lonnrot's work awakened the Finnish national consciousness and inspired others, most notably D. E. D. Europaeus and M. A. Castren, to undertake their own poetry-collecting trips. The mass of oral material Lonnrot and others gathered during the 1830s and '40s...

(The entire section is 1,257 words.)