Elias Lönnrot attempted to revive a sense of Finnish nationality by using its oral tradition to actively reconstruct a culture unified by a common language, historical continuity, and an indigenous artistic tradition. Lönnrot’s efforts are evident in Kalevala’s composition, dominant themes, and reception. Having been a Swedish province for seven hundred years, Finland had developed deep sociocultural divisions: The Swedish-speaking urban elites had little in common with the Finnish-speaking lower classes, whose cultural self-awareness remained rooted in the country’s rural and oral customs and traditions. In 1809, when Finland was incorporated into the Russian Empire as an autonomous grand duchy, it faced an identity crisis: The Romantic nationalists who sought to create a Finland independent from Sweden’s cultural legacy also needed to take into account fears of being assimilated by the Russians.
Lönnrot’s Kalevala responded to this identity crisis by providing Finns with a national symbol that gave them direct access to Finland’s mythical heritage and historical past, the feats of its epic and cultural heroes, and its indigenous pre-Christian rituals, customs, and beliefs. These are embedded in Kalevala’s main cycles, which center on the exploits of four ancient heroes, Väinämöinen (the shaman or “eternal sage”), Ilmarinen (the primeval smith), Lemminkäinen (the adventurer), and Kullervo (the tragic hero), who protect Kalevala’s order and prosperity, which are threatened by its northern neighbor Pohjola. Lönnrot’s adaptation of folklore produces several levels of epic allegory: While the Kalevala-Pohjola conflicts reflect an archetypal struggle between the forces of light and darkness, they also mirror Finland’s struggle for cultural and national self-definition against two powerful neighbors, Sweden and Russia. Framed by Väinämöinen’s birth and departure from Kalevala, the epic’s narrative adds a historical dimension to the mythological world: It recounts the rise and fall of Finnish paganism, its downfall sealed by the arrival of Christianity.
In the interest of creating a historical time line and safeguarding the mythological characteristics of the epic narrative and characters, Lönnrot eliminated the Christian and modern...
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