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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 948

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.

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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 elements in the folk songs and discarded those that posed narrative or stylistic contradictions. He preserved the metric characteristics of the folk poetry: The Kalevala meter contains eight-syllable trochaic lines, with alternating long (stressed) and short (unstressed) syllables. Kalevala makes frequent use of alliteration and is consistent in its reliance on parallelism. Every other line of verse presents a paraphrased repetition of the idea or image introduced in the first line.

The Sampo cycle

Kalevala’s main plot line encompasses the world’s creation, Väinämöinen’s birth, and the events leading to the forging, retrieval, and loss of the Sampo, a miraculous object associated with spiritual and material prosperity. The narrative incorporates epic songs, mythic in nature, that reveal the female origins of creation; Väinämöinen’s role in ordering Kalevala’s natural, agricultural, and moral spheres; and his prestigious position as an “eternal sage,” whose singing (poetic insight) manifests both his unmatched magical powers and ability to communicate with the otherworld. In canto 3, when Joukahainen, envious of the bard’s fame, challenges Väinämöinen to a singing contest and is defeated, the epic songs transform into shaman songs, giving rise to a dominant theme: Spells and magic occupy a more powerful position in Kalevala than physical violence. This theme also underlies the relationship between Väinämöinen and Ilmarinen, the sky’s forger. In cantos 7-8, for example, Väinämöinen looks for a wife in Pohjola. As the land’s mistress, Louhi promises her daughter to the man who can create the Sampo. Väinämöinen’s spells transport the reluctant Ilmarinen to Pohjola, where he has no other choice but to forge the Sampo (canto 10). Väinämöinen also resorts to magic in cantos 16-17 when he travels to Tuonela, the land of the dead, in search for the spell that would allow him to accomplish an impossible feat and win Louhi’s daughter, who had refused to marry Ilmarinen. In the epic’s closing cantos, Väinämöinen resorts to violence only after his magic has failed to stop Louhi’s revenge on Kalevala for the theft of the Sampo. As Väinämöinen and other characters often resort to incantations as a way of curing disease or injuries and securing help from the otherworldly, scholars have often classified Kalevala as a shamanistic epic.

The women

In addition to the epic poetry and ritual/healing incantations typical of the repertoire of male folksingers in Karelia, Lönnrot integrates into Kalevala elaborate examples of lyric poetry, wedding songs, and lamentations, which are traditionally associated with female singers. Such lyric passages create a nuanced literary language, well-suited to articulating the psychological subtleties of a national culture and also to magnifying the emotional intensity of both character motivation and setting, prompting critics to describe Kalevala as both folk epic (with clearly identifiable folklore sources) and literary epic (an individual creation). The sorrowful stories of Aino (cantos 4-5) and of Louhi’s younger daughter (canto 38), neither of whom is willing to marry Väinämöinen or Ilmarinen, reveal that the female characters’ wishes are clearly subordinate to the needs and desires of the male characters, thus emphasizing thematic and narrative continuities between wooing and war in the epic. A woman can escape an unwanted marriage only by merging (or being forced to merge) her identity with nature: Aino drowns in a lake and gets transformed into a mermaid, while Ilmarinen, unable to endure the sorrowful lamentations of his unwilling bride, “sings” her into a seagull.

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