Elias Lönnrot 1802 1884
Finnish folklorist, linguist, and physician.
Best known for his compilation of traditional Finnish poetry in the epic Kalevala, Lönnrot published numerous other collections of traditional Finnish poetry, proverbs, riddles, and incantations, as well as original works on medicine and linguistics. As a folklorist and linguist, he is credited with promoting the recognition of Finnish as a national language and with laying the groundwork for the development of a Finnish national literature.
Biographical InformationFourth of seven children of a tailor and a peasant's daughter, Elias Lönnrot was born in Sammatti, Finland (then part of Sweden). Despite his family's poverty he managed to attend high school and the University of Turku, working first as a pharmacist's assistant, then as a tutor, to support himself during his studies. He became interested in folklore while studying at the University of Turku under the noted philologist and folklorist Reinhold von Becker. He was also inspired by the ideas of German philosopher and critic Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803), one of the first scholars to recognize the importance of folklore to world literature, and Finnish historian Henrik Gabriel Porthan (1739-1804), who had begun collecting Finnish folklore in 1766. After receiving his medical degree in 1832, Lönnrot was assigned as a circuit physician. While travelling around the Finnish countryside and serving the local inhabitants, he also expanded his knowledge of Finnish folklore and folk practices. He eventually took several leaves of absence from his medical practice to collect traditional poetry and proverbs and to work on various other literary projects, including the preparation of a Finnish dictionary. In the 1830s and 1840s, Lönnrot undertook numerous journeys to various parts of Finland, Estonia, Ingria, and eastern Karelia (the area of the Russo-Finnish border from the Gulf of Finland to the Arctic Circle). Dressed as a common laborer, he sought out folksingers and transcribed their songs, elements of which are believed to date back as far as 500 B.C. He would later arrange them, noting, "I followed what I observed the best singers paid attention to in matters of arrangement, and . . . when no help was forthcoming from that quarter, I sought basis for arrangement in the songs themselves." In the late 1840s, Lönnrot became increasingly interested in linguistics; from 1853 to 1862, he taught Finnish language and literature at the University of Helsinki. He died in Sammatti in 1884.
Believing he was recreating a coherent epic poem from the surviving fragments of traditional poetry he and others had recorded, Lönnrot presented his first attempt at epic reconstruction in 1835. This was the Kalevala taikka Vanhoja Karjalan Runoja Suomen kansan muinoisista ajoista ("The Kalevala, or Old Karelian Songs from the Ancient Times of the Finnish People"), which consists of thirty-two "runes," or songs. This 12,978-line work was superseded in 1849 by the enlarged second edition, the New Kalevala, whose 22,795 lines are divided into fifty runes. From that time, the 1835 edition has been known as the Old Kalevala. When modern critics cite the Kalevala, they are referring to the New Kalevala. The Kalevala consists of unrhymed, non-strophic trochaic tetrameter lines, now referred to as the Kalevala meter. Most familiar to English readers from Longfellow's Hiawatha, where at times it sounds monotonous and forced, the Kalevala meter is far more melodious in the original Finnish. Critics distinguish in the Kalevala four intertwined story cycles, all of which concern the interactions of the heroes of Kalevala ("land of heroes") with the people of Pohjola ("north land"). Drawing on poetry gathered by himself and others, Lönnrot published several other folklore collections besides the Kalevala: Kantele (1829-31; "The Harp"), the Kanteletar (1840; "The Spirit of the Harp"), the Sananlaskut (1842; "Proverbs"), the Arvoitukset (1844; "Riddles"), and Suomen kansan muinaisia loitsorunoja (1880; "Old Metrical Charms of the Finnish People"). His notes also became the basis for the thirty-three volume Suomen kansan vanhat runot (1908-48; "Ancient Poems of the Finnish People").
Most critical evaluations of Lönnrot' s work focus on the Kalevala. Translations of the Old Kalevala into Swedish in 1841 and into French in 1845 made the Finnish tales known to a wide readership and garnered immediate acclaim. The first English translation appeared in 1888. Most early criticism focused on the nature of the work and the circumstances of its composition. Lönnrot' s contemporaries believed that he had restored a long-lost epic to its original form, although later research revealed that supposition to be incorrect. Several nineteenth-century experts, including the noted German scholars Max Müller and Jacob Grimm, hailed the Kalevala as a complete national epic on the level of the Iliad or the Nibelungenlied. In the late nineteenth century, scholars began to realize that Lönnrot had intervened substantially in the original material he had collected, piecing together lines from numerous variants of individual songs, standardizing the language, changing character names to fit his concept of the story line, and creating prefatory, final, and linking verses (totalling less than five per cent of the overall poem). As a result, modern commentators tend to treat the Kalevala as a creative work in its own right and to agree with Lönnrot' s own view of himself as belonging to a long line of rune-singers. Opinions of the meaning of the work also vary: Lönnrot himself saw the Kalevala as primarily historical, illustrating early conflicts between Finns and Lapps, while modern critics prefer a symbolic or mythological interpretation. Another focus of recent critical interest has been the role of the Kalevala in the development of Finnish national identity in the late nineteenth through the early twentieth centuries. Although very little commentary exists in English on Lönnrot' s other works, a recent English translation of the Kanteletar, a collection of folksongs composed and sung by women, promises to attract critical attention, particularly by virtue of its sometimes humorous, sometimes bitter perspectives on the lives and status of women in traditional Finnish society.