Elias Lönnrot Lönnrot, Elias - Essay


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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 Information

Fourth 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.

Major Works

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").

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Kantele [editor] (poetry) 1829-31

Kalevala taikka Vanhoja Karjalan Runoja Suomen kansan muinoisista ajoista [editor] (poetry) 1835, enlarged edition, 1849

Kanteletar [editor] (poetry) 1840

Sananlaskut [editor] (proverbs) 1842

Arvoitukset [editor] (riddles) 1844

Finsk-Svenski Lexikon ("Finnish-Swedish Dictionary") 2 vols. (dictionary) 1874-80

Suomen kansan muinaisia loitsorunoja [editor] (poetry) 1880

The Kalevala [editor] 2 vols. (translated by John Martin Crawford) (poetry) 1888

Kalevala, The Land of Heroes [editor] (translated by W. F. Kirby) (poetry) 1907

* Suomen kansan vanhat runot [compiler] 33 vols. (poetry) 1908-48

The Kalevala, or Poems of the Kalevala District [editor] (translated by Francis Peabody Magoun, Jr.) (poetry) 1963

The Kalevala: An Epic Poem after Oral Tradition [editor] (translated by Keith Bosley) (poetry) 1989

The Kanteletar: Lyrics and Ballads after Oral Tradition [editor] (selected and translated by Keith Bosley) (poetry) 1992

* Assembled from his notes.

Elias Lönnrot (essay date 1835)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Preface to the 'Old Kalevala'," in The Kalevala; or, Poems of the Kaleva District, edited by Elias Lönnrot, translated by Francis Peabody Magoun, Jr., Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963, pp. 365-74.

[In the following excerpt from his preface to the first edition of the Kalevala, later known as the Old Kalevala, Lönnrot discusses the nature of the poems and the way in which he compiled and organized them.]

I have tried to put these songs into some sort of order, a task of which I should give some account. Since to my knowledge no one has previously tried to order them or so much as mentioned doing so, I will first report on how I...

(The entire section is 1289 words.)

Lauri Honko (essay date 1960)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Kalevala and Finnish Culture," in The Finns in North America: A Social Symposium, edited by Ralph J. Jalkanen, Michigan State University Press, 1969, pp. 46-52.

[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1960, Honko discusses the cultural milieu in which the Kalevala was compiled and reviews the course of its subsequent study.]

Few works have had so pervasive an effect upon a nation's life as the epic Kalevala. Its influence upon Finnish music, art, and poetry is recent enough to be remembered by everyone; its unique place in Finnish literature is recognized by all.

Two characteristics of the age,...

(The entire section is 2884 words.)

William A. Wilson (essay date 1975)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Kalevala and Finnish Politics," in Journal of the Folklore Institute, Vol. XII, No. 2-3, 1975, pp. 131-55.

[In the following excerpt, Wilson takes a critical look at the historical relationship between Finnish nationalist politics and the study of the Kalevala.]

Folklore studies in Finland have from the beginning been intimately connected with the struggle of Finnish nationalists to achieve first cultural and then political independence. Probably in no other country has the marriage of folklore research and national aspirations produced such dramatic results. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Finns, fragmented into several dialect...

(The entire section is 9788 words.)

Matti Kuusi, Keith Bosley, and Michael Branch (essay date 1977)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: An Introduction to Finnish Folk Poetry-Epic: An Anthology in Finnish and English, edited and translated by Matti Kussi, Keith Bosley, and Michael Branch, Finnish Literature Society, 1977, pp. 21-77.

[In the following excerpt, the authors discuss the historical context of Lö nnrot 's compilation of the Kalevala and review its popular and critical reception.]

The ideas that inspired Bishop Thomas Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765) and Johann Herder's Stimmen der Vö lker in Liedern (1st ed. 1778) found a response in Finland when in 1766 a young academic, Henrik Gabriel Porthan (1739-1804), roundly condemned those of his...

(The entire section is 3236 words.)

John B. Alphonso-Karkala (essay date 1979)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Transmission of Knowledge by Antero Vipunen to Väinämöinen in Kalevala and by Sukra to Kacha in Mahabharata," in Proceedings of the 7 th Congress of the International Comparative Literature Association, Volume 2, Comparative Literature Today: Theory and Practice, edited by Eva Kushner and Roman Struc, Kunst und Wissen, Erich Bieber, 1979, pp. 619-23.

[In the following excerpt, Alphonso-Karkala examines the symbolic implications of Väinämöinen's quest to obtain three magic words from the giant Antero Vipunen in the Kalevala]

In the oral tradition, when natural phenomena were not readily comprehended, people simplified their perception of the...

(The entire section is 1975 words.)

Robert Harbison (essay date 1980)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Romantic Localism," in Deliberate Regression, Alfred A. Knopf, 1980, pp. 115-47.

[In the following excerpt, Harbison comments on the absence of a clear scholarly, idealistic, or artistic focus in the Kalevala]

[Elias] Lönnrot was a doctor who began to collect fragments of Finnish oral poetry on vacations and tours of medical inspection in rural Finland, without at first the idea of forming them into a whole. After his first publication, The Harp (1829-31), two skilled singers in an eastern district gave him a new conception of the songs' homogeneity, though the possibility of putting together a Finnish Ossian had been broached much earlier in an...

(The entire section is 1919 words.)

Senni Timonen (essay date 1985)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Lönnrot and His Singers," translated by Satu Salo and Keith Bosley, in Books from Finland, Vol. XIX, No. 1, 1985, pp. 24-29.

[In the following excerpt, Timonen examines the contributions made to Lönnrot' s conception of the Kalevala by some of the principal singers of Finnish folk poems from whom he collected his material.]

In the winter of 1834, when the Kalevala was taking shape, on Elias Lönnrot' s desk there were 27,900 lines of folk poetry, as yet unpublished, each of which had been taken down from private citizens. Most of these singers and wise men (tietäjät, literally 'knowers', possessors of magical powers) were still alive...

(The entire section is 2890 words.)

Kai Laitinen (essay date 1985)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Kalevala and Finnish Literature," translated by Hildi Hawkins, in Books from Finland, Vol. XIX, Ño. 1, 1985, pp. 61-64.

[In the following excerpt, Laitinen examines the influence of the Kalevala on the development of Finnish literature and of a Finnish national identity.]


Finnish literature began with the Kalevala.

That statement is at the same time more and less than the truth. A fair amount of literature had been published in Finland before the Kalevala appeared in 1835. Bishop Mikael Agricola, who brought Lutheranism to Finland in the sixteenth century, gave a start to...

(The entire section is 2770 words.)

Keith Bosley (essay date 1985)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Translating the Kalevala: Midway Reflections," in Books from Finland, Vol. XIX, No. 1, 1985, pp. 30-33.

[In the following essay, written while he was in the process of translating the Kalevala into English, Bosley reflects on the special challenges and responsibilities inherent in that task.]

Ilmarinen the smith, eternal craftsman,
forges a fiery eagle, a wivern
of flame: the feet he hammered out of iron,
of steel the talons, wings of a boat's sides.
Up on the wings he clambered, on its back,
the eagle's wingbone tips, there he sat down,
there he commanded: 'Eagle, pretty...

(The entire section is 2212 words.)

Senni Timonen (essay date 1989)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to "Kanteletar: Women's Voices," in Books from Finland, Vol. XXIII, No. 3, 1989, pp. 159-61.

[In the following excerpt, Timonen briefly reviews the content and organization of the Kanteletar and describes Lönnrot's role in compiling the collection.]

(The entire section is 1382 words.)

Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Bixby, James T. Review of the Kalevala. Unitarian Review XXXI, No. 4 (April, 1889): 309-27.

Examines various mythological aspects of the Kalevala.

Branch, M. A. Introduction to Kalevala: The Land of Heroes, translated by W. F. Kirby, pp. xi-xxxiv. London: Athlone, 1985.

Identifies four layers of style characteristic of the Kalevala and other Finnish folk poetry of its type.

Comparetti, Domenico. "Conclusions." The Traditional Poetry of the Finns, translated by Isabella M. Anderton, pp. 327-59. London and New York: Longmans, Green, and Co.,...

(The entire section is 725 words.)