The Kalevala is Finland's national epic, drawn from a rich oral tradition with roots stretching back more than two millennia. Its compiler was Elias Lonnrot, a physician and folklorist who travelled throughout the Finnish-Russian borderlands recording the lyrics, ballads, charms, and epics sung by the rural people. From these poems (called runes) he assembled a coherent whole, a literary epic which fired the imaginations and the national consciousness of the Finnish people.

Steeped in magic, by turns dreamlike and dramatic, the Kalevala recounts the mythic history of the ancient Finns in a series of fifty poems. Its heroes are the sons of Kaleva: the wise shaman Vainamoinen, the skillful smith Umarinen, and the feisty warrior Lemminkainen. Stories of their interactions with one another, the spirit world, the natural world, and with their northern neighbors, the tribe of Pohjola, unfold in the resonant, musical cadences of Finnish oral poetry.

The Kalevala became the foundation of Finnish cultural identity. Published in its final form in 1849, Lonnrot's epic immediately took its place alongside the Greek Iliad and Odyssey, the German Nibelungenlied, and the Norse Eddas. It established Finnish as a literary language and inspired a flowering of Finnish art and music, and also played a crucial role in the Finns' struggle for independence, giving them a heroic history and a focus for their national pride.