Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 953
The stories contained in the Kalevala stem from Finnish folktales that are many centuries old. However, it is important to remember that the Kalevala that now exists took shape only in 1835. This was when Elias Lönnrot published a compilation of folktales he spent years gathering and arranging. Lönnrot did not invent any of the stories in the Kalevala, but he did codify and edit them so that they would flow into each other in a smooth narrative that would make up a unified aesthetic whole. Lönnrot was no doubt influenced in his compilation of the Kalevala by the Finnish nationalism of his day (Finland was ruled by Russia until 1917). Finland was one of many European countries that experienced a nationalistic revival in the nineteenth century, and throughout Europe folk legends were an important part of this revival.
The Kalevala is a cohesive story, but it contains dozens of individual tales within the central narrative. The stories are legends, not historical fact. The adventures of Väinämöinen, Ilmarinen, and Kullervo are fantastic and mythical. Nevertheless, the epic chronicles a development through time that can be termed historical. Like the Hindu epic The Mahabharata (c. 400 b.c.e.-200 c.e.; English translation, 1834) and the Babylonian creation story “Enuma elish,” the Kalevala starts at the beginning of time, with the creation of the cosmos itself, and then tells the story of the Adamlike Väinämöinen, who in many ways epitomizes basic human strivings and yearnings. As further generations are born and the epic’s list of characters lengthens, the narrative moves on in a historical progression to more complex strivings and conflicts, ending with the birth of Marjatta’s child, who heralds a new order of being. The Kalevala is the ontogenesis of humankind.
Väinämöinen has to be accounted the major character of the Kalevala, yet he is in many ways an enigmatic and unfulfilled figure. Like the biblical Adam and the Greek hero Prometheus, he is the first to do many things, but he never finds earthly happiness, particularly with regard to women. He repeatedly meets younger men, among them Joukahäinen and Ilmarinen, who do better with the opposite sex and who also represent more active, vitalistic forces than Väinämöinen does, whatever his intelligence and ingenuity. Väinämöinen’s practical failure, though, is compensated by his musical gifts, which have to do not only with performance and entertainment but also with a fundamental shaping of the universe through beauty. Väinämöinen’s sorrow is transfigured into aesthetic power.
Kullervo, like Väinämöinen and, indeed, many of the Kalevala’s heroes, is not a conventionally sympathetic protagonist. This epic is different from many others, however, in that its protagonists are not so much paragons of humanity as they are people suffering ordinary human misfortune in extraordinary ways. Kullervo’s short and savage life is doomed to tragedy, yet he clearly desires alleviation for his sense of being ill at ease in the world. Kullervo’s combination of bravery and stupidity is reminiscent of the biblical Samson or the Greek Hercules; like these heroes, his martial prowess finally falls victim to an earthly luck that even the most pugnacious of men cannot control.
Ilmarinen represents another archetypal kind of hero. He is the smith whose ability to forge human beings out of inanimate material can be read as a metaphor for creative force. Like Väinämöinen’s poignant melodies, Ilmarinen’s smithy exemplifies the attempt to order an often chaotic and random world. Ilmarinen’s failure to forge a wife for himself is a parable of the limited human ability to exercise a full creative power in the cosmos. Ilmarinen’s great achievement, the Sampo, is an interesting feature of the Kalevala. The Sampo is a talisman, a token of great deeds, a symbol of wealth and glory, and a proof of heroic achievement. However, it is more than merely an inanimate object, for it produces wealth and can bring prosperity and happiness. The Sampo is practical as well as symbolic, and it may well reflect the harsh realities of a tribal society in a cold climate where there was little time for leisure and little role for mere ornaments.
One of the salient features of the Kalevala is its lyrical evocation of the Finnish landscape, which is, however, not portrayed romantically or sentimentally. In comparison with many other so-called primary epics compiled largely out of oral tales, the Kalevala avoids easy idealizations and gratifying closures. The landscape, vast and desolate yet starkly beautiful, is always surrounded with an air of remoteness and mournful if majestic pathos. The Kalevala does not concern only deeds of war or brute strength; its heroes are for the most part intellectuals and craftsmen, and the poem has a spiritual depth that transcends its apparently “primitive” atmosphere.
The ending of the Kalevala expresses this spirituality in an even more recognizable fashion. The birth of the child to the virgin Marjatta is clearly meant to parallel the birth of Christ to the Virgin Mary, and it also takes place in a stable. The final acknowledgment of defeat by Väinämöinen in his confrontation with the newly born child is an allegory of the replacement of the mythic world of the Kalevala with the world of redemption and hope represented by Christ. In this world, though, the legends and folktales compiled by Lönnrot will always have a special significance for the Finnish nation. Lönnrot’s efforts gave the world a work that is a national epic and, at the same time, a considerable repository of mythic spirituality.