Kalevala Critical Overview
by Elias Lonnrot

Start Your Free Trial

Download Kalevala Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Critical Overview

(Epics for Students)

Foreign Reception
The Kalevala was translated into several languages soon after its initial publication and was hailed by European scholars as one of the world's great epics. A commentary by German linguist Jacob Grimm (of Grimm's Fairy Tales) had brought the Kalevala international recognition and prepared the way for its positive reception by other critics. Friedrich Max Muller, the influential German-born British philologist, said "The Kalevala possesses merits not dissimilar from those of the Iliad, and will claim its place as the fifth national epic of the world, side by side with the Ionian songs, with the Mahabharata, and Shanameh, and the Nibelunge" (quoted in Public Opinion, Sept. 15,1888).

Reception in Finland
The majority of Finnish-speaking people knew little of the Kalevala when it was first published. Ironically, many members of Finland's urban intelligentsia first read their national epic in M. A. Castren's 1841 Swedish translation. They greeted the Kalevala with excitement and treated it as a source of ethnic pride. "The thought that our remote people, although it had up till then made only small contributions to the common progress of human civilisation, had produced a folk-epic which could claim a prominent place in the literature of the world, awakened in the minds of the educated classes of our nation that faith in our future which was essential if we ever hoped to raise the Finns to the level of a civilised nation in the deepest sense of the word."(E. N. Setala)

Because it had such a decisive impact on the Finnish nationalist movement, the Kalevala was often treated with an uncritical reverence that hindered attempts to analyze it. Even today, some Finns regard the Kalevala as something of a sacred artifact: in a 1985 article celebrating the Kalevala, Paavo Haavikko proclaims' "The Kalevala is not for criticism. It is there to be admired." ("What has the Kalevala Given Me?" Books from Finland, Vol. 29, No. 1,1985, p. 65.)

The Romantic View
Members of the Finnish Literature Society were of the opinion that Lonnrot had "found the Kalevala in the forest"— that is, they thought the Kalevala was the collective masterpiece of the Finnish folk, rescued from oblivion and painstakingly restored to its "original" form by Lonnrot.

This Romantic view ignores Lonnrot's own artistic contribution to the Kalevala. Whatever his enthusiastic contemporaries would have liked to believe, he had not "found" a national epic lying magically intact in the backwoods of Karelia, nor did he claim to have reconstructed something that had existed in antiquity. Rather, he had chosen fragments from the huge, shapeless mass of oral poetry and turned them into a work of epic literature. As he wrote to a friend in 1848, "I must explain to you that from the runes collected to date I could get at least seven volumes of Kalevalas, each unlike the other." (Lauri Honko, "The Kalevala and Finnish Culture," p. 49) However, despite the fact that the 1849 Kalevala differed markedly from the earlier edition in both structure and content, the Romantic notion of a restored original persisted for some years.

Backlash
One of the works to which the Kalevala had been compared was the Scottish Ossiad, a collection of supposedly ancient poems that had been useful in Scotland's national movement. In the 1880s, the discovery that the Ossiad was a modern fraud raised doubts about the Kalevala's authenticity and led to charges of "fakelore" (John Alphonso-Karkala, "Transformation," 1986). In order to refute C. G. Estlander's contention that Lonnrot had written the entire epic himself, scholars threw themselves into the study of the oral poetry on which it was based. They were able to prove that the Kalevala, like the Iliad or Nibelungenlied, was indeed compiled from genuine folk material, with only a few additional lines supplied by Lonnrot.

Some criticism was aimed at Lonnrot for his role in the composition. A. I. Arwidsson and C. A. Gottlund criticised him for...

(The entire section is 952 words.)