Kalevala Essays and Criticism
by Elias Lonnrot

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The Importance of Finn's National Epic

(Epics for Students)

It is said that "the Finnish people through the Kalevala actually sang themselves into existence" (Eino Friberg, in The Kalevala, Epic of the Finnish People, 1988). What made this epic such a powerful unifying force during a period of national awakening? For the Finns, the Kalevala was more than simply a collection of fifty poems compiled by a country doctor in his spare time. It was "a portrayal of Finnish mythology," "the mythological dream of the Finnish people," and "a statement of the worldview of the Finnish people" (Juha Pentikainen, "The Ancient Religion of the Finns"). Through Kalevala poetry, the Finns developed a language and a system of symbols for describing and envisioning their world.

A Portrayal of Finnish Mythology
In the middle ages, the emerging nations of Europe used quasi-historical literature to forge national identities. France's Song of Roland glorified Charlemagne and Frankish valor, while the Arthurian legends captured the English imagination. As paganism gave way to the universalizing force of Christianity, Icelandic poets rescued the Norse gods from oblivion, giving the Scandinavian people a link to their pre-Christian past and a source of ethnic cohesion. For these and other European countries, transferring oral mythology into writing was part of a process of self-definition.

Finland's legends, however, remained unrecorded into the nineteenth century. The church had attempted to banish the ancient Finnish demigods, shaman-heroes, and nature spirits, and centuries of cultural and political domination by Sweden had driven the legends even further to the periphery of the nation's cultural life. Preserved only in the songs of peasants, these myths were unknown to the outside world and familiar only in a vague and fragmentary way to most Finns; before Lonnrot set out to compile the folksongs into an epic, it was difficult to discover anything about what Vainamdinen, Ilmannen, and the other figures from Finnish legend had meant to the Finnish people.

The Romantics had begun to suspect, though, that this scattered oral poetry was Finland's greatest cultural treasure. Eighteen years before the Kalevala's first publication, K. A. Gottlund remarked, "If we wished to gather together the ancient folksongs and compile and order them into a systematic whole; whatever may become of them, an epic drama or what have you, it may bring to life a new Homer, Ossiad, or Nibelungenlied; and in its singular creative brilliance and glory, awakened to its sense of independence, the Finnish nation would receive both the admiration of its contemporaries as well as that of the generations to come." (K. A. Gottlund, Swedish Literary News, No. 25, 21 June 1817). Lonnrot's stated aim was more modest: "It is quite all right if [the songs] at least show that our forebears were not unenlightened in their intellectual efforts" (Preface to the Kalevala, in Magoun's 1963 translation).

In fact, both Lonnrot's hopes and Gottlund's grandiose predictions were fulfilled. The Kalevala showed the world that the Finns, far from being unenlightened or backward, had a long history of intellectual and artistic creativity. Lonnrot's epic drew international admiration and legitimized Finnish culture in the eyes of other Europeans. To have a national epic of world standing was a great source of pride to the Finns.

Perhaps even more significant was the effect Kalevala mythology had on Finns' capacity to express themselves. The Kalevala gave them a rich source of subject matter, themes, and characters; moreover, it was their own mythology. Within a few decades of its publication, the Kalevala began to be universally read and studied in schools; hence when one referred to "Vainamoinen" or "the Sampo," practically every Finn would understand the allusion and what it symbolized.

By 1860, artistic and literary works inspired by the Kalevala began to appear. Aleksis Kivi, for example, built his Kullervo tragedy on the Kalevala's plot but deepened the characterization of the evil and malicious...

(The entire section is 6,367 words.)