The Importance of Finn's National Epic

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1937

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...

(This entire section contains 1937 words.)

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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 figure. By explaining Kullervo's violent rage as a result of his oppression and enslavement, Kivi magnified the political reality of his own day. Such artistic elaboration on Kalevala themes resonated with Finnish audiences and and helped foster dreams of independence.

The period of Russification which began in the 1890s coincided with a period of great interest in folk romanticism as well as a flourishing age of Finnish art. The music of Jean Sibelius, the poetry of Eino Leino, and the writings of Juhani Aho were all inspired by Kalevala mythology. This creative activity was in part a form of resistance, an affirmation of the Finnish national identity in the face of a foreign power's attempts to erase it.

The "Mythological Dream": Kalevala Symbolism Nineteenth-century Finns looked at their ancient poetry and saw allegories for their current political situation. Thus the Kalevala mythology provided people of various backgrounds with a common frame of reference for describing their world and investing their own experiences with meaning.

Like all dreams, the "mythological dream of the Finnish people" expressed itself through the language of symbols. The oak that blotted out the sun might represent the shadow of foreign rule, and Pohjola could be equated with any enemy of the Finns. The reassembly and revival of Lemminkainen could be read as a metaphor for Finnish culture itself, with the folklorists playing the part of Lemminkainen's mother, singing the dispersed parts of a great whole back into life. Much of the literature of the day invoked Kullervo as the embodiment of social revolution. The Kalevala is full of such symbols, but the most potent of all is the Sampo, a mysterious object which could be interpreted in many ways depending on the needs of the teller of the tale.

An 1986 political poem by Eino Leino, for example, uses the Sampo as a symbol of the Finno-Ugnc people's ancient renown—fragmented and buried, yet not completely lost:

Beloved is a father's labored field, sweet the bread baked by a mother, stubborn a stranger's soil, bitter a stepmother's cake. Long our Finland ate barkbread, begged alms along the roads, gathered with its tears too many crumbs from others. But one day the begging will cease and the stranger's insult will end and Finland will stand tall and the people will raise their heads. Already Vamo's crop takes root and Kaleva's grain grows, and lack of bread is banished from the land and the longing for a stranger's crop! Thus the ramparts of the Finnish state will rise, So the Finnish Sampo will be readied. The wave hath taken the Sampo and borne off the wondrous work of Ilmarinen and the renown of the Ugric tribes lies buried 'neath the starts of night. But leaning on familiar strength we discover stars in the night and with love in our eyes find bits of Ilmarinen's labor, (translated in Pentikainen 1989. 223)

A Finnish audience would have recognized and appreciated Leino's poignant allusions to Kalevala Poems 23, 2, and 43. Such literary resonances allowed Finns to feel they were linked to the mythical time when Vainamoinen had buried pieces of the Sampo with a prayer for his people's future:

Grant, Creator, vouchsafe, God grant that we may be lucky that we may live well always that we may die with honour in Finland the sweet in Karelia the fair. Keep us, steadfast Creator and guard us, fair God from the whims of men from the wiles of hags ... Build an iron fence construct a stronghold of stone round my property on both sides of my people ... that no foe may eat too much no enemy steal the wealth ever in this world not in a month of Sundays (43:401-434)

Eighteenth-century Finns could see themselves as the inheritors of Vainamoinen's blessing and prophecy.

Worldview of the Finnish People J. G. Linsen, the Chairman of the Finnish Literary Society, greeted the initial publication of the Kalevala by declaring "Finland can now say to itself: 'I, too, have a history.'" It was a poetic, fictionalized history, but it gave Finns something on which to model their expectations of the future. Reaching back to a time before Swedish domination began, the Kalevala depicted an idyllic epoch in Finnish history. The people of Kaleva are autonomous, noble, and prosperous; moreover, they are wiser and more resourceful than the northern enemies who try to destroy them. They have a deep knowledge of their natural environment and an amazing facility with the Finnish language, two things from which nineteenth-century Finnish intellectuals were largely cut off.

Though the Kalevala contains songs about the exploits of great men, Lonnrot deliberately made it an epic about the daily life of an entire people. It is heroic but homey, concerned with such activities as preparing for a feast, brewing beer, heating the bath, taking a sauna, and tending to livestock. It depicts the rhythms of the tribe's life: courtship and marriage, childbirth, building and repair, injury and healing, planting and hunting, music and feasting. Thus the Kalevala linked Finns to the timeless customs of previous generations. The peasants saw their own lives reflected in the Kalevala, and elites saw the heritage they had misplaced. (The world of the Kalevala is in many ways a model for a more democratic society; it is free of aristocracy and hierarchy, and wealth is shared by the entire tribe.)

As anyone who has lived abroad knows, these simple, familiar things combine to create a sense of home, of a place where one belongs and which one is willing to defend. The sweetness of home and the unpleasantness of foreign lands are recurrent themes in the epic: brides weep in despair at leaving their own people; Vainamoinen sighs with homesickness when he is detained in Pohjola, and Kullervo epitomizes the wretched, wandering exile with no kin to claim him.

The idealized world of the Kalevala offered Finns a meaningful connection to their land, to their customs, and to one another in the face of an external enemy.

The Kalevala After Independence When their previously unregarded country suddenly attained world recognition, it was a source of pride for the Finns. Ethnic pride is a useful but potentially dangerous force; there is always the chance that it will be carried too far, mutating into national chauvinism and expansionist zeal. This happened in the 1920s, when a group of Finns nearly sang themselves into war. Finland's political right wing wished to expand the nation's borders to include eastern Karelia, still in Russian territory after the peace of 1920. They combed the Kalevala for metaphors to inspire and justify the dream of a Greater Finland. To them, the stealing back of the Sampo might represent the rescue of Karelia from "foreign" domination. The movement was brief and unsuccessful, but it illustrated the way national mythologies can be twisted into war propaganda. The appeal of the Kalevala endures long after Finland achieved its independence. Finnish children study the epic from the age of twelve to fourteen, and it provides the basis for behavior and activities at annual Kalevala festivals. Thus the Kalevala has become for today's Finns a cultural icon rather than a work of literature to be enjoyed; it is a focus of pride, a cherished relic of Finland's national awakening and coming of age. As such, it is perhaps valued most by Finnish emigrants to other lands, because it reminds them of who they are and whence they came.

According to Lauri Honko, "The powerful need for a national political self-consciousness was the greatest single factor in the Kalevala's success." Perhaps this assessment is still true. Today, in a homogenized and shrinking world where one country is much like another, people's desire for ethnic affiliation and cultural pride seems stronger than ever. To some extent, national myths like the Kalevala still answer that need.

Source: Deborah Jo Miller, for Epics for Students, Gale Research, 1997.

The Balto-Finnish Epics

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The Technique of Compilation Lonnrot's contemporaries ... were of the opinion that Lonnrot had "found the epic in the forest,'' i.e., had restored the original form of the epic. That is, of course, only an illusion. In reality, in its structure the Kalevala was entirely Lonnrot's compilation. This compilation was based on the best and most complete variants of the songs that he had at his disposal, with the addition of verses from other variants and even from other songs. Research has revealed that Lonnrot did not take more than three or four consecutive lines from the same variant. Therefore, the majority of sequences of lines (verses) in the Kalevala never appeared this way in the oral tradition. This technique of compilation is unique in world literature. It has been pointed out half jokingly that Lonnrot, who in his youth worked for his father as a tailor's apprentice, made use of his tailoring skill while compiling the Kalevala.

The Kalevala reflects Lonnrot's ideas of the epic, his worldview, and his taste. Working with a definite artistic goal in mind, he chose from the vast material he had at his disposal the portions suitable for the epic and discarded those that were contradictory or violated the style. If it was necessary for the epic as a whole, he developed some seemingly insignificant details into important components of the work.5 His editorial practices betray his tendency to reduce the Christian and legendary features, while strengthening both the heathen and the historical-realistic elements. He normalized the language, corrected the metrical defects, occasionally changed the names of persons and places, and created linking verses wherever necessary. The few hundred linking verses added by the compiler form less than five per cent of the epic, and even these are adaptations of verses used in folksongs.

The most important building materials for the creation of the Kalevala were the epic songs. Lonnrot had in his possession about thirty different epic songs, each of them in numerous variants. In addition, he used lyric songs, charms (incantations), wedding songs, laments, and proverbs. The charms were employed generously; about one-fifth of the whole epic is made up of charms. There are sections in the Kalevala which look more like collections of charms than parts of an epic, such as the curing of Vainamoinen's knee wound, the driving out of the cattle by Ihnarinen's wife, and Vainamoinen's trip to Antero Vipunen. Because of its richness in charms, the Italian scholar Domenico Comparetti called the Kalevala "the epic of charms."

The Kalevala was developed by Lonnrot into a broad panorama of the life of two tribes—the Kalevala and the Pohjola. The relations between them are shown both under peace-time conditions and in times of hostilities. The people of Pohjola are represented by the ruling family headed by Louhi. The heroes of Kalevala are not members of the same family, but they have close relations. Vainamoinen often calls Hmarinen his brother, and he undertakes voyages together with him and Lemminkainen. Kullervo is Ilmarinen's serf.

Only a few episodes in the Kalevala can be termed heroic. All of these reflect the Viking Age, when the heroic ideal of men was to surpass all others in strength and courage and win fame for posterity. This spirit appears in the fierce struggle of Vainamoinen and his companions with the forces of Pohjola in order to obtain the Sampo. We also find it in some folksongs about Lemminkainen which were originally associated with other heroes. The last phase of Lemminkainen's duel with the master of Pohjola in the Kalevala is modelled after the song of Kaukomieli (or Kauko or Kaukomoinen). Kaukomieli, during a drinking bout, kills Veitikka (rascal) because he spilled beer on his mantle. This garment was the symbol of his stature as a warrior, since it had been gained "by blood." Following the feudal notion of honor, its soiling could be compensated for only with blood.

Lemminkainen's abandonment of his young wife Kyllikki on the Island in the Kalevala is based on the "Ahti and Kyllikki Song," and is in the same spirit. For Ahti Saarelainen ("Ahti of the Island") the passion for sea adventures and battles is so strong that he hears even his boat complaining for not going to war. When Ahti's wife breaks her promise, he decides to leave her and set out to sea. His young companion Teuri (Tiera), who like Ahti has just married, cannot contain his craving for battle and hastens along with him.

Kalevala as a Shamanistic Epic Except for these episodes, the Kalevala is not a heroic epic in the usual sense of this term, but can best be termed a shamanistic epic in which great deeds are accomplished, not by feats of arms, but by magical means—by the power of words and incantations. Thus it belongs to the peculiar arctic culture extending from Lapland to eastern Siberia and across the Bering Strait as far as Greenland. Its heroes are shamans and sorcerers who transcend the limits of the real world. Some of them are even demigods and culture heroes who participated in the creation or rendered great services to the people.

In Vainamoinen the Finns have the figure of an eternal sage, a great shaman, who in his capacity as the spiritual leader of his tribe possesses the deepest knowledge.14 He undertakes a journey to the other world in search of knowledge and encounters deadly dangers on his way, as do the shamans of the arctic peoples in their "soul travels." For the same purpose he pays a visit to the dead shaman Antero Vipunen, whose body, during its long separation from the soul, has so badly rotted that the soul cannot return to it anymore. In the singing competition with Joukahainen, Vainamoinen sings his magic song so powerfully that his opponent sinks into the swamp and his horse and harness are transformed into different beings and things. In the song about his mastery at kantele playing, Vainamoinen reaches the stature of the ancient Orpheus; he enchants all the animals and birds of the forest, the fish of the sea, and the nature spirits. His music makes all those present, including the musician himself, shed tears. He builds a boat from a bit of distaff and creates a reef from pieces of flint and tinder-fungus on which Louhi's warship goes aground. Martti Haavio assumes that some of the songs of Vainamoinen may have been created at the latest in the ninth century in the coastal areas of western Finland, on the basis of legends.

In his attempt to abolish darkness, Vainamoinen (together with his companion Hmarinen) brings fire to the people and thereby acquires the dimensions of a demigod, a culture hero ... As culture heroes finally vanish, so Vainamoinen—after his young successor, the "King of Karelia," has emerged—disappears (according to numerous variants) into the mouth of the Maelstrom.15 However, traces of him still appear in the elements where he once toiled, traces such as "Vainamoinen's scythe" (Orion) and "Vainamoinen's route" (a calm streak on the surface of rippling water) on the waters.16

Ilmarinen is also known in Finnish mythology as a culture hero, as the great smith who created the vault of the sky and furnished it with stars. A northern relative of Hephaestus, he succeeded in obtaining iron from crude ore in order to forge the Sampo. With Vainamoinen he obtained the first spark of fire which had fallen from the sky and entered the belly of a blue trout. Originally he may have been the ruler of the weather. The popularity enjoyed by Ilmarinen among the people caused him to be extended into numerous secondary roles.17

Lemminkainen's figure in Finnish folklore is very complex and has caused widely differing interpretations. His shamanistic nature appears in a journey to the festivities in Paivola (in the Kalevala: Pohjola), during which he overcomes three deadly perils, and also in his slithering unnoticed into the house in the shape of a snake. The singing competition between Lemminkainen and the master of the house can be compared to that of Vainamoinen and Joukahainen. Both are contests of magic between two sorcerers in which the local sorcerer triumphs. As Martti Haavio recently demonstrated, the song of Lemminkainen's journey evidently was created under the influence of the Russian bylina "Vavilo and the Troubadours," which in turn goes back to an ancient Egyptian story.18

Lemminkainen's chivalric features, as mentioned above, are carried over from other figures. Due to a similarity between Lemminkainen and Kaukomieli, Karelian singers had attributed some of Kaukomieli's adventures to Lemminkainen and vice versa. Lonnrot, however, went still further in the Kalevala—he transferred the events connected with another Viking Age figure, Ahti Saarelainen, to Lemminkainen and added the names of Ahti and Kauko or Kaukomieli as secondary names of Lemminkainen.

Kullervo, Ilmannen's vengeful serf-boy, applies witchcraft to turn wolves into cows and bears into cattle; these kill Ilmannen's wife (the former maiden of Pohjola). Louhi, the mistress of Pohjola, is the personification of the powers of witchcraft, although in the use of magic she ultimately proves inferior to the Kalevala heroes.

The Kalevala as a work of art cannot escape criticism.33 The action is thin in comparison with the great bulk of the epic, and some digressions that delay or interrupt the main course of events are rather tedious. In the eighth song, Vainamoinen wounds himself in the knee while building a boat. When we meet him again in the sixteenth song, he is still busy building it. The epic also suffers from repetitions Vainamoinen goes to the realm of death twice, and he enchants people and animals twice with his kantele playing. Kullervo's demonstration of tremendous strength is also described twice. Vainamoinen and Lemminkainen get into similar troubles at sea, and so forth.

The Kalevala is both a wooing and a war epic. However, there is much more wooing than fighting in it. There are seven or eight wooing stories, but only three or four descriptions of combat; the latter include the death of the master of Pohjola, the theft of the Sampo, the destruction of Untamo's farm, and Vainamoinen's last fights with Pohjola. The combats are described very briefly.

The Finns have no other work whose influence would have been as all-encompassing as that of the Kalevala. The Kalevala has enriched all areas of Finnish art, most notably in the paintings of Akseli Gallen-Kallela and sculpture of Vaino Aaltonen, in Jean Sibelius' symphony Kullervo, and in musical compositions of Aarre Merikanto and Uuno Klami. In literature, numerous classical works owe then-existence to the Kalevala, from Aleksis Kivi's drama Kullervo to Eino Leino's Helkavirsid. A complete change in the literary language was effected by the Kalevala: under its influence, the awkward Finnish language gradually developed into a vehicle capable of expressing all the nuances of human thoughts and moods. Most importantly, however, the Kalevala awakened national ideas, interests, and aspirations. In the hard times of Finnish history at the turn of the century and during the 1930s and 40s, the Kalevala was an essential source of strength from which the people drew their faith for the future.38

5. Vjajne [Vaino] Kaukonen, "Sozdanie eposa 'Kalevaly,'" in Ucenye zapiski Leningradskogo untversiteta, 314: Finno-ugorskaja filologija (Leningrad, 1962), p. 113.

14. Martti Haavio, Vainamoinen: Eternal Sage, Folklore Fellows Communications, no. 144 (Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 1952).

15. E. M. Meletinskij, Proisxozdenie geroiceskogo eposa (Moscow: Izdatel'stvo vostocnoj literatury, 1963), p. 137.

16. Haavio, pp. 20 ff.

17. Lauri Honko, "Finnische Mythologie," in Wbrterbuch der Mythologie, II: Das alte Europa, ed. H. W. Haussig (Stuttgart: E. Klett, n.d.), pp. 309-11.

18. Martti Haavio, Suomalainen mytologia (Porvoo and Helsinki: Werner Sbderstrbm, 1967), pp. 238 ff.

33. For a summary of these criticisms, see Collinder, "The Kalevala and its Background," pp. 32-34.

38. Martti Haavio, "Das Kalevala—ein nationales Symbol," in Finnland: Geschichte und Gegenwart (Porvoo and Helsinki: Werner Sbderstrom, 1961), pp. 234-35.

Source: Felix J. Oinas, "The Balto-Finnish Epics," in Heroic Epic and Saga: An Introduction to the World's Great Folk Epics," Indiana University Press, 1978 , pp 286-309.

The Kalevala

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Philosophical critics in the nineteenth century decided that a culture is most solidly based on a great epic which incorporates all the prime factors in the national or folk consciousness—or "unconscious." There is a whole nest of very disputable assumptions hidden here. First, that Greek culture was solidly based. It was not. Its glory was in its dynamic equilibrium—which was short-lived. National consciousness does not come from the Nibelungenlied or The Iliad. It is an intellectual notion, born with the nation-state, which came to fruition with the State as an Armed People in the French Revolutionary Wars and degenerated into the idea of the "folk unconscious" in the long drawn-out struggle of the Germans for a national identity.

All national literatures today seek for epic foundations—the Shahnama, The Knight in the Leopard Skin, Digenes Akritas, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, the Serbian Ballads; even Dante's Divine Comedy has been forced into the service of the national consciousness. (The Italian national epic is in fact the operas of Verdi.) In many cases these constructions are purely synthetic, as manufactured for the purpose as ever was Virgil's Aeneid for Augustus, or Kallimachos' Serapis Cult for Ptolemy. Yet astonishingly, this does not necessarily invalidate them.

It would be easy to narrow the definition of a classic to the point where it applied only to literature that fulfilled such a role. Conversely, all literature that deserves the name of classic does, in a sense, define the consciousness of a particular people and yet is in extension a moment in the conscience of mankind. In the narrowest sense again, many synthetic epics, written as myths to shape the life of a people, have been successful and have been classics in the wider sense as well. The Aeneid, the Kojiki and Nihongi, the Kalevala, the history plays of Shakespeare, the Shahnama, these are all synthetic myths, made by intellectuals, which succeeded. They did provide foundations for the structural relationships through which their peoples saw themselves. There is nothing really strange about this. The Iliad and Odyssey and even The Epic of Gilgamesh are literary products. The notion that they were grunted out by Folk sitting about a fire and munching bones was a hallucination of a few nineteenth-century German scholars.

If effect on his own people is a measure; if intensity, profundity, and duration of impact is a measure, the most successful of all was Elias Lonnrot. "Who on earth was he?" most people will say. He was a country doctor in the most remote country in Europe, a country that had never been a nation and would not become one for another century: the Grand Duchy of Finland. As with so many country doctors, his hobby was philology and folklore. Early in the last century he began collecting the folk songs and narrative ballads of the peasantry, especially in the most remote regions—along the borders of Lapland, and in the forests of Karelia. He became convinced that these songs were fragments of a connected epic narrative that had once been as coherent as the Iliad, or the Nibelungenlied.

In this assumption he has been proved wrong, but it does not matter. As he worked his folk materials into what he imagined the original must have been, he produced the most successful constructed myth in modern literature, and one of the most successful of all time. The Kalevala saturates Finnish life. Its deep, resonant evocation of the natural environment, the rich dark green or snow-white land of forests and lakes and pastures where herdsmen, hunters, and fishers go about their timeless ways; its strong matriarchal bias; its ironic acceptance of the tragic nature of life, its dry humor; its praise of intelligence and hospitality as prime virtues—all these elements go to sustain the unique Finnish character to this very day, and that amongst the most advanced sections of the intelligentsia as well as amongst the common people.

Yet most non-Finnish readers find the Kalevala puzzling and hard to read. In the first place, the trochaic meter, which is natural to Finnish, sounds artificial and monotonous when imitated by German and English translators. In Hiawatha, Longfellow deliberately imitated the Kalevala in meter, method, subject, and purpose. He took one of the first comprehensive collections of American Indian legends, itself distorted and Europeanized, and formed them into a connected narrative with many elements of the story borrowed from the Kalevala. He cast his American epic in the same eight-syllable trochaic lines and used the same repetitive devices and fixed epithets—none of them natural in English or American speech.

He hoped to write a poem that would connect white Americans with the earth beneath their feet through the Indian past, as the Greeks had been connected with groves and springs and mountains through their nymphs and satyrs and local deities. For two generations Hiawatha was taught in school and every American child could recite it, and the poem did play, feebly, something of the role Longfellow had hoped for it. Then it began to fail, and today most Americans, young or old, consider it comic, if they have ever heard of it. Yet the Kalevala is still successful amongst Finns who read Paul Eluard and Finns who read nothing. Why?

First, both Elias Lonnrot and his peasant informants were much better poets. Recited in the original language, the Kalevala has a gripping sonority and haunting cadences that make it quite unlike any other great poem in any language, and the repetitions and recurring epithets have a chime and echo very different from Longfellow's mechanical use of them. Longfellow's trochaics have the thump of doggerel and, since the meter is so unnatural in English, sound absurd. Lonnrot's meter swings; the rhythms are native to the language, and he continuously varies them; his trochees shift back and forth across the beat—swing, in other words. It is the difference between a heartbeat and a metronome.

The plot of Hiawatha is as clear as Longfellow could make it, far clearer than his sources—an incomparably more logical narrative than anything in the Kalevala. Modern research has proved that Lonnrot's sources were inchoate indeed, much of them not narrative at all. He reworked them into a most extraordinary pattern—not a story or series of tales, but a long-drawn-out dream sequence. The heroes of the Kalevala are not warriors or knights-errant; they are shamans—magicians, smiths, and dreamers—men of mystery and cunning. Their adventures are inconclusive, often seemingly pointless, and cryptically frustrating, and their connections are hidden underground.

The original Hiawatha was such a person too, but Longfellow exorcised him—took away his magic—and assimilated him to nineteenth-century rationalism. Lonnrot did the opposite. He awoke the night side of the nineteenth-century professional and middle-class mind, represented by himself, and connected it with the prehistoric culture of the subarctic medicine men which he found surviving amongst the Finnish peasantry.

No wonder Carl Jung was fascinated by the Kalevala. It is a kind of socially negotiable Jungian dream, full of archetypes and animuses and animas, totemic symbols of the soul; Methuselah figures; sacred, unobtainable maidens; impossible tasks and mystic beasts—all set in the forests, lakes, and waterfalls of primeval Finland. All its tales seem to be moving toward an unknowable end—the ultimate integration of the integral person—just like the dreams of Jungian patients under analysis.

Yet the Kalevala is far more than any psychoanalytic text. Its heroes struggle in dreams, but they simultaneously live wide awake in the Finnish land, in conflict with a hard but beautiful environment. They are undivided beings, in a real world. In our modern destructive world civilization, Finland stands out as enjoying a high level of ecological success. The Finns cope with their setting of living nature far better than do the Russians or Americans. This talent is reflected in and reinforced by the Kalevala, certainly the most ecological of epics. In the poem, as in Finnish life, there survives that ecological life philosophy without which no subarctic people could endure. Like the Lapps or Eskimos, they must cooperate with nature or perish. They are still there. So the Kalevala succeeds and endures because it expresses not just a national consciousness, but the consciousness of the kinship of a race of men with all living creatures about them. Maybe it was put together by a country doctor five generations ago, but it is the opposite of a synthetic epic: it is a synthesis of nature, man, time, and place.

Source: Kenneth Rexroth, "The Kalevala," in Classics Revisited, New Directions, 1968, pp. 24-8.

A Foreward to the Kalevala

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1008

Again and again the Kalevala has been described as the national heroic epic of the Finnish people, a description which, at least outside Finland, has tended to do the work a certain disservice by raising expectations that the reader is not likely to find fulfilled, regardless of what else he may find that is richly rewarding at a poetical, folkloristic, or ethnographic level. Any talk about a national heroic epic is bound to evoke thoughts of the Greek Iliad and Odyssey, the Old French Chanson de Roland, or the Middle High German Nibelungenlied, all of which possess a more or less unified and continuously moving plot with actors who are wealthy aristocratic warriors performing deeds of valor and displaying great personal resourcefulness and initiative, often, too, on a rather large stage. The Kalevala is really nothing like these. It is essentially a conflation and concatenation of a considerable number and variety of traditional songs, narrative, lyric, and magic, sung by unlettered singers, male and female, living to a great extent in northern Karelia in the general vicinity of Archangel.

Lonnrot's title Kalevala is a name rare in the singing tradition; it describes a completely legendary region of no great extent, and is rendered here "the Kaleva District." The personal name Kaleva upon which the local name is based refers to a shadowy background figure of ancient Finnish poetic legend, mentioned in connection with assumed descendants and with a few nature or field names. The action, like that of the Icelandic family sagas, is played on a relatively small stage, centering on the Kaleva District and North Farm ... The actors are in effect Finno-Karelian peasants of some indefinite time in the past who rely largely on the practice of magic to carry out their roles. Appearing at a time when there was little or no truly bellelettristic Finnish literature, the Kalevala unquestionably—and most understandably—became a source of great satisfaction and pride to the national consciousness then fast developing among the Finns, who had been growing restive under their Russian masters. To some extent the Kalevala thus became a rallying point for these feelings, and permitted and in a measure justified such exultant statements as "Finland can [now] say for itself: I, too, have a history!'' (Suomi voi sanoa itselleen: minullakin on historia!).

Lonnrot's own comments in his prefaces ... make clear that one of his chief aims was to create for Finnish posterity a sort of poetical museum of ancient Finno-Karelian peasant life, with its farmers, huntsmen and fishermen, seafarers and sea-robbers, the latter possibly faint echoes from the Viking Age, also housewives, with social and material patterns looking back no doubt centuries—all reflecting a way of life that was, like the songs themselves, already in Lonnrot's day destined for great changes if not outright extinction. Thus, from Lonnrot's point of view the many sequences of magic charms and wedding lays, at times highly disruptive to the main narrative, are for what they tell of peasant beliefs and domestic life quite as significant as the narrative songs about the Big Three— Vainamoinen, Ilmarinen, and Lemminkainen.

Owing to the special character of its compilation or concatenation, the Kalevala possesses no particular unity of style apart from the general diction of the Karelian singers and the indispensable ubiquitous traditional formulas Comprising miscellaneous materials collected over many years from many singers from all over Karelia and some bordering regions, these poems range in style and tone from the lyrically tragical, as in Poem 4, to almost sheer horseplay, as in Poem 3; some are poems of warfare, while a number consist of magic incantations and magic charms. Among the most interesting, though perhaps superficially pedestrian, are the so-called "Wedding Lays" (Poems 21- 25), with their keen, detailed observations on the daily life of the Karelian peasant. All call for quite varied styles in any English rendering.

The digests at the beginnings of the poems are Lonnrot's and were written in prose. Lonnrot is also the artless composer of Poem 1, lines 1-110, and Poem 50, lines 513-620; both these passages are pure flights of Lonnrot's fancy, and, despite a semblance of autobiography, bear no relation to the author's life.

In reading a new poem or a sequence of poems it is normal to begin at the beginning and read straight ahead, but in the case of the Kalevala this natural procedure has little to recommend it, since in a general way the present order of the poems is quite arbitrary, differing considerably, for example, from that of Lonnrot's 1835 Old Kalevala. Instead of starting with Poem 1 and reading through to the end, the reader is likely to derive greater satisfaction by beginning with some single story cycle— say, the Lemminkainen stories (Poem 11 and following); though not in sequence, these can easily be picked out from the table of contents. One might then pass on to the Ilmarinen stories and to those dealing with Kullervo. The Vainamoinen poems form a somewhat miscellaneous group, and Vainamoinen keeps appearing here and there in a large number of poems dealing primarily with the other principals. The many magic charms, inserted here and there, can usually be skipped on a first reading of the poem or poems in which they occur, though some of the shorter are entirely appropriate in their contexts and do not appreciably obstruct the flow of the narrative. Some of the more extensive charms and series of charms—for example, the Milk and Cattle Charms of Poem 32 and the Bear Charms of Poem 46—can be enjoyed when read out of context.

There are surely many possible approaches to a first reading of the Kalevala, and the remarks in the preceding paragraphs should be taken only as the suggestion of one person, proffered in the hope of making a first acquaintance with this remarkable work a greater pleasure and more meaningful than the head-on approach.

Source: Francis Peabody Magoun,, Jr., in an foreword to The Kalevala, or, Poems of the Kalevala District, edited by Ellas Lonrott, translated by Francis Peabody Magoun, Jr., Harvard University Press, 1963, pp. xm-xxiv.


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