Land of Heroes: A Retelling of the Kalevala by Ursula Synge

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Land of Heroes: A Retelling of the Kalevala Summary

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The Kalevala is an example of an epic written in modern times that captures much of the flavor of ancient oral narrative. Elias Lonnrot (1802-1884), a gifted Finnish poet-scholar, compiled the materials for his poem from old ballads, lyrical songs, and incantations that were a part of a disappearing Finnish oral tradition. He first published these reworked folk materials in 1835 and later enlarged the work to fifty "cantos" in 1849. "Kalevala" is the name of the homeland of the poem's chief characters and is actually a poetic name for Finland itself. It translates roughly as "Land of the Heroes." The poem has been adopted as the Finnish national epic.

While collecting folklore, Lonnrot noticed that certain characters and episodes were frequently repeated, and he surmised that these materials were the fragments of a larger and very ancient Finnish epic. He organized the stories according to themes and characters in order to reproduce this ancient epic, as he imagined it to be. Although he followed a "scientific" approach in organizing the materials, there is no guarantee that his arrangement of the stories is identical to the original oral tale. Nevertheless, Lonnrot's Kalevala is coherent and powerful in its conception.

Many of the stories and episodes contained in the Kalevala are thought to date back to the eighth century A.D. During this century, groups of Nordic warriors wandered across Europe to conquer and colonize new lands. The Saxon tribes are mentioned repeatedly in the narrative, and these peoples were prominent in Europe at the time and fought against the Finnish invaders. The fact that many of the stories have been handed down across the centuries in relatively coherent form is a tribute to the Finnish tradition of runo singers. These were individuals who were trained to remember, recite, and sing the ancient lore.


(The entire section is 453 words.)