Friday, January 30, 2015

The House of the Four Winds by John Buchan

I have been slowly working through John Buchan's Dickson McCunn novels over the last year or two, and last week I meandered through the third and last of the Dickson McCunn novels, The House of the Four Winds.

Two years after the events of Castle Gay, the world still waits with baited breath for the downfall of the Communist Republican government of the fictional Eastern European country Evallonia to the forces of the Monarchists, whose figure-head, the young and chivalrous Prince John, we met in the previous novel. As all the old familiar characters prepare to leave England for holidays on the Continent, a rumour floats around London high society: Don't go too far East. Something is about to happen in Evallonia.

It's Jaikie, of course, who gets sucked into it first. When his friend Alison's cousin Randal Glynde appears atop a circus elephant and invites him to dinner at an Evallonian castle--The House of the Four Winds--Jaikie accepts, but he doesn't agree to stay until an old Cambridge acquaintance, Count Paul Jovian of the nationalist youth movement, Juventus, ambushes him on his way out of the country. Meanwhile in Germany, when Alison discovers that someone has mislaid Prince John in the mountains, she enlists those respectable diplomats, Sir Archie and Lady Janet Roylance to help kidnap him--purely for safe-keeping, of course. With Republicans, Monarchists, and Juventus practically at each other's throats, it's up to Dickson McCunn (retired grocer), Jaikie Galt (rugby three-quarter) and Alison Westwater (trusty conspirator) to calm Evallonia's political upheavals, restore the rightful king, and evade the wrath of the fearsome Countess Araminta Troyos.

Obviously, this is not an overly serious book. John Buchan was quite capable of crushingly tragic novels like Midwinter or Witch Wood, but when he writes Dickson McCunn, his tongue is always planted firmly in his cheek. The House of the Four Winds is delightful--basically a farcical version of The Prisoner of Zenda, in which an elderly Scotsman impersonates the king and the part of the romantic princess is taken by a theatrical amazon. That said, I was surprised by the big issues the book explores.

The most momentous event of John Buchan's life, as for all his generation, was World War I. A keen intelligence and high position at the heart of English politics and public life poised Buchan uniquely well to comment on the cultural impact of that conflict. His conclusions are contained most plainly in his memoir, Memory Hold-the-Door, as well as being encoded into fiction in The Three Hostages, The Dancing Floor...and The House of the Four Winds. To recap his views rather quickly, he believed that the War had dealt a death-blow to the notion of human perfectibility: it had quenched humanist optimism. He saw a new generation, rootless and disillusioned but powerful and unfettered, rising up to abandon the rationalist agnosticism of its parents. He believed two basic things about this post-war youth: first, as explained in The Dancing Floor, that it was uniquely ripe to be turned back to Christianity; and second, as shown in The Three Hostages, that if it did not do that, then it would be susceptible to mysticism, cults, and dictators.

The Three Hostages was published in 1924, and The Dancing Floor in 1926. When Buchan revisited the same theme in The House of the Four Winds, a decade had gone by. It was 1935. Hitler, Mussolini, and other personalities had arisen. And they had their nationalist youth movements, as well as their paramilitary organisations, their Brownshirts and their Blackshirts. One might assume that Buchan's green-shirted paramilitary Juventus movement was a bit of upper-class British naivete, but Buchan was anything but naive, and the express comparison of Juventus's logo with Hitler's swastika should remove any doubts. Juventus, however, has much in common with the 1930s German Youth Movement than it has with the Hitler Youth which later supplanted and eventually suppressed it: it has no particular political leanings and no single figure-head. For Buchan, once again, Juventus represents the power and potential of postwar youth: no longer rootless and disillusioned, but finding meaning in a strenuous outdoors life of discipline and adventure.

Buchan doesn't however, idolise these nationalist youth movements. His characters find them, in fact, both dangerous and ridiculous: dangerous because of their lack of a sense of humour, ridiculous because of their insistence on ideological purity, which keeps Evallonian politics all tied up in knots: the Communist government will fall if anyone so much as sneezes, but the Monarchists dare not install Prince John for fear that Juventus will immediately depose him, not out of dislike for the Prince himself but out of dislike for his stuffy old supporters.

The answer is not so much to convince them, as to trick them into supporting the right candidate. This happens with all the usual amount of Buchan fun and adventure, almost slipping over into self-parody, but the message is the same: idealistic youth is a force in the world, capable of great good--or great disaster. In the event, Juventus's real-life counterparts brought about disaster.

Find The House of the Four Winds on Amazon, The Book Depository, or Project Gutenberg.

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Seas of Morning by Geoffrey Trease

Because I'm trying to get a feel for the atmosphere, climate, and setting of medieval Constantinople for my writing projects, I've been reading a number of books set in and around that city. Last week I decided to re-read an old childhood favourite, The Seas of Morning, by the well-regarded author of historical fiction for children, Geoffrey Trease (not to be confused with that other well-regarded author of historical fiction for young people, Henry Treece).

We had books by both Treece and Trease growing up, and read and re-read them with a fair bit of enjoyment, but there was never any contest as to which of those authors we enjoyed most. Geoffrey Trease's Seas of Morning, about the siege of Rhodes by the Turks in 1480, and Cue For Treason, a thrilling and humorous tale of intrigue in the days of Elizabeth I and William Shakespeare, were both favourites. Later on we acquired a copy of Bows Against the Barons, which reimagines the Robin Hood legends as a Wat Tyler-esque rebellion against the nobles, but we never liked that book as much; the ending was too tragic and unhappy.

The Seas of Morning, though a fairly slim book, is well worth reading. It tells the story of Dick Stockton, the son of a wealthy London merchant who dreams of joining the Knights of St John and travelling to their island fortress of Rhodes to help them fight against the Turks. When Brother Simon, a knight from the local priory at Clerkenwell, is called back to the island, Dick is overjoyed to be invited to travel with him. Adventure calls when a ship of pilgrims is attacked by Turkish pirates: Dick travels to Constantinople, derelict and glorious, Sultan Mehmet's prize, to rescue a friend enslaved in the shipboard fight, and along the way learns a secret that threatens the very existence of the Knights of St John.

This is a really enjoyable little read. At just 176 pages long, the book appears deceptively simple, but I was impressed with how much historical fact and detail Trease packs into his story. London, Venice, Rhodes, and Constantinople are fleshed out meticulously, with the kind of detail that only comes from a close familiarity with the time period and locations. The only place where the story comes in danger of bogging down into detail occurs when Trease attempts to describe the fortifications of the island of Rhodes, but these passages aren't lengthy. Overall, I thoroughly appreciated how well Trease communicates a lot of information without the reader quite realising how much he's learning!

I had a couple of niggles, as always--I thought the Christians' attitude to the Turkish occupation of Constantinople, less than thirty years before the action of the book, was inauthentically blase, and I thought Trease's heroine was annoyingly, spunkily perfect in a mildly feminist manner--it did not ring true that Christians would see enslavement by the Turks as remotely analogous to marriage to a Christian. But those are very minor niggles.

This time around, I particularly appreciated reading about a main character from the third estate--not a nobleman, as so often happens in popular fiction about this time period, but a merchant's son. There is a quiet celebration of the worth of entrepreneurship, diligence, and courage that characterised medieval merchants. As Dick visits his father's friends and colleagues in France, Venice, Rhodes, and Constantinople, one begins to appreciate how far-reaching medieval trade was, and what important men the merchants could be.

I also enjoyed reading about the Siege of Rhodes--another stunning, Providential moment in history. About ten years ago I had the opportunity to read GA Henty's A Knight of the White Cross, another book set in the same time period, and while I thoroughly enjoyed that book, I remember also feeling a new appreciation for Trease's book, which conveys much the same information in a more digestible manner. This book is a snapshot of a time and a place, vivid, detailed, and absorbing. An excellent history resource for children.

Find The Seas of Morning on Amazon or ABEBooks.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Pendragon's Heir, The Prince of Fishes, and Genre

I had an epiphany just before Christmas, and Elisabeth Grace Foley was responsible.

Elisabeth was kind enough to beta-read Pendragon's Heir in October. In December, she included it on her Top Ten Books of 2014 list, which considering that she read 90 books last year and had a slightly unpolished version of Pendragon's Heir, was rather kind of her. In describing the novel, she called it a "historical fantasy", which was not a genre I had actually heard of before, but when I read it something went click in my brain.

You see, I have been writing just the one book for the last five years. For the five years preceding that, I occasionally wrote other things, but none of them took me away from Pendragon's Heir for long. A decade is a long time when it stretches from one's teens to one's twenties. Before Pendragon's Heir, I had dabbled in all sorts of genres: secondary-world fantasy, historical fiction, action thriller, science fiction. The fact that Pendragon's Heir was an Arthurian, and thus a vaguely, anachronistically historically-based, fantasy, always seemed more an unmeditated lurch than a real career choice. As recently as the last six months, I had no idea what I would do when Pendragon's Heir was finished. I knew I wanted to keep writing; I had no idea what.

As I loosened my focus on Pendragon's Heir in preparation to sending it out into the big scary world, more story ideas slowly began to occur to me, and ideas which had been vague before gained shape and weight. I wrote The Rakshasa's Bride and immediately got an idea for another fairy-tale retelling. Meanwhile, I mentally committed to the idea of a gigantic, sprawling novel which I still rather optimistically hope to knock out sometime in the second half of this year (don't laugh). Still, it wasn't until Elisabeth Grace Foley mentioned the genre of historical fantasy that it occurred to me that all these stories and projected stories have one thing in common.

All of them are fantasies. And all of them are deeply rooted in a specific time and a specific place.

Pendragon's Heir is Arthurian legend, with all the anachronistic idealised medievalism that entails. The Rakshasa's Bride is a mix of Bollywood and fairy tale. Both of my ongoing story ideas--The Giant Tome and the Upcoming Fairy-Tale Retelling--are so deeply rooted in history that I actually partly wrote the Upcoming Fairy-Tale Retelling (more on that in a moment) to help with research for the Giant Tome.

"Oh," I thought. "Historical fantasy. So that's what I write."

And the more I thought about it, the more I became excited about the possibilities in this genre.

While The Lord of the Rings is my favourite book, and the Narnia series is another favourite, I've never been able to whip up a great deal of enthusiasm for secondary-world fantasies. Having thought it over, I think it's because what attracts me to fantasy is its capacity for allegory and mythopoeia--metaphorical meaning with real-world application--not its worldbuilding aspect, the simple exercise of constructing a secondary world with believable economics, biology, and geopolitical structure. I'm not good at making up new languages or societies, and I feel I would only look as ridiculous as all Tolkien's imitators if I tried.

If I build on history, however, I can do all sorts of things. I can apply my love for that discipline, and try to share what makes a particular time period and culture so wonderfully appealing. I can use real language, culture, economics, and societies to inspire my work. I can practice being as unoriginal as I know how.

So why not write straight historical fiction? I came pretty close to it with the Giant Tome. In the end, I couldn't help adding a few fantastical tweaks. The bottom line is that a small dose of fantasy allows me to explore certain aspects of the time period that might otherwise not make such a big impression on readers. The fantasy elements in Pendragon's Heir, among other things, allowed me to cast the story as a conflict between modernism and medievalism on a scale that a less fantastical tale would never have allowed. The fantasy elements in The Rakshasa's Bride enabled me to cast the story as an allegory of salvation (though in such an unobtrusive manner that at least one of my friends never picked it up. Oops?).

Besides, realistic historical fiction is pretty much a newcomer on the world's stage anyway. Before the 1700s and the rise of the novel, everybody who was anybody wrote epic poems, usually in the...historical fantasy genre.

Will I be sticking to historical fantasy for the future? Well, all the ideas I've got at the moment--and given that one of them is a Giant Tome, I'm trying not to have too many--involve historical fantasy to some extent. I wouldn't rule out trying something else in the future. But I think this is what excites me most.

I said I'd tell you a bit more about my Upcoming Fairy Tale Retelling. I just finished a rough first draft of this novella this evening. Given some of my recent reading, it shouldn't surprise too many of you to know that this one is set in the Byzantine Empire. The working title is The Prince of Fishes, and it is pretty epic.

Friday, January 16, 2015

A Short History of Byzantium by John Julius Norwich

The 1100-year reign of the Byzantine emperors in late-antique and medieval Constantinople is the stuff of legend, mystery, and fable. Byzantium hovers on the very edge of European history, geography, and consciousness, a place of blood and gold and splendour, a sort of historical equivalent of the famous cartographical warning sign "Here, There Be Dragons", or a real version of all those civilisations thought to have sunk beneath the sea and been lost, from Atlantis to Lyonesse to Numenor. Even to the comparatively well-educated, the empire and its city tend to remain uncharted territory; moreover, the mystic appeal of the place more or less depends on its remaining uncharted and unknown. Additionally, Western civilisation has not generally encouraged the study of Byzantium after Justinian. We'll get into why in a moment.

Norwich's Rendition

At any rate, like most people, I grew up knowing very little about the empire. This has been, in some ways, an advantage. John Julius Norwich's Short History of Byzantium, written as it is by a born raconteur, with a thorough zest for the sensational, the thrilling, and the comic, hit me more or less unprepared. I had no idea what I was in for. Consequently, I spent half the book laughing, crying, or yelling "Yikes!".

Norwich begins with the founder of Constantinople, Constantine the Great, and takes us through the whole 1100 years of the city's reign, finishing with the heartbreaking and valiant last stand against the Turks in 1453. The book is a condensation of a much larger work, Norwich's three-volume history of Byzantium, and I assure you that I only read the abridged version because of difficulty in finding the full version. I imagine that the full three-volume work might be easier in some ways to read than the Short History, which is so packed with names and family trees and actors coming and going in such a whirl that one gets that drinking-from-a-firehose sensation. This is definitely one book you want to read in hard form; otherwise there's altogether too much flipping back and forth between maps and family trees and text.

However, the book does have a special appeal. Norwich is not a professional historian, and I've heard people pooh-pooh his work for this reason, but he is superbly readable, with a dry and often cynical wit covering a real love of his subject. A Short History of Byzantium draws less on original sources than on other history texts, but it collates and organises all those resources into one cohesive, thoroughly entertaining narrative. Norwich understands, as many historians do not--Judith Herrin, for example--that it does not warm the heart to be told that Emperor What's-His-Name was murdered in his bathtub. What we really want to know is that it was done when someone beaned him on the head with a soapdish.

Finally, perhaps the biggest criticism I can make about the telling of the history, is the fact that Norwich does not so much give a history of the Empire as a history of its emperors and their reigns. This is definitely a handy approach to history, but it does leave one fairly uninformed on matters such as customs, economy, laws, and culture: Not once, for example, does Norwich include a mention of the Greek folk-hero, Digenes Akrites. For that kind of thing I went and read another book, Judith Herrin's Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire, which filled in the blanks very well, but was nowhere near as entertaining.

The Anastasis (Harrowing of Hell), a fresco from the church of St Savior in Chora, Constantinople

That Ghastly Gibbon

By the way, let us dispense at once with the idea that the Byzantine Empire was ever a thing. There never was such entity as the Byzantine Empire, except in history books after about the mid-1800s. The correct terminology, if you were to ask an actual citizen of the Empire, was the Empire of the Romans. If you asked the Turks, they would have said it was the empire of Rum, which was their name for Roman, and if you asked the Holy Roman Emperor, he would have snickered a bit and insisted on calling the Eastern Emperor the Emperor of the Greeks, because he knew nothing would infuriate his fellow-Emperor more. The term "Byzantine Empire" was not coined until a hundred years or so after the fall of the Empire, and it was not popularly used for centuries after that.

So why do we call this empire "Byzantine"? The answer has partly to do with the Enlightenment, and partly to do with that historical arch-villain, Edward Gibbon, and partly to do with the medieval West's very turbulent love-hate relationship with the medieval East, which after centuries of distrust and disillusionment, finally culminated in the awful sacking of Constantinople in 1204 by the Fourth Crusade. Historians, of course, have dragged this out for years as Exhibit A of Why The Crusades Were Eeeeeevil, although a closer study of history reveals that none of the parties involved actually wished or intended such a thing to happen. Nevertheless, after the fact, it was easier to blame the Empire for being double-dealing and malicious (a view not without some pretty good foundations, if you believe the Crusader historians; the Byzantine historians, of course, deny all such claims), to say nothing of heretical and therefore pretty much deserving of what they got. This historical enmity, however, did not prevent West and East from attempting reconciliation with increasing desperation right up to the fall of the city in 1453.

The eventual naming of the Empire as "Byzantine" in modern history texts is probably better attributed to Enlightenment historians like Gibbon who preferred not to think of a medieval, Christian Empire as having anything to do with their great heroes, the pagan Romans. In the City of God, St Augustine had rebuked a view current among pagans that it was Christian influence which was causing the disappearance of the old Roman order. Gibbon's Decline and Fall of Rome was his own pagan response to Augustine. In it, he blamed Christians for causing the "fall" of the Roman Empire in the West, and its degeneration into a decadent, passive, tradition-bound, deeply religious entity in the East. As Norwich observes in his Introduction, " all classically educated Englishmen of his day, saw Byzantium as the betrayal of all that was best in ancient Greece and Rome." Another historian has observed of Gibbon that he was never able to forgive Constantine I for ending the persecution of Christians. Nor were he, or his contemporaries and co-Enlighteneds, able to forgive the Eastern Roman Empire for continuing, a vibrant Christian culture which used to riot in the streets over abstruse theological definitions, for over a millenium after its conversion from paganism. They felt that a distinction must therefore be drawn between the Roman Empire proper, that good old pagan institution, and its degenerate continuation in Constantinople. It is for this reason that we call the Empire Byzantine (after Byzantion, the name of the small town where Constantine built his imperial city), and it is for this reason that the Enlightened West has generally discouraged an interest in its history.

The Emperor Justinian, mosaic in San Vitale, Ravenna. Note fancy imperial shoes. These were a Thing.

Some Thoughts on the History

I really don't want to spoil this for you. There is insanity. There are mutilations. There is a mad emperor with no nose (he wore a gold one). There is the astonishing fate that struck Bardas Phocas right at the moment he was galloping straight at the boy emperor Basil II waving his sword. There are more power-mad, scheming, ambitious Empresses than you could throw a brick at. There is a corresponding number of Emperors who rose to the purple from poverty--Basil I started out as a stable hand, and Phocas was a fairly humble centurion in the army. There are assassinations, rebellions, coups, and church councils going on wherever you look. It's all very entertaining.

When I read history, keeping it in mind as a form of general revelation, governed by Providence, I'm always trying to make sense of it in one way or another. There are plenty of challenging things to think about in this book. First of all, Providence is right there, playing a quite unmistakeable role. Stuff happens in history, quite beyond what anyone could hope for or prepare for, and one is just left staring and saying weakly, "Well, look at that." Turkish conquerors conveniently perish or are distracted by the Mongols just in time to prevent them wiping out embattled Christian enclaves. The Fourth Crusade spins out of control and half-destroys Constantinople against all reason or foresight. Or right at the moment of seemingly irreversible decline, the Comneni come along and save everyone's bacon for another three and a half centuries. In the words of my favourite historian, George Grant:
We tend to have in the modern and postmodern era a peculiar way of looking at history. We think of the rise and fall of civilizations. We think of them in their youth and vigor and then in their decrepitude and decline. Both the spatial analogy—rise and fall—and the biological analogy—youth and old age—are false when applied to history. But we’ve so internalized the idea that they rise and fall or have youth and vigor and then wear out and die that we don’t consider what the Bible says or what history proves. There isn’t a life span or a spatial relationship where we can track a civilization. ... The Bible tells us that great civilizations often do fall, collapse, disappear at the height of their glory—Babylon, Assyria, Persia, and as we will see, Byzantium itself. The model portrayed in Scripture is that a civilization is healthy when it is virtuous and is in danger when it is wicked. And the end of a civilization comes with judgement not merely malaise.
All the time I was reading Norwich's book, Grant's words here ran through my head--although oddly, I had forgotten that he spoke them of Byzantium.

Another thing that I mulled over reading this book was the extremely plentiful amount of unChristian behaviour going on in the Empire, especially early on. It seems hard to find any emperors not guilty of murder, rebellion, or fornication--and all this while their subjects are having lively (armed) theological discussions. What I think we see here is the fact that not just individuals, but also cultures, start out immature and gain a kind of cultural cache as they go on. Wisdom is not just individual; it's also corporate. The Constantinople of the Paleologi and Comeneni seems a much wiser place than that of the Theodosians. (As for the Angeli, the least said, the better).

The Fall of Constantinople--15th century French miniature
Yet another thing: While the Eastern Empire showcased some excellent things, and provided a valuable buffer zone between Western Europe and the seemingly inexorable advance of Islam, the fact remained that it was a vast centralised dictatorship running on a socialist economy that deliberately taxed and oppressed local authorities in order to keep them subservient to the crown. While this strategy for many years prevented the Empire from fracturing into smaller states, I believe it also contributed to the ease with while the Muslim invaders were able to consolidate and retain their grip on those provinces they conquered. Simply put, a people that looks to a strong centralised government to protect and govern them will be incapable of protecting themselves against attack.

However, in the third part of the book, we really begin to see the forging of the silver bullet that was to forever destroy the Eastern Empire: disunity. The main thing that strikes me in this history is the desperate need of the Church to be unified in brotherly love. Byzantium stood as the frontier of Christendom against the menace of Islam. It was old, wily, and technologically advanced; the baby civilisation of Western Europe grew strong behind her skirts and then, tragically, failed to work with her, protect her, or reinforce her. The tensions and distrust between East and West--theological, diplomatic, and cultural--eventually grew to such a level that a Greek proverb came into currency: "Better the sultan's turban than the cardinal's hat". Despite heroic efforts on the part of the last emperors to bring about unity of the church, so that their civilisation would not be snuffed out by the Turks, neither the West nor the East was ready to make the concessions necessary to work together. As a result, Constantinople fell, and for the next couple of centuries, the Turks worked their way through Europe, only turned back at the battle of Lepanto in 1571 and the sieges of Vienna in 1529 and 1683: now Europe was fighting for its own existence in earnest.

This tragic inability to love and work with each other is highlighted by what had happened nearly a thousand years before in the Roman provinces of Syria and Egypt. When the Saracens first conquered those provinces, the local Nestorian and Monophysite Christians welcomed them, preferring--as the Byzantines would a thousand years later--the rule of Saracens to that of fellow Christians.

This is why we need to know history. This is why church unity--even in the midst of differing viewpoints--is so important. Not the kind of slavish unity that prepares a people for oppression, but the kind of trinitarian unity-in-diversity that alone is able to stand firm against the enemy.


John Julius Norwich's Short History of Byzantium is a wonderful introduction to the history of that fascinating empire. I would highly recommend it as a jumping-off-point for further study, or as a basic summary for students. For a more well-rounded view, I'd recommend going on to read Judith Herrin's Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire, and for a closer look at the Crusaders' rocky relationship with the Empire, read Rodney Stark's God's Battalions: The Case for the Crusades or Thomas F Madden's New Concise History of the Crusades, both of which are fairly short and readable.

Find A Short History of Byzantium on Amazon or The Book Depository.

Friday, January 9, 2015

The Kalevala by Elias Lönnrot

Well, hello, and welcome back to Vintage Novels in 2015! I've spent most of the last two weeks relaxing in the company of books and family, and today I'd like to review my Annual Epic.

This is, to explain, a private tradition of mine, in which I set aside the week or two after Christmas to read an epic poem. Since I've read most of the standards (the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Divine Comedy) I've been enjoying delving into some of the less well-known epics since beginning this blog: the Orlando Furioso, Le Morte D'Arthur (though technically that's a romance), the Faerie Queene, and the Jerusalem Delivered. This year I was thrilled to finally get around to The Kalevala.

Like most people, I first heard of Elias Lonnrot's epic poem of Finland from JRR Tolkien's Letters and biography. And, like most people, it was when I discovered that Tolkien had fallen in love with the Finnish language as a young man and then used certain plot elements from the Kalevala in constructing his own legendarium, that I resolved to find a copy and read it. This was harder to do than I thought--I did manage to read Volume 1 in the Everyman edition a while ago, but never managed to find Volume 2 until I got an ereader.

Elias Lonnrot's poem begins with a wonderful, galloping rhythm and tremendously evocative imagery:
Many runes the cold has told me,
Many lays the rain has brought me,
Other songs the winds have sung me;
Many birds from many forests,
Oft have sung me lays in concord
Waves of sea, and ocean billows,
Music from the many waters,
Music from the whole creation,
Oft have been my guide and master.
Sentences the trees created,
Rolled together into bundles,
Moved them to my ancient dwelling,
On the sledges to my cottage,
Tied them to my garret rafters,
Hung them on my dwelling-portals,
Laid them in a chest of boxes,
Boxes lined with shining copper.
Long they lay within my dwelling
Through the chilling winds of winter,
In my dwelling-place for ages.
The rest of the poem, at the same cantering rhythm, whisks you effortlessly through a long, episodic story of myth and magic, a story that weaves together countless stories and legends from Finnish folklore. The central figure of the poem is Vainamoinen, born an old man to the Ether's Daughter, who becomes the greatest bard and magician of ancient Finland and works for centuries to cultivate and ennoble it. Others include Ilmarinen, the demigod blacksmith who forges the wonderful (and famously inspecific) Sampo; Lemminkainen, a cocky and headstrong warrior; and Kullervo, a vengeful and bitter young man who spends his short life making a hash of everything he touches. The main plot concerns the Sampo, a mysterious thing of which all we know is that it has a lid and three mills which grind out wheat, salt and gold. Ilmarinen forges the Sampo for Louhi, Mistress of Lapland, in return for marriage to Louhi's daughter, the Maiden of the Rainbow. Louhi locks the Sampo inside a mountain, but in a land of unscrupulous trickster-heroes, how long will it remain safe?

Myth and magic

The most striking thing to me about the Kalevala was the alienness (alterity?) of the culture portrayed. The past is always a different country, of course, and the Kalevala, though compiled in the 1830s, draws on a rich oral tradition of pre-Christian myth. But I've read a goodish bit of pre-Christian and early Christian myth and storytelling, and the Kalevala is not quite like anything I've read before. I did partly expect that. The Finns, though settled in Scandinavia, are not of the same ethnic and linguistic stock as the other Scandinavians--the Swedish, Norse, or Danish--instead having more in common with Estonians and Hungarians. Their origin is shrouded in mystery, but the language family to which Finnish, Estonian, and Hungarian belong is known as Uralic, and some conjectures put their origin in western Siberia. No matter where the Finns and their language actually came from, the important thing to note is that they, the Estonians, and the Hungarians are basically linguistically unrelated to everyone else in Europe. The Celtic, Greek, Romantic, Germanic, and Slavic languages are all part of the Indo-European family.

This linguistic difference signifies a cultural and mythological difference. The flavour of Finnish myth, as given in the Kalevala, seems to find its closest analog in the Celtic legends. Certainly they could hardly be more different from the more aggressive and laconic legends of the rest of Scandinavia. The culture of the Kalevala is whimsical, lyrical, and endlessly delighted in the beauty of nature. Most of all, its concept of heroism is a surprise. Unlike the warrior and lawyer heroes of Iceland or England, who lose lives and body parts with suitably heroic composure, the heroes of the Kalevala are a more human, sensitive, tricksy lot, easily made to look ridiculous, and making war with songs and shamanistic magic rather than with swords. All the heroes are wizards. There are very few actual combats, but lots of wizard duels.

There's also a lot of cultural development. The wizard-heroes don't just duel each other and conduct rival courtships. They plant trees and crops, they fish, build boats, forge jewellery, herd cows, brew beer, and invent musical instruments. They are inventors, hunters, farmers, and builders.

The Defence of Sampo
I didn't know quite how to take the ever-present magic of the setting. The paganism is pretty evident in that everyone is a "magic hero", a shaman. Everyone invents, hunts, farms, and builds with the use of spells and incantations. Here, as in most pre-Enlightenment cultures, there is no clear line between the natural and the supernatural. That itself doesn't bother me. I think the Enlightenment did us a great disservice in convincing us that any distinction can be drawn between the mundane and the miraculous. For when God holds all things together by the word of His power, how can anything be entirely natural? Farming and hunting may strike us as being rather mundane professions, but the Kalevala depicts them as mysterious and miraculous, dependent on something greater than ourselves.

That said, the spells and prayers are generally directed to all the many demi-gods and minor deities inhabiting the lovingly-described Finnish landscape from Karelia to Pohjola. Above these, Ukko is often invoked, a supreme deity apparently of a different order than the others:

Do not walk in thine own virtue,
Do not work in thine own power,
Walk in strength of thy Creator;
Do not speak in thine own wisdom,
Speak with tongue of mighty Ukko.
In my mouth, if there be sweetness,
It has come from my Creator;
If my hands are filled with beauty,
All the beauty comes from Ukko."

Though some passages make Ukko sound rather recognisable, others seem to dilute this impression of familiarity. Ukko obediently answers all prayers, including those of thieves and murderers; then, after the Maiden of the Rainbow, Ilmarinen's wife, invokes Ukko's aid to protect her cattle, she goes on to beg the help of lesser deities in case Ukko is unable to help. The paganism of the setting, then, seems to me to be less in the high magic use than in the fuzziness of the source of that magic. Ukko can be invoked, but he cannot be trusted to take up the cause of justice, or to carry out his will against the malice of enemies.

But this is all to ignore an odd little twist right at the end of the poem. The end of the Kalevala comes when a virgin named Marjatta becomes pregnant by eating a berry. Cast out by her relatives, she gives birth in a stable to a son. Vainamoinen orders the baby killed, but the two-week-old child rebukes him, accusing him of crimes deserving of death. The child is crowned King of Karelia, and Vainamoinen departs, leaving his harp and other works behind him. For generations the child of Marjatta has been taken as an allegory of Christ, and from there it isn't hard to see Vainamoinen as the symbol of paganism, exiled from his country, leaving the legacy of his inventions and agriculture to a new Christian society.

Taken in this sense, might the Kalevala be another example of Christian apologetics designed to depict a noble and inventive, but ultimately lost and foolish paganism in need of salvation? That, I am convinced, is the purpose of epics such as Beowulf and Njal's Saga. I'm not so sure about the Kalevala, mostly because I am not so sure about the intentions of Lonnrot, its compiler. But it very well could be.

The Kalevala and the Making of Finland

Golden friend, and dearest brother,
Brother dear of mine in childhood,...
 Let us clasp our hands together
That we thus may best remember.
Which brings us to the very interesting history of this epic poem, and its effect on world history. Epic poems have traditionally been a way for peoples to forge a common identity and gain a shared story. Ancient Greece had Homer; Rome had the Aeneid. Renaissance epics enshrined a family, like the Orlando Furioso, or a movement, like the Counter-Reformation's Jerusalem Delivered or the Reformation's Faerie Queene. The effect of the Kalevala is said to be nationalist.

Elias Lonnrot compiled the Kalevala from the many, many folktales he collected travelling around Finland over the course of about fifteen years in the 1830s and 40s. What he did was similar to the Grimms' work in Germany, except that it had a much sharper immediate effect on his country. At the time the Kalevala was compiled, Finland had not enjoyed self-government since the 1200s. Until 1809, it had been ruled and administered by Sweden, and Swedish was the language of administration, although a Finnish Bible was translated in 1642 and the Reformation contributed, here as elsewhere, to a strong tradition of literacy, a law code based on the Old Testament, and localised representative government.

In 1809 the area was conquered by Russia and was a Grand Duchy of Russia until it gained independence in 1917. Interestingly, the Finnish cultural movement which began in the mid-1800s was begun and encouraged by the Swedish-speaking upper classes to foster goodwill and unity with the peasantry. It may also have been encouraged by the Russian administrators as a means to cut ties between Finland and their long-time overlords the Swedes. Certainly it was stirred to a fine glow by the publication of the Kalevala.

In 1835 when the Kalevala was published, Finnish was the language of the peasantry; Swedish was the language of culture, arts, business, and politics and thus, had it not been for the Kalevala and the outpouring of culture that it inspired (from the music of Sibelius to the paintings of Gallen-Kallela), the language may have eventually faded away altogether. As it was, the Kalevala stirred up a great love of Finnish language and culture; even today, names of heroes, places, and objects from the epic are commonplace names for babies, streets, and businesses, and the epic itself has its own annual celebration on 28 February, Kalevala Day.

Simo Häyhä
The rest of Finnish history is well worth looking at. There was the period of oppression under the Russian policy of Russification in the 1890s and early 1900s, an attempt to integrate Finland more ruthlessly into the Empire. Independence came in 1917 amid the turmoil of the two Russian revolutions, and was followed by a brief civil war between parliamentarians and Soviets, which (happily for Finland) the Soviets lost. World War II saw the bitter Winter War when the Soviet Union again attempted to annex the country, during which the famous Simo Häyhä, a farmer and hunter, became the world's deadliest sniper to date--which, considering the technology available to him at the time, is really saying something.

What does this have to do with The Kalevala? I don't suppose anyone could say that the Kalevala is what empowered this small and chilly country to come out from under the shadow of a vast and oppressive empire, fight a bitter war in the dead of winter (or two), and get through all the turmoil of the Second World War and the Cold War without falling prey either to Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia. I'm more inclined to credit it to their national character, with its strong tradition of local self-government, literacy, and cultural pride. To one thing, however, the Kalevala does bear unmistakeable witness: to a deep pride in, and a respect for, little things and little people. Farmers, hunters, and craftsmen. It is this respect that gave birth to the Kalevala, and it is this same respect that the Kalevala sowed back into its people. Without that, could there have been any Winter War?

Find the Kalevala on Amazon, the Book Depository, Project Gutenberg, or Librivox.


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