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.


Anna Mussmann said...

My grandparents both have memories of the Winter War. My grandfather's mother, and the other women of the village, spent a summer digging trenches all along the river in case the Russians penetrated that far. The remains of those trenches are still there, as are the occasional bunker. My grandfather also remembers waking in the night to see that the kitchen floor was full of sleeping Finnish soldiers, who would be gone when he woke up.

Suzannah said...

Anna, that's great! It really seems that Finland has an amazing cultural legacy of responsibility and self-government standing behind the wars of the twentieth century. So neat to read a bit more about it.

Kim Marsh said...

Apart from the fact that Longfellow borrowed the. Metre for Hiawatha I knew nothing about this poem so an informative review. Your comments on it's significance in Finnish history are also interesting. Works of literature do seem to have stimulated C19th nationalism throughout Central Europe . However may I suggest that the success of the Finns in the winter war was in no small measure due to the incompetence of the Soviet army recently purged by Stalin. Also the aspects of Finnish culture you refer to, self reliance and government and respect for craftsmanship are ore due to the topography of the country rather than language. Kind regards Kim

Suzannah said...

Kim, yes, I didn't mean to suggest that the responsibility of the people came from the language, but that the Kalevala celebrates those qualities and reinforces them in the national mind.

I really loved the way the epic celebrates humble pursuits--farming, hunting, craftsmanship. It was great.

PB said...

Suzannah - I noticed, like Kim, that this was the same metre as Hiawatha. But is this Lonnrot's original metre?

Relatedly, I'd be keen to know more about the translation you read - assuming you didn't read it in the original Finnish. (Though, I'm sure if anyone could conquer that task, it would be you).

As for language shaping culture or culture shaping language, it's an age old question. The direction of influence probably goes both ways.

PB said...

Interesting - I responded once, but it posted three times ;).

Suzannah said...

No problem, Peirce. Yes, it is Lonnrot's original metre--which is fun, because the Finnish words are multisyllabic and usually only two or three of them fit into each line!

I read the translation available on Project Gutenberg, by John Martin Crawford. I did briefly consider learning Finnish so as to be able to read the poem in its original language, but gave up when life threw distractions at me...this was 10 years ago or so. It struck me as a good translation--sometimes translations seem clanky and old-fashioned or too wordy and modern, but this one seemed pretty authentic; I enjoyed it.

Evid Ent said...

A very good article on Kalevala! Congratulations!

Suzannah said...

Glad you enjoyed it, Evid!


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