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,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?
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.
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|
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.
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.
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.