Thursday, September 01, 2005

The Kalevala

Just finished the great Finnish epic, the Kalevala, a last hangover of my summer pleasure reading. Rick Ritchie asked about what translation I used. Since it was great I thought I'd introduce it to my readers.

Q: What's is the Kalevala?
A: It's the "national epic of Finland." It was put together by a folklorist Elias Lonnrot in 1835 with a final edition in 1849. To make it he took narrative and occasional songs and stitched them together into an epic.

Q: What's it all about?
A: It's about the adventures of four chief characters: The wise man Vainamoinen, the smith Ilmarinen, the rogue Lemminkainen, and the hapless serf Kullervo. The most famous story is how the first three go to the Northland to steal the Sampo (a mysterious device that grinds out eternal wealth), but sailing home are attacked by Louhi, the mistress of the north, and the Sampo gets broken. Other famous stories concern the lover boy Leminkainen's various wooings of maidens. Kullervo's story is a sad one of a serf hounded to his death by ill-fortune. In it, you also find hunting charms seeking bounty from the lord of the hunt Tapio and his family, wedding songs (about how a bride and a groom should behave, or lamenting how brides are mistreated by their mothers-in-law, etc.), sailing songs, mythological songs about the origin of fire, and so on.

Q: Sounds pretty pagan. How did paganism survive so long in Finland?
A: The poems were collected by Lonnrot in Karelia, along the border of Finland and Russia. For many centuries, the Finns were ruled by the Swedes and the Karelians by the Russians. There, far from the heartland of either country, the Karelians had only light influence from the Russian Orthodox church. But, the song ends with the story of Marjatta and her magically conceived boy who is acclaimed king of Karelia and banishes the shaman-figure Vainamoinen. No three guesses on what the English of "Marjatta's" name would be.

Q: What's the best translation?
A: I don't know, having only read one, but I it can't get much better than the Keith Bosley translation which I read. The Kirby translation in the Everyman's Library series was for a long time the standard one, but most people seem to think Bosley's is much better.

Q: This is just some obscure thing only nerds and academics read, right?
A: The Kalevala was a big influence on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and was the model for his Hiawatha epic, both metrically and thematically. J.R.R. Tolkien was bowled over by it when he was devising his Elvish mythology. If Ilmarinen sounds like a Tolkien-style Elvish name, that's the reason. The story of Turin Turambar in the Silmarillion was directly inspired by the life of Kullervo. Finally the Finnish composer Sibelius wrote many pieces based on the Kalevala (all nicely identified in Bosley's translation.)

Q: OK, so is it any good? You know, classics are often, a bit dull.
A: I thought it was great. But yes, it moves slowly. It is an oral epic with the use of repeated formulas. It has a lot of description. My best guess is, if you liked the Iliad and the Odyssey, or liked Icelandic sagas, or liked the Silmarillion or Longfellow, you'll certainly like the Kalevala. If you hate one or more of them, then the Kalevala might not be for you.