The Kalevala is the great Finnish epic, which like The Iliad and The Odyssey, grew out of a rich oral tradition with prehistoric roots. During the first millennium of our era, speakers of Uralic languages (those outside the Indo-European group) who had settled in the Baltic region of Karelia, that straddles the border of eastern Finland and north-west Russia, developed an oral poetry that was to last into the nineteenth century. This poetry provided the basis of the Kalevala. It was assembled in the 1840s by the Finnish scholar Elias Lonnrot, who took ‘dictation’ from the performance of a folk singer, in much the same way as our great collections from the past, from Homeric poems to medieval songs and epics, have probably been set down. Published in 1849, it played a central role in the march towards Finnish independence and inspired some of Sibelius’s greatest works.
I’ve mentioned this story a few times now but I had been reading The Kalevala since about the start of the new year. I started reading it on my Kobo but realised halfway through that the stories weren’t exactly sinking in; the translation that I had was a little heavy and there’s just something awkward about reading folk/epic poetry on a e-Reader (yeah, still getting used to that). So I ended up buying a physical copy of The Kalevala and starting again from the beginning. I will say that the Oxford Classics edition is fantastic in its translation (not sure about the accuracy though), it’s much more accessible than the free ebook version.
I had initially turned to reading The Kalevala because I heard that J.R.R. Tolkien had read it and that parts of the poetry had influenced his writing. Not to mention it’s just one of those major epic poetries and I was previously unfamiliar with Finnish literature and culture so I thought this book was a great place to start. Stories like the creation myth and the importance of the Sampo are unique and interesting to the culture, fantastical and ultimately just a lot of fun to read about. There is mystery and there is also magic involved but it’s interesting to read how much of the stories must have reflected the realities of Finnish society then. The stories are heavily rooted in nature though there is an awareness of other peoples outside of the Finnish landscape (how much of this was later added, I don’t know).
But what really makes these stories timely is not only the stories themselves but also the characters that populate the stories. Väinämöinen is a principal character in many of the stories, with his gift of song and his eternal travels of finding a woman to marry; poor Väinämöinen, with all of wisdom and his skills, he can’t find a girl because he’s too old for them =P And then there’s Lemminkäinen, the…err, ladies’ man whose ends up in plenty of trouble and never seems to properly learn from his mistakes. Ilmarinen was a pretty cool character, the smith who forges a lot of magical and useful items. Joukahainen plays but a small role at the beginning of the Kalevala but let’s just say the phrase “Look at your life, look at your choices” aptly fits his character (I’d actually lump him with Lemminkäinen for top prize of silliest, bull-headed decisions made in the epics). So you can imagine why I relished reading these tales; all of these characters, including the powerful ones, all have their respective flaws that come out and mess with them at times.
What’s also interesting is that the women are pretty much the steady, level-headed players in the stories. They obviously fall under their respective social roles of the times as wives, mothers, homemakers, etc. and likely espouse the virtues that are expected of women then but they are also the ones who stand fast to their beliefs and decisions even when their families spurn them or lecherous men are after them. They’re also the ones who are the voice of reason (save Louhi, the Baba Yaga-like character of the epics), knocking sense to the men every now and then; my favourite has to be Lemminkäinen’s mother who is eternally telling her son not to go out and do this and that because bad things will happen (and being the son that he is, he says okay but then does it anyways *shakes head*). If there’s anything I learned from these tales, it’s never mess with the women =P
Overall, I greatly enjoyed reading The Kalevala. It’s obviously a bit of a task to read if you don’t normally read epic poetry or poetry but the stories are highly enjoyable and well worth checking out.
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