Sep 20 2011 12:58pm

The Beauty of The Kalevala

The Beauty of The KalevalaI hold a special fondness for poems and stories that bridge oral tradition and literature. I think it was in that switch, from oral to written, that fantasy as a literary form was born. Such works — the PanchatantraEpic of GilgameshOdyssey and the Mabinogion to name a few — are the ancestors of contemporary fantasy. The Kalevala is another such bridge.

I would not be surprised if among the erudite readership of this website there are those who have studied The Kalevala at great length. If you’re out there, please chime in. I’m just a casual reader struck by the scope, adventure, humor and emotion of the work. I would never have even heard of it if not for reading somewhere that Tolkien loved it. Now that I’ve read it I regard The Kalevala as one of the most engaging epic poems I’ve ever read, en par with Ovid’s Metamorphosis, though less complicated.

If you aren’t familiar with The Kalevala, I’ll provide a little background. The Kalevala transitioned from oral to written much more recently than the others I just mentioned. In the early 19th century, a Finnish doctor named Elias Lonnröt compiled folksongs into a single epic poem, and revised it over the course of many years and numerous trips to the countryside, first publishing it in 1835. We think of The Kalevala as Finnish, but more accurately the work comes from the region of Karelia, which has at various times fallen under the control of Sweden, Russia and Finland. (Anyone better versed in the politics of Karelia will know that is a very simple way of explaining it, and I admit I may be misinterpreting the history).

The stories in The Kalevala were — and still are — sung with a particular tune, and sometimes a zither called a Kantele accompanies. Singers would sit across from each other, fingers intertwined, singing sometimes in unison, sometimes call-and-response. Singing is also one of two methods of magic in The Kalevala, the other being a sort of built-in elemental, natural magic (generally used by female characters). Sorcerers sing magic. Isn’t that cool? At least, it’s consistent with the inherent meaning of the word enchantment. Oh, and another cool detail: Longfellow used the rhythm of The Kalevala for Hiawatha.

Singing the runot, the songs, often became a profession for the blind. In fact, when Lonnröt compiled the runot from oral tradition, blind singers contributed the vast majority.

The Beauty of The KalevalaThe stories themselves are generally distinct from other major cycles of mythology but now and then a familiar element pops up: a little Osiris here, a little Tiamat there, and a transition from pagan imagery to Christian at the end (clearly a late addition to the tales). The larger plotlines center on the exploits of three men: Väinämöinen, a powerful though not entirely pleasant wizard; Lemminkäinen, a brash, two-fisted womanizer; and Illmarinen, a magical smith, who seems to be a generally decent sort of dude. Illmarinen forged the sampo, which is very important. (I have no idea what exactly a sampo is, but it was all the rage in old Karelia. I suspect it’s what was glowing in the suitcase in Pulp Fiction. And at the end of Lost In Translation, Bill Murray whispers to Scarlett Johannson what a sampo is. It’s probably the name of the child empress in The Neverending Story.)

This focus on male characters does not mean, however, that women are not important in The Kalevala. Far, far from it. Consistently, the most moving and enchanting portions relate to female characters. I guess you could say the male characters get a lot of the big, cinematic scenes but the heart of The Kalevala is in the emotional narratives of the women.

When first we meet Väinämöinen, the great magical being, we know full well he’s extraordinary before he has actually done anything. Why? Because first we learn of his mother, Ilmatar, and her amazing conception and pregnancy. A spirit of the air, impregnated by the sea, she swells and swells, well past human dimensions, and remains pregnant for more than seven centuries. When at last her son, Väinämöinen, emerges from her divine, elemental womb, he’s already ancient and venerable. Obviously, with an introduction like that, the reader knows this guy is big magic.

I’m not going to summarize the entire story, but I would like to focus on a section in the beginning.

Väinämöinen fights a singing duel with an impetuous and unwise youngster named Joukahainen. The noob gets pwned, or words to that effect. Specifically, Väinämöinen turns Joukahainen into a swamp. I like that. You know your ass is done for when you are magically pimp-slapped into a swamp. And, as he’s got all the merit of a thrift store douchebag, Joukahainen goes, “Wow, you kicked my ass in magic singing. Please unswampify me and you can marry my sister.”

Väinämöinen, not the most compassionate guy, goes, “Yay, I won a lady!”

Handing women off like prizes is both despicable and commonplace in mythology (and not just there). But here the story goes into the emotional reaction of the promised bride, Aino, who quite clearly would rather die than be handed off like auctioned cattle. She cries, and her family members ask her one after another why she’s so sad to be promised to the wizard. Her grief builds as they ask, and her full answer is such beautifully expressed anguish I had to put the book down a few times and sigh, tears in my eyes. (Note: The Oxford World’s Classics edition translated for meaning but not rhythm, so this doesn’t match the actual tune of the runot.)

Here is the concluding portion:

“My mood no better than tar
my heart no whiter than coal.
Better it would be for me
and better it would have been
had I not been born, not grown
not sprung into full size
in these evil days
in this joyless world.
Had I died a six-night old
and been lost as an eight-night-old
I would not have needed much—
a span of linen
a tiny field edge
a few tears from my mother
still fewer from my father
not even a few from my brother.”

The Beauty of The KalevalaSoon after, she drowns herself rather than marry Väinämöinen (that’s not the end of her story but I don’t want to give everything away). For all the amazing magic and adventure of The Kalevala, the tragedy of Aino is the part I think of the most. Without this heart-rending story The Kalevala would be unbalanced, focused on action more than consequence, overpowered by characters like Lemminkäinen, who basically thinks with his southern brain.

There’s a lot more that I could say. There are enormous birds, magical woodsmen, witches, a proto-Frankenstein resurrection, really tough elk, tricky wasps, a sampo — whatever the hell that is — a ton of spells, love, war and revenge. Rich, wonderful fantastical and imaginative throughout. But, in the immortal phrasing of LeVar Burton, “You don’t have to take my word for it.” 

Jason Henninger works in Santa Monica, CA, and does not own a sampo.

1. KenM
The Kavevala was worked into a nice trilogy of science fiction in the '60's by Emil Petaja; Saga of Lost Earth, Star Mill and Tramontane.
2. PeeterSR
The name should be Lönnrot, not Lonnröt. I know this is hard for people not used to strange dots everywhere, though.
And then on a more SF/F-note there is of course the delightful story "Wall of Serpents" (1953) by Fletcher Pratt and L. Sprague de Camp, featuring the adventures of Harold Shea in the world of Kalevala.
Jason Henninger
3. jasonhenninger
@2 Thanks for the correction. True, the dots confuse me. And thanks to you and #1 for the further reading suggestions. I will definitely check them out.
Jason Henninger
4. jasonhenninger
@2 Thanks for the correction. True, the dots confuse me. And thanks to you and #1 for the further reading suggestions. I will definitely check them out.
5. Nyrath
Don't forget the fourth book in Emil Petaja's "Otava Series": The Stolen Sun.
Look it up in the Internet Speculative Fiction Database (I would have posted a link but the forum's spam filter would probably prevent it)
S Cooper
6. SPC
Do you have a particular translation to recommend? I picked up a google books free ebook, and it definitely has the meter of Hiawatha, but has the usual scanned ebook downsides. I've been working through it in parts.

I came across adaptations of several of the stories in children's fairy tale collections (I have a weakness for those) which inspired me to try to read the whole thing.
Mike Conley
7. NomadUK
Not to mention all the beautiful Kalevala-inspired music by Jean Sibelius: 'En Saga', the Lemminkäinen Suites, the Karelia Suite, and 'Finlandia', amongst others. The second movement of Lemminkäinen is the beautiful and hauting 'Swan of Tuonela', whilst 'Finlandia' should be instantly recognisable, if for no other reason than its rather odd use in Die Hard 2.
Jason Henninger
8. jasonhenninger
That is something I have wondered. I got the Oxford World Classics edition, translated by Kieth Bosley. I think it's good but I don't know how it stands up to other translations. There's an older one here:
which is less reader-friendly, I think, than the Oxford, but a very different flavor. Not sure which is closer to the original.
JP Ikäheimonen
9. Oldtribe
Hmm. As a Finn, I'm pretty familiar with the original. I've always thought that Joukahainen ended up inside the swamp rather than being a swamp. The Finnish poem certainly suggests the former, but you can deviously read it the other way as well. Certainly it is so much more awesome if you can turn your adversaries into landscapes.

By the way, there's a Kalevala-inspired Donald Duck story as well, by the inimitable Don Rosa. Very popular here in Finland.
Jason Henninger
10. jasonhenninger
Maybe that is a peculiarity of the translation I read. Neat idea, either way.

Since you've read the original, can you recommend a faithful translation?
11. charming.quark
Themes and characters from the Kalevala also flavor Joan D. Vinge's The Summer Queen, just as the Mabinogion does The Snow Queen.
David Goldfarb
12. David_Goldfarb
There was a Soviet-Finnish film adaptation of parts of the Kalevala. It was released in English under the title The Day the Earth Froze, and eventually done on Mystery Science Theater 3000 (which is where I saw it). It's definitely an episode worth seeing if you can.

I recall seeing or reading somewhere (maybe at the start of the aforementioned movie) that the Sampo was a magical mill that could grind out endless quantities of wheat flour, salt, and gold from nothing, and that its falling into the sea was what made the sea salty.
13. Steven D.
I would definitely recommend the Eino Friberg translation that is beautifully illustrated. Also, check out the Finnish band known as "Amorphis" who regularly sets the Kalevala to epic sounding metal. By the way, did anyone ever notice how Tom Bombadil in Lord of the Rings has an echo of Vainamoinen (sp)?
14. seth e.
I can't say how faithful the Bosley translation is to the original, but it's a beautiful piece of poetry in itself.

There's an illustrated translation that I kept checked out from the library for about a year in college; I don't think it was the Friberg version, but I can't find it online now. I remember the illustrations being beautiful and disturbing.

Meanwhile, I quite like Joseph Alanen's illustrations.
Corey Sees
15. CorwinOfAmber
@7 NomadUK
Sorry to be a pain in the butt, but neither "En Saga" or "Finlandia" have anything to do with the Kalevala. That said, they are in no way less awesome, and definitely need to be listened to, right now!
16. a-j
Ian Watson wrote a couple of books inspired by the Kalevala in the 1990's I believe.
Mike Conley
17. NomadUK
CorwinOfAmber@15: Well, you got me. But, who cares? Anything by Sibelius is brilliant.
19. J.Vainikainen-Uusitalo
Another Finn piping in. Thanks for a nice article!
During the magical singing duel, Joukahainen was of course sinking deeper and deeper into the swamp - not metamorphosing into swamp. That sort of error sounds quite strange and makes me somewhat question the quality of that translation. I haven't compared the translations myself but I've heard someone recommend the Bosley one. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kalevala#Translations

I'd like to make it crystal clear that the original language of the runos or poems is Finnish, not Swedish or Russian! Finland has been part of both Sweden and Russia, large parts of Karelia belong to Russia today, but that has nothing to do with the language of the original poems.

Ellen Kushner wrote a short story about Elias Lönnrot after she visited Finland in 2010, but I've no idea if it has been published yet. I'd also like to recommend the Kalevala episode of her radio program, Sound and Spirit: http://www.wgbh.org/programs/Sound--Spirit-226/episodes/Kalevala-5051
20. Juri Nummelin
There's also Unikirja/Dream book by Kate Laity (which I haven't read):


David: the US version of the Russian-Finnish film you mention, originally called Sampo, The Day the Earth Froze is more Roger Corman than the original film, I think Corman cut it with some 30 minutes and edited some scenes with pretty chicks in the mix. The original is slower and more meticulous in its ethnological approach, but it's also at times very beautiful and striking in its imagery. The Russian actors recite the original poems/songs in Finnish though they couldn't speak it!
21. Lotta
A third Finn here wanting to have her say. When reading Kalevala it's imo important to remember that though Lönnrot used old poems as a base, the end product is his own. He has mingled lots of selfmade new verses with the originals to connect stories in a way that pleased himself. This is also the situation with the story of Aino. As far as I know, her story originally ended with her hanging herself with the silver and gold belts her mother had told her to put on to feel happier. But Lönnrot wanted to connect her story with one about the fishing for Vellamo's maiden, so he made Aino drown herself instead.

On the uni lectures about Kalevala I attended in the end of 90's there was also much speculation about how much Lönnrot's idea of women in general has affected Kalevala. After all, in Kalevala the only women a man can trust are mothers and sisters. Real love and trust between a man and a woman seems to be impossible, or at least end in tragedy like when the wolfs and bears rip apart Ilmarinen's wife.
Jason Henninger
22. jasonhenninger
@the various Finns. Thank you for the native perspectives. I will re-read the singing duel section tonight (Bosley's translation) and see if perhaps the misunderstanding was mine. Might be I inserted my own imagination into it.

I think it would be fascinating to study the Kaelvala from the perspective of Lönnrot's views on women. I know very little about him, really. I suspect that a lot could be learned through a better understanding of how he viewed his mother.

The more I learn of it, the more it seems his compilation bore a bit of Fitzgerald's influence on the Rubaiyyat...which is to say, a very liberal mixing of his own ideas. It'd be interesting to study the myths of Karelia independant from the Kalevala as well, for comparison.
Douglas Merrill
23. merrilld
There's also the Canine Kalevala:


That version obviously goes rather light on the tragedy, but bedtime reading meant that our then-3-y-o could say Vainamoinen (or reasonable facsimile thereof) at a surprisingly early age.
24. J.A. Clemens
Words shall not be hid
nor spells buried
might shall not sink underground
though the mighty go

One of my favorite quotes from the text.
25. Jason Lions
Again very cool! Thank you Jason for sharing this!
Antti-Juhani Kaijanaho
26. ajk
The imagery of Kalevala is all over modern Finnish. If you call something a sampo, your listeners will know it's overly (perhaps even infinitely) plentiful in its produce (whatever that is), a cornucopia of a sort. One Finnish bank is called Sampo, if you can believe it. If you sing someone to a swamp, you're defeating them effortlessly.
27. Steven D
I forgot to mention Jade Warrior (Jade Soturi), a film inspired by the Kalevala and ancient Chinese mythology. Not as good as it could have been, but worth seeing definitely!
Roland of Gilead
28. pKp
There's also a beautiful version of part of Rune IX, the Birth of Iron, written (in Estonian, but in the original meter) by Estonian contemporary-music legend Veljo Tormis. You can (and really should) listen to it here : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=huQ_OcKwGwA. It's a kind of magical ritual, written for mixed choir, male solists and shaman drum.
Singing this with a semi-pro choir of 30 people, with Mr. Tormis himself in the room, still is one of my greatest memories as a chorist.

Also, you really should try to listen to the text in Finnish even if you don't speak the language ; the meter is extraordinary (the above piece of music is a good illustration ; it's got a sort of syncopated beat that is nothing short of hypnotic). There's an old version sung with the traditional melody : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Vaka_vanha_Vainamoinen.ogg

Also also, the other thing I love about it : everything is repeated twice, probably for ease of memorization (the start goes :

Mastered by desire impulsive,
By a mighty inward urging,

I am ready now for singing,
Ready to begin the chanting )

Really adds to the impression it gives of being a kind of magical ritual. Then again, a lot of ritual magic is based on singing, so there might be something there...

Really a worthy addition to the world's greatest epics, and one I'm glad to see here.
Liza .
29. aedifica
(I've had this open in a tab for a while and finally read it...)

Neat article! I have very little familiarity with the Kalevala, so it was neat to read more about it. You might also enjoy Marissa Lingen's short story based on part of it: "Väinämöinen and the Singing Fish"
http://www.abyssandapex.com/200807-fish.html .

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