Read Kalevala: Or, Poems of the Kaleva District by Elias Lönnrot Free Online
Book Title: Kalevala: Or, Poems of the Kaleva District|
The author of the book: Elias Lönnrot
Date of issue: March 15th 1985
ISBN 13: 9780674500105
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 495 KB
Edition: Harvard University Press
Read full description of the books Kalevala: Or, Poems of the Kaleva District:
When Elias Lönnrot was born in 1802, Finland was a province of Sweden; by the time he came to compile the Kalevala in the 1830s and 1840s, it was part of the Russian Empire. ‘Finnishness’ was (and had been since the twelfth century) little more than a shared idea, and sometimes a dangerous one at that. So this epic is a part of that nineteenth-century fashion for literary and linguistic nationalism that also gave us curiosities like Pan Tadeusz in Poland or The Mountain Wreath in Serbia-Montenegro – albeit dealing less with history, here, than with mythic prehistory.
I said this was ‘compiled’, and indeed in that sense the Kalevala is a nineteenth-century book, despite the ancientness of much of its material; it is not like the Edda, or Beowulf. In most cases we have examples of the old Finnish myths and legends that Lönnrot used, but the finished product is its own animal; characters have been conflated, and legends have been expertly arranged into a framework that seeks to tell a composite story of Finland's magical past.
The Defence of the Sampo (1896)
It's a past absolutely different in its sensibilities from Anglo-Saxon or Nordic equivalents, let alone those from the Classical world. I suppose I was expecting tales of heroic warriors and epic battles, but there is very little of that. The heroes of the Kalevala are singers and shamans, not soldiers, and when they face off against each other, instead of reaching for their weapons they break into song:
The old Väinämöinen sang:
the lakes rippled, the earth shook
the copper mountains trembled
the sturdy boulders rumbled
the cliffs flew in two
the rocks cracked upon the shores.
Väinämöinen, indeed, goes on a quest not unlike those of more familiar epics; but instead of seeking a magical weapon, he is simply seeking ‘words’ – spells and tales that have been lost. (He is repeatedly described in formulaic epithets as ‘the singer’ and ‘the everlasting wise man’ – just compare this with Homer's ‘man-killing’ Hector, ‘spear-famed’ Menelaus!) One on occasion when two heroes do set out on the war-path, they just end up getting lost in the woods somewhere in Lapland, and decide to turn around and go home for a restorative sauna.
The inhabitants of this poem are not fighters: they're farmers, hunters, fishermen, metalsmiths. The world is full of mystery but it revolves around cattle, populations of fish, the threat of wolves and bears outside the village, occasional ritualised celebrations like a birth or a wedding. Despite the supernature, it is refreshingly down-to-earth.
By the River of Tuonela (1903)
Some of my favourite parts in this are in fact the most domestic – narratives that Lönnrot wove in from the rich Finnish tradition of women's songs, which tend to be more concerned with practical matters. The advice given to a bride at her wedding is typical, and it brought home to me more forcefully than anything I can remember how nerve-racking it must have been for a girl to leave her parents' home and head off to run the household of her new husband, perhaps miles away:
What a life was yours
on these farms of your father's!
You grew in the lanes a flower
a strawberry in the glades;
you rose from bed to butter
and from lying down to milk […].
You'll not be able to go
through the doors, stroll through the gates
like a daughter of the house;
you will not know how to blow
the fire, to heat the fireplace
as the man of the house likes.
Did you really, young maid
did you really know or think
you'd be going for a night
coming back the next day? Look—
you'll not be gone for a night
not for one night nor for two:
you'll have slipped off for longer
for always you'll have vanished
for ever from father's rooms
and for life from your mother's.
Aino Myth (1891)
This translation was published in 1989 by Keith Bosley, a poet and fluent Finnish-speaker who set about to improve what he sees as the defects of previous versions. To judge how successful he is, let's look at some of the original – it has a very particular rhythm. The metre is trochaic tetrameter, but with vowel length instead of stress – in other words, every line has four feet, each of which contains a long syllable followed by a short one. Here's the opening six lines:
Mieleni minun tekevi
The first English translator, John Martin Crawford in 1888, worked from a German version rather than from the original; he tried to simulate the rhythms of the Finnish by using stress-trochees. The effect is quite unusual, and you may recognise it:
MASTERED by desire impulsive,
By a mighty inward urging,
I am ready now for singing,
Ready to begin the chanting
Of our nation's ancient folk-song
Handed down from by-gone ages.
If it sounds familiar, it's because the German source also caught the fancy of Longfellow, who borrowed it for his Song of Hiawatha, still almost the only example of true trochaic poetry in English (‘Downward through the evening twilight, / In the days that are forgotten, / In the unremembered ages’ etc.). WF Kirby in 1907, working from the original Finnish, took the same approach:
I am driven by my longing,
And my understanding urges
That I should commence my singing;
And begin my recitation.
I will sing the people's legends,
And the ballads of the nation.
Which doesn't seem a big improvement. Bosley, for his part, dismisses trochaic metre in English as ‘monotonous’ and restrictive ‘to the point of triviality’ – this ‘matters little in a romance of Indians without cowboys,’ he breezes, ‘but it matters a great deal in an epic of world stature’. His solution is to construct his own version around lines of five, seven or nine syllables in length, disregarding stress altogether. The result is very different from previous incarnations:
I have a good mind
take into my head
to start off singing
reeling off a tale of kin
and singing a tale of kind.
The advantages of this solution grew on me, but I wouldn't say I view it with undiluted approbation. It allows for much greater fidelity to the original sense of the lines, but at the cost of sacrificing its power as oral poetry. The driving rhythms of the original (listen, for instance, to this) are simply not there. Nevertheless, and despite a few odd-sounding lines, it can work very well. Little laments such as this:
This is how the luckless feel
how the calloos think—
like hard snow under a ridge
like water in a deep well.
…have an appealing straightforwardness that is not available to more restrictive metres (e.g. Kirby: Such may mournful thoughts resemble, / Thus the long-tailed duck may ponder,/ As 'neath frozen snow embedded, / Water deep in well imprisoned).
Lemminkäinen's Mother (1897)
Quite apart from the many pleasures to be found here, I am grateful for the fact that the Kalevala introduced me to artists in two other fields: the composer Sibelius, whose work I knew very little of, and the painter Akseli Gallen-Kallela, whom I'm not sure I'd even heard of. Many of Sibelius's works are set to lyrics from the Kalevala (one example I've been listening to a lot); and Gallen-Kallela illustrated several scenes from the epic in the sort of bold, almost cartoonish style that I have always found very appealing – some examples are scattered above. All contributing to the sense that the Kalevala is Finland's most essential cultural touchstone, a shared reference of wonderful richness….
Out of this a seed will spring
constant good luck will begin;
from this, ploughing and sowing
from this, every kind of growth
out of this the moon to gleam
the sun of good luck to shine
on Finland's great farms
on Finland's sweet lands!
Read information about the authorElias Lönnrot was a Finnish philologist and collector of traditional Finnish oral poetry. He is best known for composing the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic compiled from national folklore.
Lönnrot was born in Sammatti, in the province of Uusimaa in Finland. He studied medicine at the Academy of Turku. To his misfortune the year he joined was the year of the Great Fire of Turku, burning down half the town – and the University. Lönnrot (and many of the rest of the University) moved to Helsinki, where he graduated in 1832.
He got a job as district doctor of Kajaani in Northern Finland during a time of famine in the district. The famine had prompted the previous doctor to resign, making it possible for a very young doctor to get such a position. Several consecutive years of crop failure resulted in enormous losses of population and livestock; Lönnrot wrote letters to the State departments, asking for food, not medicines. He was the sole doctor for the 4,000 or so people of his district, at a time where doctors were rare and very expensive, and where people did not buy medicines from equally rare and expensive pharmacies, but rather trusted to their village healers and locally available remedies.
His true passion lay in his native Finnish language. He began writing about the early Finnish language in 1827 and began collecting folk tales from the rural people about that time.
Lönnrot went on extended leaves of absence from his doctor's office; he toured the countryside of Finland, Sapmi (Lapland), and nearby portions of Russian Karelia to support his collecting efforts. This led to a series of books: Kantele, 1829–1831 (the kantele is a Finnish traditional instrument); Kalevala, 1835–1836 (possibly Land of Heroes; better known as the "old" Kalevala); Kanteletar, 1840 (the Kantele Maiden); Sananlaskuja, 1842 (Proverbs); an expanded second edition of Kalevala, 1849 (the "new" Kalevala); and Finsk-Svenskt lexikon, 1866–1880 (Finnish-Swedish Dictionary).
Lönnrot was recognised for his part in preserving Finland's oral traditions by appointment to the Chair of Finnish Literature at the University of Helsinki. He died on March 19, 1884 in Sammatti, in the province of Uusimaa.
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