The Kalevala (1)

My deepest apologies for not having contributed to this blog in over a year.  For any of you who are still paying attention to what goes on here, I applaud your tenacity.  As a note, this post is intended to be part of a series, thus the number in parentheses.

 


Since I’ve been studying the topic, I decided to write a little about the Kalevala, the so-called national epic of Finland.  Since I know no Finnish, I have of course been reading English translations, and so far I’ve begun reading the 1888 version by John Martin Crawford and the 1963 prose version by Francis Peabody Magoun Jr.  [A third, at which I’ve only glanced a little, is the 1988 Eino Friberg translation.  I’ll mainly be examining the first two at first, but perhaps at some point I’ll write about Friberg’s, which is fascinating since to my knowledge it is the only version translated into English by a native of Finland, who also happens to be blind.  The situation reminds me of Homer, or Milton, or William H. Prescott]

For a little context, in this post I’ll give a brief explanation of the history of the Kalevala.  It was compiled by a Finnish medical doctor named Elias Lönnrot between the years 1828 and 1842.  He made various expeditions throughout much of the expansive wilderness of rural Finland and Karelia, to put into writing as much as he could of Finland’s vast and ancient folk poetry tradition.  Before Lönnrot’s time this poetry had rarely been written down, but many of the poems had been part of Finnish oral tradition for a very long time, and they included a creation myth, heroic and tragic tales, magical charms, and lamentation songs, among other things.  The compilation cannot really be considered a unified “epic” in the way the Iliad or the Song of Roland can, yet I think perhaps it has its own sense of continuity, and most would consider it successful in giving Finland a mythic and literary status comparable with other lands.

Constantly impressed upon me while reading the Kalevala are the intense importance of two things: the natural world, and song.  The forces of nature are some of the greatest powers that appear, as one would expect from a culture growing up in such a harsh environment.  The human reaction to this great power that exists in nature is song.  Songs are a means of communication between humanity and the mystical realm of nature.  They are sung for various reasons, most often either to work magic (in the form of manipulating the forces of nature), to ask the aid of major or minor mythological beings (who are almost always connected with a natural phenomenon).

Lönnrot updated the Kalevala twice and added many lines of poetry to it after its first publication, so that the version of the Kalevala most commonly read now is known as the “New Kalevala,” preceded by the “Old Kalevala” and the “Proto-Kalevala.”  In its current state, it consists of 50 poems or runos total.

The first two of these are mainly concerned with the creation of the world and the origin of the eldest of the Finnish folk heroes, Väinämöinen, who plays a central role in many of the later poems.  It is these two runos I intend to discuss in my next post, examining in particular the characters that appear, and the translators’ decisions regarding their names and titles.


 

© Samuel Birrer and Serendipity, 2016.

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