"...the kind of excitement that palaeontologists felt on discovering a live coelacanth". Exactly! I'm not one...moreOUP edition, translated by Keith Bosley
"...the kind of excitement that palaeontologists felt on discovering a live coelacanth". Exactly! I'm not one of the scholars of early European epic Bosley is talking about in that paragraph of his wonderful introduction, just someone who once did a dissertation type thing on "pagan survivals" in late medieval (English) religion and sadly had to conclude that there was very little evidence for anything beyond the odd motif. But in Finland, there was an ancient mythological poetic oral tradition alive well into the nineteenth century, whence it was written down and synthesised by Lönnrot. I only found out about it a couple of years after graduation, browsing the Classics section of a bookshop: this great thick Oxford World's Classics spine and I've never even heard of it? Once I knew what the book was, I wasn't leaving without it. It has the magic not only of being an oxymoronic living fossil, also the mist-shrouded obscurity of the curious Finno-Ugric languages near in geography and so far linguistically, and gods and heroes still European yet not of any tradition known to me: not the famed Viking pantheon, not the Slavic ones I used to read about in the Encyclopaedia Britannica as a kid, lately returned to a little fame by Neil Gaiman in American Gods.
When reading translated poetry recently, I was quite bothered about the idea of authenticity, of being able to get as close to the original as possible, in my frustration at not knowing French well enough to understand all of Baudelaire, Verlaine or Rimbaud in the originals. But with The Kalevala, you can't, with the oral tradition, you can't. Authenticity, the obsession with authorship and the auteur - and along with it artistic copyright - is rather a modern idea. I found myself thinking back to a conversation in which I was told by a very talented musician (who had no personal need to defend "unoriginality") to ditch the phrase and concept of 'cover version' from my thinking. Quite, yes, I thought as a pathway opened up, I realised ... like music hall, like all those 50's and 60's girl groups and quiffed rock 'n' roll singers and Depression jazz or blues artists who recorded the same songs and it didn't matter who did it first. Victorians who had to play and sing their own versions because they had no recordings. Before Dylan and folk rock and the singer-songwriter obsession. Reading about The Kalevala I remembered just what a tiny few decades have been fixated on this idea, as the camera panned out. For most of human history songs and stories have been handed down patchworked, originating who knows where, originating with no one place or person. We know who we are hearing it from and they know one, possibly two earlier, but that's it.
Local storytellers and bards, re-telling and embellishing old poems, some renowned for many miles around, entering and some winning competitions ... in impoverished non-literate cultures this is what some of the most brilliant people were doing, people whose names we will never know although I'm sure they were just as interesting as many of those we do. Ever since I was 12 or 13 when a teacher made a quite erroneous remark that Beethoven had genetic diseases which meant some modern parents wouldn't have allowed him to survive following scans (it was a Catholic school) I've liked to wonder about geniuses and talented people "lost" to history not for that reason, but just because we don't know about them, because they did things we don't remember today, or they died young of some plague, or they didn't want to be renowned (like the medieval craftsmen who didn't sign their work), or they never had the opportunity to do what they would have excelled at, and most of all the ones who were stuck in some primitive or peasant community worked into the ground, but they did matter to those who knew them, because they told good stories or did medicine or generally worked out solutions. (And like the free-thinking Menocchio of The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-century Millersome were a bit too clever for their own good.) And The Kalevala is the cumulative work of people like these. But more accessible, and more exciting because of its exoticism, than reading a bunch of Old English.
It is also, though, a work of the nineteenth century Romantic nationalist era: Romantics valued these wild, woolly obscure things I love, but The Kalevala as it stands is a deliberately created Finnish epic to fuel the independence and self definition of a country which had been ruled by other nations - with elites speaking other languages - since the 12th century. Elias Lönnrot, in this cause, stitched some unrelated folk poems he had collected into the larger Kalevala that he refined and published. It has enough uneven-ness though to feel like folklore collected. (On a literary basis I wasn't sure about giving the poem 5 stars rather than 4 or 4.5, but the introduction swung it.)
And yes, what of the poem itself? (Hello if you're still reading! :) ) Readjusting to a world of fairytale proportions, of seven leagues high and humans born from bird-eggs, bees who can carry eight pots and a smith who can weld metallic wonders from wool, milk and grain. The translator makes very frequent use of a few words that are relatively uncommon in modern English - "lulled" "billow" and "fellow" especially, with the first given some odd meanings - this got on my nerves a little but, with other archaisms interpolated into readable language, they also gave an appropriate otherness. For something of over 600 pages, I found it a very fast read. It has fewer words per page, of course, being poetry, but even then, it flows. With the repetition characteristic of ancient epic. With a sense of place and time often made of nouns: landscape, old buildings and tools and most of all wildlife. (As an adult I haven't often used all the knowledge about identifying birds and animals I learnt from my mother and her books, but here it was nice to know the appearance and context for a capercaillie or a scaup.) You can feel how sparsely populated and how dominated by nature the world of The Kalevala is. (Very satisfying for my daydream of escaping to some northern Nordic wild for a few years and working outdoors away from computers.)
There are strata of cultures here. Names unmistakeably Finnish; figures who seem quite unrelated to those of other myths; a culture more land-bound than the Vikings, all forests and farms and ice, with voyages on lakes and rivers; an ancient bear-cult in which killing the object of worship was not antithetical as it may seem now. Heroes are Väinämöinen, a shaman and singer, Ilmarinen, a smith and Lemminkäinen, a seducer; all can and do fight but this isn't like other epics which star career-warriors: the society seems to have different concerns. (Though whether that's Lönnrot's choice, or a modification that happened later, who knows. But the subsistence lifestyle and sparse population likely meant there were different priorities: the Mediterranean cultures' wars and the Viking voyages were partly driven by growing populations greedy for more space.)
Wikipedia states about the tragedy of traumatised, aggressive Kullervo who survives repeated attempts to kill him in childhood: "The story of Kullervo is unique among ancient myths in its realistic depiction of the effects of child abuse." However, having noted in the introduction that the Kullervo cycle was an episode which had a particularly high degree of input and synthesis from Lonnrot, I think it is possible that the Wiki writer may be too quick to idealise, and that the conclusion to the Kullervo tale was at least in part based on Lonnrot's observations as a nineteenth century doctor or the wisdom of relatively recent bards - and not that the ancient Finnish culture was necessarily more wise to the effects of savagery than other more obviously brutal epic-making societies.
The Kalevala also has features recognisable from other traditions: an Orpheus strand; the heroes' trials like Hercules; the Sampo, a cornucopia or grail; and according to the introduction verse forms heavily influenced by those of the Baltic states. In some cantos Christian influences are evident - though it's surprising how few. The final canto is a reluctant handing-over from Pagan to Christian culture: the priggish, fragile Marian figure Marjatta (such a contrast with the earthy, capable women earlier in the poem) has a son by immaculate conception, and he banishes Väinämöinen.
Reading the introduction after the poem, I was surprised to learn how little of it was collected from female storytellers. There are many episodes lamenting the misery of marriage which sound as if they are the work of generations of worn out middle-aged women. I can't think of any other ancient stories or fairytale tradition in which women want to avoid marriage so much. In The Kalevala they set their suitors impossible trials, they get themselves out of bargains, one - or is it two - even kills herself to avoid marrying an ugly old man, and there are long verses about hard work, being bossed around by the in-laws, husbands who beat, and that it's better to stay with your own family. The only female character who does get married during the story turns into a harridan and meets an unpleasant fate. And the talk of subordination is only in the narrative: female characters when they speak sound as strong-willed as the men and are never criticised for it.
Apparently The Kalevala was a major influence on Tolkien. Can't say I found myself ever thinking about hobbits whilst reading it, but then I was never a major fan. It was, though, an amazing journey into another culture and mythology. One which also got me thinking about epics and tales from other less prominent countries such as these.(less)
translanted by Robert Fagles, introduction by Bernard Knox
I really wanted to like The Iliad more. But so much of it is just a bloody casualty list. (B...moretranslanted by Robert Fagles, introduction by Bernard Knox
I really wanted to like The Iliad more. But so much of it is just a bloody casualty list. (Bloody being the operative word ...ba-boom-tish.)
You don't need me to tell you about the Illiad, do you? So I'll stick to talking about the translation & intro.
...After explaining the missing star. Much like some books of the Bible, numerous characters appear in two-line walk-on parts, we're given next to no idea about them apart from their dads' names, then they promptly die. In the Homeric case, that's from a spear in the lungs during the flower of youth, rather than Fortean extremes of old age. This gets a bit dull after a while.
Translation I've had this edition for well over ten years; it's a lovely copy with deckled edges, and Fagles was the most readable and exciting of perhaps three translations I'd looked at in bricks & mortar UK bookshops. (In one of the shops, when I initially couldn't find the book, I asked an assistant... who couldn't spell Iliad and didn't know what it was. I smugly bitched about this to a number of friends in subsequent weeks, but given some people's expressions, realised I'd been a bit cruel.) But now I wasn't so happy with the modernity of Fagles; I was as interested in the Iliad as part of British literary and social history at least as much as an Ancient Greek text. If I could read the version read by British writers of the past and used in schools up to c.1980, I would. But many studied the original and I couldn't go off and learn good enough Greek just like that, nor was one translation used for a century or two by the middling sort of scholars who didn't know Greek. Old translations are often a bit dry, in any case. The narrative is not bad when not dominated by the listing of names, there is a subtle rhythm (although no rhyme) to it, but my sense of being transported into the midst of an alien and ancient world was never so enduring as in the Kalevala or Gilgamesh. In Clive James' Divine Comedy I liked the sly pop-culture references yet here I was annoyed by similar. (I'm writing this paragraph not long after encountering something that reminded me of a David Bowie lyric, having gone through a momentary process of wondering if Bowie had read this at school and got it from there... No of course not, though his words may have been echoing in Fagles' head as he translated.) Dante seems fairer game to play with; he doesn't have such a long English tradition, and was never so universally read and studied here, plus Fagles just doesn't have the same strong authorial voice to get away with mischief as Clive James does.
A very interesting point made in a review on here, perhaps of the Odyssey - that compared with the heroes of the classical Indian epics, their Greek counterparts have very little scope for different interpretation (and thus the Greek epics are less rich).(less)