"...the kind of excitement that palaeontologists felt on discovering a live coelacanth". Exactly! I'm not oneOUP 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....more
Penguin ed., tr. Robt. Fagles; intro. Bernard Knox
[3.5] I'd like to like the Iliad. It would be convenient to like the Iliad, for discussions about thPenguin ed., tr. Robt. Fagles; intro. Bernard Knox
[3.5] I'd like to like the Iliad. It would be convenient to like the Iliad, for discussions about the canon and such. I like several other epic poems. I like old war films. But this? So much of it is just a bloody casualty list (pun more or less intended), plus a soap featuring the gods (sometimes amusing, depending how detached I felt). I'm sure I'd have enjoyed it a lot more in a film version where you could see movement and action; on the page these endless lists of how so and so, son of old you-know-who, got a spear in the lung, get boring. At least they serve the entirely worthwhile purpose of preserving a historical record.
I've simply never been that interested in Greeks and Romans - with the odd exception such as Catullus, I'd rather hear about the barbarian tribes further north. That must be one of the reasons I rarely got emotionally involved; some speeches and scenes had a pull, sometimes there were moments of excitement and involvement but not with real meaning to me, and they soon passed: it was like watching a match in a sport you're not that bothered about, with teams from places you don't care about either way.
The Iliad's extended rural metaphors of hunting, shepherding and farming were fascinating though, with a vividly Mediterranean sense of place. The frequent mention of lion attacks makes it feel thrillingly close to prehistory. To the default image of non-combatant Greeks as urban chiton-wearers something more atavistic is added. Visualisations of countryside I took from My Family and Other Animals. (Not being a big fan of books from hot places, I haven't read much based around there in between.) Emotions of grief and loss are turned up to 10 in a way that could be seen as Mediterranean, as ancient, or both.
It has its moments too, in the tales of life in the Greek camp, and in Priam's palace, of ancient customs and a time in history, burning torchlight and the imagined sound of drums, and a precipitous life. But I didn't find the poetry as rhythmic and redolent as that of, say, The Epic of Gilgamesh, and there were more times when I thought instead of the chore of learning the thing by rote which thousands, possibly millions have done over time. Fagles is known as the best contemporary translation, and I chose it from a handful of others in bookshops when I was still at university. The handful of recent idioms don't intrude but it's still a little too prosey for my liking. The first half seemed to feature more repetition as I remember (read in January), though I read the rest more quickly (November). Probably the original just doesn't lend itself quite so well to the sort of verse I now hope for in epic poems - all of which I've read since I first got a copy of Fagles' Iliad.
Also very interesting - and undoubtedly long familiar to classicists - is one of the ideas mooted in Bernard Knox's excellent introduction, that the gods are nothing like gods as one might think of them after being raised in a fairly fluffy version of 20th century Christianity - the actions they make mortals do are a way of explaining irrational impulses and those actions that feel beyond our control, such as falling in love. Some later Greek thinkers appear to imply that man should strive to be better than the gods.
Achilles is interpreted quite differently in adult discussion - the introduction, other commentaries, informal comment like GR reviews - from the way he was shown in the children's versions I knew, or how the story was descibed by teachers (including at primary level). In the junior versions he was quite simply a hero - but otherwise he is criticised a lot, as essentially a brat. He may be a warrior, but I see parallels with the decadent doomed genius artist figure. He's at least as temperamental. However he's characterised, one of the handful of scenes I found really moving was his hearing of Patroclus' death.
Sometimes there are questions in history I can hardly be bothered with because they seem absolutely unknowable and thus just pawns for contemporary opinion. Helen's volition is one of those, and far more reflective of the times of its discussion than, say, the Princes in the Tower. If she existed in the first place, did she run off with Paris or was she kidnapped? We have no access to her own opinion, sometimes contradictory sources written down after centuries of oral tradition of ultimately unknown provenance, a wariness of how a male dominated culture may have recorded her - and her own thoughts, feelings and expectations could have had quite different paradigms from ours. At any rate here, she isn't the passive kidnappee of the junior versions - she wants Paris, even if she has regrets over the political implications.
The history of the text and its reception and influence interests me more than significant portions of the contents: the research into the Yugoslav oral tradition that helped date it, interpretations such as the above, its role in modern and early modern European schooling for the last c.500 years. I had more questions, but wasn't interested enough to read another whole book on it. Did it anyone before the mid 20th century say it encouraged boys to fight at school? To what extent is it part of imperialism, as inspiration?
This is, in a way, to colossally miss the point, - as is my frustration that we never hear anything about the rank and file soldiers: what are they even doing whilst Achilles and co are holding games? - but the ending feels inconclusive, like it's in the wrong place. Doomed Achilles still lives. But people have surely known about cliffhangers long before there was writing.