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The Kalevala by Elias Lönnrot
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bookshelves: poetry, epic, mythology-and-legend, folklore-fairytales, finland

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
aivoni ajattelevi
lähteäni laulamahan,
saa'ani sanelemahan,
sukuvirttä suoltamahan,
lajivirttä laulamahan.

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
      begin reciting
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!

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Quotes Warwick Liked

Elias Lönnrot
“For this I weep all my days
and throughout my lifetime grieve
that I swam from my own lands
and came from familiar lands
    towards these strange doors
    to these foreign gates.”
Elias Lönnrot, The Kalevala

Reading Progress

July 24, 2014 – Started Reading
July 24, 2014 – Shelved
July 28, 2014 –
page 132
19.44% "The rhythm of this translation is (finally) starting to grow on me a bit now."
July 28, 2014 – Shelved as: poetry
July 28, 2014 – Shelved as: epic
July 28, 2014 – Shelved as: mythology-and-legend
July 28, 2014 – Shelved as: folklore-fairytales
July 28, 2014 – Shelved as: finland
July 29, 2014 –
page 292
43.0% "‘…you will weep when you visit\n when you come to father's home\n and you find your old father\n dead from smoke in the sauna\n a dry whisk under his arm.’\n \n The most Finnish death scene ever."
July 31, 2014 –
page 438
64.51% "‘Kullervo looked after the child one day, two—\n broke its hand, gouged out its eye;\n soon after, on the third day\n he killed the child with disease\n flung its rags for the stream to bear off\n and burnt its cradle with fire.\n And Untamo considers:\n “He is not cut out for this—\n looking after a small child.” ’ \n \n YOU THINK?!"
August 2, 2014 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-41 of 41 (41 new)

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message 1: by ^ (new)

^ How very deeply poignant.

message 2: by James (new)

James brilliant

message 3: by Danny (new)

Danny Tyran This is what I call a great review.

message 4: by Fionnuala (new)

Fionnuala This is beautiful, Warwick, the songs and the illustrations as well as your text.
This one reminded me of Laxness's heroine in Independent People
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

I love it!

message 5: by Gregsamsa (new)

Gregsamsa Reviews so rarely take up the topic of meter! Nice.

message 6: by Amanda (new) - added it

Amanda Alexandre Clap Clap CLap

message 7: by Garima (new)

Garima Great review, yes.

Warwick Thanks for all the kind words! Fio, if you liked that I think there's a lot that would appeal to you in here.

message 9: by Steve (last edited Aug 02, 2014 10:35AM) (new)

Steve Great review, Warwick! The link to the Finnish reading was very illuminating. In light of the excerpts, I doubt I want to read Bosley's translation. Of the three, Kirby's might suit me best, since he translated directly from the Finnish and respects some poetic aspects of the original text. But, as usual, there is no perfect solution short of understanding the original language at the same level as native speakers...

message 10: by Steve (new)

Steve I see Harvard UP has made another translation available. Here is the blurb:

The national folk epic of Finland is here presented in an English translation that is both scholarly and eminently readable. To avoid the imprecision and metrical monotony of earlier verse translations, Magoun has used prose, printed line for line as in the original so that repetitions, parallelisms, and variations are readily apparent. The lyrical passages and poetic images, the wry humor, the tall-tale extravagance, and the homely realism of the Kalevala come through with extraordinary effectiveness.

Did you have a look at that one?

Warwick Thanks Steve. I did look at what you can see of the Magoun on Google Books, he begins like this:

It is my desire,   it is my wish
to set out to sing,   to begin to recite,
to let a song of our clan glide on,  to sing a family lay.

I would prefer actual continuous running prose – I actually think that's often the best way of doing this sort of thing. It allows you to make lots of artful and poetic flourishes without trying to fit an unfamiliar pattern. I first read Homer in a straight prose version and I've not found a poetic translation yet that I like more. Still, the qualities of the original usually end up showing through even quite dodgy translations…through some mysterious process of osmosis that I never really understand.

message 12: by Kalliope (new)

Kalliope Excellent.. I was completely ignorant about this...

GR is so great... Thank you, Warrick...

message 13: by Steve (new)

Steve Warwick wrote: "Thanks Steve. I did look at what you can see of the Magoun on Google Books, he begins like this:

It is my desire,   it is my wish
to set out to sing,   to begin to recite,
to let a song of our cla..."

Ah, nice catch. :) There is yet another more or less prose translation:

The Kalevala : epic of the Finnish people
translated by Eino Friberg ; editing and introduction by George C. Schoolfield ; illustrated by Björn Landström.
Published: Helsinki, Finland : Otava ; Turku, Finland : Finnish North American Literature Society, c1988.

I'll have to look at this one to see what it is like.

I agree that, surprisingly, much of the original text often comes through even lackluster translations. But, in a text that talks continually of chanting and singing, a translation that does not incorporate some notion of rhythm does not appeal to me. :)

Warwick That one I have not seen! But yeah, I share your concerns.

message 15: by Jan-Maat (new)

Jan-Maat Warwick wrote: "I would prefer actual continuous running prose – I actually think that's often the best way of doing this sort of thing. It allows you to make lots of artful and poetic flourishes without trying to fit an unfamiliar pattern. I first read Homer in a straight prose version and I've not found a poetic translation yet that I like more."

me too, although I've a soft spot for Christopher Logue's War Music (though I suppose that is not really a translation). Ideally I'd say a translation allows you to get in touch with a work in another language but once the languages are far enough apart for the translator to chase after the same linguistic effects as the original can hinder the reader if it produces something that is too alien to the natural patterns of the language it is being translated into.

I thought the importance of metal workers in the Kalavala was interesting since metal working came comparatively late to Finland, iirc with the arrival of the Swedes, but then I suppose the idea of working metal might well have seemed magical in that context.

message 16: by Manny (new)

Manny What an excellent review! Though I was surprised not to see you mention Tolkien anywhere...

Warwick Thanks Manny…it was my plan to write the only review of the Kalevala not to mention Tolkien! I think maybe the connection has been a bit overstated, the Finnish language captured his imagination more than the poem itself I suspect

message 18: by Richard (new)

Richard Derus My severe poetry allergy prevents me from partaking of the work, but your review was compellingly enthusiastic.

message 19: by Dolors (new)

Dolors Great combination of historical context, oral poetry and images Warwick. This fantastic epic would make an excellent opera, don't you think?

Warwick @Richard, yes all the more reason for a decent prose translation of this.

@Dolors, I do! Although it would be a brave man who took on the parts that Sibelius has already covered…

message 21: by Nidhi (new)

Nidhi Singh Brilliant review! Loved the images you have included.

message 22: by Wastrel (new)

Wastrel Steve wrote: "I see Harvard UP has made another translation available. Here is the blurb:

The national folk epic of Finland is here presented in an English translation that is both scholarly and eminently reada..."

Have to say, I think the idea of 'avoiding metrical monotony' is sort of missing the point of translating epic poetry: it's like a 'cover version' of a song that dispenses with the original melody. The result may be impressive in its own way, but it's not really capturing the essence of the original...

Of course, the problem with translating into formal poetry is that few translators are competant poets, let alone competant formal poets (few poets are competant formal poets these days...). Needless to say, if you want a good poetic translation of a poem, you need someone who's not just a good translator but a good poet also.


On tolkien: it's not just the language. The Kalevala was his inspiration in the sense that the concept of the Kalevala inspired his work: he wanted to write an English Kalevala. And indeed his work began with increasingly divergent attempts to retell stories from the Kalevala, and this is still visible: the whole Narn i Chîn Húrin (one of the three major Silmarillion stories) is ultimately a retelling of the story of Kullervo (I'm told, I haven't read the original yet).

message 23: by ·Karen· (new)

·Karen· How about The Kalevala -The Musical!

No, no, no. That's one whimsical idea too far. But don't let Andrew Loyd Webber read this review.

Fascinating. Really great review that does it all: gives a summary without giving it all away, provides pictures and links to give context, and discusses a problematical question around translation. Plus your own enthusiasm comes roaring through. A real pleasure.

Warwick Thanks Nidhi!

@Wastrel, ah OK then. I must say I didn't notice the resemblance, but then it's been years since I last read the Silmarillion.

@Karen, thank you so much. And I would be totally down for a musical version, by the way. I love me a good chorus line.

Caroline Excellent review Warwick. I really appreciate the attention to the meter and consideration of different approaches to translating epic poetry.

I am so frustrated because I am sure I visited a website within the last year with a recording of a musical version of the Kalevala (meaning set to music, not �Broadway musical) and heard a section recited by a woman’s chorus, but I cannot locate it again. I have the memory it was the whole poem, not just a Sibelius song. But I must be wrong. I wanted to compare it to the YouTube clip, which was quote interesting.

At any rate I bought the Everyman Edition at a library sale many years ago (the Kirby translation) so I’ll get to it someday, more informed due to your review.

message 26: by Cecily (new)

Cecily Warwick, my son is a fan of the Kalevala and has just enjoyed reading the full wonder of your review and all the comments. Quite an accolade, as he rarely reads the (few) reviews I send him!

Warwick I'm honoured! I can see how this book could attract some serious fans (Tolkien was one, after all).

message 28: by Cecily (new)

Cecily Yes, my son is a pretty serious fan of the Kalevala and of Tolkein.

He also related to your comments about the metre; it took him a while to get into it, but once he was accustomed to it, he thought it worked really well.

message 29: by Lynne (new)

Lynne King Well Warwick what a spectacular review!

Caroline Revisiting your review now as I start to listen to a recording of the Bosley translation--so wonderful. I’ve already listened to the first half hour twice, it’s so good. Why don’t we hear more about this?
Excellent review--thank you for the appreciation and translation comparison.

Warwick Nice. It must be fantastic as an audiobook,if you get the right reader.

message 32: by Traveller (new)

Traveller Just wow. Wonderful review, Warwick, thank you!

Warwick Oh you're more than welcome. Thanks!

message 34: by Antonomasia (last edited Dec 20, 2015 07:42AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Antonomasia In the middle of reviewing something else, I was just thinking it was a shame none of my friends on here had read this, and that it was rather under-read. And all along you had also done your bit to make sure people had at least heard of it. Lovely, and an excellent introduction to it.

Warwick Thank you. As soon as I clicked on your review I remembered reading and relating to it when I was reading the actual book in a hotel room in Helsinki – don't know how it had gone unliked. I don't know if I even knew it was you, but was good to go back to it anyway.

message 36: by Ilse (new)

Ilse Fabulous review, Warwick - an another good reason to listen to Sibelius again!

Warwick Thanks Ilse!

Robert But what IS the Sampo?

Warwick I don't think anyone actually knows! It doesn't get much of a description in the poem.

Robert Warwick wrote: "I don't think anyone actually knows! It doesn't get much of a description in the poem."

No indeed it does not; about all we really know is that it takes the man who forged the pillars of the sky to make it and even he can't get it right first time...or second...or third...or...

Antonomasia It's indefinability is part of the point, I think.

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