Ian's Reviews > The Kalevala: Or, Poems of the Kaleva District

The Kalevala by Elias Lönnrot
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it was amazing
Read 3 times. Last read February 25, 2018 to March 11, 2018.

This is a revised version of an Amazon review of two “Kalevala” translations, originally written and posted in 2004, and greatly enlarged in 2012.

For its appearance in Goodreads, I’ve made some additions (and omissions), briefly discussing two other, and readily available, older translations, which I had originally just mentioned.

One thing I learned from the original version of this review is that a reviewer proposes, but only Amazon disposes. (A lesson repeated frequently during the last couple of years....)

Back in 2004, Amazon had lumped together reviews of paperback editions of two translations of the Finnish "National Epic," KALEVALA (variously interpreted as "Kaleva District" and "Land of Heroes"), one in prose by Francis Peabody Magoun, Jr. (1963), and the other, more recent, a verse translation by Keith Bosley (1989).

Naturally, the software would not allow the posting of more than one review of “the same book” by any given reviewer.

In response, I did a revised, extended, review covering both versions.

That received a good response (120 "helpful" votes in 2012, 133 by 2018), but it was left stranded on the Magoun side, when Amazon, in its wisdom, decided to separate the two (as should have been the case from the beginning, of course).

Responding to the challenge, I rewrote the review to focus a bit more on Bosley's translation, and expand my description of Magoun’s.

To begin with, Magoun's translation, now about fifty years old, is a solid, reliable prose version, the first by a translator trained in the study of languages and literatures (mainly medieval Germanic -- but the best translation at the time was by an entomologist....) It was welcomed in academic and other serious-minded circles, and Magoun also translated Lonnrot's first, shorter, published version, as "The Old Kalevala" (1969), which also contained additional documentary material, and a list of proposed corrections to his main translation -- which has been included as Appendix E in more recent printings of "Kalevala," but not incorporated into the main text.

These were extremely impressive performances, aimed mainly, as indicated, at the serious student. But many find them very readable, and, as a friend reminded me, with their end-paper maps, appendices, character indexes, etc, they physically resemble editions of Tolkien.

There is also a non-coincidental similarity of contents -- Tolkien loved the old W.F. Kirby verse translation (the entomologist mentioned earlier), and, typically, followed it up by studying Finnish, an influence which shows up in the Elvish language Quenya, and some of the nomenclature in "The Silmarillion."

The Kirby translation is available (in two “volumes”) as free Kindle books (by way of Project Gutenberg). Some people don’t like its imitative meter, which apparently goes down better in Finnish rather than in English, and he admits to taking some liberties in order to make the meter come out right.

There is another old translation, also available as free Kindle Books, by John Martin Crawford. Crawford, an American physician and some-time diplomat, worked from a German translation: I once read his version, so I can’t say it is unreadable, but it was rather flat and unmemorable (at least to me) compared to Kirby’s rollicking verse, and of course it doesn’t have any claim to greater fidelity to the Finnish. That was what Magoun supplied.

A great many readers, however, found Magoun's prose renderings of both the "Old" and "New" Kalevala to be uninspiring, and even those of us who value it for its careful rendering of the imagery have to admit that, as entertainment, it comes nowhere close to Kirby's sprightly rendering. (Tolkien even claimed that Kirby's version of the story of the invention of beer was actually better, or at least funnier, than the original!)

For those who want both the story and all of the details, but either don't care about, or don't care for, such things as meter and rhyme, Magoun's translation may remain their first choice. For those who know the epic through other translations, it is still worth consulting.

The wishes of many readers were eventually answered in the form of Keith Bosley's elegant (and careful) verse rendering, which, although not as student-friendly in layout and contents, seems to be very reliable.

"Kalevala," variously translated as "Kaleva District" or "Land of Heroes," is a nineteenth-century compilation, revision, and expansion of narratives, spells and charms, and proverbial wisdom collected (mainly, if not entirely, by Elias Lonnrot), from the Finnish-speaking peasants and fisherman of areas of modern Finland and Russia.

It is made up largely, but not entirely, of "runos," narrative songs which even then survived only in isolated, "fringe" areas; ballads with clear connections with other cultures also make an appearance. References to "The Kalevala" are usually to its second edition (1849), also distinguished as the "New Kalevala" in comparison to its shorter predecessor, the "Old Kalevala" (1835).

The material is, for the most part, clearly pagan in origin, with hints of roots in the Viking Age, if not earlier, but processed through centuries of Christianity, Catholic and Lutheran in Finland proper, Russian Orthodox in the Karelia district.

Fortunately, Elias Lonnrot, as the main collector, as well as the man responsible for this literary version, was also engaged in laying the foundations of the scientific study of folk traditions, and the collections he made or sponsored formed the basis of a major archive, the publication of which was only recently completed.

In the meantime, his popularization had become a part of the world's culture, as well as that of Finland. As one example of its impact: the American poet Longfellow adapted a German translator's adaptation of the Finnish meter for his pseudo-Iroquois epic, "Hiawatha," with the paradoxical result that the original is sometimes described, in English, as being in Hiawatha-meter.

The contents are various, but the main themes are the military and romantic adventures and misadventures of a handful of warrior-magicians, quite as quick with an incantation as with a sword. Vainamoinen, "the Eternal Sage," and a kind of demiurge who sings the Finnish homeland into being, is born an old man. His attempts to find a young wife lead to the creation of the mysterious and wonderful "Sampo" by his friend, the smith Ilmarinen, as a kind of bride-price. However, Ilmarinen himself uses it in his own wooing.

These two great heroes share the stage with the irresponsible Lemminkainen, a kind of combined Don Juan and Achilles, and the hapless Kullervo. Kullervo's story -- which you may know as a cantata by Sibelius -- is one of the underpinnings of Tolkien's tale of Turin in "The Silmarillion" and "Unfinished Tales," where it is combined with elements from the "Volsunga Saga." And, of course, Tolkien actually did his own version of “Kullervo,” recently published (but no, I haven’t seen it yet).

(When the "Silmarillion" first appeared, it seemed obvious that the Quest for the Sampo, and the Sampo's ultimate fate, was a direct, immediate, source, as well as a major inspiration, for Tolkien; the publication of his early drafts shows that most of these resemblances emerged over time, in the course of endless re-workings, but they remain enlightening. Other resemblances include the creation of the sun and moon, and attempts to harm them, and the importance of trees. “Kalevala” was clearly at the back of his mind — if not front-and-center — as he created his own mythology: and that is as much more as I'm going to say about the story.)

There have been a number of abridged or retold versions of "The Kalevala" in English, and there were two early complete versions in verse, that by Crawford (nineteenth-century, from a German translation; available on-line), and the 1907 W.F. Kirby translation, directly from Finnish (in -- if you will excuse the expression -- a version of Hiawatha-meter; long available in the Everyman's Library edition, it also is in various formats on-line). I’ll return to these later.

Between Magoun's prose translations, and Bosley's (1989) there was another verse translation of the "New Kalevala," by Eino Friberg (1988), which was clearly driven by love for the epic (and which I keep planning to read and review — I should probably face the fact that I will never find the time). At first glance, Magoun's translation seems very different from Bosley's. Only some of the differences are real.

It should be said that Magoun, despite translating as prose, marks the verse divisions. He follows some Finnish editions in presenting the verse form as a long line with a pause (caesura), instead of as twice as many short lines. His page count therefore is much shorter, even with abundant supplemental material, but he has omitted nothing. There is no extended introduction; information is postponed to extensive appendices. It is well organized enough to be easy to use to find answers as questions arise, or be profitably consulted years later.

Keith Bosley, on the other hand, made an effort to produce a work of literature. This goes beyond translating verse as verse (which he does very well), arranged in short lines (which looks more like poetry to many). Lonnrot's prose summaries of each *runo* (for this purpose, canto) are not translated by Bosley. Magoun used them as "arguments" (in the manner of Milton's prose summaries for each book of "Paradise Lost"). For Bosley, nothing interrupts the flow of narrative and lyric, ritual and spell. The result is extremely engaging, far beyond Magoun's prosy rendition; a distinct plus.

There are, however, no glossaries or indexes to otherwise serve as a guide through the complex set of stories. Bosley offers just ten pages of brief (albeit extremely useful) notes. These are followed by a two-page appendix on "Sibelius and the Kalevala," which untangles the references -- and some non-references -- to the "Kalevala" in the titles of several of the Finnish composer's works. (A certain amount of garbling took place as his music publisher translated titles into German, and the German was turned into English without checking against the original meaning.)

Bosley's Introduction is excellent, and establishes the literary and cultural background of Lonnrot's work and the nature of the folk-poetry he collected, and makes useful observations about the structure of the completed epic. It is far better reading than Magoun's documentation. Of course, taking advantage of this synthesis means careful reading, ideally in advance of the story. The reader should take the time, but *should* is not *will.* Here, Magoun's formidable-looking book is actually more user-friendly.

The Magoun translation was available for decades as a hardcover (with endpaper maps), before being issued as an otherwise identical trade paperback. Either form should stand up to reasonable handling.

Bosley's translation apparently was published in paperback only, in two slightly-different formats; first as a "World's Classics" mass-market paperback (1989), and then as a larger (but otherwise identical) "Oxford World's Classics" paperback in 1999. It is a very fat volume, over 700 pages long, due to Bosley's decision to treat the verse as short lines.

Because of the different proportions of height and width to the binding, the slightly larger format of the OWC edition seems to me physically more stable, likely to stand up better to repeated readings and consultations; but I haven't heard of any problems with copies of the older World's Classics printings.

Happily, Bosley’s translation is now available also in Kindle format, at a slightly lower price than the large paperback.

Lonnrot also published (1840-41) a collection of non-epic folk genres, including much material eventually absorbed into "Kalevala," as "Kanteletar" (roughly, "zither-daughter"). This has been under-represented in translation. Bosley translated a selection as "The Kanteletar," published in "World's Classics" in 1992, and currently out of print. It is an excellent companion to any "Kalevala" translation, but especially (of course) to Bosley's own. Back in 2004, I hoped that would be reprinted in the “Oxford World’s Classics” large format: this is still something to be desired. Or maybe a Kindle version?
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
February 22, 2018 – Shelved
February 25, 2018 – Started Reading
February 26, 2018 –
10.0% (Other Paperback Edition)
February 26, 2018 –
18.0% (Other Paperback Edition)
February 26, 2018 –
page 29
February 26, 2018 –
21.0% (Other Paperback Edition)
February 26, 2018 –
page 55
February 27, 2018 –
page 76
February 27, 2018 –
26.0% (Other Paperback Edition)
February 28, 2018 –
page 122
February 28, 2018 –
38.0% (Other Paperback Edition)
March 1, 2018 –
page 173
March 1, 2018 –
45.0% (Other Paperback Edition)
March 2, 2018 –
55.0% (Other Paperback Edition)
March 3, 2018 – Started Reading (Other Paperback Edition)
March 3, 2018 –
60.0% (Other Paperback Edition)
March 3, 2018 – Shelved (Other Paperback Edition)
March 3, 2018 –
60.0% (Other Paperback Edition)
March 3, 2018 –
page 222
March 5, 2018 –
64.0% (Other Paperback Edition)
March 6, 2018 –
66.0% (Other Paperback Edition)
March 8, 2018 –
77.0% (Other Paperback Edition)
March 9, 2018 –
page 270
March 9, 2018 –
89.0% (Other Paperback Edition)
March 10, 2018 –
91.0% (Other Paperback Edition)
March 11, 2018 –
96.0% (Other Paperback Edition)
March 11, 2018 –
100.0% (Other Paperback Edition)
March 11, 2018 –
March 11, 2018 – Finished Reading
April 28, 2018 – Finished Reading (Other Paperback Edition)

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