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The Folklore Reading Club > The Kalevala (March-May 2011)

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message 1: by Michael (last edited Mar 01, 2011 05:09PM) (new)

Michael | 24 comments Here's the version that I'm reading:

Kalevala The Land of the Heroes by Elias Lönnrot

There is no actual choice in my choice. I was aware of the Kalevala through reading The Lord of the Rings and The Enchanter Compleated, and while browsing through a bookshop I came across this edition and I bought it on an impulse.

I've started reading it several times over the (25!) years I've owned it and, while I love both the poetry and the stories, have never managed to get more than halfway through. I don't know why I keep running out of steam.

Hopefully with this group to inspire, cajole and discipline me, I will finally achieve one of my longest-standing reading goals!

BTW, as there was no cover image for my edition when I shelved it, the current image is a scan of the very book I will be reading - why I should find that satisfying I don't know, but I do :-D

message 2: by Manybooks (new)

Manybooks | 65 comments My copy of The Kalevala has the following cover, The Kalevala (Oxford World's Classics) by Elias Lönnrot . It is from the "Oxford World CLassics" series, and the translator is Keith Bosley. I have not started yet, but hopefully by this weekend.

message 3: by Suna (new)

Suna (steampunkindia) | 10 comments I'll be reading William Francis Kirby's translation:

and have two volumes which are number 259 and 260 respectively in the Everyman's Library series.

I didn't have a choice as I am reliant on the library only for awhile, this came out of their reserve stock building, both books hadn't been checked out since 1973! (I might buy them off them when I can...)

They're lovely looking versions and I am very keen to see how it stands up to more modern updates that others might be reading.

message 4: by Michael (new)

Michael | 24 comments Suna wrote: "I'll be reading William Francis Kirby's translation:

and have two volumes which are number 259 and 260 respectively in the Everyman's Library s..."

I'm reading the same translation in a single volume. Just started the first Runo (again!) and hope to post some thoughts a bit later.

message 5: by Michael (new)

Michael | 24 comments Runo I: The prelude to the poem proper describes how the traditional singers learned their songs from their parents and from various natural objects:
There are many other legends;
I have learned of magic import;
Some beside the pathway gathered;
Others broken from the heather;
Others wrested from the bushes;
Others taken from the saplings;
Gathered from the springing verdure.

More songs are learned from the hills, cattle, frost, rain, wind, sea and the birds. The songs learned from the nature spirits give magical power.

In the following cosmogony, Ilmatar, the "daughter of the air" descends upon the ocean and is impregnated by the sea. She conceives "old and steadfast" Väinämöinen, though it's not clear (to me) whether this often repeated description is intended literally in this case, i.e., that when he is eventually born, he will already be old. Certainly, his gestation is centuries long. Is it used more to mean that he is the oldest being to be born, rather than having been created?

Ilmatar prays to Ukko, her father and god of the heavens, for release from her burden and from her wandering in the primordial seas. A teal appears, looking for a place to rest, alights upon Ilmatar's knee and lays 6 golden and 1 iron egg (does anybody know if the number/composition of the eggs is significant?). The eggs break and the various parts form the dome of the sky, the sun and moon, the seas and the earth. This is a creation of the basic elements of the world and seems to be spontaneous but following this, Ilmatar gives form to the lands and seas and performs the role of Creatrix.

So, having created the natural world from which the oral poets learned their songs, it seems that their inspiration (literally, as she is the Daughter of the Air) comes from Ilmatar.

Now, Väinämöinen wearies of being confined in his mother's womb. Receiving no aid from the Sun, Moon or stars of the Great Bear, Väinämöinen forces himself from Ilmatar's womb. The description of his birth strikes me as amusing, although I'm not sure if it's intended to be so.

After many years at sea, Väinämöinen strikes land, takes pleasure in his new environment, and so on to Runo II.

message 6: by Suna (new)

Suna (steampunkindia) | 10 comments Two quite mundane things have struck me so far, whilst immersing myself in the wonderful rhtyhm of the text and the vivid allegory at the same time:

Jumala, thunder-home, prevails in common Finnish usage to this day.
I went to school with a Finnish girl who would exclaim Jumalauta! when irked, which to this day is the Fin equivalent for God Damn it!. It's still seen as quite a heavy and un-PC profanity.

The second is Ukko. One of my favourite graphic novel series is the matriarchal pagan story of the Celtic warrior hero Slaine, all of which is narrated, in a time out time, in a place that is not a place, by witness to Slaine's deeds, the dwarf Ukko.
I always get great pleasure out of discovering influences on modern work: Did the writers consciously use the name Ukko, the main God of the Finnish pantheon, to use the classical theme of God as Witness? Or were they perhaps deliberately being playfully irreverent? Ukko's a pretty repulsive creature in these books... Who knows.

Other than that, I am fascinated by the delegation of male and female principles as far as creation is concerned, some of which seem counter-intuitive.
Haven't quite formulated my thoughts properly on that one.

message 7: by Michael (new)

Michael | 24 comments Runo II: Väinämöinen Sowing: The Earth having been created, Väinämöinen, with the aid of various water and earth spirits, plants forests and crops.

Sampsa Pellervoinen, his first helper is described as:
Pellervoinen, earth-begotten,
Sampsa, youth of smallest stature,

and I previously imagined him as a kind of gnomish character. On this re-reading, though, he strikes me more as a springtime fertility god.

I like the nature poetry of this runo:
Once again the sun shone brightly,
And the pleasant moonlight glimmered,
And the clouds extended widely,
And the rainbow spanned the heavens,
O'er the cloud-encompassed headland,
And the island's hazy summit.

message 8: by Michael (new)

Michael | 24 comments Vaino is used in the Kalevala as a short name for Väinämöinen. Several other characters get the same treatment.

message 9: by Suna (last edited Apr 06, 2011 12:33PM) (new)

Suna (steampunkindia) | 10 comments There's something that has been niggling me for a while now:

Kirby decided to translate the repetitive description for Vainamoinen as Vainamoinen, Old and Steadfast.
In the appendix in the back he describes how the word vaka has been variously interpreted and that instead of his chosen steadfast, the word actually comes much closer to meaning Lusty.

I can't help but replacing steadfast with lusty in my mind whenever the phrase occurs now and it changes the whole atmosphere of the thing, not to mention the way in which the reader is made to view Vainamoinen:
Steadfast is a word implying solidity, firmness, immovability and staticity (Is that a word? It is now.), whereas Lusty implies dynamism, fluidity, passion and spirit.

I wish he'd stuck to Lusty and I wonder what his motives were for not using it, as he himself is the one implying it is a better rendering of the word vaka in the first place.
Was he being conservative from a religious point of view? Was he anticipating and protecting prospective delicate readers?

I'm very curious to see how readers with different translations have fared with this!

message 10: by Michael (last edited Apr 06, 2011 02:41PM) (new)

Michael | 24 comments In the notes of my Kirby translation, he says he's translated it as "steadfast" on the advice of a Professor Krohn. A quick Google found me a Wikipedia entry for Kaarle Krohn, who was clearly an eminent Finnish folklorist and whose advice would be very highly regarded. Of course, that only pushes your question back to Prof. Krohn.

Not having any Finnish, I have fallen back to Google Translate, which gives "serious" for "vaka", so "steadfast" would seem to be a closer translation than "lusty".

Translating "lusty" gives a list of the following Finnish adjectives:


Of which "vankka" is phonetically closest to "vaka". Translating "vankka" gives the following list of English adjectives:


So, it seems that "vaka/vankka" in Finnish are near homophones meaning both "steadfast" and "lusty". Maybe Lönnrot deliberately chose it as an adjective that would convey both senses in the original Finnish, a subtlety that doesn't translate well to English.

message 11: by Suna (new)

Suna (steampunkindia) | 10 comments Thanks for the research, Michael!

I suppose from a linguistic point of view the transition of the intricacy of meanings will be inevitably diminished, as with any translation from any language to another.

It would still be very interesting to hear Prof. Krohn's reasonings as to his choice.

message 12: by Old-Barbarossa (last edited Apr 24, 2011 05:27AM) (new)

Old-Barbarossa Anyone heard any theories about what the Sampo is yet?
A kind of butter-churn/mill-stone thingy? An ancient Finnish Swiss Army knife? Just a MacGuffin to hang things on like the grail (stone? cup? plate?) is in Arthurian tales?
Don't know if it is mentioned before Lönnrot compiled The Kalevala.

message 13: by John (new)

John (johndhalsted) | 2 comments The version of The Kalevala that I have republished to raise funds for Unicef is that translated by J.M. Crawford (1887). While there are not the handy introductory notes to each rune, there is an extended Preface and Introduction (32 pages) which gives the reader meaningful info to the straucture and content of the book. I have a Finnish colleague whose preference is Crawford's translation of The Kalevala (for whatever thats worth)

message 14: by Suna (new)

Suna (steampunkindia) | 10 comments I've stalled for a while, life got in the way.

But I fully intend to go back in, I'm enjoying the rhyming structure and symbology very much.

My copy does have the short synopses at the beginning of each Runo, but I had no idea about Lönnrot's introduction!
I'm going to have to go back and see if the Kirby translation mentions and/or includes it...

As for the Sampo, it was thought to be many different things and I will shamelessly copy Wikipedia for a moment for the list.

It was thought to be:

a world pillar or world tree, a compass or astrolabe, a chest containing a treasure, a Byzantine coin die, a decorated Vendel period shield, a Christian relic, etc. In the Kalevala, compiler Lönnrot interpreted it to be a quern or mill of some sort that made flour, salt, and gold out of thin air. The world pillar theory, originally developed by historian of religions Upo Harva and the linguist Eemil Nestor Setälä in the early 20th century, is the most widely accepted one

Investigating a bit further, I actually found out that one of the main banks of Finland is called Sampo, which would imply that the coin die and gold-producing mill hold some significance.

But I believe it is safe to assume that it is a highly mysterious structure of somehow great material import, definition up for debate...

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