Friday, May 10, 2013

On "The Kalevala" by Elias Lonnrot ****

Based loosely on ancient epics and folktales, this Finnish epic poem runs from a creation of sorts to a Christ child of sorts, with all its strange tales in between. It is, so I read in the introduction, really the beginning of Finnish literature, insofar as it was the great epic written at a time when Finland was really coming to its own, pressing for its own national identity. One certainly couldn't do much better--it's a marvelous work. The particular translation I read as well, by Keith Bosley, is a lot of fun. Bosley notes that Finnish poetry is heavily alliterative, more even than Old English poetry. Placing rhyme or metric measures onto the work in translation would be to do a disservice to it, as would be trying to mimic completely  the Finnish poetic devices. Instead, he settles on a purely syllabic verse (nine syllables--sometimes five or seven to a line); it seems to work well, especially as lines often repeat, as they would in a rhyming kids' tale (think, for example, of the repetition and refrains in "The Three Little Pigs").

Summing up The Kalevala is difficult, and while I'll try here mostly so that I can one day return to this write-up to refresh my memory, it'll be a sorry recounting. The beauty of the piece is really in the language mixed in with the plot itself, which at times as a bit fuzzy to me.

We start with a kind of creation of sorts, from which springs the old man Vainamoinen. I say "old man," because by the time he gets around to doing anything in the narrative, which is fairly quickly, he is already old in the eyes of others. One of his first acts is to try to find a wife. Unfortunately, in what will become a constant theme for him, the woman, whose father he convinces let him have her, rejects him because he is to old. She chooses, rather, to jump into the sea and kill herself. Vainamoinen builds a boat and goes to sea, and while at sea, finds a mermaid, who turns out to be this woman reincarnated, but he doesn't get the mermaid either.

Enter now the blacksmith Ilmarinen, who goes north to find a woman of his own. After settling in the north country, he goes about his job of forging metal into tools for the people around--and, it seems, of creating the sky. He doesn't get his lady until sometime later, however, when Vainamoinen comes calling. The latter is the better match, the family feels, as Vainamoinen is well off, but the young lady is none to smitten of the idea of being paired with an old man, and so she chooses to marry Ilmarinen.

One more would-be lover yet enters the tale, Lemminkainen. He marries a lady, promising never to go to war if she never runs off to go visiting. The promises, however, are broken on both sides, and Lemminkainen goes off again to find another lady. In the process of trying to woo a lady of the north, he manages to get killed. His mother goes searching for him and, finding him, reconstructs him. He's warned to be more careful, but again he wanders off, this time to Ilmarinen's wedding, where he manages to kill the brother of Ilmarinen's bride. More revenge follows, so Lemminkainen flees his home and wanders a far island for a while, sleeping with various women. When he returns home, finally, after a few years, he finds his home burned.

Ilmarinen, meanwhile, loses his wife to murder. And now the three of them, all sorrowful, Vainamoinen, Ilmarinen, and Lemminkainen wander toward the northlands to seek a certain vengeance of their own. There, they steal something called the Sampo. They do it by use of a pike's comb--the bones of a great fish that Vainamoinen manages to catch. The music puts the people asleep. But Lemminkainen's desire to sing--Vainamoinen, known for his musical abilities, refuses--wakes a bird who wakes the people of the north, who then come chasing after the three thieves. In vengeance, the hag, the northern queen, steals the sun and moon, which the three then go in search of. Ilmarinen tries to forge a new moon and sun, then tools to help Vainamoinen free them, but the hag of the north senses her eventual likely loss and frees them of her own accord.

The story of these men ends there and turns toward the birth of a young child to a virgin, who has eaten a berry that has made her pregnant. Vainamoinen's days are noted as being numbered. The narrator bard exhorts others to join his song and write yet other epics, setting up the Finns for yet more literature.

Alternate translations can be found here, here, here, and here.

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