Book Review: Kalevala, by Elias Lönnrot

This month I listened to Kalevala as an audio book. I’ve not yet tried to read it in print, but I suspect audio is the way to go. There’s something about hearing poetry that can often help it make more sense than just reading it. And Kalevala is poetry. Lönnrot collected the oral traditions of Finland and pieced them together into a single, (mostly) coherent work of mythology.

The work is divided into several parts, many dealing with different characters, but the main figure in the work is Väinämöinen, the first man and patron of Kalevala, translated variously as “The land of Kaleva” and “The Land of Heroes”. He is strong in magic, cunning, and a mostly benign leader. He is the most renown bard in the north-land, able to sing his enemies to death if needed.

Perhaps the primary plot line of the work is the attempts by Väinämöinen and other heroes to woo themselves wives from Pohjola, in “never-pleasant Lapland” (must do wonders for tourism!). Pohjola is ruled over by Louhi, a woman nearly rivaling Väinämöinen in power, who is at times benign, conniving, and downright vengeful. She has many pretty daughters, but is reticent to give any of them away. Heroes who come seeking her daughters to wife are given increasingly difficult and dangerous tasks to do, which lands at least one of our heroes in Tuonella, the Land of the Dead.

In fact only one of our heroes, Ilmarinen the blacksmith, ever succeeds in obtaining a bride from Pohjola, and then only with the help of the maiden herself, who instructs him on how to accomplish the dangerous tasks. Earlier Ilmarinen made the magic “sampo”, a magical grinder that produces meal continuously, and gave it to Louhi in exchange for one of her daughters, only to have the daughter reject him. Louhi keeps the Sampo.

The work is composed of 50 songs, or “runes”, divided into ten cycles covering certain heroes or topics. The work ends with an odd song in which a Christ-figure is born to rule the north-land, causing Väinämöinen to sail away to the west, only to return one day if the people need his wisdom again. There are many elements to the work that inspired Tolkien in his creation of Middle Earth, not the least of which being the idea of capturing a national myth to help unify and define one’s culture. It is thought that Väinämöinen may have inspired the character Tom Bombadil, and that the Kullervo cycle inspired the Turin Turumbar story in the Silmarillion.

So what did I think of Kalevala? It was like the little girl who had a little curl: When it was good, it was very, very good, and when it was bad, it was horrid. Mostly it was good. I enjoyed listening to it, and the meter began to rub off on me, much to my family’s chagrin. I listened to the John Martin Crawford translation, which tries to preserve the trochaic tetrameter metre as much as possible, though the rhyme would have likely been impossible.

As with most oral tradition, there is a lot of repetition. If you are prepared for that it’s not too bad. However, there are occasional passages that go on for a long time about topics unrelated to the story and do nothing to advance the current plot. Those times it is best to just grin and bear it. It will get back on track again eventually, but spending twenty minutes or more listening to a bride lamenting the loss of her freedom or a housewife coaching a servant on how to herd sheep can be difficult to wade through. This is probably why many translations are abridged.

I found the mythology fascinating, and would love to learn more. There is a rather extensive pantheon continually mentioned throughout the work, and yet no explanation, clarification, or codification is offered. Being married to a Finn, it was interesting to see the establishment and development of important cultural symbols, like the birch tree, various animals, the kantele, and the like. It makes a bit more sense now to see why these elements are part of the national psyche.

The mythological elements fired my imagination. The exposure has given me a much deeper background in the development of mythology, which I hope to apply in my own writing. There is a measure of creativity in mythology that I believe we today struggle with. It takes a certain type of creativity and fancy to conceive of creating the world from the pieces of a duck-egg, to turn the golden songs of birds into golden pegs for a kantele (a folk instrument like a zither), or to have a hero swallowed by another in his attempt to gain the magic words that will allow him to build a magical ship.

It did get long and dry at times, but my patience was usually rewarded. While many elements of the work are not unfamiliar to my Angl0-centric background, there are many other aspects that were quite foreign and delightful. Others were not so fun, like the frequent ignoring of the familiar “rule of three” more familiar in Western literature. Characters frequently had to try things more than just three times to succeed. Väinämöinen regularly lies to people, who recognize his lying as such immediately, and beg him to tell the truth–often more than the three times we would normally expect.

Kalevala is not for everyone, certainly. If you found Tolkien’s “The Silmarillion” long and tedious you may want to consider not reading Kalevala. But if you’re interested in culture, mythology, and ancient story-telling, it’s an excellent source. I intend to find a print edition for future reference. Like Tolkien, I find much of it irresistible as a resource for storytelling. Unless, of course, it’s the section in which one character goes on for quite some time about all the different sources of help he’ll invoke to help rid him of a pesky hero.

I enjoyed it. I’ll likely listen to or read it again.