This July Pages Unbound is celebrating classic literature with a collection of guest posts. We asked other readers to tell us what one of their favorite classics is and why we should read it.
Lianne is an avid reader–from fantasy to classic literature and translated works to historical fiction–and extensively blogs about them on her website, eclectictales.com. Her favourite authors include J.R.R. Tolkien, Jane Austen, Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Ivan Turgenev, and Brandon Sanderson. When she isn’t reading, she’s working on her writing projects. Other interests include history (having studied it for a very long time), period dramas, travelling, photography, and (European) football. You can also find her on Twitter:@eclectictales
Northern Europe has a rich and fascinating body of classic storytelling: of fierce warriors, slaying monsters, and sailing off to wage war against their enemies. Beowulf of course is a very well-known title, but sagas such as The Elder Edda and The Saga of the Volsungs are also collections that feature familiar tales of glory, battle, and magic. But today I want to talk a little bit about a Northern epic that does not get quite as much attention as its “big” siblings: Finland’s The Kalevala.
Just a bit of background on The Kalevala: it was compiled and written down by Elias Lönnrot in the 19th century based off oral poetry recited in the Karelia region (north-eastern region of Finland bordering on Russia). Whilst the Oxford edition* of The Kalevala is merely divided into chapters, the text as a whole can be regarded as divided into cycles. Each cycle features a major story arc, either focusing on a character such as the wise and magical being Väinämöinen or the hero Lemminkainen or focusing on an event such as the attack on the Sampo people. The oral nature of the literature is ever present through its repetitive and sing-song turn of phrase:
Who will inquire into this—
Will inquire, will judge?
Steady old Väinämöinen
The everlasting wise man
He will inquire into this—
Will inquire, will judge!
(50: 450-455, “The Newborn King”)
It may seem redundant at times, but it highlights a feeling, a scenario, a characteristic, quite succinctly. Regardless of this, The Kalevala is an easy read to slip into; the stanzas are not dense, and as I will mention shortly, is rich in imagery. Its impact on Finnish culture is great, and has influenced non-Finnish artists as well, such as J.R.R. Tolkien and his work The Silmarillion (as an aside, he gave a fantastic lecture about The Kalevala when he was teaching at Oxford, which can be found in the recent release of his rendition of The Story of Kullervo, one of the story arcs in The Kalevala).
Whilst not as well-known or widely-read as some of the other Scandinavian epics, The Kalevala is worth checking out for a number of reasons. Firstly it brings the country of Finland to life through its tales. Despite never having travelled to the Scandinavian countries, I could envision the landscape through its lyrics, its vastness and variety, the mountains and the waters, its summers and winters. There is a lot of nature imagery throughout the epic, from Väinämöinen’s birth to his travels across the Lapland, encountering reluctant brides, hotheaded young men, and crafty old women. For example:
Now the islands were arranged
and the crags formed in the sea
the sky’s pillars set upright
the lands and mainlands called up
patterns cut upon the rocks
lines drawn on the cliffs; but still
Vainamoinen was not born
nor fledged the eternal bard.
(1: 250-322, “In the Beginning”)
Finnish way of life is also clearly highlighted in the text, from their modes of transportation to home life and the role of men and women in the family.
The Kalevala, however, is also in keeping with other Scandinavian epics in that it is populated by spirits and demons and larger-than-life events weaving in to the very human drama. Magical items are forged and lost, places that are out of this reality—such as the Deathlands—are visited. And towards the end of the volume great battles are fought for the future of what would be Finland. The journeys that the characters take over the course of its many cycles give the overall work that epic scope, the sense of grandness beyond its overview of Finnish life and culture.
Speaking of which, another key feature—and a highlight, really—of The Kalevala is its characters. Whilst other Scandinavian epics feature characters who are larger than life, bold and brave with heroic deeds and stout words, the characters here are more relatable, very human in the way they undergo experiences of loneliness, wounded pride, cowardice, disobedience and sometimes poor life choices (Joukahainen, I’m looking at you: when your parents tell you “No way, that’s a bad idea, you’re staying home.” That doesn’t mean go ahead and do the stupid thing anyway -_-;). Even characters as powerful as Väinämöinen have their own flaws and failings which not only humanises them but also provides a dose of comedy in the story.
Related to these nuanced characters is a defined sense that actions have consequences. Sometimes in epics great deeds of valour overshadow the very real consequences of their actions or the by-blows of victory, but in The Kalevala that is not the case. Sometimes heroic deeds result in failure, sometimes even death (no spoilers here as to who it was!). But there are other acts that happen throughout the epic that have varying degrees of dire consequences, such as Joukahainen’s challenge with Väinämöinen resulting in dragging the former’s entire family into his mess, particularly his sister. But there is also great tragedy in the tome, such as Kullervo’s story in his quest for revenge and the effects of such a quest on himself and the people around him.
All in all, The Kalevala is a classic worth checking out. Rich and fantastic in story and imagery, it’s easy to see how J.R.R. Tolkien was greatly influenced by it.
*If you choose to check out the book, I highly recommend the Oxford edition translated by Keith Bosley, over the eBook edition translated by John Martin Crawford that you can find of Feedbooks. Bosley’s rendition of the poem just reads much smoother, if that makes any sense.