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Summary Article: Kalevala
from Bloomsbury Dictionary of Myth

Kalevala ('land of heroes', that is, Finland) is an epic poem first published in 1835 and brought out complete (at 22,800 lines long) in 1849. Its author, the scholar and folklorist Elias Lönnrot (1802-84), assembled it from thousands of folk-poems, ballads, nursery tales, proverbs and other traditional material, adding elements of his own and giving it an over-riding form in the same way as his idol Homer had done with traditional material to create the Iliad and Odyssey.

Kalevala is an account of the myths and heroic legends of pre-Christian Finland. It centres on the story of the god-hero Väinämöinen, his brother Ilmarinen and their jester companion Lemminkäinen, in their battles to defeat or outwit the frost-giants of Pohjola, the Far North, and win wives from Princess Louhi by making the magic mill sampo. But in passing it describes an entire cosmology, beginning with the creation of the world by Väinämöinen's mother Luonnotar, including information about such early gods as Ukko and Akka, rulers of the sky, the sea-god Ahto and the forest-god Tapio. Two central episodes add still more material: the dark, self-contained story of Kullervo and the tale of Väinämöinen's journey to Tuonela, the Underworld, and his encounters with its rulers Tuoni and Tuonetar and their entourage of goblins, diseases and monsters.

When Lönnrot assembled Kalevala, his intention was scholarly: to record Finland's ancient traditions and songs before they disappeared. His work was part of a Europe-wide upsurge in the collection of traditional material - Asbjörnsen in Norway and the Grimm brothers in Germany, for example, had already published influential collections of folktales, and folk-studies had been added to the curricula of universities in Bohemia, Italy, Scotland and Switzerland. But events gave Kalevala an importance in Finland far beyond such amiable but fustian endeavour. Finland spent much of the nineteenth century reasserting its national identity and throwing off the domination of such other countries as Sweden and Russia - and the nationalist movement recruited Lönnrot and Kalevala to the cause. The book ran through dozens of editions, both in its original form and in retellings. It was a main factor in re-establishing Finnish as the national language in place of Swedish, and after self-determination became a standard text taught in every school.

Kalevala's swaggering events, and its evocation of the Finnish landscape (and character-in-landscape) appealed to writers and artists of all kinds. Ibsen in Peer Gynt (and in the US Longfellow in Hiawatha) imitated its characteristic eight-syllable, heavily-accented lines. Finnish fine artists made illustrations of all the stories, sometimes (as with the painter A. Gallen-Kallela, perhaps the best-known outside Finland) in a stridently-coloured style blending mysterious content (brooding lakes, wolves, dark stands of trees) with melodramatic poses and photographic realism in the figures, and sometimes rediscovering pre-Christian Finnish styles of metal-work, woodcarving and tapestry. The greatest artist to use Kalevala, the composer Sibelius, wrote so many works inspired by it (over 60, ranging from songs and theatre music to such grand symphonic poems as Pohjola's Daughter, Luonnotar, the Lemminkäinen Legends and Tapiola) that the government gave him a lifetime pension for his services to 'national' (that is, 'nationalist') cultural life.

Copyright © 1996 by Kenneth McLeish

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