The Kalevala

Shall I now these boxes open,
Boxes filled with wondrous stories?
Shall I now the end unfasten
Of this ball of ancient wisdom,
These ancestral lays unravel?

The Story of Kullervo was one of—if not the—earliest experiments of writing prose for college age J.R.R. Tolkien. Many years later, Tolkien would recycle that story into the tragedy of Turin Turambar.  But while Turin is Tolkien’s own creation, The Story of Kullervo is a re-telling of a story from an ancient epic, the Kalevala.  In reading the Kalevala for myself, I also became inspired by this rhythmic and ancient world.  This is a saga brimming in song.  The prose is highly visual during scenes of action, poetic during descriptions, and falls into a rocking, rhythmic repetition during scenes of emphasis.   Song and magic and daily life are interconnected.  The characters battle through song, they invent through song, they pass down wisdom through song.  

Mastered by desire impulsive,
  By a mighty inward urging,
  I am ready now for singing,
  Ready to begin the chanting
  Of our nation’s ancient folk-song
  Handed down from by-gone ages.
  In my mouth the words are melting,
  From my lips the tones are gliding,
  From my tongue they wish to hasten;
  When my willing teeth are parted,
  When my ready mouth is opened,
  Songs of ancient wit and wisdom
  Hasten from me not unwilling.

We owe the compilation of the Kalevela to Zacharias Topelius and Elias Lonnrot, two Finnish scholars and physicians (although Lonnrot is given the most credit, and it is his version that I read).  Though confined to a sickbed, Topelius managed to piece together the national epic by calling minstrels and men who still practiced the old songs to his house, where he could hear and record their traditions.   Lonnrot, on the other hand, had the freedom to glean his work in its native element—in the shepherd’s fields, in the fisherman’s boats, and at the hearth of elders.  But the result of the Kalevela’s compilation wasn’t just that runes were preserved.  Artists and nationalists took notice. 

Are there not some sweeter singers
In this honored congregation,
That will clasp their hands together,
Sing the ancient songs unbroken,
Thus begin the incantations,
Make these ancient halls re-echo
For the pleasure of the evening,
For the joy of the in-gathered?”

As the Iliad is to ancient Greece, and the stories of King Arthur is to Britain, so the Kalevala is to Finland.  The Kalevala proved that little Finland, under the rule of Sweden during the time of the epic’s compilation, could hold her own in the arts.  This collection of fifty runes (plus epilogue) became a national rallying point.  There is even a day dedicated to the Kalevala, February 28th.  I’m especially pleased with that last little detail.  Literature can be rightfully lauded in so many ways for its beauty and impact, but rarely do I see it honoured by having a day set apart for its commemoration.   I’m glad to have finally read the Kalevala, an epic that has inspired both Finn and foreigner. 

Thus beginning, and thus ending,
Do I roll up all my legends,
Roll them in a ball for safety,
In my memory arrange them,
In their narrow place of resting,
Lest the songs escape unheeded,
While the lock is still unopened,
While the teeth remain unparted,
And the weary tongue is silent.

2 thoughts on “The Kalevala

  1. Well, I’ve GOT to read this now. And good on Topelius and Lonnrot, for making that a possibility.
    I didn’t know Tolkien started out straight-up borrowing from Finnish folklore! That’s interesting (and explains why these lines reminded me so much of the Lay of the Children of Hurin).
    Also, so cool that the Kalevala has its own day of the year!


    1. I hope you enjoy it!
      There were quite a few things in the Kalevala that I figure must have inspired Tolkien, forging magical items and riding eagles for example.
      It’s a great idea. There should be days dedicated to more epics and poems!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s