Monday, August 5, 2013

The Kalevala by Elias Lonnrot / A Thing of Beauty

Elias Lonnrot

Elias Lonnrot was born in 1802. He did not write The Kalevala; he collected it. Lonnrot was the district health officer in northeastern Finland, and he used the opportunity to travel and collect the traditional oral poetry. He published the first edition of The Kalevala in 1835 and the second edition in 1849, which was almost twice as long. When it was published, The Kalevala was hailed as the national epic of Finland and did much to solidify the nation's identity. (For 1849, think the end of the Industrial Revolution and the gold rush in California) For further information see The Kalevala.

The Kalevala (A Selection)

The Defense of the Sampo by Akseli Gallen-Kallela
Long my tale's been in the cold
for ages has lain hidden:
shall I take the tales out of the cold
scoop the songs out of the frost
bring my little box indoors
the casket to the seat end
under the famous roof beam
     under the fair roof
shall I open the word-chest
and unlock the box of tales
unwind the top of the ball
untie the knot of the coil?
I will sing quite a good tale
quite a fair one I'll beat out
     after some rye bread
     and some barley beer.
     If beer is not brought
     and ale not offered
I'll sing from a leaner mouth
after water I will lilt
to cheer this evening of ours
to honour the famous day
or to amuse the morrow
and to start the new morning.
     (From Section I, "In the Beginning")


This passage is the introduction of the actual story. I love how the poet talks about the tale here. The tale is a treasure brought in from storage, unlocked, and, of course, shared. If the poet is rewarded for his labor, so much the better. Another interesting feature is the creation of words, such as the combination "word-chest," to share images.

The Kalevala is only loosely organized together. It's made of several different stories that are bound by their structure and meter. The meter is lost in translation, but notice that the lines are doubled. The poetry has a very repetitive structure, and the same doubled lines were used in multiple sections which served as an aid to the poet's memory. This doesn't mean that each performance was the same. Every performance was slightly different but used formulaic lines so that the poet didn't have to think through every word and could concentrate on the plot.

I appreciate this piece because it demonstrates a view of art that emphasizes the artist's role not as a spontaneous creator but as a keeper of tradition who works within specific boundaries.


I am indebted to the introductory material to The Kalevala.


  1. That IS lovely. Reminds me of how scripture, i.e., the stories of a people, was handed down by oral tradition for hundreds of years till Moses compiled it as Lonnrot did. Under inspiration of course.

    1. It's very easy for us, in a world dominated by both literacy and print, to forget that for centuries most people experienced Scripture as it was read to them. Most people memorized Scripture because books were too expensive.