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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical Introduction by William Sharp (1855–1905)

By The Kalevala

THE GREAT Finnish epic, the ‘Kalevala,’ is in a sense the most significant national epic in existence. In it are reflected not only the manners, beliefs, superstitions, and customs of a race, but the very soul of that race. The Finnish pulse beats in the ‘Kalevala,’ the Finnish heart stirs throughout its rhythmic sequences, the Finnish brain molds and adapts itself within these metrical limits. There is, too, certainly no other instance so remarkable of the influence upon the national character of an epic work which as it were summarizes the people for itself. In no exaggerated sense, the Finland of to-day is largely due to the immense influence of the national sentiment created by the universal adoption of the ‘Kalevala’ as, after the Scriptures, the chief mental and spiritual treasure-house of the Finnish nation.

The word “epic” is frequently used too loosely; as for example when applied to the ‘Ossian’ of Macpherson. In the sense of continuity alone can the word “epic” properly be used; whereas great epical works such as the ‘Kalevala’ are really aggregations of epic matter welded into a certain homogeneity, but rather by the accident of common interest, and by the indomitable skill of one or more sagamen, than by any inherent necessity of controlled and yet inevitable sequent relation. When therefore one sees the ‘Kalevala’ referred to—as recently in the instance of a critic of some standing—as an epic comparable with those of Milton or Dante, one must at once discount a really irrelevant comparison. For though both Dante and Milton, and doubtless Homer in his half-mythic time, summed up an infinitude of general knowledge and thought, their actual achievement stands to this day as individual and distinctive. But though we owe the ‘Kalevala’ as we know it to the genius of one man,—Elias Lönnrot of Helsingfors,—this man was the editor rather than the creator of the national epic. For the famous national epic of Finland is in reality composed of a great number of popular songs, ballads, incantations, and early runic poetry, strung together into an artistic whole by the genius of Dr. Lönnrot.

The Finns were gradually dying out as a nation before the ‘Kalevala’ appeared. National hopes, aspirations, and ideals had long been slowly atrophying; and in another generation or two Russia would have absorbed all the intellectual life of the old Northern realm, and Finland have sunk to the status of a mere outlying province. At the same time the Finns have ever been a people of marked racial homogeneity, and have cherished their ancient language and literature with something of that passionate attachment which we find in all races whose heroic past dominates a present which in no respect can be compared with it. The upper classes would inevitably have become Swedish or Russian, and the majority of the people would in time have degenerated into a listless and mentally inert mass. Perhaps a great war, involving a national uprising, would have saved them from this slow death: but happily the genius of one man and the enthusiasm of contemporary and subsequent colleagues obviated any such tragically crucial test; for by applying the needed torch to the national enthusiasm, Lönnrot and his fellow-workers gave incalculable stimulus to the mental and actual life of their countrymen.

For many ages the Finnish minstrels, who had ever been beloved of the people, went to and fro reciting the old sagas of the race, singing old national songs and telling the wonderful folk-tales of a remote and ancient land. These singers were known as the Runolainen, and played to the sound of the kantela, a kind of harp much like that which the Gaelic minstrels used to carry in their similar wanderings to and fro from village to village and from house to house. For generation after generation, much of the essential part of the ‘Kalevala,’ as we now know it, lived within the hearts and upon the lips of the peasants and farming classes: but with the changed conditions which came to the whole of Europe early in the present century, and with the political and other vicissitudes through which Finland in common with almost every other country has passed, it was inevitable that as elsewhere, this oral legendary lore should slowly fade before the pressing actualities of new and radically distinct conditions.

The first man to make a systematic endeavor to stem the ebb of the national poetry and sentiment was Dr. Zacharias Topelius, who in 1822 published a small collection of Finnish folk poetry and legends. But fifteen years later Dr. Elias Lönnrot achieved that marvelous success which has been the admiration and wonder of Europe ever since, as well as the delight—and in a sense, as already indicated, the regeneration—of Finland itself.

Dr. Lönnrot, inspired with a passionate enthusiasm for the historical language and legendary literature of his people, set himself the task of rescuing all that was best in the vast unprinted and uncollected mass of folk-lore which existed in his country. To this end he lived with the peasantry for many years and wandered from place to place, everywhere taking down from the lips of the people all that they knew of their popular songs or legendary lore, and including of course all they could tell him of local superstitions, incantations, and so forth. At first his researches were limited to the district of Karelia, in the Government of Kupio. Even within this limited scope he obtained, besides numerous fragmentary songs and a great number of proverbs and charms, a complete epos consisting of some 12,000 lines. These either fell naturally, or were arranged by him, in thirty-two parts, each consisting of from 200 to 700 verses. They were given to the world just as he had heard them sung or chanted; and in this, of course, lies their primary value. At the first, however, this all-important work attracted little attention when it was published in 1835—and this notwithstanding the fact that it appeared under the title of ‘Kalevala’ (Kalewala), the ancient poetic designation of Finland. Five years later the Academy of Dorpat made the publication the subject of discussion at their meetings. Some nine years subsequently Dr. Lönnrot issued a new edition of nearly 23,000 verses in fifty so-called runes. But already the attention of scientific Europe had been drawn to this wonderful Finnish find. Not only the Swede and famous Finnish scholar Castrén, but the great German philologists, the two Grimms and Brockhaus, agreed in regarding the ‘Kalevala’ as a genuine epic; and as an epic it has ever since been received—although, as already hinted, a splendid epical national mirror rather than epic in the strict literary sense of the term. It would be pedantic, however, to refuse the term “epic” to the ‘Kalevala,’ for all that it does not conform to certain literary conditions which we associate with the epic pure and simple. Not only, from the date of the first discussions at Dorpat down to the present time, has the ‘Kalevala’ been admitted to be one of the most curious monuments of its kind possessed by any European people, but the chief authorities have agreed in regarding it as a composition possessing an almost unparalleled wealth of images and tropes, great flexibility of rhythm, and a copiousness of synonyms not to be met with in any other Northern tongue. Of course there is great divergence of opinion as to the identification of historic facts and arbitrary figments; that is, as to whether the incidents of the narrative refer to definite historical epochs, or are mainly mythical or allegorical. It is too loose a way of writing to aver, with one authority on the subject, that the date of its composition must be referred to a period anterior to the introduction of Christianity among the Finns in the fourteenth century; for while there is internal evidence to an even more ancient origin than this,—indeed, of an identity of names and traditions which points to an epoch anterior to the immigrations of the Karelin Finns into the districts which they now occupy,—not enough allowance is made for the arbitrary archaic coloring which by a natural law characterizes all renascent folk-lore. It does not follow, because a narrative is remote in date and is archaic in form, that it belongs to a remote date itself; though the conditions and circumstances which preserve traditionary folk-lore are pre-eminently conservative. Students of all early and mainly traditional literatures have long agreed upon this point, and one of the first efforts of the philological folklorist is to penetrate the illusion of an arbitrary archaism.

Once the importance of this great indigenous epic of Finland was fully recognized, translations from Dr. Lönnrot’s invaluable version appeared in Swedish, German, and French,—and latterly in English, with which may be included the few representative selections translated by the late Professor Porter of Yale College (published in New York, 1868). The ‘Kalevala’ is written in eight-syllabled trochaic verse, and an adequate idea of its style and method may be obtained from the popular ‘Hiawatha’ of Longfellow; who, it may be added, adopted this particular metrical form from his knowledge of the great Finnish poem. Some eight or nine years ago a complete edition of the ‘Kalevala’ appeared in English, the work of Mr. John Martin Crawford (2 vols., 1888). In the interesting preface to this work—which deals with the Finns and their country, and also with their language and mythology—the translator remarks, what the famous Grimm had already affirmed, that the ‘Kalevala’ describes Finnish life and nature with extraordinary minuteness, verisimilitude, and beauty; and that indeed no national poem is to be compared with it in this respect, unless it be some of the epics of India. He adds also some interesting additional evidence for the genuineness of certain of the more archaic portions, which have been disputed by some critics. For, as he says, some of the most convincing evidences of the genuineness and great age of the ‘Kalevala’ have been supplied by Barna, the Hungarian translator. The Hungarians, it is well known, are racially closely connected with the Finns; and their language, the Magyar, has the same characteristics as the Finnish tongue. Naturally therefore Barna’s translation might well be, as it admittedly is, much the finest rendering of the original. (In a book written by a Hungarian in 1578 are collected all the incantations in use among Hungarian country-people of his day for the expulsion of disease and misfortunes. These display a most satisfactory sameness with the numerous incantations in the ‘Kalevala’ used for the same purpose.)

The ‘Kalevala’ (whose direct significance is “the land of heroes”) relates as its main theme the ever-varying contests between the Finns and a people referred to in the epic as “the darksome Lapps,” just as the Iliad relates the contests between the Greeks and the Trojans. It is more than probable, however, that these Laplanders are not exactly the Lapps of to-day; and it is possible that another interpretation of the ‘Kalevala’ points to a contest between Light and Darkness, Good and Evil,—the Finns representing the Light and Good, and the Lapps the Darkness and Evil. The celebrated Swedish scholar Castrén is of opinion that the enmity between the Finns and the Lapps was sown long before the Finns had left their Asiatic birthplace. Certainly this possibility is enhanced—collaterally affording another proof of the great antiquity of the fundamental part of the ‘Kalevala’—by the silence throughout concerning the neighboring Russians, Swedes, and Germans. Nowhere in the poem are there any important signs of foreign influence; indeed, from first to last it is a true pagan epic, and some of the narrative portions—for example the story of Mariatta recited in the fiftieth rune—are pre-Christian.

It has been well said of the architecture of the ‘Kalevala,’ that it stands midway between the epic ballads of the Serbians and the purely epical structure of the Iliad: for although now accepted as a continuous whole, it contains several almost independent parts; as for example the contest of the Yonkahainen, the Kullervo episode, and the legend of Mariatta. To this day its eight-syllabled trochaic verse, with the part line echo, is the characteristic literary expression of the Finnish people. It is this which gives peculiar value to Mr. Crawford’s translation, to which allusion has already been made; for it is in the original metre,—a wonderfully versatile metre, he adds, which admits of keeping the right medium between the dignified and virile hexameter and the quieter metres of the lyrics. Its feet are nimble and fleet, yet are full of vigor and expressiveness; while in addition the ‘Kalevala’ uses alliteration, and thus varies the rhythm of time with the rhythm of sound. While therefore all honor is given to Dr. Lönnrot, it must not be forgotten that the substance of the ‘Kalevala’ existed before he wandered minstrel-wise from village to village; that, in a word, it has descended unwritten from the mythical age to the present day, kept alive from generation to generation, and in this sense is the veritable expression of the national life. We must remember the national idiosyncrasy in judging the monotonous effect of this great epic. For what is congenial to the Finns is not so to us, who have something of the Celtic love of variety and vivacity. For this epic of fifty books, written throughout in the ‘Hiawatha’ metre, seldom relieves the ear by a pause or a final long syllable, but is one uninterrupted stream of trochees, which have in prolonged perusal a wearisome effect to our ears. Strangely enough, we find at least one Southern people with the same characteristic; for the metre of the dialogues in the plays of Calderón and other Spanish masters is akin.

A great many theories have arisen as to the origin and full significance of the ‘Kalevala,’ but these may be merely alluded to en passant. In the words of Mr. Oxenford: “To admit any conjecture as to the veritable import of the ‘Kalevala’—as to the nucleus of truth, moral, historical, or theological, that would remain if it were stripped of its wild fancies—would be an act of presumption, as the profoundest investigators of the subject are still in darkness.” There are certain features, however, which may be pointed out; and these we have already indicated. All authorities agree on one point: that the surprising development of the Finns during the present century is to a large extent due to the fostering efforts of the Finnish Literary Society (itself an outcome of the labors of Dr. Lönnrot and other pioneers), and the collection of those marvelous stores of folk-lore which have so long lain half buried under the austere reserve of the Finnish peasant. The critics, moreover,—native, Swedish, Russian, German, and English,—all concur in recognition of the ‘Kalevala’s’ immense importance in this political and national development. With the best fitted to judge of these, we may agree in saying that the ‘Kalevala’ has stirred the fibre of nationality among a people who have never yet shown any political genius; that it has revealed to an obscure race their own unity and power; that it has awakened an enthusiasm for national culture and historic life which appears destined to have far-reaching effects.

Some idea of the immense extent of contemporary research may be gained from the fact that by the year 1889 the Finnish Society had already collected

  • 22,000 songs,
  • 13,000 stories,
  • 40,000 proverbs,
  • 10,000 riddles,
  • 2,000 folk melodies, and
  • 20,000 incantations, games, etc.
  • The main body and frame of the ‘Kalevala’ is compounded of four cycles of folk-songs. The poem itself takes its name from three heroes of ancient Kalevala; namely, Wåinåmoinen, Ilmarinen, and Lemminkåinen. It is the struggles of these with the mythical “darksome Laplanders” or others, out of Pohjola, a land of the cold north, and from Luomela, the land of death, that constitute the theme of the epic narrative. The poem, which begins at the creation of the world, ends at last in the triumph of Wåinåmoinen and his comrades. Besides the four divisional cycles just alluded to, there are seven distinct romances or folk-tales woven into the general fabric; namely, ‘The Tale of Aino,’ ‘The Fishing for the Mermaid,’ ‘The Wooing of the Daughter of the Air,’ ‘The Golden Bride,’ ‘The Wooing of the Son of Kojo,’ ‘The Captivity and Deliverance of the Sun and Moon,’ and ‘The Story of the Virgin Maria.’ Besides these, and scattered freely throughout the work,—sometimes placed in the mouths of the characters, sometimes absorbed into the narrative itself,—are many prayers, chants, religious formulas, and other magic songs and lyrics, roughly divisible thus: (1) origins; (2) charms; (3) lyrics; (4) marriage songs; (5) the origin of the harp; (6) introductory and closing songs. Finally, there seem to be additions apparently composed, paraphrased, or adopted by Dr. Lönnrot himself; though it is uncertain if these are not merely later and perhaps contemporary additions to the national treasures of folk-lore.

    No one who has ever visited Finland can fail to note the truth of the delineation of the national genius as reflected in this representative work: truth of observation, love of nature, mental independency, unmistakable racial idiosyncrasy. Something of the spirit of that vast and for the most part strangely bleak and desolate country has saturated the ‘Kalevala.’ The immense plains, the great treeless pastures, the lakes like inland seas, the trackless gloomy pine forests, have together thrown something of their shadow across the national epic: and in it we hear—almost as distinctly as the voices of men and women and the sharp antagonism of rival forces bodily or spiritual—the lone cry of the wind, the dashing of solitary seas, and the solitary cry of the wild swan along unfrequented lakes. This characteristic melancholy is to be found not only in the ancient poems, but in the writings of contemporary Finnish poets; and we may take it that that Finnish legend is true in spirit which displays the genius of Finland as a wild swan, singing a death-song beautifully, while, bewildered by the slow increasing mists of death, it circles blindly above the forests and lakes and vast snow plains of the great Northland. If the ‘Kalevala’ be indeed the swan-song of the Finns, we must admit that it has at least the note rather of virility and endurance than of undue melancholy or decrepitude.

    Fortunately, it is no longer considered boorish in Finland to speak the ancient Finnish tongue. For a time the Russian government did its utmost to encourage the cultivation of Finnish in every direction; but this, it is to be feared, was not so much from disinterested love of an ancient language and its literature as the desire to alienate the people from the language and general sympathies of the Swedes, under whose dominion Finland formerly was. Latterly, Russia has broken its solemn pledges and done its utmost to Russianize Finland. It needs all the enthusiasm and native independence of the Finns to resist the organized assault made against them from school and church and the public courts; but at present, at any rate, the national patriotism is likely to prove a stronger factor than Russian bureaucratism. The Finnish literary movement inspired by the ‘Kalevala’ has as yet achieved very little; but if not stamped out by Russian influence, it is possible that it may have a marked development before long. Many of the younger Finns display remarkable promise, though they have to face the fact that the people who will read the native language are mostly of a class who can ill afford to buy books. Moreover, the prose literature of Finland has ever been almost exclusively devoted to religious and moral subjects; and it seems as though the mental soil were not yet ready to bear a harvest akin to that remarkable aftermath which is so noticeable a feature of the contemporary intellectual development of Sweden, and still more of Norway. We may take leave of the ‘Kalevala’ in the words of one of the most popular writers on kindred subjects, Mr. Max Müller:—

  • “From the mouths of the aged an epic poem has been collected, equaling the Iliad in length and completeness; nay,—if we can forget for a moment all that we in our youth learned to call beautiful,—not less beautiful. A Finn is not a Greek, and a Wåinåmoinen was not a Homer. But if the poet may take his colors from that nature by which he is surrounded, if he may depict the men with whom he lives, the ‘Kalevala’ possesses merits not dissimilar from those of the Iliad: and will claim its place as the fifth national epic of the world, side by side with the ‘Ionian Songs,’ with the ‘Mahābhārata,’ the ‘Shahnāmeh,’ and the ‘Nibelungen.’”
  • As exemplifying the style and method of the ‘Kalevala,’ I may give the opening and closing lines in the translation of Mr. Crawford, as that more adequately conveys a notion of the original than any other save that of the Hungarian, Barna.