Kalevala (Elias Lonnrot)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Kalevala (Elias Lonnrot)

Kalevala (Elias Lonnrot) (1836)

A literary monument to the soul's freedom, the Kalevala expresses the Finnish nationalism that inspired citizens in 1917 to free themselves from the foundering Russian Empire. The collation of pourquoi (why) stories and legends was the avocation of a public health officer and ethnographer named Elias Lonnrot (1802-84) of Sammatti, Finland. The 22,795 trochaic tetrameter lines exhibit the author's devotion to the rural folk tradition of the suomilainen (fen dwellers), to the Finnish and Russo-Karelian languages, and to competitive verse recitations accompanied by drafts of beer and strums of the five-string kantele, or zither. The absence of details about Danes, Germans, Russians, and Swedes suggests that the poet chose sources of enormous antiquity, taking them from a time when Finns lived free of imperial control. The value of the Kalevala, according to the linguist Eino Friberg, is immeasurable: “It is the shaper of our language; it is the inspirer of our independence; and it has been the source of the flowering of our art and literature” (Friberg 1988, 12).

The preface begins with an individual performer who declares to a circle of listeners, “I am ready now for singing … Songs of ancient wit and wisdom … legends of the times forgotten” (Lonnrot 1904, 1). Themes of the first 10 cantos first feature CREATION LORE of fecund whitecaps stilled by wind, the source of life for a seagoing people. The action covers the sorrow songs and stirrings of FEMINISM in the suicide of Aino, who drowns herself in the sea rather than marry an aged rhapsodist. Subsequent motifs of trickery and sedition create drama from hardihood and hospitality, which counterbalance violent episodes of trial by ordeal, bride capture, revenge, and blood oaths, all elements the text holds in common with Vyasa's Mahabharata (ca. A.D. 350) from the Guptan Empire and FlRDAWSl's Shahnameh (The Book of Kings, ca. 1010), Persia's dynastic epic. Throughout, Vainamoinen, a white-bearded wizard on a par with the Scandic Odin and the Arthurian mage Merlin, casts a spell over a credulous people. His enchantments use song and music to quell danger and to heal nature with a magic balsam, but the poet reminds his hearers that shamanism has its limits: “God alone can work completion / Give to cause its perfect ending” (124).

Like the Chanson de Roland (Song of Roland, ca. 1080), the oldest collection of French deed songs, and the Spanish epic EL CID (ca. 1150), the Finnish epic portrays the emergence of civilization in a savage race pitted against the domination of Tuoni, the kingdom of death. Issues of militarism and national order and defense give way to domestic catastrophe from epidemics and predations on moose and cattle, a disaster for a herding society. In the concluding allegory, the wonder-boy motif, a story of a virgin birth paralleling that of Jesus, pictures the threatened murder of a future king and the prodigy's wisdom in the face of a child killer. Following the boy's baptism, he advances to the Karelian throne. Because the people now turn to Christianity, Vainamoinen retreats across the sea, carrying in his craft the symbols of outworn paganism. He abandons to the Finns his kantele, a source of STORYTELLING and song for future needs.

The Kalevala's heroic conventions parallel those of the poet Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald's Kalevipoeg (Kalev's son, 1853), the Estonian national epic. Vainamoinen was a source for Gandalf, the sage in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (1955). Russian filmmakers adapted the epic to the screenplay The Day the Earth Froze (1959); a Finnish-Chinese film, Jade Warrior (2006), introduced the Kalevala to Asian audiences.


Friberg, Eino, George C. Schoolfield, and Bjorn Landstrom, eds. The Kalevala. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Lonnrot, Elias. The Kalevala: The Epic Poem of Finland. Translated by John Martin Crawford. Cincinnati: Robert Clarke, 1904.