Review: The Kalevala

(“A book that was originally written in a different language” from the Reading Challenge)

The Kalevala is the national epic of Finland. As with many of the older epics, this one is a modern-ish (early-1800s) written collection of stories that were originally an oral tradition, spoken or sung. And, in this particular case, then also a translation from Finnish into English. I’m sure that some of it gets lost in translation, but overall I found it very interesting and I enjoyed it. It took me a long time to actually read all of it (3 years or so), both because it is very long, and because I could read a good chunk of it at a time, but then would need a break before I would feel like reading more. I read it primarily to get some further inspiration for The Wizard of Suomen, not so much in plot or story-line, but more for the feel of ancient Finland as a place, and for some of the descriptions of things and land and animals. I would say that any inspiration for TWoS is more aesthetic than anything else. (The following is more a collection of my impressions than a proper review, so be forewarned. There are also a few slight spoilers.)

The story traces several heroes, and here I will use that term in the older sense as meaning a great warrior or great master of something, rather than the more modern connotation of “a really good person.” The three main heroes whose stories are told are Väinämöinen, Ilmarinen, and Lemminkäinen. (Or at least, those are their usual names. Sometimes the same character was given multiple names or epithets, so it was a little difficult to follow at times. Don’t ask me about pronunciation, I wouldn’t dare try.)

Inasmuch as there is a main character in the Kalevala, it is definitely Väinämöinen, who is an old wizard and musician of great power. He has many adventures, and uses his very-cool-seeming powers to either accomplish great deeds or to get his way. As a modern person, I found him kind of arrogant and annoying at times, but I think that is partially a symptom of my perspective.

Ilmarinen was the only one of the three that I really liked particularly much. He is a blacksmith of great skill, and seemed to get the short end of the stick in many of the stories, but always pushed through and worked hard anyway. My impression was that he was younger than Väinämöinen, but other comments I have seen about the Kalevala seem to indicate that he is an older man too, so I’m not really sure about that.

I really hated Lemminkäinen, who struck me very much as a spoiled, whiny brat who only wanted to get his own way and whose mother very much enabled him. I was pleased to reach the point in the story where he is killed on a quest to the underworld, because by that point I really felt like he deserved it. But then of course he turned out to be the one who got the “my mother will gather my body parts, put me back together, and bring me back to life” story arc, so my relief was short-lived.

The fourth character who gets a large arc, Kullervo, is pretty much just straight-up evil. I think it was prophesized at or before his birth that he would be evil and do lots of horrible things, and he then spent much of his life turning that into a self-fulfilling prophecy, so I liked him even less than Lemminkäinen. Granted, he was also treated very poorly by almost everyone around him, so it’s understandable why he would be angry at everything, but still. (Tolkien apparently found this character fascinating, and his story of Túrin Turambar in The Silmarillion is based on this character Kullervo in the Kalevala.)

There was a lot of interesting repetition and exaggeration, which may or may not have come through the translation well, but fits with what I would expect from an oral tradition. One of my favorites was the description of an ox that was “neither the largest nor the smallest,” but its size was given by stating something like it would take a weasel seven days to run around its head.

The land called Pohjola (possibly the area we know as Lapland today) is always described as “ever-dismal Northland,” which I found very amusing (and again, not surprising!)

The last Rune was the strange story of a young maiden who becomes impregnated by a lingonberry and does this strange virgin-birth thing, which I strongly suspect was added to the tradition after the introduction of Christianity. I often wonder what changes have been made to these traditional stories and epics since the introduction of Christianity into those lands; it would be interesting to know what they were like prior to that time, but of course nothing was recorded in those days, so we will likely never know.

While I didn’t always like the characters, the Kalevala as a whole was an interesting and enjoyable read! I don’t have much to say about the specific stories/adventures, I guess, but they were fun to read. The Wikipedia entry about it seems decent, and I might go through the summary of the story at some point, just to clean up my knowledge of it; there were a few things that I was never quite clear on. There is also interesting discussion there about the man who wrote it down originally and the translations and that sort of thing. I would recommend it to anyone who likes the old epic sagas, who is interested in Finland/Finnish culture, or who is interested in a source that Tolkien drew some of his inspiration from.

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