The Kalevala

Translated from the Finnish and weighing in at over 650 pages, The Kalevala, Finland's national epic, has proven an interesting project for me in recent months.  I'm nearly finished.

What is The Kalevala all about?  Here's an excellent summary.

After picking up a used copy of the book in Madison my freshman year, I finally started reading it on occasion this past semester to clear my mind before bed.  The epic poem of fifty cantos features figures that are mixtures of heroes and gods.  I think it's safe to call the work the Illiad and Odyssey of the Finnish people.  With some Beowulf and Norse mythology woven in.

Preserved for millennia by way of oral poetic traditions, some of the subject matter is intriguing for how primitive it is - bear hunting and personal combat, for example, turn up.  It's mythological, explaining the origins of things like the earth (a scaup's eggs), steel, etc.  Many parallels to aspects of Greek and Roman mythology show through.

Overall, it's repetitive at points and drawn out in good "try-once-try-twice-try-thrice-succeed" bard style, but the overall mood is fascinating - a sorceress hag, giant pike, shape-shifting, lots of "singing" (magic), talking inanimate objects like swords, a gruesome proto-Frankenstein resurrection, a Hephaestus-like character plowing a field of vipers in a stone suit to earn his bride (among other Herculean tasks), the sampo - a mysterious and powerful object, and hunting a demon elk on skis.  Christianity is grafted oddly onto a much earlier Stone Age tradition.  One canto advising a new bride could almost apply today, but the treatment of women throughout is far less enlightened.  Everyone is driving around in sledges and magic boats, characters have serfs and saunas, war consists of burning cabins, and German is an adjective synonymous with luxury.

With respect to form, the Keith Bosley translation takes the poem out of its rather strict trochaic tetrameter verse (which inspired Longfellow's Hiawatha), but it's very rich and readable.  Things are generally described several times consecutively with appositives, giving them a layered, multi-faceted character.  Figures are always accompanied by their descriptions - "wanton Lemminkainan" "steady old Vainamoinen" "Kullervo, blue-stockinged gaffer's son."  The language is simply beautiful at points, mystical at others, and jarringly brutal at still others.

I'd recommend The Kalevala as a long-term, background read for the right person.  It's really something for engaging one's imagination, for attempting to empathize with some more primal perspectives on life from far earlier in the past millennium - a comparative work in many regards.  And it's often simply a fun, strange legend to wander through.