Wednesday, February 01, 2006


Northern light

I don't remember now when I first heard of the Kalavala, the epic poem of Finland. It was many years ago, and it was years after that before I found a translation into English, and more years before I read any of it. At its best the Kalavala is a stunning, breath-taking work, overflowing with mystery and marvel, steeped in the mythologies and traditions of Finland.

The Kalevala was compiled by Elias Lonnrot in the early 1800's as he traveled around the countryside of Finland (through regions in what is roughly, on modern maps, eastern Finland and far northwestern Russia) gathering folk songs and folk poetry. He eventually set about the project of assembling the huge amount of material into something like a long coherent narrative, or really several somewhat connected narratives.

(There should be an umlaut over the first "o" in Elias Lonnrot's last name -- I haven't figured out how to do umlauts or accent marks yet in html, so Lonnrot's name, and the names of several characters in the Kalevala, will be missing umlauts here.)

All of the Finnish (or Finnish-American) people I've talked with say that the best English translation of the Kalevala is by Eino Friberg. All quoted passages here are from an edition of Friberg's translation published originally in 1988 by Otava Publishing Company, Ltd., in Helsinki.

The epic begins with the birth and adventures of Vainamoinen, one of the central mythical heroes of the poem, himself a poet, whose mother was Ilmatar, "the virgin of the air."

So at length she then descended
To the seawaves down below,
To the open clear sea surface
Out upon the open ocean.
Suddenly a storm wind blew,
Out of the east an angry blast
Blew the water to a foam
Heaving up the rollers high.
By the wind the maid was rocked,
On a wave the maid was driven
Round about the blue sea surface
By the whirling whitecaps lifted
Where here womb the wind awakened
And the sea-foam impregnated.
For 700 years, according to the narrative, Ilmatar drifted on the ocean, carrying the unborn Vainamoinen in her womb.

Then she fell to weeping softly,
Said a word and spoke out thus:
"Woe is me, the water-wanderer,
Luckless girl, misfortune's child!
Now already I'm in trouble,
Shelterless beneath the sky,
Ever rocking on the seawaves
To be cradled by the wind,
To be driven by the billows
On these far-extending waters,
Endlessly repeated billows. [...]"
The Kalevala is not a military epic, not a narrative of battles, in the manner of the Iliad or the Song of Roland. The episodes in the Kalevala recount strange encounters in the wilderness with beings human and non-human, mortal and supernatural; lengthy scenes of talk between the characters in the stories; occasional harrowing exploits of courage and adventure; often with a robust good humor. A characteristic brightness runs throughout the poem, along with an almost offhand acceptance of the most astonishing occurrences; these alongside whispers and secrets, love and longing, jealousy and death, all set against the vast forboding gloom of the far north.

The third section, or runo (a Finnish word for "poem" -- standard editions divide the Kalevala into some fifty sections) describes an encounter on the road between Vainamoinen and the younger, somewhat unruly Joukahainen. Joukahainen taunts and challenges Vainamoinen, doubting the latter's unearthly powers. This leads to a kind of singing contest -- singing, here, being a way of invoking things into being in the world, a magical calling or incantation.

Then old Vainamoinen sang:
Shook the earth, the lakes splashed over,
And the copper mountains quivered;
Cliffs were cracking, boulders breaking,
On the shore the stones were splitting.
He enchanted Joukahainen:
Sprouted saplings from his shaft-bows,
Willow bush upon the hames,
Sallows at the end of traces.
Then he sang his guilded sleigh
To a dead pine in a pond,
And bewitched his beaded whip
To a reed upon the shore.
Then the white-blazed horse he charmed,
Charmed it to a spotted rock
On a bank beside the rapids.
Sang his golden-hilted sword
Into lightning in the sky
And his decorated crossbow
To a rainbow over water.
Then he sang his feathered arrows
Into swiftly swooping hawks,
And his hook-jawed hound he turned
To a flat stone on the ground.
One of the central incidents in the Kalevala is the forging of the Sampo by the smith Ilmarinen. The Sampo is a vaguely described somewhat mysterious object, perhaps roughly the size of a kettle; apparently a grinding mill of some kind, with magical powers. Ilmarinen spent three days making it in his forge.

Thereupon smith Ilmarinen,
The eternal hammerer,
Rapped and tapped, rat-a-tat-tat,
Clinking away with a clank, clank, clank--
Deftly built the Sampo mills:
On one side a flour mill
And a salt mill on the second,
On the third a money mill.
The new Sampo then was grinding,
With its ciphered cover spinning;
Ground three binfuls every morning:
First a bin of things to eat,
Next a bin of things to sell,
Last a bin of things for home.
Moving throughout the Kalevala are glimmers of an ancient world, a world of fires in the night, bottomless blue lakes, a world in which all things manifest living spirits. The life and traditions of the Saami people, one of the peoples indigenous to the northernmost regions of the world, are never far from the surface in the poem, and in places come fully into view. A section toward the end of the poem describes a ritual performed for hunting a bear, in which Vainamoinen chants a song to the bear, or the spirit of the bear:

Little Otso, woodland apple,
Honeypaw, you dear stout fellow,
When you hear this good man coming,
Hear me stepping softly near you,
Knot your claws up in your fur
And your teeth inside your gums
So that they can do no harm
Even when you're on the prowl.
Oh my bearkin, you my only,
Honeypaw, my little beaut,
Just lie down on turfy tussock,
Go to sleep on a lovely rock
Where the tall pines sway above you
And you hear the fir trees humming.
There, my Otso, roll about,
Twist and turn, my honeypaw
Like a hazel grouse on her nest,
Like a wild goose in her brooding.
The Kalevala is a sea and sky of wonders without end.

* * * * * * *

The Eino Friberg translation (accompanied by beautiful color illustrations by Bjorn Landstrom) may be difficult to find, and the price may be a little forbidding. (I found my copy at a large discount in a used book store in St. Paul.) A more affordable and more easily available edition is the translation by Keith Bosley, published by Oxford University Press. Though lacking the lyrical grace of the Friberg translation, Bosley's version is nevertheless quite readable modern English, and conveys the basic weave of narratives effectively. Both editions include informative introductions and highly useful endnotes.

Comments: off topic note but I can't find an email in your profile.

I had seven correct guesses and yours was one on the Michael Parker graphic, so send me some sort of photo by Monday. i'm making a very weird group graphic of the winners:-)

I really enjoyed your poem on Cafe Cafe. Please consider sending poems for three candles journal to
Lyle, another great piece. Thank you for bringing it here.

Pris, not sure it I'm too late, but I emailed a photo to you this evening.

Steve, thanks for your comment. I've checked out three candles a couple of times and will do so again. I'm actually in the middle of figuring out my next round of poem submissions to magazines just now, so it's good timing. I'll see what I have that three candles might possibly be able to use.

Michelle, as always thanks for commenting, and thanks also for the link to the html language accents page. Html is itself a new language to me still, I'm still learning, slowly.
Lyle, I don't need anymore books!! You must stop writing these interesting posts that make me want to buy books! Can you really live with the guilt of knowing you're driving an innocent person into debt?

(joke--of course--always appreciate your posts and insights--thank you for what you do)
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