The origins of epics based on folk poetry are usually clouded in mystery. We can only guess at the genesis of such treasures as the Mahabrarata, the epics of Homer and Virgil, Beowulf, the Nibelungenlied and the Edda. The Kalevala, the national epic of Finland, which was first published in 1835, is an interesting exception.
We know that the Kalevala (Kalevala is the name of the mythical land in which the epic is situated) was compiled and edited by Elias Lonnrot (1802-1884), a doctor who for twenty years was district physician in Kajaani, in north-eastern Finland, and who later became professor of Finnish language and literature at the University of Helsinki.
We know, line by line, the sources of the Kalevala, those folk poems that Lonnrot collected during the eleven journeys he made to the eastern and northern provinces during the period 1828-1844, as well as poems recorded by dozens of other collectors which were included in the second and final edition published in 1849.
We also know Lonnrot's working methods; his compilation work is illuminated by his travel accounts and newspaper articles, by the method he used in handling his poetic raw material and by the five editorial phases which preceded the final published version. Since the original recorded poems have been preserved and published (1908-1948) in the thirty-three-volume Suomen Kansan Vanhat Runot (Ancient Poems of the Finnish People), and since other documentary evidence abounds, we are able to follow in the footsteps of the compiler of the epic. It is as if we were looking over his shoulder as he sat working at his desk.
The story of the genesis of the Kalevala began in the 1760s. It was then that Henrik Gabriel Porthan, professor at the Turku Academy, began publishing his treatise on Finnish poetry (Dissertatio de Poesi Fennica, 1766-1778). It was not until Porthan's day, and largely thanks to him, that it was realized that folk poetry, maintained in oral tradition, was a more valuable part of the Finnish-language literary heritage than any previous Finnish literature, which had been predominantly religious and economic in nature.
A second turning point came with the treaty of Hamina (1809) which severed the ties between Finland and Sweden (which went back nearly seven centuries) and attached her as a self-governing Grand Duchy to the Russian Empire. The far-advanced assimilation with Sweden was broken, doors were opened towards the Finno-Ugric tribes in eastern Europe, and the first Diet planted in the minds of Finns an image of a Finland which was more than a few provinces belonging either to Sweden or to Russia.
This resulted in an identity crisis. The educated, Swedish-speaking minority had to decide whether to turn towards Russian culture or to identify themselves with the language and underdeveloped culture of the majority. They chose the latter course even though it entailed a dramatic change of language and the difficult tas of building a new identity. The Finnish language had to be raised from its state of degradation and made into a language of culture. A Finnish-language literature had to be built and material collected for a new kind of Finnish history.
In the autumn of 1822, three students enrolled at the Turku Academy--J.V. Snellman, J.L. Runeberg and Elias Lonnrot. At the time no one could have foreseen that Snellman was destined to become the main ideologist of the national movement, Runeberg the most important Swedish-speaking poet in Finland and Lonnrot the compiler of the Finnish national epic.
Elias Lonnrot represented the common man in this group. He was a poor tailor's son whose schooling was frequently interrupted for want of money. His talent helped him to get ahead, his diligence encouraged him to undertake great projects at which others would have balked and his unassuming manner won the respect of both learned men and ordinary people. His natural make-up and social background coupled with his training as a doctor gave him an understanding of and an insight into the lies of ordinary people and helped him to withstand the rigours of his strenuous journeyings.
His interest in folk poetry aroused by Reinhold von Becker, his teacher in the Finnish language at the Turku Academy, Lonnrot began his collecting expeditions in 1828. These took him first to Finnish Karelia and then to Archangel Karelia beyond the border, where the Karelian dialect was very close to Finnish.
What did Lonnrot find on his journeys? He found poems, their singers and the living environment in which the poems formed an interlude to daily toil and the high point of festive occasions. The variants known from collectors' manuscripts now became a living stream of poems flowing from the lips of tens and later hundreds of singers. In a word, Lonnrot stepped into a world of living epic poetry and his mind recorded not only the content of the poems but also the whole varied but strictly restricted verse language in which that poetry lived. Without his mastery of that language the peculiar genesis of the Kalevala would not have been possible.
Lonnrot collected approximately two thousand variants of poems, all in all some forty thousand lines of poetry sung in the ancient Finnish metre. This constituted only a fragment of his collection in its entirety since he also recorded fables, riddles, proverbs and dirges as well as material connected with local mores and, above all with the language.
Lonnrot's journeys were comparatively short, of only some weeks', at most months', duration, and most of his time was spent in travelling from one place to another. He appears not to have stayed long in any one place and it seems that he did not record the entire repertoire of any singer of note. There is no evidence that Lonnrot was deeply interested in the context in which the poems were performed or in the lives and fate of the rune singers. As a rule he did not even record the names of the singers in his notebook. Thus there remained a considerable cultural distance between Lonnrot and the rune singers.
Teh fact that Lonnrot did not identify with any area or community that he encountered was both understandable and important--understandable in that Lonnrot was not primarily interested in modern folk life but in the ancient Finnish society of which it still possibly bore traces; important in the sense that he was freer to create a poetic world of his own which represented the entire tradition as conceived by himself and not a system of traidtion as conceived by one singer or a single family of singers.
Judged by the norms of our day, the methods he used might be considered unscientific; yet Lonnrot knew subconsciously that he needed time for the process of integration to take place. In his relations with the most important singers he met Lonnrot maintained the attitude of an apprentice almost to the end, until the first edition of the Kalevala was published.
From the point of view of general comparative epic research the question of the authenticity of the Kalevala is very interesting. How well does the epic reflect the folk poems preserved in oral tradition, that is, how genuine is it as a folk poetry epic? What were Lonnrot's goals in compiling the Kalevala and how well did he attain these goals with the poetric material at his disposal? The endeavours of traditional singers to combine tales of Vainamoinen, for instance, have produced a few minor epic cycles, which could be called folk epics, but which are les than a thousand lines long. There is no reason to elieve that the situation had been any different in former centuries or that the poems had originally been part of larger entities. Thus the entity and
structure of the Kalevala represent Lonnrot's solution to the problem upon which he may have deliberated most during the compilation--what was the time sequence of the events described in the narrative poems? His interpretation involved no reconstruction, only creative form-giving.
Study of the verse material reveals that the proportion of Lonnrot's own compositions is very small, three per cent according to one calculation. Thus he managed with lines that he and other collectors had found; this means that, if the criterion is the authenticity of single lines, the Kalevala is a very genuine folk poetry epic.
How about the remaining ninety-seven per cent? Did they come straight from the original poems? Some fifty per cent of the Kalevala verses have been changed by Lonnrot either in spelling, language or verse. From the beginning of the Kalevala process Lonnrot had been of the opinion that differences in dialect or other inconsistencies must not be too disturbing for the reader, since the public consisted not just of scholars but the whole nation. Fourteen per cent of the verses have no identical equivalent in the poems but were combined from popular elements by Lonnrot. Finally, thirty-three per cent of the lines are exactly as found in the original recordings.
The statistics show that Lonnrot never aimed at poetic freedom where individual lines were concerned. The liberties he took lay elsewhere. Due to his working methods the Kalevala contained few of the longer sequences of lines to be found in the original variants. Thus the context of most lines had changed, not necessarily to a less genuine one, but to a different one from that in which they were found in oral tradition. This also means that the poems have no place of origin, since lines from variants found in different regions are intermingled. This technique contributed to the emergence of a pan-Finnish and not a regional epic. Whether or not this was Lonnrot's conscious aim is not clear, for the actual function of this freedom was to give form to the plot.
Lonnrot also tried to find a geographically defined place for his vision and found it south of the White Sea, where, according to one contemporary view, the Finns could have originated. As regards time, this idea presupposed a time span of almost one thousand years. In outlining this quasi-scientific view of antiquity Lonnrot ended up developing a fuller insight into the world of the Kalevala than we can imagine. As a scholar he wanted to take account of all the research findings that could throw light on the Finns' past; as a poet he wanted to recount the past in the words of a folk poem, as if calling the folk singers, the first receivers of the poetic messages of the past, to bear him witness. For him the ancient times of Kalevala were a phase in history.
Seen from this standpoint it is easier to understand the astonishing fact that at times Lonnrot speaks of the Kalevala as a source of scientific research which sheds light on life in the ancient society. This indicates that he underestimated the significance of his own input and overestimated the value of the Kalevala as an historical and ethnographical source.
No poet can announce in advance that he is going to compile a national epic. The decision as to whether a work is a national epic or not is made by the reading public. Nevertheless, expectations were high with regard to the Kalevala and the first speeches hailing it as a national epic were made even before it reached the bookshops. No one had cause to regret making these speeches and very rapidly, both at home and abroad, the Kalevala came to be recognized as a valuable addition to both Finnish and world literature. The builders of the new Finnish national identity drew new belief in the future from the epic which seemed to restore to the nation both ist literature and its history.
This enthusiasm focused naturally on the future and not on the past. The epic was commented on and translated even before people had had time to study it in depth. In fact there was no need to know what the Kalevala contained, only what it was.
It was not until the mid-1870s that critical folk poetry research began and the Kalevala was rejected as a source and original recorded poems began to be studied. Kalevala research became part of research done on Finnish literature and general epic literature.
The Kalevala as a symbol of national identity, however, belongs to the history of Western thought and to cultural history. The message that Elias Lonnrot wanted to convey to the nation with the epic is to be found in the mystery of the Sampo. In Lonnrot's hands this magic object, which mills all material wealth and which is fought over by the people, is transformed in the Kalevala into the symbol of mankind's cultural development.…