The Kalevala; the Birth of Finland's National Epic

By Honko, Lauri | UNESCO Courier, August 1985 | Go to article overview

The Kalevala; the Birth of Finland's National Epic


Honko, Lauri, UNESCO Courier


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. …

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