The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Kalevala

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The Encyclopedia Americana
Kalevala
Edition of 1920. See also Kalevala on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

KALEVALA. The Romantic movement, which in Germany began by the collection of folk-songs and fairy-tales, frequently led in the outlying countries to literary creations of national epics on the basis of actual epic songs. Thus arose in Finland the ‘Kalevala,’ systematically arranged by Dr. A. Lönnrot in 1835, and in 1849 totally rearranged and enlarged to 22,800 verses. Almqvist showed how Lönnrot had eclectically glued together actual variants, sometimes composing himself a few lines in order to bridge over discordant passages, more frequently rejecting verses which clashed with the general scheme he had in mind. However, if we disregard the unity of the Kalevala as a whole and the unimportant literary transitions, we have in Lönnrot's production an extremely valuable collection of Finnish heroic and magical songs, which throw a light upon the formation of a popular literature among the Finnish tribes. Some archæologists have assumed that in this ‘Kalevala’ we have a documentary record of a primitive state of society, but Comparetii, with far more justice, holds that it is not an invariable document of antiquity, but reflects, in ever changing form, the intellectual condition of the simple folk not far removed from the time when these songs were written down. Therefore it is not correct to speak of the ‘Kalevala’ as an epic, especially since the indeterminateness of images represented and the arbitrary personification of nature permit no set classification. The Finnish mythology is based on shamanistic polydaemonism and is not as highly developed as it was among the Romans, Assyrians or other cultured nations of antiquity, hence it yields no well-defined theogony. Similarly the hero is not always to be separated from the poet and magician, and his chief exploit consists in song competitions, as is the case with the shamanic wizard, or in wooing of the bride. The most cherished possession of such a hero is the sampo, a treasure which is hazily identified with a precious casket or a mill, but which Comparetti takes to be a Scandinavian word meaning “the commonwealth,” and which here has become a concrete object to be striven for. Just as indefinite is the Kalevala, the country of Kaleva, one of the heroes, though some authors take it to be “Finland,” while the Pohjola, with which it is in conflict, has been supposed to represent the country of the North or the abode of the dead. But, while the Kalevala loses in importance as a national epic with a well-sustained plot, it justly maintains its place in popular literature, on account of the vivid imagery displayed by the popular poet.

The poem is now accessible to English readers in several translations: ‘The Kalevala, the Epic Poem of Finland,’ rendered into English by J. M. Crawford (2 vols., New York 1888); ‘Kalevala, the Land of Heroes,’ translated from the original Finnish by W. F. Kirby (London 1907, in ‘Everyman's Library,’ 2 vols.). Selections from the ‘Kalevala’ are given in ‘Selections from the Kalevala,’ translated from a German version by J. A. Porter (New York 1868); ‘People of Finland in Archaic Times,’ by J. C. Brown (London 1892); ‘The Sampo, Hero Adventures from the Finnish Kalevala,’ by James Baldwin (New York 1912). The best study of the poem is still that by Comparetti, ‘The Traditional Poetry of the Finns,’ translated by Isabella M. Anderson, with introduction by Andrew Lang (London 1898). The obligation of Longfellow's ‘Hiawatha’ to the ‘Kalevala’ was early pointed out by Th. C. Porter (in the Mercersburg Review, Vol. VIII, 1856).

Leo Wiener,
Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures, Harvard University.