. The Poem that Built a Nation: Finland and the Kalevala by Adam Sedia Nowhere perhaps is the power of poetry more apparent than in its ability to unite a culture---literally to build a nation. Homer’s epics forged a bond of cultural unity between the various city-states of the Greek world. Not coincidentally, the Iliad appeals to unity among the Greeks by recounting a united effort among the Greek city-states against an enemy in Asia---a situation paralleled in Greek cities’ defense of their liberty from the Persian invasions. Centuries later in Latin, Virgil consciously imitated Homer’s example in his Aeneid, ascribing Rome’s remote origins to a character from the Iliad and through that story asserting Rome’s world dominance as divinely ordained. In the Middle Ages, the Castilian epic Poem of the Cid commemorated a hero of Christian Spain in its battles of the Reconquista against the Muslims, and the French Chanson de Roland likewise commemorated the battles of one of Charlemagne’s knights against the same enemy. Both epics inspired the chivalric culture of the Middle Ages. Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy takes the epic form into the realms of theology and philosophy, departing from the Iliad and following the model of the Odyssey to describe a personal journey from sin to salvation. This epic would be the foundational poem of the Italian Renaissance, both as the linguistic basis for the modern Italian language and the Renaissance revival of classical culture that frequently figures in the poem’s allusions. These epics---and many others like them---are more than mere works of literature. They are constitutional documents. Their stories became the foundational narrative of entire cultures; they served as inspiration for the aspiring heroes of those cultures; and in some cases their very language set the standard for proper usage. National epics give birth to nations. Nor is this an ancient phenomenon: well into modern times an epic poem founded a nation well known to the present world. Finland, the reputed Scandinavian utopia, owes its very existence as a nation in large part to a single epic poem, the Kalevala. . I. Linguistic and Historical Background Finland is commonly lumped in with its neighboring nations in Scandinavia, but linguistically it could not be more different. Whereas Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish belong to the North Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family, Finnish (Suomi in Finnish) is not even an Indo-European language. This means that Hindi, Persian, and Greek are all more closely related to the Germanic languages of Scandinavia than Finnish, even though it is their neighbor. Instead, Finnish belongs to the Finno-Ugric branch of the Uralic language family. Its closest relatives include Estonian, Hungarian, and various languages of the Russian backcountry, including Udmurt and Mordvinian along the middle Volga, and Khanty and Mansi in the Urals. Like Hungarian, Finnish is notoriously difficult and alien to speakers of most European languages: it is agglutinating, has fifteen noun cases, and features consonant gradation and vowel harmony ---the latter of which it shares with Asian languages like Korean, Manchu, and Turkish. Politically, Finland was dominated by its neighbors through most of recorded history. Between 1155 and 1249, Sweden and Denmark led a series of crusades to convert the Finnish lands to Christianity. For the next six centuries, Finland would be ruled as a vassal of Sweden, with a Swedish-speaking elite dominating its cities. Then in 1809, Russia occupied Finland during the Napoleonic Wars, with its annexation confirmed by the Congress of Vienna in 1815. During the next century of Russian rule, Finland would experience a rebirth of national identity culminating in its independence in 1917---a rebirth sparked largely by a single poem, the Kalevala. . II. The Kalevala The clergyman Michael Agricola created the first comprehensive writing system for Finnish in the mid-1500s, but publications in Finnish were limited only to religious texts for nearly three centuries. During that time, Finnish literature was effectively non-existent. In 1832, the physician Elias Lönnrot (1802-1884)---descended from the Swedish gentry---began his practice in a poor, rural area in eastern Finland, where he served as sole physician to about four thousand people. But Lönnrot was something of a renaissance man with wide interests that included both linguistics and folklore (as well as botany). He made frequent travels throughout rural Finland, compiling folksongs that had been transmitted orally since time immemorial---some of the songs are estimated to be as old as three thousand years. He collected these into a single epic, the Kalevala, which he first published in 1835 and expanded in 1849. Despite the vast geographic area from which Lönnrot gathered his folksongs, the verses were always sung in the same meter: a form of trochaic tetrameter, known afterwards as “the Kalevala meter.” Other stylistic features include alliteration and parallelism, including a form of chiasmus---common features of epic verse across cultures. The songs also feature the same characters---pre-Christian divinities The poem is divided into fifty cantos. It begins with the traditional Finnish creation myth and follows the exploits of three main semi-divine protagonists: Väinämöinen, the first man, a sage and bard; Lemminkäinen, something of a Byronic hero; and Ilmarinen, a smith and inventor, similar to Vulcan. The three feature separately, then together in cantos 39 through 49. Also, in cantos 31 through 36, Väinämöinen recites the tragedy of Kullervo, who, though not a protagonist, is one of the main characters in the epic. The final canto contains an allegorical tale of the conversion of Finland to Christianity and Väinämöinen’s departure by sea, leaving his songs and the kantele---the zither-like Finnish national instrument---as his legacy. To illustrate the sound and rhythm of the epic in its original language, the following fourteen lines from the creation myth in the first canto provide a good example (note the alliteration, and in Finnish the accent always falls on a word’s first syllable): Ajat eellehen menevät, vuoet tuota tuonnemmaksi uuen päivän paistaessa, uuen kuun kumottaessa. Aina uipi veen emonen, veen emonen, ilman impi, noilla vienoilla vesillä, utuisilla lainehilla, eessänsä vesi vetelä, takanansa taivas selvä. Jo vuonna yheksäntenä, kymmenentenä kesänä nosti päätänsä merestä, kohottavi kokkoansa. Alkoi luoa luomiansa, saautella saamiansa selvällä meren selällä, ulapalla aukealla. Kussa kättä käännähytti, siihen niemet siivoeli; kussa pohjasi jalalla, kalahauat kaivaeli; kussa ilman kuplistihe, siihen syöverit syventi. Kylin maahan kääntelihe: siihen sai sileät rannat; jaloin maahan kääntelihe: siihen loi lohiapajat; pä'in päätyi maata vasten: siihen laitteli lahelmat. Ui siitä ulomma maasta, seisattelihe selälle: luopi luotoja merehen, kasvatti salakaria laivan laskemasijaksi, merimiesten pään menoksi. (I:247-61.) . In a relatively free English translation, these verses read: . The ages go on the years beyond that as the new sun shines as the new moon gleams. Still the water-mother swims the water-mother, air-lass on those mild waters on the misty waves before her the slack water and behind her the clear sky. Now in the ninth year in the tenth summer she raised her head from the sea she lifts up her poll: she began her creation forming her creatures on the clear high seas upon the open expanse. Where she turned her hand around there she arranged the headlands; where her foot touched the bottom there she dug out the fish-troughs; where else she bubbled there she hollowed out the depths. She turned her side to the land: There she brought forth the smooth shores; she turned her feet to the land: there she formed the salmon haunts; with her head she reached the land: there she shaped the bays. Then she swam further from land paused upon the main; formed the crags in the water grew the hidden reefs to be places for shipwreck the dispatch of sailors’ heads. (Tr. Keith Bosley. Oxord Univ. Press, 1999.) . III. Legacy Almost immediately, the Kalevala galvanized Finnish national identity. The poem was the first true work of creative literature in the Finnish language, and it initiated an explosion of new Finnish literature. Poetry and drama in Finnish began to proliferate, and the first significant Finnish novel appeared in 1870. The decades between approximately 1880 and 1910 are known as the Golden Age of Finnish Art, encompassing all arts ---literature, music, architecture, and the visual arts. A significant number of the artists from that time found their inspiration in the episodes of the Kalevala. Eino Leino (1878-1926), regarded as Finland’s national poet, found inspiration in both the style and subject matter of the Kalevala. His poems, which fill more than seventy books, make extensive use of Finnish mythology and folklore as well as of the Kalevala meter. The composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)---recognized in his lifetime as Finland’s national composer---found inspiration for his most famous works in the Kalevala. His early choral symphony Kullervo (Op. 7), his orchestral Lemminkäinen Suite (Op. 22), and his tone-poems Pohjola’s Daughter (Op. 49) and Luonnotar (Op. 70) all portray episodes from the epic---some with lyrics, some without. Sibelius’s friend, Akseli Gallén-Kallela (1865-1931), one of Finland’s most important painters, created several monumental works depicting scenes from the Kalevala. The most famous include The Defense of the Sampo (1896), Lemminkäinen’s Mother (1897), Kullervo’s Curse (1899), and The Departure of Väinämöinen (1906). These works are in an idiomatic and immediately recognizable style highly influenced by French Symbolism, and did much to popularize the Kalevala stories outside of Finland. The Kalevala inspired the popular imagination, as well. Finnish parents began naming their children after several characters from the epic. Finnish clergy at first refused to baptize babies under non-Christian names, but later relented. By the mid-twentieth century, almost a third of Finns had names taken from or inspired by the Kalevala, and those names remain common in Finland to this day. During this entire time, Finland was still a mere Grand Duchy within the Russian Empire. The artistic movement sparked by the Kalevala grew into a larger rebirth of national pride, with even the Swedish aristocracy adopting the Finnish language and Finnish surnames to show pride in their Finnishness. The Russian Empire increasingly clamped down on this new nationalism, twice attempting “Russification” of the Finns. But at last the empire collapsed during the First World War, allowing Finland to assert its independence, which the new Soviet Union recognized. The nation that materialized really had its origins in the poem published 82 years before. Befitting the poem’s importance, Finland celebrates Kalevala Day every February 28---the date of Lönnrot’s first publication in 1835. Outside of Finland, the Kalevala had a lasting impact, as well. Longfellow read the epic through its German translation and in it found inspiration for his Song of Hiawatha (1855), which similarly assembled indigenous folksongs from the Ojibwa nation and retold them in a trochaic tetrameter similar to the Kalevala meter. J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973) studied the epic while an undergraduate at Oxford and translated the Kullervo cantos into prose in 1914-1915. Later, he cited the Kalevala as one of his sources for The Silmarillion and drew inspiration from it for several characters in his Lord of the Rings trilogy. . IV. Conclusion Finland is a nation born of poetry, and its very recent but very rich cultural tradition---including the music of Sibelius and the paintings of Gallén-Kallela---sprang from the fire first sparked by the Kalevala. While its art is enduring, Finland itself is very much a place of the present, a concrete location with living people speaking a living language. Ancient Greece and Renaissance Italy can be experienced only through their monuments and their literature, but Finland is only an airplane ride away. But like Ancient Greece and Renaissance Italy, Finland first found its national identity in the verses of a poem. Epic poetry is not an archaeological curiosity relevant only to the study of the past. Rather, it remains very much part of the human condition, continuing to inspire nations and peoples to great works. The nation of Finland serves as a living testament to that power. . .