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Kalevala (1849)

by Elias Lönnrot

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
1,896206,241 (4.15)57
The Kalevala is the great Finnish epic, which like the Iliad and the Odyssey, grew out of a rich oral tradition with prehistoric roots.During the first millenium of our era, speakers of Uralic languages (those outside the Indo-European group) who had settled in the Baltic region of Karelia, that straddles the border of eastern Finland and north-west Russia, developed an oral poetry that was to last into the nineteenth century.This poetry provided the basis of the Kalevala. It was assembled in the 1840s by the Finnish scholar Elias Lonnrot, who took `dictation' from the performance of a folk singer, in much the same way as our great collections from the past, from Homeric poems to medieval songs and epics, have probablybeen set down.Published in 1849, it played a central role in the march towards Finnish independence and inspired some of Sibelius's greatest works. This new and exciting translation by poet Keith Bosley, prize-winning translator of the anthology Finnish Folk Poetry: Epic, is the first truly to combine livelinesswith accuracy in a way which reflects the richness of the original.… (more)
  1. 21
    The Song of Hiawatha by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Michael.Rimmer)
    Michael.Rimmer: Longfellow used the Kalevala metre for The Song of Hiawatha. Both works in the epic tradition.
  2. 00
    Kalevalan sanakirja by Raimo Jussila (TerenceHearsay)
  3. 00
    The Book of Dede Korkut by Anonymous (CGlanovsky)
    CGlanovsky: national epics containing multiple tales more or less tangentially connected through a minstrel-figure
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» See also 57 mentions

English (17)  Swedish (1)  Finnish (1)  French (1)  All languages (20)
Showing 1-5 of 17 (next | show all)
Chances are that if you've heard of this work at all it's because it was the inspiration for Longfellow's Hiawatha, you've just heard about the publication of Tolkien's Story of Kullervo or you're some kind of expert in Epic Poetry. Which is to say it's fairly obscure outside it's native Finnland, where, by contrast everybody knows it because it's the National Epic, heavily influencing the development of a Finnish national consciousness.

(A brief aside on Tolkien: he used the Finnish language as inspiration for Quenya, the language of the High Elves, as can be seen, for example, in his use of "ilma" , "air" in the name Iluvatar, the creator the world, also seen in the Kalevala's magical smith, Ilmarinen who forged the sky.)

Now, I think this is a crying shame because one doesn't have to get very far (say 3 Cantos out of 50) into the Kalevala, which was constructed by Lonrott from Finnish folk songs he collected, before realising that Hiawatha is a trite, juvenile pastiche that is fairly patronising to both the Native American and Finnish cultures Longfellow stole from in order to create his most famous and hugely popular work. The parallels are obvious but reading the Kalevala will connect you to a mythic time past and a culture evolved but still alive now in a way that cutesy Hiawatha, Minnehaha and co. never can. The heroes of this epic, Vainamoinen, Ilmarinen and others have greater stature, more complex character and more visceral connection to their Scandinavian landscape and lifestyle than Longfellow's pale imitations can even imagine. They also have more interesting, exciting and just plain weird adventures - magical duels by song, I don't know how many visits to the land of the dead, the forging of magical and mysterious artifacts, quests, conflicts and more. It's great stuff.

It's also surprisingly easy to read, especially if you take it at just a Canto at a time, like I did. Being immersed in such a vivid, magical, strange world for a long time is a delight anyway. The verse (of this translation, at least) is not stuck in a nightmare of endless iambic meter that swiftly lulls one to sleep, either. Instead lines of variable length maintain a swift narrative (for the most part see below) and I found it pretty easy to read about 10-15 p (a typical Canto length) without losing focus.

The Finnish folk tradition divides up into men's and women's songs. Lonrott didn't discriminate and collected both. When he came to assemble his epic tale from all the song fragments, he incorporated elements from both traditions. The contrast is strong and remarkable; men's songs focus on adventure, magic, conflict, hunting and history. Women's songs focus on the domestic, weddings, marriage, farming, which are comparatively dull and slow. The revelation of an outrageously sexist society is unavoidable; it sucked to be a woman or girl back then.

Bards and song feature heavily in Epic but never so much, in my experience, as in the Kalevala. The most prominent hero is a bard, magic is primarily performed by song and no opportunity is missed to demonstrate how important music, song and story telling were in that mythic land of legend. And the myths presented here are great; fantastical, preposterous, adventurous and most of all tremendous fun: I shall miss hearing about the exploits of the oldest bard, Vainamoinen, forger of the mysterious Sampo, Ilmarinen, and their cohorts and enemies, such as Louhi, hag of the North who stole the sun and the moon. ( )
  Arbieroo | Jul 17, 2020 |
Oh my goodness, this is a real treasure!

I was expecting this classic Finnish mythos, this fantasy epic, to be kinda dense and worldly and weighty, but I didn't expect it to be totally readable, droll, classy, and exciting. I also didn't expect to see it as the source material for so many classics I adore, including most of the stories behind Tolkien's [b:The Silmarillion|7332|The Silmarillion (Middle-Earth Universe)|J.R.R. Tolkien|https://d2arxad8u2l0g7.cloudfront.net/books/1336502583s/7332.jpg|4733799] and a good portion of his LoTR.

It reads like a fantastically mythical adventure from start to Finnish and it's no wonder, even in the English translation and the narrator I got for this audiobook, a ton of love was put into it. I see now exactly how well-beloved it is and why it is so. :) :) :)

I'm blown away. By epic poetry. Hmmmm Maybe this means I need to do a poetry kick, next. :)

And no, I didn't do a line by line analysis of this text, but I did pick up some really awesome beauties in it, such as procession of the equinoxes, Rosy-Cross alchemical transformations, World-Tree as Sampo, and the most huge current of the mythical Singer and Smith.

Orpheus? Hell yeah. And the Master Forger? Another hell yeah. The later adventure actually just brought tears to my eyes. :) Totally had me dancing in my seat with joy. :)

My only complaint was the Guides For New Brides and Guides For New Husbands. lol, that stuff was a riot of wtf. Maybe it would have gone down better if I was a brawny anachronism. :) But no, I'm a modern man and none of that shit flew. :)

Everything else, though? I was really impressed that women still refused to lay down and take it, but still a lot of that still happened in the text. And no matter my personal opinions on a lot of what happened, I cannot help but see this epic as totally brilliant. I could see myself memorizing it and doing a cant and impressing all the drunks. :)
( )
  bradleyhorner | Jun 1, 2020 |
One of the most recent rendering of oral folkore and myth into an epic cycle is Elias Lönnrot’s The Kalevala, shaped as a literary creation in the nineteenth century out of the author’s research collecting oral lore in stories and songs in Finland and rendering them into a continuous narrative in verse. As such it compares with earlier renderings of traditional lore such as Snorri Sturlsson’s Edda and also provides some insights into how oral sources can be shaped into literature as they are, for instance, in some of the medieval Welsh tales collected as ‘The Mabinogion’. I have dipped into The Kalevala before in a prose translation but have only recently fully engaged with it in Keith Bosley’s vivid and highly readable verse translation. It is the work of a poet, it is also a work where things happen by the right words being found and spoken to make them happen: “Steady old Väinämöinen. put this into words, spoke thus” and because his words are better than his opponent’s words, the battle is won.

What is striking is the way that the chief characters simultaneously inhabit the personas of gods, shamans, bards and ordinary human beings. This too is reminiscent of, for instance, Rhiannon in the medieval Welsh tales riding magically across the landscape from the Otherworld and then continuing to live here as if she were a human character while also appearing in another tale in the cycle with magical birds that can sing people into an enchanted state. The main character in The Kalevala is Väinämöinen who is first met as an agent of the Creation, helping to put the sky in place and shape the world as we know it. But he continues to inhabit that creation as a human being, sometimes with enhanced powers but at other times as a vulnerable person with all-too-human weaknesses. He is a bard who can use his songs as powerful spells, turning aside the songs of a young rival and consigning him into a swamp with his own songs. He is a shaman who journeys to Tuonela, the Land of the Dead, to gather spells from another powerful shaman who has died. He also travels there to get the words he needs to create a boat to go to woo the daughter of The Mistress of Northland, though when he goes to her his friend, the younger Smith God Ilmarinen, is the preferred suitor and he must stand meekly aside.

When the focus then turns to Ilmarinen, the Smith is given apparently impossible tasks to fulfil, reminiscent of those given in other such wooing stories in the international folklore canon identified as the motif of ‘The Giant’s or Magician’s Daughter’. But it is not a giant or magician who sets the tasks but The Mistress of Northland, and it is now Ilmarinen who must travel to Tuonela to fulfil one of them. Having done so the narrative continues to treat the wedding and subsequent events as if they are the domestic arrangements of ordinary humans, incorporating elements of the folklore wisdom of rural life in Finland. This shifting of the signifier backwards and forwards from mundane through heroic to divine activities occurs quite naturally as the narrative progresses and Bosley’s verse translation (using a short seven-syllable line as a base, but varying from five to nine syllables where required) is always fully engaged with these shifts of significance and evocative in its expression of them at all levels.

In Väinämöinen’s bardic prowess and his claims to having been present at the Creation, there are echoes of the bardic boasts contained in the medieval Welsh Book of Taliesin. Similarly, in his journeys to the Netherwold to get what he wants, in particular to regain words and songs that “should not be hidden” we might also think of the claims of Taliesin or other bards for the source of poetic inspiration or ‘Awen’. Just as The Book of Taliesin has a raid on the Otherworld to capture a magical cauldron, The Kalevala has a raid on what appears to be Lapland in the North to capture a mysterious object called the Sampo which The Mistress of Northland has hidden in a mountain. The North, or Lapland, seems to function here both as a rival territory and as an Otherworld location, but separate from Tuonela, the Netherworld. This parallels the way that ‘Lochlann’ in Irish stories can variously function as a name for Orkney, Scandinavia or as an Otherworld place, or as the ‘Old North’ in Welsh tales is often a location for Otherworld encounters. But The Kalevala raid is not entirely an attempt to loot someone else’s treasure as one of the raiders is Ilmarinen who, earlier in the cycle, had created the Sampo in exchange for being able to woo the daughter of The Mistress of Northland, though she at that time rejected his advances. Here, again, Väinämöinen and Ilmarinen seek to free what has been hidden, regaining an object removed from the world that should have a use in the world.

Looking for parallels across different mythologies we should not ignore the differences that make each set of stories culturally specific. The fact that we can identify international folklore motifs in stories from different cultures is certainly significant, and when we encounter them they often resonate both because they are essentially the same story and because of their distinct differences. We recognise the characters in The Kalevala as gods not so much because of who they are but by what they do. Falling into mythological patterns of behaviour which are recognisable across cultures is one of the clues. But characters in folk tales often also do this without obvious signs of divinity. What makes the characters in Bosley’s translation so obviously divine and yet so characteristically human is a mode of presentation that unselfconsciously allows them to be themselves in a particular landscape and yet transcend that particularity by their enactment of divine themes.

These gods are not remote. They can be lived with, admired, disapproved of, sympathised with, just as people we know in our own lives. Yet they remain larger than life and so can speak to us from another culture and also illuminate our own. At the end of The Kalevala there is an account of the coming of a new god, announcing the arrival of christianity (though churches are mentioned in the preceding chapters) as if to say ‘the time of these gods it at an end’. Väinämöinen bows out after the son of a virgin who had become pregnant by eating a cowberry banishes him, declaring as he goes:

Just let the time pass
one day go, another come
and again I’ll be needed
looked for and longed for
to fix a new Sampo, to
make new music

He leaves behind him the Kantele, the source of music which he had created. But he leaves the world he had helped to create. The folklore sources suggest that acknowledgment of the old gods had run concurrently with christianity for some time before this. There are several references to “The Great Bear”, the constellation that dominates the northern skies, as if it were of cultic significance. ‘God, keeper of heaven’ is often invoked as the source of storm clouds as when the trickster figure Lemminkäinen asks him to whip up a storm so he can escape his pursuers after killing The Master of Northland. One of the set formulas of this epic is that things can be tried three times and the attempt to effect things by spells - spoken words of power - generally proceed by first addressing a local spirit, then a demon and finally ‘The Thunderer, the Old Man, the One in the Sky’. The implication is that there is a final resort to an ultimate God figure, but one who can told what to do if the right words are used. He seems to function as one of the multiple identitities and levels of existence that are encompassed in these stories. But when he baptizes the son of the virgin who had eaten the cowberry everything changes, things become set and the old world passes. Yet still lives in this epic.

1 vote GregsBookCell | May 11, 2020 |
Portuguese translation of Finnish epic “Kalevala”.
This is a collection of oral tradition popular stories, compiled in the XIX century by Elias Lonnrot. ( )
  NunoQuaresma | Nov 25, 2019 |
Disclaimer, I love the Kalevala.

While most [Atlantic] people know of the Kalevala as "that thing that Tolkien liked," and subsequently have their expectations missed for lack of "epicness," I find that the Kalevala is more to the heart of what makes a good story. Even translated into English, the prose is beautiful and not without grandeur ("___ uttered a word, spoke thus:"), and I found myself reading it aloud even when needing to complete whole cycles in a short amount of time. The Kalevala isn't a story about the same sort of heroes and villains westerners like I are accustomed to, rather it reads to be something more human, more mystical, and more real. ( )
  MarchingBandMan | Dec 8, 2017 |
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» Add other authors (67 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Lönnrot, Eliasprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bosley, KeithTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Branch, M. A.Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Branch, MichaelEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ebbinge Wubben, J.C.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Friberg, EinoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gallen-Kallela, AkseliIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Holzing, HerbertCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Huldén, LarsTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Huldén, MatsTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Johnson, Aili KolehmainenTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kirby, William ForsellTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kuusinen, Otto WillePrefacesecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Léouzon Le Duc, LouisTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Le Nobel, MiesTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Magoun, Francis PeabodyTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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This is the extended second edition first published in 1849 and now commonly known as the "New Kalevala". Nearly all translations into foreign languages are based on this edition.
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The Kalevala is the great Finnish epic, which like the Iliad and the Odyssey, grew out of a rich oral tradition with prehistoric roots.During the first millenium of our era, speakers of Uralic languages (those outside the Indo-European group) who had settled in the Baltic region of Karelia, that straddles the border of eastern Finland and north-west Russia, developed an oral poetry that was to last into the nineteenth century.This poetry provided the basis of the Kalevala. It was assembled in the 1840s by the Finnish scholar Elias Lonnrot, who took `dictation' from the performance of a folk singer, in much the same way as our great collections from the past, from Homeric poems to medieval songs and epics, have probablybeen set down.Published in 1849, it played a central role in the march towards Finnish independence and inspired some of Sibelius's greatest works. This new and exciting translation by poet Keith Bosley, prize-winning translator of the anthology Finnish Folk Poetry: Epic, is the first truly to combine livelinesswith accuracy in a way which reflects the richness of the original.

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