Finland’s National Epic

It’s hard to overestimate the influence on Finland of the Kalevala, an epic tale compiled from the songs of bards that tells everything from the history of the world to how to make decent home brew. Intrepid country doctor Elias Lönnrot trekked eastern Finland during the first half of the 19th century in order to collect traditional poems, oral runes, legends, lore and folk stories. Over 11 long tours, he compiled this material with his own writing to form what came to be regarded as the national epic of Finland.

The mythology of the book blends creation stories, wedding poems and classic struggles between good and evil. Although there are heroes and villains, there are also more nuanced characters that are not so simply described. The main storyline concentrates on the events in two imaginary countries, Kalevala (characterised as ‘our country’) and Pohjola (‘the other place’, or the north). Many commentators feel that the epic echoes ancient territorial conflicts between the Finns and the Sámi. Although impossible to accurately reproduce the Finnish original, the memorable characters are particularly well brought to life in poet Keith Bosley’s English translation of the Kalevala, which is a fantastic, lyrical read.

The first version of Kalevala appeared in 1833, with another following in 1835 and yet another, the final version, Uusi-Kalevala (New Kalevala), in 1849. Its influence on generations of Finnish artists, writers and composers was and is immense, particularly on painter Akseli Gallen-Kallela and composer Jean Sibelius, who repeatedly returned to the work for inspiration.

Beyond Finland the epic has influenced the Estonian epic Kalevipoeg and American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Indeed, JRR Tolkien based significant parts of his mythos on the Kalevala.