Wednesday, 27 February 2013


“Thus the wise and worthy singer 
Sings not all his garnered wisdom;
Better leave unsung some sayings
Than to sing them out of season.” - The Kalevala

February 28, is Kalevala Day in Finland. The Kalevala is Finland’s national epic poem, researched and transcribed by Dr. Elias Lönnrot (1802-1835). Lönnrot and his assistants travelled throughout the country, asking people to tell them whatever they could remember about the folklore surrounding Kalevala, the “Land of Heroes”. On February 28, 1835, after years of research, Lönnrot signed the preface to the first edition of the poem. Its more than 20,000 verses brought to life the adventures of such characters as the warrior Lemminkäinen and the blacksmith Ilmarinen, who played a part in the creation of the world when he forged the “lids of heaven”. This event marked a turning point in Finnish literature; up to this point, little had been written in the Finnish language. Lönnrot is honoured with parades and concerts on this day.

The first edition of the Kalevala appeared in 1835. Inspired by his later collecting trips and the folk poetry recorded by others, Lönnrot decided to broaden his epic to create a more extensive whole. The second edition of the Kalevala appeared in December 1849. The work contains 22,795 lines of verse divided into 50 distinct cantos. To distinguish between the two editions, the expanded version was referred to as the “New Kalevala” and the earlier version came to be known as the “Old Kalevala”.

The Kalevala is made up of metric folk poems: epic and lyric poetry, as well as incantations and wedding poetry. The metre of the poetic language, generally known as the kalevala-metre, is trochaic tetrametre, the prevailing poetic metre north of the Gulf of Finland and in Ingria.

The publication of the Kalevala was a significant factor in the National Awakening movement in Finland, part of the patriotic nationalist revival taking place throughout Europe during the mid-19th century. This led ultimately to Finnish independence and to a greater role for literature in Finnish, rather than in Swedish as had been the rule prior to this.   The poems of the Kalevala have been illustrated by some of the country’s greatest artists.

Composer Jean Sibelius, too, made extensive use of Kalevala themes in his music, for example in the Four Lemminkäinen Legends, Pohjola’s Daughter, the Kullervo Symphony, and the symphonic poem Tapiola. The epic poem was also reportedly a source of inspiration for J.R.R. Tolkien in his “Lord of the Rings” novels, and was definitely in the mind of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow , who adapted the idiosyncratic Kalevala meter for his Song of Hiawatha.

In a completely different vein, Kalevala characters and places still live on in business life, in the names given to many key Finnish companies, although in recent years there is a tendency to replace traditional names with more “international” ones!

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