How to Helsinki: Kalevala

The Defense of Sampo (Turku Art Museum; 1896; tempera on canvas; Akseli Gallen-Kallela)
The Defense of Sampo via Wikimedia (Turku Art Museum; 1896; tempera on canvas; Akseli Gallen-Kallela)

Worldcon is in Helsinki this year. As a Finnish-American couple, we are very excited about this! In the coming months, we’d like to offer some practical advice about visiting Finland to our fellow fans who are considering going to the event but haven’t had experience with Finland and Finns before.

Erik here. You may have heard of Kalevala before. It has inspired English-speaking authors from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to J. R. R. Tolkien. If Kalevala is new to you, it’s well worth knowing something about before heading to Helsinki for Worldcon. Kalevala has an important place in Finnish culture and fandom alike.

Origins of Kalevala

In the mid-1800s, with the rise of national romantic movements across Europe, there was a passion for rediscovering and recording oral literature and folk traditions before they were wiped away by modernity. The Grimm brothers in Germany may be the most famous collectors, but similar efforts were happening in many pats of Europe, including Finland. Elias Lönnrot, a rural doctor in eastern Finland, began collecting old songs and stories from the people in the villages he served. Numerous characters and themes were woven through these tales: wizards and warriors, love and longing, mayhem and magic. Many of the characters seemed to be versions of pre-Christian gods and spirits who had survived the the coming of Christianity by being turned into heroes or fitted into Christian stories. Lönnrot also learned the techniques that master singers used to weave one tale into another, building up a larger story out of a common store of incidents and refrains. After many years in the field, he put these techniques to use himself, stripping away Christian elements and assembling a wide variety of the stories he had collected into one grand epic. He called this tale Suuri Kalevala, or “The Great Land of Kaleva.”

Brothers Poavila and Triihvo Jamanen reciting traditional Finnish folk poetry in the village of Uhtua, 1894, photograph by I. K. Inha via Wikimedia
Brothers Poavila and Triihvo Jamanen reciting traditional Finnish folk poetry in the village of Uhtua, 1894, photograph by I. K. Inha via Wikimedia

At the time, Finland was part of the Russian Empire (having been under Swedish rule since the twelfth century and conquered by Russia in 1809), but an independence movement was stirring and many people were beginning to pay attention to the elements of a unique Finnish identity. Kalevala became one of the focal points of this movement. By reaching back to pre-Christian history, almost a thousand years before, it promised a validation of Finnish identity grounded in primordial origins free of Russian or Swedish interference. Finland gained its independence in 1917 (happy centennary!) and Kalevala has remained a vital part of Finnish culture ever since.

Kalevala has an earthy immediacy. The poetic language of Kalevala is colloquial and its heroes, despite being magical warriors, live rustic lives as farmers and fishers not much different from the village folk Lönnrot collected the tales from. There are occasional mentions of wars and great battles and one daring Viking-like raid, but more often the tales revolve around such tasks as chopping down trees, mending horse-drawn sledges, and pulling in fishing nets. The power of nature is ever-present, from the summer sun and the winter frost to the trees of the forests and the water of Finland’s ten-thousand lakes.

Continue reading