Saturday, 30 March 2013

The Kalevala and Folklore

My announcement last month that I'd had a haircut may have been surprising to some. I was scrubbing up because I'd been invited to speak, in my capacity as a member of the Folklore Society, at the Finnish Ambassador's Residence. The occasion was the launch of an English-language audiobook of the Kalevala. I hope that Naxos won't mind me reproducing the rather beautiful cover to the audiobook.
The launch took place on 28 February, which is Kalevala Day. When Elias Lönnrot first assembled the book from Karelian oral poetry in 1835 he did so with the intention of creating a Finnish national epic. That there is a national day dedicated to the book indicates his success. The audiobook was recorded by its translator, Keith Bosley, and I found myself giving a potted introduction to the poem's significance in a room full of people much better equipped to do so than me. Naxos posted a nice summary of the event here, while the Finnish Embassy reviewed the speeches by Irma-Riita Järvinen and myself in this nice article.

Below is the text of my speech on 'The Kalevala and Folklore'. It's somewhat rudimentary, but I hope it conveys a little of the excitement and enjoyment I got reading this great work for the first time.
* * *

Mr Ambassador, esteemed colleagues, ladies and gentlemen.

I am delighted and deeply honoured to be able to participate tonight in celebrating the (long-overdue) release of an English-language audiobook of the Kalevala. I should preface my brief remarks here by extending greetings and congratulations from the Folklore Society here in Britain. The Folklore Society is pleased to welcome this audiobook, which sets the seal on the splendid translation of the Kalevala by Keith Bosley, who is one of our members. The Folklore Society was founded in 1878: it was among the first such societies internationally to identify itself as a ‘folklore’ society, but we have some eminent forebears and predecessors. I’d especially like to pay tribute here to our colleagues in the Finnish Literature Society (which was founded in 1831 and has a magnificent folklore archive) with whom we still have good and close relations.

So, I am delighted and honoured, but also rather daunted to be speaking about the Kalevala in front of an audience which has grown up with this as their cultural patrimony and in front of someone who has spent so long living inside the poem, first translating it and then recording it. However, one of the things we’re celebrating tonight is the enormous global cultural significance of the Kalevala. This significance of Elias Lönnrot’s publication was quickly recognised far beyond what would become Finland’s borders, and these poems had an international impact in a number of fields.

Not least of these was in poetry itself, where Longfellow’s adoption of Kalevalic trochaic tetrameters set an uncomfortable model for English ears of how this verse might sound. So it’s an additional delight that the audiobook we’re celebrating tonight is the work of Keith Bosley, whose fine translation avoids that misleadingly plodding character and come closer to the flexibility and vitality of Lönnrot’s texts.

More importantly, as a folklorist, I have to point to the impact Lönnrot’s book had on the emerging discipline of folklore. There have been ebbs and flows in this. Taken initially as a body of folkloric material, the Kalevala played an important role in shaping the discipline of folklore as scholars argued over how folkloric it actually was. The discipline of folklore received all sorts of theoretical boosts from investigations that actually ruled out studying the Kalevala as folklore at all, treating it rather as literature. Lönnrot probably wrote about 600 lines, around 2% of the total, and we’ve now come to a much more satisfyingly complicated appraisal of the text, which acknowledges Lönnrot’s literary achievements as editor and writer, the oral poetic achievements of the Karelian rune singers whose traditional material Lönnrot shaped, and the folkloric material contained within the texts: the point, though, is that this book continues to stand at the centre of a whole nexus of argument, thinking and appreciation.

It’s appropriate, at an occasion where we’re celebrating the broader availability of the cultural masterpiece, to note that the Kalevala has from the start been part of an international discussion of folklore. Lönnrot was influenced by the Grimms and the German Romantics in his attempts to merge these oral texts into a Finnish mythology. That was reciprocated: one of the early champions of the Old Kalevala was Jacob Grimm, who gave enthusiastic lectures on it in 1845. One of the most important early critics of the Kalevala, who really fought to identify the traditional religious material within it even when Finnish scholars were treating it predominantly as literature rather than folklore, was the Italian folklorist Domenic Comparetti.

Here in Britain the pioneers of the Folklore Society were quick to champion the work and its significance. In 1888, just 10 years after the founding of the Folklore Society, W.F. Kirby announced his intention of producing an English version from a German translation of the Kalevala. There was an outcry among scholars in the new discipline of folklore: among the eminent scholars who insisted that Kirby really must work from the Finnish were Andrew Lang and Max Müller – I believe it is one of the few occasions on which those eminent folklorists ever agreed with each other. (Although the result was in a Longfellow metre, we should at least give Kirby credit for taking their arguments seriously enough to learn both Finnish and Estonian before undertaking the translation).

Studies of the Kalevala were to shape whole schools of folklore research. This began, appropriately enough, in Finland itself. All of the literary and oral materials on which the Kalevala is based are still in existence, and are held in the folklore archives of the Finnish Literature Society. Lönnrot preserved all his field diaries and journals, and there is clear evidence of every stage of the development of the text as we now have it. This body of material provided a stimulus to the early development of scholarly research into folklore there. It’s not a coincidence that one of the earliest chairs in folklore was established in Helsinki in 1898, and the department in Helsinki remains internationally important.

Julius Krohn, who was born 3 months after first publication of the Old Kalevala, began his studies of the genetic transmission of oral poetry and folklore with an examination of the Kalevala. He concluded that Lönnrot’s texts were not in origin homogeneous, or even specifically Finnish/Karelian, but brought together folkloric themes known from a wide area. (He pointed out that even though this was the case it didn’t preclude the material in its present form being taken to the Finnish heart).

Through the work of Julius Krohn and his son Kaarle, a whole school of folklore research developed, which became known as the Finnish or (later, when non-Finns were more involved) the Historic-Geographic method. This attempted to identify the origins and movement of individual folklore items and motifs by putting together all the known records and charting them historically and geographically. This has fallen somewhat out of favour now but it shaped a whole way of approaching folklore material that’s ultimately proved very useful with the Kalevala.

Looking at the source material we can identify four broad groups of poetry historically. Lönnrot was most interested in constructing a mythology, a spiritual or supernatural account of origins and situations. Much of the mythic material here seems to be the oldest poetry included. There is a later phase of magic and shamanistic poetry, perhaps dating up to about AD600. After this shared motifs with Scandinavian sagas start to appear in Baltic-Finnish material, and we see the development of more adventure poetry. A whole body of material also directly reflects the Christianisation of the region. Kalevala poetry began to decline from the Middle Ages, but there were periodic resurgences of the form for propaganda (16th/17th centuries) and 18th century plaints. This material existed disparately, and Lönnrot was able to blend the periods and themes together, so the shaman of one poem can also be identified with the adventure hero of another, or the god of one myth has his status changed to that of shaman throughout.

Comparetti noted the huge number of charms that appear throughout the Kalevala, describing it as ‘an epic of charms’. Lönnrot assembled a text which pointed to an ancient monotheism, what’s been called ‘a “good” paganism’: he adduced the charms as evidence of this practice, but seems not to have noticed always the christianisation evident within individual items.

Now I, as a folklorist, of course find this stuff fascinating, and worthy of closer attention. I can talk about the history of folklore till the cows come home, but the point of this audiobook is that it actually makes available in a direct, oral, form, the content. The stories themselves – the origin myth, the tragedy of Kullervo – are accessible enough, but the poem brims with other folkloric material. Folklore is the minutiae of people’s lives, the informal and unstated fabric of how people live and think, and this poem teems with it. Some of it is straightforwardly about folklife, about how people conduct/conducted themselves: the runes concerning the preparation of the bride for her new home tell you all sorts of things not just about relations between the sexes but also about how young couples are treated by their older relatives during betrothal ceremonies.

Given the blending of different source material from different historical periods you get a shimmering sense of different folklore passing before you. Some of them will find echoes in folklore familiar across the British Isles, too, for example the notion in rune 43 that singing on board a ship is unlucky.

Does it really matter, when you read or hear this captivating poem for the first time, whether Väinamöinen is a god or a hero, whether Lemminkäinen is a hero or a shaman? What’s more important here is the sense of something magical and possible, that’ll be immediately familiar to anyone who knows any of the English-Scottish ballad tradition. In rune 27, when Lemminkäinen duels with the Lord of Pohjola they sing each other into different forms – a pond, a bullock, a wolf, a hare – in much the same way as the protagonists of the ballad ‘The Two Magicians’ or the fairies in ‘Tam Lin’. The dreadful results of Kullervo’s seduction of his sister are echoed throughout ballads like ‘Edward’, while making a magical musical instrument from bones is also an important theme in the ballad ‘The Three Sisters’.

For those of you more familiar with the earthier end of English folksong, the Great Ox of rune 20 has a lot in common with the widespread (and often quite scatological) ‘Derby Ram’, while the creation of beer – and the warnings about its power – in the same rune have parallels in ‘John Barleycorn’.

Folklore is the minutiae of people’s lives. It’s fascinating, but not in the abstract. It’s fascinating because it’s about people, about their lives and thoughts. We can celebrate that in the Kalevala, and we can celebrate it now being more accessible to  us through Keith’s magnificent work. -->

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