The Kalevala

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"Vaka vanha Väinämöinen..."

I am driven by my longing,
And my understanding urges
That I should commence my singing,
And begin my recitation.
I will sing the people’s legends,
And the ballads of the nation.

The Kalevala (or "Land of Heroes") is an epic poem and book based on folk poetry collected by Elias Lönnrot. It is considered the national epic of Finland. Undeniably the most influential work of literature there, it's credited with initiating a national awakening that eventually led to Finland's independence and preserving the Finnish language. The Tales of Ensign Stal is probably the only piece of Finnish litterature that even comes close to the status of the Kalevala. It also inspired others, such as JRR Tolkien, Michael Moorcock and Don Rosa, so it's no coincidence that the stories of Kullervo and Turin Turambar have many similarities.

The Kalevala is, first and foremost, the story of heroes and adventurers in mythic Finland, and the greatest of them all is Väinämöinen, the shaman hero born 700 years old to the Maiden of Air and gifted with a magic singing voice. There are great journeys, heroic deeds, tragic mix-ups, evil witches, magic poetry and something called a Sampo. But some of the best aspects are the delight in nature metaphors and the allusions to everyday Finnish life. The flair for natural beauty can delight even someone who doesn't take to the plot.

The Kalevala, as composed by Elias Lönnrot, is a product of the 19th century (published 1849). Lönnrot's source materials go back much farther; how much farther is not exactly known—the first description of Finnish mythology is that by bishop Mikael Agricola in 1551. It is thought that much of the folk traditions that Lönnrot cast into the Kalevala are Older Than Print, though Lönnrot modified them to weld them into a single coherent narrative.

Among more direct adaptations of the Kalevala are several of the musical compositions of Finland's greatest composer, Jean Sibelius, of which the best known is probably Tuonelan joutsen -- "The Swan of Tuonela" (or, if you prefer, "The Swan of the Underworld"). The work also inspired many of the canvases of the painter Akseli Gallen-Kallela, including Sammon puolustus, "The Defence of the Sampo," used above as the page image. Less happily, though more hilariously, it was made into the joint Finnish/Russian film Sampo, AKA The Day the Earth Froze, featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Perhaps the best-known translation of the Kalevala into English is that of William Fortsell Kirby (which gives the page quote). English-speakers have probably become familiar with the meter of the Kalevala more from its use by Longfellow in The Song of Hiawatha ("By the shores of Gitchee Gumee...") -- or perhaps the parodies of the same by Lewis Carroll and others, such as "Hiawatha's Mitten-Making" by George A. Strong:

"Then he turned the outside inside
And he turned the inside outside..."

God help you if you confuse with the flash game Legends[1] of Kalevala.


Tropes used in The Kalevala include:
  • Abduction Is Love: Kyllikki, taken by Lemminkäinen to be his wife.
  • Adaptation Distillation: Lönnrot did a lot of work to combine the numerous myths into one single story, including dropping out different interpretations of the characters and changing when certain events took place.
  • Alliteration: In Finnish, alliteration is one of the main characteristics of the Kalevala meter. For example the opening quote of this page (also first lines of the Kalevala):

Mieleni minun tekevi,
Aivoni ajattelevi
lähteäni laulamahan,
saa'ani sanelemahan,
sukuvirttä suoltamahan,
lajivirttä laulamahan.

  • Animorphism: Väinämöinen transforms into a snake to escape the underworld.
  • Anti-Hero: Kullervo, to the point of almost crossing over to Sociopathic Hero.
  • Arranged Marriage: Joukahainen promises that Väinämöinen can marry his sister Aino. His mother is just happy for having a powerful sorcerer as a son-in-law. Aino doesn't take it as well and is Driven to Suicide. Later, Louhi strongly suggests her daughter to marry Väinämöinen, but doesn't object when she chooses Ilmarinen instead. She is forced to chose, though.
  • Back From the Dead: Lemminkäinen is resurrected by his old mother.
  • Berserk Button: Slave boy Kullervo's knife breaks on a stone which Ilmarinen's wife has baked into his bread. The knife being the only possession he still had from his family, he snaps and summons packs of bears and wolves from the forest, which tear the jerkass mistress to pieces.
  • Big Badass Bird of Prey: Eagle saves Väinämöinen from drowning.
  • Non Sequitur Scene: The snakes buried in the mountain - drinking beer. This made Väinämöinen so angry that he forbade snakes to drink beer for all eternity.
  • The Blacksmith: Seppo Ilmarinen.
  • Blow You Away: Väinämöinen makes winds to blow Ilmarinen to Pohjola.
  • Body to Jewel: Tears into pearls.
  • Born Into Slavery: Kullervo.
  • Brother-Sister Incest: Kullervo and a sister he didn't know he had.
  • Butt Monkey: Kullervo.
  • Casanova: Lemminkäinen, especially during his stay at the Island (Saari).
  • Composite Character: Lemminkäinen is a combination of epic war-heroes Kaukomieli and Ahti Saarelainen.
  • Cosmic Egg: Where the world came from.
  • Creation Myth: The world, iron and beer get their own.
  • Death Is Cheap: The beginning of the Kullervo arc establishes that all of Kullervo's clan is dead except Kullervo's mother. Yet after Kullervo has run away from slavery, he suddenly discovers that his parents, as well as a brother and a sister, are alive. No explanation is given of how they did survive, why everyone thought they were dead, or how his mother escaped from slavery. But it's good for the plot.
  • Driven to Suicide: Aino drowns herself rather than marry Väinämöinen. Kullervo kills himself with his sword.
  • Engagement Challenge: Väinämöinen, Ilmarinen and Lemminkäinen all have to complete near-impossible tasks in order to marry the Maiden of Pohjola, Louhi's daughter. Eventually, it's Ilmarinen to whom she takes a liking.
  • Everything's Worse with Bears: Ilmarinen's wife is killed by bears.
  • Evil Matriarch: Louhi, the Mistress of Pohjola.
  • Evil Uncle: Untamo, Kullervo's uncle.
  • Filk Song: Finnish melodic-metal band Amorphis write most of their songs/albums based on different parts of the Kalevala. Probably to a lesser extent, but Finnish folk-metal bands Turisas, and Ensiferum are also heavily influenced by the Kalevala. Ensiferum even named a track after the whole work.
  • Freudian Trio: Väinamöinen, Ilmarinen, and Lemminkäinen, when they finally team up to retrieve the Sampo from Pohjola.[2]
  • Genocide Backfire: Untamo kills[3] his brother Kalervo and his family over petty neighborhood squabbles, leaving only a pregnant woman alive. The woman gives birth to Kullervo, who later kills Untamo in vengeance.
  • Gotterdammerung: The Kalevala ends with Christ being appointed King of Finland, and Väinamöinen sailing away to an unknown land across the sea.
  • Grim Up North: Pohjola, the Northland.
  • Handsome Lech: Lemminkäinen.
  • I Am One of Those, Too: Joukahainen claims he was present when the world was created. Too bad he tells this to Väinämöinen who actually was there.
  • Improbable Weapon User: The guy whom Lemminkäinen insulted kills him by running a viper through him. Man, that's just awesome.
  • King in the Mountain: The Kalevala ends with a mysterious child being declared king of Kalevala (a thinly veiled allegory on Christ and the conversion of Finland to Christianity). The disgruntled Väinämöinen sails away in his boat to an unknown destination, leaving only his kantele behind, but not without the promise that he will some day return.
  • Longest Pregnancy Ever: Ilmatar carried Väinämöinen for centuries.
  • MacGuffin: The Sampo is an archetypical example. It is a powerful magical artifact that everyone covets, but it is never actually described. It has been depicted as pretty much everything from a sword to a pitcher. The most common interpretation is that Sampo is a mill that produces money, grain and salt out of thin air.
  • Magic Music: as used by the sage Väinämöinen, whose kantele is made from the jawbone of a giant pike.
    • He's so good, he once almost sang Joukahainen into a swamp. (It takes special mythological training to understand just what that's supposed to mean.)
      • In modern Finnish "singing into a swamp" means Curb Stomping someone in a debate thoroughly. In the epic it means just what it sounds like; Väinämöinen sings such a powerful song that the earth swallows Joukahainen, until he agrees to pay any price to be released.
  • The Night That Never Ends: In vengeance for the loss of the Sampo, Louhi steals the Sun and the Moon and locks them up inside a mountain.
  • Noodle Implements: The Sampo is the perfect MacGuffin because, thanks to the ambiguity of the poems Lönnrot was collecting, none of the poem's readers have been able to conclusively figure out what the hell it is.
  • One-Winged Angel: Louhi turns into a kokko (sort of a big mythical eagle) to hunt down the heroes of Kalevala who have stolen the Sampo.
  • Oral Tradition: Lönnrot created the Kalevala by combining folk ballads which had been passed down from singer to singer for centuries—or more.
  • Passing the Torch: The book ends with Väinämöinen sailing away and implied-to-be-Jesus becoming the king of Kalevala.
  • Plot Hole: Due to having been compiled from folk legends sung around the country, the the Kalevala has several plot holes as a result of combining different versions. For example, Kullervo eventually finds out that his parents are alive, even though they were killed by Untamo when he was an infant.
  • Public Domain Artifact: The Sampo.
  • Replacement Goldfish: After his wife's death, Ilmarinen makes himself a new one out of gold and silver, but discards her soon afterwards.
  • Revenge: Like in many myths, revenge is a recurring motif in the Kalevala; but it is an overarching theme in the story of Kullervo, who is more than anything driven by his (eventually self-destructive) desire for revenge.
  • Revenge SVP: Lemminkäinen gatecrashes the wedding feast in the Northland, where they successfully tried to kill him last time when he himself wooed the Northland Maiden. He soon provokes the bride's father, the Master of the Northland, into a swordfight duel, which ends lethally for the latter.
  • Riddle for the Ages: What is the Sampo actually, and what exactly does it do?
  • Robot Girl: The Golden Bride of Ilmarinen.
  • Sauna Bonding: Several times. They're Finns aren't they?
  • Sea Monster: Iku-Turso. Also, the giant pike from whose jawbone Väinämöinen makes a kantele - a dulcimer-like musical instrument.
  • Suspiciously Similar Substitute: The Northland Maiden, Louhi's daughter, was a recurring character in Lönnrot's source material; however, the folk songs contradicted each other in what was her eventual fate. Lönnrot solved the problem by giving Louhi two daughters and thus, there are two Northland Maidens, the second one only appearing after the first one is out of the story.
  • Swallowed Whole: Väinämöinen gets swallowed by giant Antero Vipunen.
  • Talking Animal
  • Talking Weapon: Kullervo's black sword, which indicates it is perfectly willing to kill him. This is possibly the Ur Example of this trope.
  • To Hell and Back: Väinamöinen travels to Tuonela, the realm of the dead, and escapes even though they try to keep him. Almost true for Lemminkäinen, too, when he hunts for the Swan of Tuonela, but Lemminkäinen does not enter Tuonela proper.
  • Ultimate Blacksmith: Ilmarinen.
  • What Could Have Been: Disney was considering making "The Swan of Tuonela" one of the segments in Fantasia.
  • Wicked Witch: Louhi, Mistress of Pohjola, also known as Hag of the Northland.
  • Wizard Beard: Väinämöinen is an archetype.
  • Wizard Duel: Between mighty Väinämöinen and young Hot-Blooded Joukahainen. It's a Curb Stomp Battle.
  • Wizards Live Longer: Väinämöinen again. He was born 30 years old, and that's just the beginning.
  1. Legacy!
  2. The "Freudian" interpretation would probably go: Väinamöinen - Superego, Ilmarinen - Ego, Lemminkäinen - Id.
  3. They somehow survive it, though.