Photo: Klaus von Matt


Photo: Klaus von Matt


Kalevala, Lönnrot and Kainuu

The Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, is one of the classics of world literature. The epic took shape in the province of Kainuu, ...

where it was compiled from an extensive collection of rich folk poetry by Elias Lönnrot, district physician in the provincial capital of Kajaani from 1833 to 1853. Most of the poems comprising the Kalevala were collected in the Viena district of Russian Karelia in the villages of the Vuokkiniemi area. Viena is the site of an indigenous culture which has lived in harmony with nature for centuries and whose language, the Viena dialect, is very close to Finnish. The tradition of epic oral folk poetry was still very much alive in Viena in Lönnrot's time; in Finland it was already on the verge of extinction. In fact, through the Kalevala the dialect spoken in Viena came to contribute crucially to the development of the Finnish language as a significant cultural medium. It was only after publication of the Kalevala that literature in the Finnish language came into its own.

The first edition of the Kalevala - known as the Old Kalevala - appeared in 1835. The work was based on material collected by Lönnrot himself and, to a lesser extent, on the small, earlier body of poetry recorded in the region prior to his field trips. However limited in scope, it was this latter material that inspired Lönnrot to collect folk poetry to begin with. A new, augmented edition of the Kalevala was published in 1849. In preparing the manuscript for this later edition, Lönnrot obtained extensive material from other poetry collectors, but the bulk of the work comprised the material he had previously gathered. Although the Kalevala is based on folk poetry, it nevertheless can be seen as Lönnrot's own creation. He combined poems and figures from folk poetry in order to produce a coherent whole. However, Lönnrot himself, particularly when compiling the Old Kalevala, thought he was on the trail of the original form of an ancient epic poem which had merely become fragmented over time.

The Kalevala gave the Finnish people an identity. It is the cornerstone of Finnish culture, which soon began to exert a profound influence on the other spheres of artistic endeavor.

Lönnrot provided the archaic Kalevala with a lyrical sister, the Kanteletar. The collection of lyric poems and ballads was published in 1840.

Lönnrot's relationship to Kainuu - his home for over twenty years - has been studied from a variety of perspectives, but the part of his poetry-collecting field trips spent in Kainuu and his travels in the far corners of the district of Kajaani have received comparatively little attention. Yet, any study of these expeditions will yield many interesting facts. Kainuu was - and still is - a unique province in many respects, not least because, together with the Viena district in Russian Karelia, it is the concrete birthplace of the Kalevala.