By: James Parker
February 1, 2018




In 1828ish an indefatigable hobbyist-ethnographer by the name of Dr Elias Lonnrot went into eastern Finland on a mission to collect songs. The songs he was after had never been written down: they were hundreds of years old, domestic-fantastic in theme, incantatory in style, transmitted via an irregular lineage of elderly rune singers, and subject to all the vicissitudes of human memory. And it was the words he wanted, not the tunes.

Of particular interest to Lonnrot were songs about an antique deity or magus or dirty old man called Vainamoinen, a recurring and equivocal character who sometimes had great powers and sometimes no powers at all, and over this and subsequent field trips Lonnrot loaded up with Vainamoinen runes, of which (he discovered happily) there was an abundance. “I have about five to six thousand verses of Vainamoinen runes alone…” he wrote in a letter in 1833. “I’ll not cease collecting runes until I get a collection of them which equals half of Homer.”

Other rune-cycles — the exploits of randy Lemminkainen, the saga of Kullervo, the world’s forgotten boy — revealed themselves to Lonnrot as he plodded through the farmsteads and fishing villages, listening to and diligently transcribing the chantings of the scratchy old singers. And by 1834 he’d been on enough rune safaris, and had enough verses in the bag, to inaugurate the grand second phase of his opus: the pulling-together of all of these stray story-bits and half-related themes into a single rolling super-story, a mighty poem which he would call the Kalevala.

It was, to say the least, a muscular editorial act: in order to make something with a beginning-middle-and-end, the original ungoverned song-substance and folky straggle would have to be manhandled into continuity, with even a degree of syncretic violence. But Lonnrot was up to the task: in his modestly maniacal way, he really did want to be Finland’s Homer. He wanted to give his country its own epic. He got to work. (I think of other great editors here: I think of Teo Macero in 1969, staring at the recordings he’d just made of Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew sessions. Tapes upon tapes, piled impossible spools, reams of crazy Milesian prima materia, the dread syllables of his trumpet barely directing a clattering, electrified, half-chaotic ensemble. And Macero breathed upon the waters — or rather he got out his little razorblade and spliced and looped and chopped. FORM began to manifest.)

So — did he pull it off? Is the Kalevala an epic? Not really. It’s a sprawling and dream-like miscellany, a lovely old rattle bag of charms, curses, laments, shamanic hallucinations, creation stories, health remedies, farming tips, song-battles, tribal scuffles, Jungian symbology, sexy picaresque and prehistoric slapstick. Lonnrot certainly found (and developed) some narrative “through-lines” — as editors call them — and there was a fiercely visionary quality to his heaping- or heaving-together of the scattered rune-matter, but the Kalevala is not the Iliad. It’s too funny, for a start:

Then old Vainamoinen,
downcast, low in mind, high-peaked hat all askew,
uttered these words: “Alas, madman, crazy me,
alas my craziness, my manly power!”

There he is, the old lecher, the wanking wizard, lamenting his runaway libido. I’m quoting here from the 1963 translation by Francis Peabody Magoun Jr., an extraordinary man who won a British Military Cross (despite being Canadian) for his flying exploits in World War One and went on to be a distinguished medievalist at Harvard. For English-speaking readers, FPM is the second great Kalevala discovery: his witty, fertile and polyphonic renderings ripple pleasure across the mind, overlapping with the primary amazement-rings produced by the text itself. “High-peaked hat all askew” — there’s just no improving on that. The Kalevala is full of bathetic comedowns, cheerfully disorienting scalar shifts and lens-swaps in which, say, a celestial event might contract in the space of two lines to a couple arguing in a kitchen, or an aeons-long cosmogonic convulsion to a bloke feeding his dog. It works in the other direction too. Vainamoinen in Rune 5, “rattling along” in his horse-drawn sleigh, hears “the whir of a shuttle” above him, and looks up: the maiden of North Farm is perched on the edge of a rainbow, weaving gold from her loom. Something about that, the ordinary workaday whizzing sound that catches his attention, and then the glance upward into fantastical realms, is so very Kalevala.

FPM is equal to these tonal and dimensional zigzags, is my point: he can do an early-Yeatsian thing about white birds riding the billows etc. and then switch in a flash to the bluntest bozo comedy. His sense of language is exquisite. See for example his slightly bonkers note on why he has translated the the recurring phrase sininen salo — literally ‘blue wilderness’ — as ‘hazy blue wilderness’: “‘Blue’ alone is far too bright and strong a word for the phenomenon obviously observed by the singers… The blueness here implied is a grayish or hazy blue resulting from a rising ground-haze in extensive forest areas, especially on lowlying ground.” And there’s our translator, nutcase poetic scholar-pedant, squinting knowledgeably into that rising ground-haze.

As for what I, deracinated Englishman, imagine I’m doing with the Kalevala, with this chunk of Finnish dreamtime, well… it might be something like this: for all the transmutations worked upon the material by Lonnrot and then — less formatively, but no less creatively — by FPM, the Kalevala still feels wonderfully unprocessed and uninterpreted and temptingly raw and open to molestation. Even to a non-scholar, different strata of consciousness are clearly discernible in the text: some of the stories, like Vainamoinen’s night-voyage inside the sleeping giant body of Antero Vipunen (a shaman, scholars have speculated, who got trapped in the trance-state) feel immeasurably ancient, pre-everything, nudging the source, right down there by the taproot. Others, like the short and terrible tale of Kullervo — Iggy-esque disaster area, the one who searches and destroys — seem to crash us into modernity. Abused, isolated and murderous, with a rage so vast it blows up anything he touches, Kullervo finally destroys himself. But fragments of Kullervo are walking around everywhere, unaccommodated, with pain their only self-awareness:

I wonder what created me, indeed, who shaped wretched me,
me forever on the move, forever under the open sky?

Tolkien loved the Kalevala. Imprinted on it, you might say. The way that the double reality of Lord Of The Rings, the dithery, hobbity foreground and the phantasmal-abysmal backdrop, works on the imagination, with a kind of concertina-like effect — that’s Kalevala-esque. And I like to think that my beloved WH Auden, having munched his way through a pre-FPM translation, had Vainamoinen’s ‘Charm Against Pain’ in his mind when he wrote The Sea and The Mirror.

Go gather the pains [says the wizard] into the maw of the blue stone
or roll them into the water, throw them into the depths of the sea…

Or as Auden puts it:

Tears are round, the sea is deep.
Roll them overboard, and sleep.


Series banner contributed by Rick Pinchera.

ALL INSTALLMENTS: INTRODUCTION: Laughter in the Womb of Time, or Why I Love the Kalevala | RUNE 1: “The Birth of Vainamoinen” | RUNE 2 (departure): “Vainamoinen in November” | RUNE 3 (1–278): “Wizard Battle” | RUNE 4 (1–56): “A Failed Seduction” | RUNE 4 (300–416): “Aino Ends It All” | RUNE 5 (45–139): “An Afternoon Upon the Water” | RUNE 5 (150–241): “The Blue Elk” | RUNE 5 (departure): “Smüt the Dog Praises His Seal Queen” | RUNE 6 (1–114): “Therapy Session” | RUNE 6 (115–130): “Joukahainen’s Mother Counsels Him Against Shooting the Wizard Vainamoinen” | RUNE 11 (1–138): “Introducing Kyllikki” | RUNE 17 (1–98): “The Dreaming Giant” | RUNE 23 (485–580): “The Bride’s Lament” | RUNE 30 (1–276): “Icebound” | RUNE 30 (120–188): “The Voyage of the Sea-Hare” (Part One) | RUNE 30 (185–188): “Losing It” | RUNE 30 (departure): “Across the Ice” | RUNE 30 (departure): “Song of the Guilty Viking” | RUNE 30 (departure): “The Witch’s Dance” | RUNE 31 (215–225): “The Babysitter” | RUNE 31 (223–300): “The Screaming Axe” | RUNE 33 (1–136): “The Cowherd” | RUNE 33 (73): “Song of the Blade: Kullervo” | RUNE 33 (reworked): “The Breaking of the Blade” | RUNE 33 (118–284): “The Cows Come Home” | RUNE 34 (1–82): “The Pipes of Kullervo” | RUNE 45 (259–312, departure): “The Wizard’s Secret”.

MORE PARKER at HILOBROW: COCKY THE FOX: a brilliant swearing-animal epic, serialized here at HILOBROW from 2010–2011, inc. a newsletter by Patrick Cates | THE KALEVALA — a Finnish epic, bastardized | THE BOURNE VARIATIONS: A series of poems about the Jason Bourne movies | ANGUSONICS: James and Tommy Valicenti parse Angus Young’s solos | MOULDIANA: James and Tommy Valicenti parse Bob Mould’s solos | BOLANOMICS: James traces Marc Bolan’s musical and philosophical development | WINDS OF MAGIC: A curated series reprinting James’s early- and mid-2000s writing for the Boston Globe and Boston Phoenix | CROM YOUR ENTHUSIASM: J.R.R. Tolkien’s THE HOBBIT | EVEN MORE PARKER, including doggerel; HiLo Hero items on Sid Vicious, Dez Cadena, Mervyn Peake, others; and more.


Poetry, Read-outs