Lemminkäinen unfazed

Issue 3/2000 | Archives online, Fiction, poetry, Prose

An English translation by Anselm Hollo of Runo XI from Kalevala 1999, Kai Nieminen’s new translation of the national epic (1849), into contemporary Finnish. Interview with Kai Nieminen by Anselm Hollo

But now it is time to tell about Lemminkäinen, a.k.a. Ahti the Islander. Young Ahti was handsome and cheerful. His mother raised him on the shores of a headland where he went fishing, ate fish and grew up strong smart and straight. But his character had a flaw: a womanizer is what he became, our Lemminkäinen (also known as Wandering Mind). He spent his days chasing the girls, his nights making love to them.

On that same island, in her father’s manor of Saari, lived Kyllikki, a young woman, The Flower of the Island. She was famed far and wide for her beauty, and suitors came from faraway places to ask for her hand. Sun, Moon and North Star wanted her for their sons, but Kyllikki turned them down. Suitors came from Estonia and Ingria, but Kyllikki turned them down, too.

So Lemminkäinen, Wandering Mind, decided to court her. His mother warned him: ‘Dear boy, don’t get ideas above your station. Her family rules this island. They won’t care for you as a son-in-law.’

Lemminkäinen, cheerful and handsome as ever, disagreed. ‘Even though our home is modest and I am not nobly born, women do fall in love with my strength and good looks,’ he told her. His mother kept at him: ‘Don’t go! The servants will mock you, the women will laugh.’ But Lemminkäinen bragged: ‘They will stop laughing soon enough when they start bearing my children.’ His mother was horrified: ‘If you do that, seduce the women of Saari, you’ll end up in big trouble. The men of Saari will draw their swords, cut you down.’

Lemminkäinen did not heed to his mother’s warnings. He harnessed stallion to sled and drove off to Saari, to court Kyllikki.

His arrival was far from elegant: he ran his sled into a gatepost and took a spill. The women burst out laughing, mocked his clumsiness. That did not sit well with him: ‘Never before have I seen women laughing at me,’ he muttered. But then he regained his composure and asked: ‘Is there room for me here at Saari? Room to play and dance with the maidens of Saari?’

‘Sure, there’s room for you here,’ said the maidens of Saari. ‘You can herd our cattle. You can play and dance with our cows in the pastures.’

Lemminkäinen, unfazed, took the job, herded cows in the daytime, caroused with the girls at night. Soon enough they stopped laughing at him. He seduced every single one of them, even the most virtuous. He charmed them and slept with all of them.

On the entire estate of Saari there was only one young woman who did not give in to his wooing: beautiful Kyllikki, she who rejected all suitors. He wore out his boots stalking her. All his pleas were met coldly: ‘Why are you chasing the girls in these parts? I won’t marry before my grindstone is worn down to sand – and besides, I would never consider a lecher like you: I want a serious and reliable man, as serious and reliable as myself. And I want him to be stately and handsome, the way I am.’

One evening when the young women of Saari had gathered in a meadow to play, Lemminkäinen drove up and grabbed Kyllikki, threw her into the sled, gave his horse a taste of the whip and drove off, warning the girls: ‘Don’t you dare tell on me! If you tell anyone that I abducted her, I will sing your suitors away to war! They will be destroyed by the sword, and you’ll never see young men again in these lanes.’ Kyllikki of course complained, the flower of the Island kept lamenting; ‘Release me now, let the child go free to proceed to her home, to her weeping mother.

‘If you don’t let me go now,’ Kyllikki threatened, ‘I have five brothers and seven cousins who I am sure will come and bring me back.’ When Lemminkäinen did not let her go, she burst out crying. ‘Born in vain, grown in vain, lived in vain, to end up the wife of a worthless man, a warrior, a trouble-maker!’

Then Lemminkäinen, Wandering Mind, told her: ‘Dear Kyllikki, apple of my eye, don’t worry now. I won’t ever mistreat you, I’ll always cherish and caress you. Or are you afraid that I’m taking you to a house without cattle, to some poor breadless abode? Don’t worry, I have many cows: Blackberry in the marsh, Strawberry on the hill, and Lingonberry in the clearing. They are lovely yet do no eating, beautiful yet not looked after; evenings there is no tying them up, nor mornings any turning them loose, no throwing them fodder, salt, no bother about mash.

‘Or are you worried that I’m not wellborn? Well, my family may be humble, my house not splendid, but I carry a fiery and noble blade. It was forged in the land of the Demon, and with it, I elevate my kin, bring fame to my clan.’

Kyllikki sighed and implored: ‘Dear Ahti Lemminkäinen, if you want me for wife, swear to me you’ll never go to war, even if they promise you silver and gold.’

‘I swear,’ said Lemminkäinen, ‘I swear I will never again go to war, not even for lust for gold or silver. Now you must swear, in turn, that you will no longer roam, go to village dances and fairs.’

So both of them swore in the presence of God, before the eyes of the Almighty, that he would no longer go to war, she would no longer roam. Then Lemminkäinen gave his stallion a touch of the whip and said: ‘I bid you farewell, meadows and woods of Saari, you that I walked summers and winters just so I could win this beauty.’ Giving his horse full rein, he drove on until his house came into view. ‘What is that shack I see over there?’ Kyllikki asked. ‘Never mind that it isn’t much of a house,’ said Lemminkäinen. ‘We’ll build a better one, out of the best logs to be found.’

And so they arrived at his home. ‘You were gone a long time, my son,’ said his mother. ‘Well, I had to show those women,’ he said, ‘I had to punish those hypocrites. Laid them all, paid them back for mocking me. The very best one I scooped into my sled. Dear mother, I got what I set out to find. Now, please, layout the best bedding, the softest pillows.’

‘God be thanked, glory to the Creator,’ his mother said, ‘I now have a daughter-in-law to keep the fire, weave the cloth, spin the yarn, wash the laundry. Thank your good luck! You got a good thing, you met a good thing, your Creator granted you a good thing. the Gracious One gave you a good thing. A snow bunting on the snow is pure, purer the one at your side; white is the foam on the sea, whiter she who is in your power; graceful is a mallard on the sea, more graceful she who is in your protection.

‘Now that you have found a beautiful young wife, from a family more noble than your own, build a new house, bigger, and with more light. Your wife is better than you – let the house be better, as well.’

Translated by Anselm Hollo

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