Tag: Kalevala

New from the archive

26 March 2015 | This 'n' that

Kullervo's curse

Kullervo’s curse. Painting by Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1899)

Finland’s national epic adapted for the stage by Finland’s national writer: best known as the author of the first significant novel in Finnish, Seitsemän veljestä (Seven Brothers, 1870), Aleksis Kivi (1834-1972) also turned one of the Kalevala’s grimmest stories, that of Kullervo – a tale of incest, revenge and death– into a five-act tragedy.

The translation is by one of Books from Finland’s most long-standing collaborators, David Barrett (1914-1998), a true linguistic genius with a speciality in Georgian as well as Finnish in addition to classical Greek; as well as his work with texts in Finnish and Georgian, he made extensive translations of Aristophanes for Penguin Classics. Barrett felt, as he argues here in his introduction, ‘that Kullervo, if suitably translated, might succeed where Seven Brothers had failed, in bringing Kivi’s genius to the notice of the English-speaking world’.

Was he right? It is up to you, dear readers, to judge.

For a very different, demythologized, view of the Kullervo story, we also publish a manuscript by the modernist poet Paavo Haavikko (1931-2008) from his television adaptation Rauta-aika (‘Age of iron’, 1982).

The Kalevala is in development as a film by the Finnish entertainment company Rovio, of Angry Birds game, and the Finnish-born video game company Supercell. It remains to be seen how the Kalevala take to the big screen.


The digitisation of Books from Finland continues, with a total of 372 articles and book extracts made available online so far. Each week, we bring a newly digitised text to your attention.

Angry epic heroes?

20 November 2014 | This 'n' that

Action man: Väinämöinen fights the Hag of the North. Painting by Akseli Gallen-Kallela, 1896 (Turku Art Museum). WIkipedia

Action man: Väinämöinen fights the Hag of the North. Painting by Akseli Gallen-Kallela, 1896 (Turku Art Museum). Wikipedia

The Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, is the inspiration for a grand-scale film trilogy project. It involves employees of several entertainment media companies working on it in their free time. The Finnish entertainment media company Rovio that became famous for its Angry Birds game, and the Finnish-born video game company Supercell have sponsored – with other 13 media companies – the trailer: see IronDanger.

Financing is still in the planning stages, but it is hoped that the first part will be ready in 2017 when Finland celebrates its centenary year.

According to Rovio’s Chief Marketing Officer, Peter Vesterbacka, the film will be ‘adequately’ faithful to the original work. In an interview published on 19 November on the website of the Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE, he says that even if the landscape will look very Finnish, the intention is to ’tell the story to make it clear that it’s not about a bunch of old pensioners. These are young, heroic, epic heroes‘.

So, vaka vanha Väinämöinen – ‘Väinämöinen, old and steadfast’ – , the main character of the epic, the great shaman and the bard, the tragic hero, is to be kicked off the cast, because he’s, well, elderly?

Funny that the bearded wizard Gandalf of Lord of the Rings was not dismissed from the film due to his age, even though he does indeed looks as old as the hills of Gondor. (By the way, Väinämöinen has been ‘identified as a source for Gandalf’…)

It remains to be seen how the younger Kalevala crowd will deal with all that action. Who, for example, is going to sink the impetuous Joukahainen into a bog by singing, then?

Kirjailijoiden Kalevala [The writer’s Kalevala]

7 February 2014 | Mini reviews, Reviews

Layout 1Kirjailijoiden Kalevala
[The writer’s Kalevala]
Toim. [Ed. by]: Antti Tuuri, Ulla Piela ja Seppo Knuuttila
(Kalevalaseuran vuosikirja 92, the Kalevala Society’s yearbook 92)
Helsinki: Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura, 2013. 313 pp., ill.
ISBN 978-952-222-429-3
€47, hardback

The Kalevala is the Finnish national epic, compiled from oral folk poetry by Elias Lönnrot. It has provided a source of inspiration to Finnish culture since 1839. Kirjailijoiden Kalevala continues a project entitled ‘The artists’ Kalevala’, started in 2009. To start with, four scholars examine, from different viewpoints, the influence of folk poetry and the Kalevala on literature. Some twenty Finnish-language authors then approach the epic with original thoughts and literary means. The result may take the form of reminiscing, of a short story, poem or cartoon. In some texts the Kalevala is present only indirectly, in others some character of the epic is placed in the focus – Väinämöinen, Kullervo, Lemminkäinen or Aino. Kirjailijoiden Kalevala offers a multifaceted collection of viewpoints; aptly, the editors, in their foreword refer to the epic as a literary sampo, the mysterious, mythical object of the Kalevala that generates wealth and riches.

Kalevala maailmalla. Kalevalan käännösten kulttuurihistoria [The Kalevala in the world. A cultural history of Kalevala translations]

15 November 2012 | Mini reviews, Reviews

Kalevala maailmalla. Kalevalan käännösten kulttuurihistoria
[The Kalevala in the world. A cultural history of Kalevala translations]
Toim. [Ed. by]: Petja Aarnipuu
Helsinki: Finnish Literature Society and Kalevala Society, 2012. 396 p., ill.
ISBN 978-952-222-372-2
€48, paperback

The Kalevala, based on the folk poetry collected by Elias Lönnrot, is Finland’s national epic. It first appeared in 1835, with a revised edition in 1849. The work has been published in more than 200 different versions in 60 languages, including prose translations, abridgements and adaptations. In this study, scholars and authors examine the Kalevala’s conquest of the world from many angles, ranging from Finland’s neighbouring regions, the epic traditions of Africa, the application of the epic to economic life, and the history of the work’s translation into the major languages of the world. The articles explore the linguistic, stylistic and cultural problems involved in translating the work and the experiences of some of the translators – for example, those who put the Kalevala into Iroquois. They also look at the motives behind the translations, and why in some languages there are several different versions. The book offers a varied and fascinating perspective on the epic’s cultural history.
Translated by David McDuff

Child of chaos

10 September 2010 | Comics, Fiction

Kullervo the (anti)hero by Gene Kurkijärvi

A cornucopia of exciting plots and strange characters, the mythic epic Kalevala has inspired innumerable artists since its first publication in the 1830s. A recent interpretation of the story of an extremely tragic hero named Kullervo takes the form of a graphic novel by Gene Kurkijärvi: his urban Kullervo lives in a grim environment – not unlike Helsinki, but carrying with dystopian overtones – where the heroes and/or villains are steely androids and hairy weirdos who shoot drugs and use foul language. This 21st-century Kullervo is a surrealist cyberpunk tragedy – laced with pitch-black comedy.

Extracts from the graphic novel Kullervo by Gene Kurkijärvi (Like, 2009; captions translated by Owen Witesman) More…

Kullervo: to be, or not?

10 September 2010 | Articles, Non-fiction

The curse of Kullervo by Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1899, in the Finnish Art Museum Ateneum)

A young man is born a slave under stars that augur ill for him. He is maltreated and betrayed from birth. He cannot control his physical power, his aggression or his thirst for revenge and, finally, after fatal errors and deliberate acts of violence, his remaining desire is to die. What, in the end, did life hold for him?

The cruelly tragic story of Kullervo in the Kalevala was largely the creation of the national epic’s compiler, Elias Lönnrot (1802–1884), who put together a number of originally unconnected folk-epic fragments collected in disparate localities throughout the north and east of Finland. This process involved many stages and went on for decades. The first version was published in 1835; for a shorter version for schools in 1862 Lönnrot cut the most violent and erotic scenes – including those involving Kullervo and his sister in an incestuous encounter. More…

Irma-Riitta Järvinen: Kalevala Guide

10 September 2010 | Mini reviews, Reviews

Kalevala Guide
Helsinki: Finnish Literature Society, 2010. 127 p., ill.
ISBN 978-952-222-193-3
€ 24.90, paperback

This book is a brief but comprehensive English-language guide to the Finnish national epic, which was based on the archaic oral, sung folk poetry of Karelia, but collected and personally compiled by the scholar and writer Elias Lönnrot (1802–1884). The epic (first edition 1839, complemented in 1849) is set in a mythic past; technically speaking, the metre is an unrhymed, non-strophic trochaic tetrametre, characterised by alliteration. Contents, characters, places and themes are explained in the Guide, which also explores myths of origin and the significance of the epic. On his eleven trips to Archangel and North Karelia, Lönnrot met some 70 singers. The Kalevala, now translated, at least in part, into more than 60 languages, has inspired artists the world over (J.R.R. Tolkien was a fan, while Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Hiawatha imitates the metre and style of the Kalevala). The composer Jean Sibelius and the artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela are perhaps the best known Finnish Kalevala artists. And the inspiration continues: for instance, rock musicians and visual artists make use of Kalevala themes, stories and characters in their work. The book includes a list of relevant websites and a select bibliography.

Kalevalan kulttuurihistoria [A cultural history of the Kalevala]

16 March 2009 | Mini reviews

KalevalaKalevalan kulttuurihistoria
[A cultural history of the Kalevala]
Toim. [Ed. by] Piela, Ulla & Knuuttila, Seppo & Laaksonen, Pekka
Helsinki: Finnish Literature Society, 2008. 578 p., ill.
ISBN 978-952-222-007-3
€ 63, hardback

The social and cultural influences exerted by Finland’s national epic, the Kalevala (the versions compiled by Elias Lönnrot were published in 1835, 1849 and 1862), are considerable: a large number of Finnish institutions still use it in their operations and public image. This book, which had its origin in an initiative by the Kalevala Society, takes the reader through Lönnrot’s work as a collector of folk poetry and literary compiler. The authors also discuss the epic’s ideology and its impact on Finnish cultural history. The book has five parts which relate the Kalevala to the arts, with particular reference to the visual arts and music, nationhood, politics, the study of folk poetry, and the parallelism of repetition. There are subjects included which have not previously featured in academic research, such as interpretations of the Kalevala in popular culture.

Epic labours

Issue 3/2000 | Archives online, Authors, Interviews

Kai Nieminen has translated the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, from its ancient poetic Finnish into modern language. Anselm Hollo has in turn translated an extract of Nieminen’s version into English for Books from Finland; here the two poets and translators discuss the process by e-mail between Pemaja, on the south coast of Finland, and Colorado

Anselm Hollo: Why translate Finnish into Finnish?

Kai Nieminen: It may seem like an odd idea to translate from a language into the very same language, but as you, Anselm, may recall: a few years ago, I taught a workshop at a summer session of the department where you teach, the Writing and Poetics Program of Naropa University in Boulder, with the theme ‘Poetry as Translation of One’s Thoughts’. I started out with the notion that writing poetry – perhaps writing literary works in general really consists of translating personal recognitions into more generally recognizable utterance, recognizable even to oneself. Writing poetry, one translates one’s thoughts for oneself. In that workshop I had the students translate English into English, and they thought it was a good idea, an enlightening exercise, a way to learn to read texts in a new way. As a poet-cum-translator I have probably always done something like this when writing my own poems – and also while reading poems by others. Translation is a two-way process. Secondly: As a translator from Japa­nese, I have grown accustomed to the Japanese practice of equipping modern editions of classical literature with a translation into modern Japanese. The modern version is not meant to replace the original, it is a way of helping the reader to appreciate the original all the more – which is what I, too, aim at doing. More…

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.


Kullervo’s story

Issue 1/1989 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Paavo Haavikko wrote this manuscript for the television series Rauta-aika (‘Age of iron’), broadcast in 1982. lt also appeared as a book in 1982, complemented by Kullervon tarina (‘Kullervo’s story’ ) which had been omitted from the original. The text follows the stories of the Kalevala, but they are given a new interpretation: the characters are demythologised, they resign themselves to their fates – they are like ourselves. These extracts are the final scenes in which incest, revenge and death appear in a slightly different guise from Kalevala, or Kivi’s Kullervo.

– Mother, on the road I met your daughter, who is my sister, and took her into my sleigh. She had broken one of her skis. Spring came in one day, the clouds in front of the moon tore themselves to shreds so that two moons passed in one night. Winter went, Spring came, I brought the sleigh back, and I slept on top of the sacks so that not a single grain or seed would be lost. It’s all in the sacks now, saved. The clouds tore off their clothes and washed them in the rivers of rain, and naked, in the dark, they waited for their clothes to dry, those clouds. They even darkened the moon, they would have killed it if they could have reached that far, as it spied on the cloud women who were washing the clothes they had taken off in the waters of heaven, and two moons passed in one night, Kullervo says to his mother, piling up lies like a little boy. Many words. More…

On not translating a tragedy

Issue 1/1989 | Archives online, Authors

In February 1860, the Finnish Literature Society, under the chairmanship of Elias Lönnrot, met to hear the judges’ reports on the entries for a drama competition: the Society was offering a substantial prize for a dramatic work written in the Finnish language. The announcement had been made two years earlier, but since no entries were received before the closing elate, the offer had been extended for a further year. This time three plays had been submitted: First Love, an adaptation from the French; The Glib Talker, another adaptation; and Kullervo, an original tragedy in five acts.

August Ahlqvist, the chairman of the judging committee, was only 34 years old but already a formidable scholar and much respected in the literary and academic world: he was soon to succeed Lönnrot as Professor of Finnish in the University of Helsinki (or Helsingfors, as most people still called it). The report on Kullervo, as read out to the Society, begins with starchy criticism, continues with enthusiastic praise, and ends with grudging approval – a typical committee production, revealing between the lines sharp differences of opinion. More…


Issue 1/1989 | Archives online, Drama, Fiction

An extract from the tragedy Kullervo (1864). Introduction by David Barrett
The plot of the Kullervo story as told in the Kalevala: Untamo defeats his brother Kalervo’s army, and Kalervo’s son Kullervo is born a slave. Untamo sells him as a young child to llmarinen whose wife, the Daughter of Pohjola, makes the boy a shepherd and bakes him a loaf with a stone inside it. Kullervo takes his revenge by sending home a flock of wild animals, instead of cattle, who tear her to pieces. He flees, and discovers that his parents and two sisters are alive on the borders of Lapland. He finds them, but one of his sisters is lost. Life in the family home is unhappy: Kullervo fails in all the tasks his father sets him. On his way home one day he finds a girl in the forest whom he abducts in his sledge and seduces. It turns out the girl is his lost sister, who drowns herself when she learns that Kullervo is her brother. Kullervo sets out to revenge himself on Untamo; he kills and destroys. When he returns home, he finds the house empty and deserted, goes into the forest and falls on his sword.

ACT II, Scene 3

Kalervo’s cottage by Kalalampi Lake. It is night-time. Kimmo, seated by a fire of woodchips, is mending nets. More…