The Kalevala is the signature work of traditional Finnish culture. In story after story, it explores the human and divine world as understood by the traditional runic singers of the north. It sings of how the universe came to be, how the natural world works, how divine and supernatural worlds relate to the world of humankind, how human beings relate to each other, how good and evil and life and death function in the world. Many of the stories focus on Wainamoinen, "old and trustiy", an ancient singer, magician, and chieftain of the land of Kalevala. He plays a leading part in the struggle of the land of Kalevala against the land of Pohyola, the realm of warmth and light against the realm of cold and darkness. His brother, the blacksmith Ilmarinen, and the reckless young magician Lemminkainen, wage war with Louhi, the ancient woman, leader of the people of Pohyola. This is a war in which songs and magic are as much weapons as are swords and arrows, in which adventure can begin anywhere and victory is as much a matter of wit and ingenuity as of strength and courage. This recording is of the English translation of John Martin Crawford, which follows the original, traditional meter - the meter which Longfellow knew from the Kalevala and which he used in his famous Song of Hiawatha. In this translation, to help the listener follow the story, the names of characters and places are pronounced as they would be in English except for the leading character, Wainamoinen. Please enjoy these wonderful stories from a Nordic world of magic and adventure, of darkness and light!
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This is John Martin Crawford’s 1888 translation of the Kalevala. Though some of the language may be a little outdated it is one of the few English translations that tried to keep the original trochaic tetrameter rhyme pattern. While some may enjoy a more modern translation like Keith Bosley’s 1989 translation (published by Oxford University Press), I don’t think you could ask for a better translation to be read aloud. It almost becomes more of a song than a book. I love that the Kalevala not only has the warrior and magic events of a typical epic, but also some great scenes of home life such as the wedding feast. This is defiantly a book to listen too.
If you like epic poems like The Odyssey, if you are interested in a big influence on Tolkien (especially his Silmarillion), or if you enjoy fantasy full of exuberant imagination, you should read The Kalevala (1835/49) by Elias Lonnrot. As a doctor in the early 19th century, Lonnrot traveled around Finland listening to people singing the ancient stories of the legendary founding heroes of their land, copying the songs, and editing and assembling them into a coherent whole in 1835 and more completely in 1849. The national epic of Finland, the Kalevala reveals Finnish culture even as it tells entertaining stories that explore the dark and bright places in the human heart.
The Kalevala recounts the conflict between two regions and cultures, fair Kalevala (or Wainola), "the home of heroes," versus the dismal Sariola (or Pohyola or Lapland), "where the ogres flourish." Three main hero-wizards live in Kalevala: wise Wainamoinen, the ancient bard respected for his comprehensive knowledge and wonderful singing; skilled Ilmarinen, the blacksmith "metal-maker" famed for the miraculous creations of his hands; and handsome Lemminkainen, the momma's boy infamous for his reckless courage and play with maidens. In addition to their superhuman abilities, the heroes possess all too human flaws. The Kalevala even features a compelling anti-hero called Kullervo, born with too much magic and "ill-nurtured" without enough love, destroying all he sets his hand to. And toothless Louhi, hostess of never-pleasant Pohyola, a witch-matriarch with an endless supply of beautiful daughters, is more than a match in magic and cunning for the heroes she finds as wicked as they find her.
John Martin Crawford's 1888 translation of the epic into English is a pleasure to read. Crawford translated The Kalevala in a trochaic tetrameter rhythm similar to that of the original Finnish poem: "MOUNtains DANCE and VALleys LISten." And like other oral epic poems, the Kalevala enjoyably repeats epithets for proper names (e.g., "Kullerwoinen, wicked wizard") and accumulates paraphrasing examples, as when wild Lemminkainen sweet-talks a maiden he's ravished:
"My sweet strawberry of Pohyola, Still thine anguish, cease thy weeping, Be thou free from care and sorrow, Never shall I do thee evil, Never will my hands maltreat thee, Never will mine arms abuse thee, Never will my tongue revile thee, Never will my heart deceive thee."
Reader Robert Bethune reads the poetry with intensity and fluidity. He only changes his voice slightly for the different characters, but he amplifies emotions when characters are wicked, angry, joyful, or sad. My only criticism of the audiobook is that it lacks the interesting and helpful introduction by Crawford.
There are many impressive moments in the epic, among them youthful Youkahainen engaging in a duel of magical knowledge with ancient Wainamoinen; wise Wainamoinen learning (too late) the identity of a wonderful fish he catches; handsome Lemminkainen's mother raking the river of death for his body parts; grieving Ilmarinen smithying a cold bride of gold; wicked Kullervo asking his magical god's sword if it would like to drink his life-blood; minstrel Wainamoinen playing his magical pike's jaw harp and singing so as to reduce everyone to tears, including himself; reckless Lemminkainen singing in his screeching voice at an inopportune time; and vengeful Louhi pursuing the stolen magic sampo.
Surprisingly, the epic devotes more time to wooing than to fighting: a few lines to summarize an offstage battle, hundreds of lines to detail the impossible tasks of a suitor, or the food, drink, and speeches of a wedding feast, or the things a bride loses and gains by marrying, or the different roles of a good wife and a good husband. The Kalevala also relishes the good things of life, like barley-beer, honey-biscuits, hot baths, and cuckoo song. It is also full of humor and charm, as in the nicknames for bears (honey-paw) and bees (honey-birdling). And the epic teaches good behavior in daily life, from how to clean house to how to be a good person.
Best of all, in the world of the Kalevala, everything is alive, magical, sentient, and articulate: artifacts (ships, sledges, snowshoes, etc.), flora (aspens, oaks, berries, etc.), fauna (reindeer, eagles, snakes, etc.), and even fire, iron, and paths. Everything has its own desires, depending on its nature and role in the story. Magic itself has a system, for the better your voice and the greater your wisdom and knowledge, the more powerful and effective your magic will be. The best wizards master things by singing their origins and traits and then singing what they'd like them to do or not to do. The best mages are able to shape-change, make magical tools, conjure hosts of heroes, control the elements, and request the aid of the gods.
The Finnish singers of the Kalevala were such bard-mages, and when we read their songs we make their magic.