Elias Lönnrot’s Kalevala Process

Elias Lönnrot (1802–1884), the author of the Kalevala, was the son of a poor village tailor. He grew up in Sammatti, southwestern Finland. Lönnrot became one of the most widely educated Finnish men of his days, not only in the humanities but also in the natural sciences (e.g. medicine, botany, pharmacy). Yet Lönnrot was also a man of practical intelligence: he worked as a journalist and as a medical doctor. He was an author in the field of popular education, a writer of hymns, a creator of new vocabulary, and the professor of the Finnish language at the university in Helsinki. When speaking of the Kalevala, however, Lönnrot was first and foremost a collector and editor of folk poetry.

With the support of his elder brother and other benefactors, Elias Lönnrot was able to attend school and later pursue his studies at the Academy of Turku, which was the only university in Finland at the time. He studied a variety of subjects: medicine, Latin, Greek, history and literature. During his student years he became acquainted with a circle of students and teachers who were actively interested in promoting the status of the Finnish language. One of them was his teacher, Reinhold von Becker, who allowed Lönnrot access to his own collections of folk poetry and notes on mythology. Lönnrot’s doctoral dissertation was called De Väinämöine priscorum Fennorum numine (About Väinämöinen, the ancient god of the Finns 1827). Later that same year, the city of Turku burnt down, the university ceased to function for a year and a half and was thus relocated to Helsinki. Lönnrot started his medical studies, writing his doctoral dissertation on the folk medicine of the Finns.

Lönnrot adopted the idea of northeastern Karelia as the land of old songs from a publication by Z. Topelius (the Elder). When Topelius passed away, Lönnrot felt that he could take on the task of compiling a publication of old Finnish folk poetry. This became practically feasible once he began going on collecting trips, for among the people he was able to enter the world of living folk poetry and learn to understand its archaic and sometimes esoteric language.

Lönnrot’s runo collecting trips

Altogether, Lönnrot made eleven collecting trips to meet with singers of poetry and write down their repertoires of the ancient oral tradition. Each year, between 1828 and 1844, he travelled more than a thousand kilometres on foot, on skis, by boat or by sleigh. The total distance of his travels has been estimated to be about the same as from Finland to the South Pole. He wrote down more than 3,500 folklore texts representing various genres; he also wrote travel reports, diaries and letters about his eventful journeys. Travelling to the east was relatively easy in Lönnrot’s day, for Finland was then a part of the Russian Empire, as an autonomous Grand Duchy of Russia, since being ceded from Sweden in 1809.

Lönnrot’s first journey into the Karelian hinterland in 1828 was very productive thanks to his meeting with Juhana Kainulainen, of Kesälahti, Finnish North Karelia. Kainulainen sang about Lemminkäinen, the golden maiden, the singing contest, nameless diseases and about stealing the Sampo; Kainulainen’s real speciality, however, was the incantation. Another outstanding singer that Lönnrot considered to be Kainulainen’s equal was Arhippa Perttunen, whom he met in Latvajärvi, Archangel Karelia, in 1834. At the time, Lönnrot was working as the district medical officer in Kajaani, which was not very far from the villages in Archangel Karelia, an area with a rich and vital oral tradition. It was here that Lönnrot met and collaborated with the most gifted singers, and this was his usual destination for collecting folklore.

The founding of the Finnish Literature Society in 1831 – Lönnrot was its first secretary – provided him with some financial, but more moral support for collecting folk poetry.

From an idea into an epic

Now, after the fact, it is intriguing to follow how Lönnrot’s ideas about an epic started to develop and how they gradually evolved. Making the Kalevala was a long process. As early as 1828, Lönnrot started to edit his collections of poems for printing. He saw publication as a means to preserve the poems not only as evidence of the old ways but also as compositions with real poetic value. Four booklets with the name Kantele were published between 1829 and 1831; the fifth never saw publication. His method was to combine manuscript texts on the same subject in order to make more unified and easily readable poems. This ran counter to the guidelines set down by his eminent predecessor, Professor Henrik Gabriel Porthan (1739–1804), who strictly advocated a faithful rendering of poems noted down into print.

The next stage in Lönnrot’s endeavours to render oral poetry into literature involved the figure of Lemminkäinen and his exploits. Lönnrot interpreted two characters from the folk poems, Lemminkäinen and Kaukomieli, as one and the same, and he combined the poem texts to make an 825-line story. It was followed by two other collections revolving around a single character and theme, in the same year: Collection of Poems about Väinämöinen andWedding Songs. The former was actually taking shape as an epic; it has many of the basic elements of the Kalevala, though with some conflicting features. In 1833, Lönnrot had met the singer Vaassila Kieleväinen, a man who sang and spelt out a chronology for the Väinämöinen-poems that had a tremendous impact on Lönnrot’s shaping of the plot. By now, Lönnrot was convinced that he wanted to create a coherent plot with events in chronological order, ‘like in the Icelandic Edda’, as he states in a letter. Behind this ambition was a hunch about the existence of an actual heroic past – that the songs described the deeds of real people, not faint gods. Other distant models for Lönnrot, besides the Edda, were the Odyssey and the Iliad ; the digressions interrupting the momentum of the basic story line in the Kalevala (e.g. the Lemminkäinen cycle and the Kullervo cycle) were presumably adopted from the Greek epic.

Eager to obtain additional material for his story, in 1834, Lönnrot set off to Archangel Karelia on his fifth collecting trip. This expedition proved to be very auspicious: he met Arhippa Perttunen, perhaps the best singer of all, as well as some other skilful singers. Lönnrot wrote down numerous excellent and detailed variants of poems he already knew in addition to some completely new poems. After returning home, Lönnrot quickly settled down to work. The manuscript was completed in February of 1835, and Lönnrot signed the preface on February 28, which is now celebrated as Kalevala Day and Day of Finnish Culture. This version of the Kalevala is currently known as the ‘old Kalevala ’, because Lönnrot completed another more extensive edition in 1849.

The Old Kalevala 1835

When the Kalevala was first published (in two parts, the first part in December 1835; the second part in March 1836), it included 32 poems and 12,078 lines. Only 500 copies were printed, and selling them took more than a decade. Nevertheless, the Kalevala was enthusiastically received among the fairly small academic circles; what is more, Lönnrot’s epic attracted the critical attention and acclaim of leading Finnish and European scholars.

Väinö Kaukonen has estimated that the folk poetry material known and used by Lönnrot amounted to approximately 40,000 lines. Most of it consists of epic poems and charms, about 17,500 lines each; lyrical poems comprised about 5,000 lines. Half of the poems came from Archangel Karelia (in Russia), the other half from Finland (Finnish North Karelia, Ostrobothnia and Savo). Prior to Lönnrot, there were other collections of folk poetry (by Z. Topelius, K. A. Gottlund), but these were not very extensive, and the manuscripts preserved in the collections of the Academy of Turku were lost in the devastating fire of 1827.

Lönnrot wrote an apologetic preface to his book. Despite his fears about the work being criticised for being unfinished, Lönnrot had been anxious to make the poems available to a reading audience. This desire included the idea of continuing to pursue the work; and so he did, in his energetic way. After publication of the Kalevala, Lönnrot kept on collecting more folk poetry. He also had access to collections made by other field researchers. Lönnrot published an extensive edited anthology of lyrical folk poems, The Kanteletar, 1840–1841, as well as a collection of proverbs and riddles.

The New Kalevala 1849

Lönnrot’s new edition, the one we know today as the Kalevala, came out in 1849. The epic had grown substantially. There were 50 poems, reaching up to 22,795 lines of verse. The poems about Kullervo had expanded remarkably, now forming a unified tragedy, thanks to the new epic materials collected by Daniel Europaeus in Ingria and Ladoga Karelia. Europaeus had also found his way to Finnish North Karelia, namely, to the village of Mekrijärvi in 1845, where he discovered a thriving singing culture. Europaeus wrote down epic poetry and charms, especially from Simana Sissonen. These materials greatly benefitted Lönnrot’s work. Lönnrot added parallel lines, charms and lyrical poems to the earlier Kalevala text. Numerous commentators have described the old Kalevala as an essentially Karelian (Archangel Karelian) epic with closer ties to folk poetry, whereas the new Kalevala has been regarded as a step towards a literary epic.

An oft-asked question concerns the origin of the lines in the Kalevala. Do they count as authentic folk poetry, or are they the product of Lönnrot’s creativity? According to Väinö Kaukonen, who has given the question serious thought, there are four kinds of lines in the Kalevala: first, those which are similar in the epic and in folk poetry (33 %); second, those which Lönnrot has changed, in terms of orthography, language, or metre (50 %); third, those lines that can not be found in the folk poems, but are made from the wordings of folk poetry (14 %); fourth, lines made by Lönnrot, or which have no equivalence in folk poetry (3 %). However, the percentages do not tell us everything. Lönnrot approached his work with creativity: he shaped the structure and the characters, fashioning an entire imaginative world.

The Kalevala process, as it has been called, involved many stages. Lönnrot laboured continuously on his Kalevala text. In 1862, he released a shorter version of the epic, meant for schools. This volume only contained about 10,000 lines; to be sure, Lönnrot had re-edited the most violent and erotic scenes (e.g. Kullervo meeting his sister).

The publication of the Kalevala (1835) was noticed abroad. Thanks to Matias Aleksanteri Castrén’s early translation into Swedish, Jakob Grimm, the founder of German philology and scholar of mythology, was able to read Lönnrot’s epic. In 1845, he spoke appreciatively about the Kalevala to an audience in Berlin; Grimm went into detail about its contents, and understood it as a mythical epic about gods, telling about more ancient times than the times of the heroes. Though Grimm’s views differed from Lönnrot’s, his speech made the Kalevala known in the literary circles of Central Europe and convinced Lönnrot’s Finnish contemporaries of the value of his work.