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The Kanteletar: Lyrics and Ballads after the Oral Tradition by Elias L??1/2nnrot Oxford University Press USA Elias L??1/2nnrot

26th October 2012 Literature & Fiction 14 Comments

This is the first appearance in English of The Kanteletar (1840-1), the companion volume to the Finnish national epic poem The Kalevala. Based on Finnish oral tradition, The Kanteletar (roughly “zither-daughter”, a kind of muse) is a selection from a treasury of nearly seven hundred lyrics and ballads that celebrate the everyday life of a rural society at work and play. The ballads range from a beautiful sequence of legends about the Virgin Mary, through the grim tales of Elina, to a hilarious account of a dragon that refuses to devour its victims.

Text: English
Original Language: Finnish

The Kanteletar: Lyrics and Ballads after the Oral Tradition by Elias L??1/2nnrot (Oxford World’s Classics)

  • 14 responses to "The Kanteletar: Lyrics and Ballads after the Oral Tradition by Elias L??1/2nnrot Oxford University Press USA Elias L??1/2nnrot"

  • Eric K.
    5:56 on October 26th, 2012
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    The Kalevala is one of the greatest (and yet largely unknown) epic poems of all times. Although relatively young when compared to the works of Homer and so forth, this Finnish epic draws deep into Finland’s Shamanic heritage and is indeed based off these old myths and legends. It concerns the adventures of Vainamoinen the wise Shaman, his companion Ilmarinen the smith and the bold, young Lemminkainen. Those who have studied Shamanism will already see a Shamanic aspect in the association between Vainamoien and Ilmarinen, for in many cultures smiths and Shamans are linked together. There are many more Shamanic archetypes and beliefs found throughout this book, such as a bear sacrifice which is startlingly similar to that observed amongst the Ainu and Lapps of recent times. This book, perhaps the only real direct source of Finnish mythology and religion, explores an oft neglected culture. After all, any school child can tell you of the myths of the Greeks, Romans or Germanic peoples, yet the mythology and heroes of Finland have remained largely unknown. A real pity as this epic is filled with deciet, trechery and heroism which easily could stand beside the works of Homer, Virgil or Valmiki. This translation, perhaps the best available, both for the price and in terms of being generally accessable, is certainly worth owning. Whether you are interested in mythology, history, anthropology, Finland or just like a good story, there is bound to be something in this book which appeals to you.

  • ThomasKernan
    7:21 on October 26th, 2012
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    Elias Lönnrot (1802-84) was a district health officer and amateur scholar stationed in northeastern Finland in the late 1820s who became passionately interested in the folklore of his people. Influenced by the Romantic conception of folk culture as the repository of national identity, Lönnrot spent years studying and recording the ancient Finnish oral epic, the “Kalevala”, which he published in 1835 in a famous edition and revised over the next fifteen years. In 1840-41 he followed this up with the publication of a companion work, the “Kanteletar”, a collection of lyrics and ballads also drawn from the Finnish oral tradition. Meaning literally “zither-daughter”, the “Kanteletar” is made up of poems originally sung over the zither by a bard (or ‘laulaja’ in Finnish). Although the book is hardly known outside Finland, Keith Bosley’s translation for Oxford World’s Classics is excellent and the first one in English.

    As Bosley points out, the Finnish lyric tradition is one of the oldest still extant. Most Finnish folksongs sung today are so-called “later songs” (that is, both the lyrics and the tunes came to Finland since the start of the Middle Ages, mostly from Sweden). Yet what is unique about the lyrics and ballads of the “Kanteletar” is that they date from a much earlier period. These poems are part of the so-called “Kalevala” tradition brought by the Finns from their home in Central Asia well over a thousand years ago and that survived the longest in eastern Finland (where Lönnrot worked) and the Russian borderlands. Sung to simpler, usually five-note tunes, the “Kanteletar” lyrics also had a rythym all their own.

    Most of the “Kanteletar” poems are very somber and sing of love spurned or the woes of life. But others are surprisingly comic, like “The Origin of Beer” or “Spinster”. “Churchgoers” is worth quoting in full:

    “A tip-tap of shoes / a clip-clop of leather shoes: / the girls are coming to church / twinkling to the gallery. / They tear open their bosom / they wrench out their books / from which they intone a hymn / and read beautiful verses. / A clatter of clogs / a rattle of birchbark shoes: / the boys are coming to church / rowdily up the church hill / flasks of booze beneath their coats / jugs of beer under their arms. / The book is not in their minds / nor are the priest’s best sermons: / in their minds the girls lie down / in their hearts they kindle fire.” (I apologize for my ignorance of HTML!).

    The ballads at the end of the book have interested scholars more than the lyrics, above all the “Ballad of the Virgin Mary,” a ballad from the Orthodox eastern Finns, and the grim “Elina”, the tale of a jealous husband who burns his wife to death.

    In short, this a great way to get to know Finnish folk literature. If you enjoyed the “Kalevala”, you’ll love the “Kanteletar”.

  • Squozen
    10:08 on October 26th, 2012
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    There’s a lot less bloodletting in this epic than in many mythic-legendary works. But — what a lot of frustration, inhospitality, and breakage! Boats jam, people lie, an heroic expedition to the North is a flop. You won’t find any great romances here, but a number of maidens who would druther not leave home (especially undesirable if the prospective husband is a “nook-haunter” — an old man). A suitor might perform all the tasks the girl’s mother demands, and after doing the impossible, he doesn’t get to marry her even so. Heroes arrive in a village to be sent on from one house to the next in an unfriendly manner. A quest for fire leads to calamitous accidental conflagrations. Quests don’t end in dazzling triumphs; the great quest-object for this epic ends up plopping into the sea and being broken. This is indeed the epic of the “luckless lands of the North.”

    Especially powerful are the cantos about that scary young punk Kullervo. Where else in traditional literature is there such a portrait of a kid born to make everyone miserable before he takes his own life?

    It’s not all dour stuff, to be sure. There are a number of passages in which the words practically writhe off the page as the lines describe tingling, squirming magical growing. There’s some humor.

    The work is suffused with an earthy quality. It’s not ambrosia and nectar we have here, but fish to eat, home-brewed beer to drink, and plain bread — sometimes bulked up with bark — to chew. People wear wool, navigate fogs, get up early to light fires and milk the cows.

    It was one of a select few works that C. S. Lewis cited, in his essay “On Science Fiction,” as works that provide additions to life. Other things that made the list were Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, parts of the Odyssey and of Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, Peake’s Titus Groan, etc.

    Interesting list!

    This translation seemed to me quite readable.

  • Remah muniz
    11:38 on October 26th, 2012
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    We owe much to the efforts of the scholar Elias Lonnrot for preserving this great epic. The work was collected mostly in the mid 19th century, a time when much of the rural regions of Europe still remembered the ancient folk-beliefs, mythic lore, and superstitions of their ethnicities. Had Lonnrot not undertaken this project, these orally-transmitted tales may have been lost forever in the approaching modern age.
    Why is it important to read such lore? The very soul of a people is found within. What were their moral beliefs? How did they see the world? To simplify, the great deeds of the heros, the vile behavior of villains, define just what a culture believed to be good and bad. The hero serves as an ideal model of personal conduct, for the most part. Even when the hero fails to live up to his own standards, he teaches us a lesson about honorable behavior.
    The heros of The Kalevala are warrior-wizards. Vainamoinen is the primary character, an old shaman and bard of supernatural power. He is in quest of a wife, and deeper wisdom. Ilmarinen, a wizard and blacksmith, who uses his craft to forge many items of magical properties. He forged the Sampo, a mysterious mill which generates grain, salt, and gold. The Sampo is a central artifact in this narrative. There is my favorite, Lemminkainen, who, although he is a proficient wizard and warrior, gets himself into endless trouble with his hard-drinking, brawling, prolific womanizing, and outrageously brash behavior. Then there is Kullervo, who more than anything yearns to vent his vengeance on those who murdered his family…or anyone who insults him, personally. Their tales are all intertwined as they make a stand against Louhi, the evil sorceress of the North.

  • Mark McKee
    15:01 on October 26th, 2012
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    There is an elegant, powerful simplicity to this epic tale, no matter what language you read it in. The symbols transcend both language and time. There is nothing contrived here. Such a tale could not be counterfeited by a modern mind.At the center of the entire epic is Vainamoinen, the singer at the world’s dawn. Here is the archetype for the wizard- the first and greatest among shamans. Before Merlin, before Taliesin, before Math, before Manannan, there was Vainamoinen, Eternal Seer.Something real and vital carries over even in translation. Reading this book on a cold winter’s night you can taste the sea and smell the forest. You can identify with the characters even though they have godlike powers, because they also have trades that they live by (Vainamoinen is a boatbuilder, Ilmarinen a smith, Joukahainen builds his own crossbows, etc.) These Godlike beings lived simple lives close to the earth. And simple wisdom is powerful wisdom. Yet, there is also so much more of the old, deep legends and symbols buried in these lines. You can tell that they were preserved long after the long lines of singers had ceased to know their original meanings.The ancient Finns believed in the power of words, and the greater power of songs. There is still power here. Or as the epic says:

    Words shall not be hid

    nor spells be buried;

    might shall not sink underground

    though the mighty go.

  • Phyllis Vlasak
    19:51 on October 26th, 2012
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    I enjoyed this epic story of Finnish mythology. It was a musical, delightful collection of heroic stories that didn’t overwhelm me. I could keep track of the characters and what they respresented quite easily.

    I was delighted by this book! I hope all Finnish children are exposed to the exciting yet fun depiction of their mythological heritage.

    I know that scholars want to read everything and disect the stories for deeper meanings — which is just fine — but I can really see this as a set of stories being told to small children while the whole family sat around the fireplace.

  • Celia Beal
    21:56 on October 26th, 2012
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    Back in 1998, I went to a village near Oxford, UK to visit friends and watch the World Cup on the BBC. I drank a lot of beer and also bought THE KALEVALA in one of the big, old bookstores in town. I finally got around to reading it recently. I’d been put off for seven years, thinking it would be a daunting task that I nevertheless “ought to” undertake. No, not at all, this is a most readable translation with modern fillips, yet perhaps more faithful to the original than the super-romantic, Victorian longwindedness that I admit I expected.

    As part of the world’s treasure hoard of mythology, this ancient Finnish epic holds its own with any. It resembles others in that it explains the birth of the world, the creation of the ur-hero Vainamoinen, and the solution of many problems—finding fire, how to sow fields, how to raise crops, what are ecologically sound practices, the origin of beer, and how a bride should behave. The human characters are intimately tied to the natural world all around them: just as in mythology everywhere, animals, birds and trees speak, magical transformations occur on many a page, and the heroes escape defeat by magic more often than by violence. The number of themes that can be analyzed psychologically or probed for cultural `inner meanings” is great. For example, the third chapter presents youth’s eternal confrontation with the older generation. Joukahainen, a youth, challenges old Vainamoinen, to a singing match. He loses and has to pay up in the form of his sister. The sister drowns herself rather than marry an old man., but she becomes a fish. Vainamoinen tries to catch the fish. His mother’s spirit tells him to look for another—perhaps a very early version of the phrase “there are many fish in the sea” ! The young man decides to avenge his sister and shoot Vainamoinen with an arrow, but kills Vainamoinen’s horse instead. The old hero falls into the sea and is swept away, but is saved by an eagle for whom he’d done a favor once. And so it goes.

    Though THE KALEVALA runs to 666 pages, the number of characters is surprisingly small. The reader has no problems keeping track of the main actors. The repetitive style owes to the fact that this ancient epic was originally sung. Many stories are grouped in units of three—three things, three times, three answers, three days. I got into the swing of it at times, thinking “I read one day, I read two, and soon I read a third.” Finnish epics don’t have modern plots or character development. I think you read this because you are curious, because you enjoy the creativeness of the human imagination throughout time, because you are interested in mythology and beautiful, ancient things. You may enjoy, as I did, such things as the `complaint of a boat’, a musical instrument made of fish bones, a bee flying over nine seas to bring back a rare ointment to save the hero [just like Hanuman in the Ramayana], hunting a Demon’s elk, an expedition to steal a ‘horn of plenty’, and good sayings that lie like hidden gems amongst the pages: “Strange food goes down the wrong way.” or “Seldom is a serf cherished, a daughter-in-law never.” Another plus is that I was able to connect with Sibelius’ music, I learned, for example, what the Swan of Tuonela is. In sum, while epics may not be everybody’s cup of tea, this wonderful translation and lively cycle of stories can hold your interest on long winter nights. “A hundred tried to read it, but not one made it through.” Definitely untrue in this case.

  • mikeJ
    4:57 on October 27th, 2012
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    Surfing the net with some not quite focused thoughts I came on an excerpt from The Kalevala. It aroused my curiousity at once. So I bought a copy and what a surprise to find out that there are close to 700 pages of tales. The ancient flavor of these multiple stories covers many cultural topics in a rather simple way. Yet there is a common thread of humanity evident. That thread shows how similar humanity is whether it is an Angolan tale from the 1800′s, a Russian folk tale, an American Indian story, or one of any culture that I am aware of from literature.
    I have not read the enitre collection yet but have noticed that one can open to any one of the tales and instantly peek into this ancient culture of natural survival explained in mythical figures. Maybe we could all benefit by looking into the past just a bit to better understand the great difference between and occasional similarity to the culture of today.

  • Cheapskate Dad
    12:10 on October 27th, 2012
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    Elias Lonnrot’s noble achievement, “The Kalevala,” sings myriad Finnish tales to a reader’s heart and mind.

    The formidable epic poem weaves music, magic, and lusty suprahuman heroes traditional to Finland, and derives from Lonnrot’s artistic assembly of oral poetry.

    In reading this classic, one careers through a unique culture and mythology on horse-drawn sledges and hand-crafted vessels, meeting such fantastical figures as the ever-wiseman — and ever-bachelor — Vainamoinen and the brawny mistress of Northland, Louhi.

    Comprising fifty cantos, “The Kalevala” requires unfettered time, discerning ear, and adventurous spirit to complete. Tongue-tickling alliteration and intraline rhymes help speed the journey. And anyone who has read and enjoyed Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Song of Hiawatha” will appreciate Lonnrot’s compilation, as Longfellow modeled his work in part on “The Kalevala.”

    Perhaps the farfetched feats and unlikely events intrinsic to this mythological mosaic seem irrelevant to modern materialism and daily grind, but heeding the beck of such diversion will supply one not only with practical wisdom but also with the virtue of its purpose: pleasure, poetry, and historical preservation.

  • Indian_HB
    13:52 on October 27th, 2012
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    This review is in two parts:

    THE TRANSLATION: When it comes to reading ancient literature there are often numerous versions and translations. Unless a story is REALLY good, I only want to read it once. So it only makes sense that one should want to read the best version/translation available.
    Thankfully, the Keith Bosley translation of The Kalevala is the most reader-friendly, very much like Seamus Heaney’s translation of “Beowulf”.
    The Kalevala does not rhyme, although there are a few instances of alliteration scattered throughout. Each line is usually a handful of words comprising an even larger sentence, but it’s done in a tasteful way so that you won’t feel like you’re reading a James Joyce run-on sentence like in “Ulysses”.

    The Kalevala bounces around telling tales of several major characters, which is fortunate, considering the length of the work. Without giving anything away, the characters do things like get married, steal precious relics, sing magical songs, go to war and build many more precious relics.

    There are lots of good “Chapters” in The Kalevala and I was surprised that a few of my favorites had little or no action in them (according to a guy’s definition of action, at least). One of which was the marriage sequence of Chapters 21-24. If you’ve ever heard the advice, “Don’t get married”, this is probably one of the sources where such advice comes from.

    It is also noteworthy how much influence The Kalevala has had on Fantasy and Metal. If I remember correctly, Tolkien’s “Silmarillion” starts off with beings singing things into existence, much like the characters in The Kalevala do.
    The Finnish metal band “Ensiferum” has songs that are inspired straight from The Kalevala, such as “Old Man” which refers to Vainamoinen.
    There are many other bands in the folk metal genre, that, although they don’t specifically cite The Kalevala as an inspiration they clearly have songs that are similar to The Kalevala’s oral tradition. Some examples (in my opinion) would be Korpiklaani (Finnish), Metsatoell and Raud Ants (Estonian).

    Overall, I liked The Kalevala much more than I thought I would, given its length and I have to admit: I found it more interesting than Beowulf.

  • gatornib
    17:32 on October 27th, 2012
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    The Kalevala has a flow to it that makes the plot/ idea easy to follow. If English is your second language you will struggle with some of its vocabulary. The stories and the essence of this epic poem are captivating. I didn’t want to put the book down at night. This is a good way to get to know Finnish culture.

  • Eran Davidov
    22:50 on October 27th, 2012
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    This sister to the Norse Sagas is the masterwork of Finnish mythology.

    In it we follow the three main heroes – the elderly Vainamoinen, wise in everything except love; his brother Ilmarinen, the presumably middle-aged master smith; and Lemminkainen, the reckless young lothario who causes his wife and mother endless headaches but who we like enough anyway that we worry about him when he gets into trouble.

    In some ways, it’s a product of it’s time. This was written in a time when women had no say in who they married; they had no recourse if their husbands were abusive; and they were virtually their mother-in-law’s slaves until their younger brother-in-laws or sons got married and they weren’t the low women on the totem pole anymore. Althoug Aino’s story offers a message about this system, it’s pretty much accepted. This is what life was really like at the time these stories were sung.

    In other ways, though, it’s surprisingly modern. Although the results usually aren’t so serious, we’ve almost all been taken down a peg by an elder like Joukahainen at some point in our lives when we’ve needed it. I would imagine that many widowers – and widows, for that matter – can relate to Ilmarinen’s sense of loss when he loses his wife.

    And then there’s Kullervo. He wins the all-time teen angst award hands down. It’s fascinating how his cycle deals with a question psychologists have grappled with for centuries – are kids taught to be good, or are they just born good or bad? He’s a danger to society, yes – but he may also never have had a chance. No matter what you feel about what he does, the scene where he wanders pitifully among his family asking if anyone would cry if he died until he gets what he needs to hear from his mother, can move you to tears. Just read the headlines about the latest school shooting. There really are kids almost this messed up out there.

  • Hugh Blankly
    6:46 on October 28th, 2012
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    The Kalevala is the result of Elias Lönnrot collecting and commiting to paper the oral traditions of the Finnish people to produce an epic tale.
    This translation has captured the poetic delivery of the original Finnish as perfectly as these two opposing languages could.
    The poetry weaves the tales of Väinämöinen, an old seer and the younger Joukahainen who wishes to challenge him. This angers Väinämöinen who chants him deep into a swamp, a meadow and a heath!! To get himself out of trouble Joukahainen offers the old seer his sister Aino as a bride. Väinämöinen thinking he has been offered a house keeper accepts. Aino is quite taken with being his bride but Väinämöinen has other ideas and heads North to woo the maiden of the North. He can marry her if he forges a Sampo, which is a magical machine that churns out salt, flour and money! He can’t do that but he knows a man who can, his good friend Ilmarinen the blacksmith. He has to trick Ilmarinen into going North but he makes the Sampo. Then the marriage requires another task and so the maiden remains unmarried.

    Meanwhile, another character Lemminkäinen decides to go North and try his luck winning the maiden. He is given tasks in order to win her hand, capturing the elk of Hiisi and the swan from the river of Tuonela. The latter task nearly kills him and he gives up.

    Väinämöinen is now making himself a boat to head back up North but he runs out of spells so he has to go and find Vipunen, a giant who knows all the spells. He gets his spells, finishes his boat and heads North but he is seen by the sister of the blacksmith and the blacksmith rides like the wind on his horse and catches up with him. The two men make a pact that they will let the maiden choose between them. The maiden choose Ilmarinen because he forged the Sampo but her mother still wants more tasks done and she orders Ilmarinen to plough the field of vipers. Ilmarinen finds this easy with his armoured boots and cape and so the crone of the North sets him the task of capturing the giant pike of the chill north sea without line or net!!Ilmarinen forges himself a giant eagle and captures the pike. Now the old crone is satisfied and the wedding takes place. Väinämöinen makes a kantele from the jaw of the pike which produces sweet voiced music such that tames the beasts and even causes the sea king Ahti to rise from the depths. He and Ilmarinen use the sweet music to soothe the beasts of the North whilst they take the Sampo for themselves and set sail for home. Louhi, mistress of the North casts a fog spell to stop them, which Väinämöinen conjures away so Louhi unleashes a terrible storm which sweeps the kantele from the boat whereupon Ahti the sea king thinks it is a present to him and he calms the sea. The crone turns herself into an eagle and attacks Väinämöinen’s boat and in the struggle the Sampo is broken into pieces. Some of the pieces are washed up on the shore and from the fragments Ilmarinen makes amulets and rings thinking that perhaps there is still some magic left in the pieces. Each resident of Kalevala wears a magic piece on special occasions, wishing for a peaceful life.

    Now I’ve just condensed an epic piece into a few short paragraphs…for which I apologise but it’s a great tale and maybe this will encourage folk to read it themselves.

  • Silly person
    17:57 on October 28th, 2012
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    The folk epic of Finland will immediately have one source of familiarity to the English reader. Longfellow utilized the rhythmic scheme for Hiawatha. This wonderful story of – steadfast old Vainamoinen, Lemminkainen and Ilmarinen, with stories of everything from the creation of the world, to courting the daughter of the gat-toothed dame of sedgy northfarm, to the loss of the magic sampo must simply be read to be believed. You are taken into a world of shamans and will meet the prototype for Tolkien’s Tom Bombadil. Read it and enjoy.

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