Finnish kalevala and Estonian Kalevipoeg

by Jaan Puhvel


Finnish Kalevala and Estonian Kalevipoeg

The title of my presentation requires some minor fine-tuning in relation to the topic. From the sound of it I might be expected to consider how the Kalevala impacted upon the Kalevipoeg, that is, trace the direct influence of opus A on opus B. This can of course be done, but it would end up being a minor topic of limited interest. For the Kalevipoeg is not merely some kind of epigonic afterthought brought to fruition in the glorious wake of the Kalevala as an outgrowth or imitation of the latter. The two are largely parallel phenomena in geographically adjacent, ethnically akin, and culturally related milieus; and yet the political, intellectual and other dynamics that led to their creation largely constitute two solitudinal developments which ultimately converged only belatedly and tangentially. It is this comparative and contrastive story of underpinnings that I wish to tell from the Estonian vantage point, and how at the last minute the actual appearance of the Kalevala did in fact provide the catalytic and inspirational final impetus that put the Estonian epic over the top.

The reopening of the university in 1802 produced the path of higher education for at least a few of the newly freed Estonians. The two heroes of that process, F. R. Faehlmann and F. R. Kreutzwald, both ethnic Estonians, were able to enter the university in 1818 and 1826 respectively.


But they were no longer alone. While the belated fallout of the enlightenment in Western Europe triggered the end of serfdom, it was instead its intellectual antidote, romanticism, that created the climate for the rise of a national epic. Johann Gottfried Herder spent youthful years in Livonia and Riga in the 1760s and started the first transmissions of Estonian folksong to the wide world of letters. Christian Schlegel came to Estonia as a young tutor in 1780 and developed a sincere enthusiasm for the native poetry. When he came again in 1807, he instituted some organized collecting. In the meantime a local coterie of so-called ‘Philestonen’ or ‘Estonophiles’ had taken shape among the local clerical intelligentsia, leading to the creation by J. H. Rosenplänter in Pernau of the first periodical devoted to Estonian language and literature, Beiträge zur genauern Kenntnis der ehstnischen Sprache (20 volumes, 1813-1832).


The idolizing of folk genius almost inevitably brings in its wake a certain manipulation. Estonian folksong turned out to be in the main lyrical and produced by women – quite the opposite of what the sturdy old epic bards of Karelia had in their repertory – and it was hence in the main unsuitable for epic use. Therefore the movement towards an Estonian epic had to draw sustenance from other, and less pure, wells than the wondrous reservoir of Farther Karelia.
Two landmarks on the path to the Kalevipoeg deserve mention. The first is Garlieb Merkel’s Die Vorzeit Lieflands. Merkel was a somewhat pathos-ridden romantic firebrand of Livonia-Latvia, who had imbibed Voltaire, Rousseau and Herder in equal measure, and whose publicistic activism bore on social justice and literature alike.


Another work introduces the Finnish dimension for the first time, and in fact marks the first pre-Kalevala impact on the pre-Kalevipoeg. In volume 14 of Rosenplänter’s Beiträge in 1822, the first great Estonian literary poet Kristjan Jaak Peterson, in the year of his death at age 21, published a German translation and adaptation of Christfrid Ganander’s Mythologia Fennica of 1789. Ganander’s was a second-rate piece of work to begin with, not up to the standards which Porthan had set; and Peterson’s knowledge of Swedish and Finnish was not the best. Yet the transposition was a landmark in creating by inference and adaptation an Estonian pantheon matching the Finnish one, for example Vanemuine drawn from Väinämöinen, and so forth. Inferentially, of course, these figures must have once been common to the Proto-Finno-Estonians of the first millennium, and their recovery for Estonia from the Finnish archaic fringe was merely an act of restoration, but it nevertheless earned the dubious label of pseudo-mythological manipulation.


With heroic pseudo-history and an Olympian-type pseudo-pantheon in place, it did not take long until the Estonophile cleric Heinrich Jannau produced in 1828, in volume 19 of Rosenplänter’s journal, a fanciful treatise Über die Grund- und Ursprache der Ehsten where the Estonians figure as the premier ancient nation of the North, with a high civilization and contacts with the Roman empire, immortalized as the Aestii of Tacitus’s Germania. Such pipedreams have since been perpetrated repeatedly by nationalistic amateurs down to our own day.


Then, largely spearheaded by Faehlmann, and inspired by the appearance of the Old Kalevala, the Estonian learned Society is founded at Tartu in 1838, and in Volume I of its transactions Faehlamnn begins a series of articles on Estonian mythology, embroidering further where the Ganander-Peterson opus had left off. From 1839 dates his tract “Die Sage vom Kallewi poeg”. The new, liberal-minded periodical Das Inland had started up in 1836 and also published a string of folktales on “Kaallew’s Sohn” who was hitherto known mostly by name only or as a prodigious legendary plowman with a propensity for molesting women. There is no question that the sudden emphasis on the figure of the strongman Kalev was nurtured by name-affinity to the just-appeared Kalevala; the first runo of the Kalevala appeared in German and Estonian translation in that same first volume of transactions in 1840.


If a lost pantheon could be inferentially resurrected on Finnish models, the reasoning went, so could a lost epic. At the time of Faehlmann’s 1839 presentation, his friend and fellow physician Georg Schultz-Bertram returned from Finland with a copy of the Kalevala and some Finnish parallels to the Kalevipoeg sagas, and reinforced his colleague in a famous speech in which he said that the recreation of an epic was essential to restore the self-respect of the Estonian nation, and that it was a matter of the highest cultural priority, like revealing to a beggar that he is in truth the long-lost son of a king.


But even that galvanization proved transitory. The 1840s went on and nothing much happened. Lönnrot himself spent the latter half of 1844 in Estonia, but even that failed to move things. It was a difficult time socially and politically. Poor harvests, famine, peasant revolts, and emigration coincided with counterattacks by Baltic German ideologues. Faehlmann seemed the obvious man to do the epic, but an overload of commitments, both as physician and as university lecturer of Estonian, coupled with declining health, deterred him until his death in 1850 at the age of 51. Only bits and pieces of his ongoing efforts remain.


In 1849, of course, the definitive Kalevala was published. This event, coupled with the death of Faehlmann, caused the Estonian Learned Society to practically commission his remaining closest friend and fellow Estonian, Kreutzwald, to carry the task to completion. The latter thus undertook the task, primarily to rescue for posterity the traditions of a disappearing mini-nation. At least such was the stance which helped keep the censor at bay.


Kreutzwald knew something of how lays might be joined and internally expanded into epics, but of course he had no lays to work with, only prose sagas and interspersable lyric pieces. His task was not only one of combination, but largely also of versification into trochaic tetrameter. Although a good specialist in folksong and a poet in his own right, he took considerable liberties which detracted somewhat from the final result. Only about twelve percent is from original folksongs, versus about ninety-seven percent in the Kalevala; the whole is far less genuine and original than what Lönnrot stitched together into the Kalevala (although it is also a frequently committed mistake to consider the Kalevala a pure folk-epic merely mediated by Lönnrot).


Years of preliminary prose and then versified versions resulted in piecemeal publications in the Transactions of the Estonian Learned Society between 1857 and 1861, with parallel German translations by Carl Reinthal. The complete Estonian text of about 19 000 trochaic tetrameters was printed at Kuopio in Finland in 1862 and carried the work into the world. Henry Longfellow who died in 1882, had a copy, for I found it with his autograph in the Harvard University Library. In 1895 William Kirby, translator of the Kalevala, also mediated a mostly prose summary of the Kalevipoeg in his book The Hero of Esthonia. In 1982 a sumptuous full English verse translation was issued by Jüri Kurman, by Symposia Press in New Jersey. In the same year a certain Lou Goble committed something called The Kalevide, a Kirby-based pastiche of the Kalevipoeg, published by “Bantam Science Fiction and Fantasy Books” and subtitled “The spellbinding saga of a legendary warrior-king, a modern retelling of Northern Europe’s greatest epic.”


The significance of Kalevipoeg for Estonian culture has been great, but not as pervasive as that of the Kalevala for the Finns. It certainly deserves to be read and, perhaps, even imitated. Just as the songs that went into the Kalevala are now available for public inspection in the multi-volume Suomen kansan vanhat runot (1908-1948), a hefty collection of of the original Kalevipoeg-legends was published in Tallinn in 1959, in the series Monumenta Estoniae Antiquae.
On those bases anyone who does not like the original Kalevala or Kalevipoeg is free to create his own. Friedebert Tuglas suggested early in this century that the Kalevipoeg be overhauled by more competent hands. Whimsical authors of our day have in fact had their go at it – Paavo Haavikko with his Rauta-aika in Finland and Enn Vetemaa in Estonia with his Memoirs of Kalevipoeg. The days of a possible impact of the Kalevala on the Kalevipoeg (or vice versa) are not necessarily over.

(Abbreviated from The World of Kalevala. UCLA Folklore and Mythology Publications, Los Angeles)

Jaan Puhvel,
Prof. emeritus
of the University of California