National Epics
By Kate Milner Rabb

Presented by

Public Domain Books

The Kalevala

“Songs preserved from distant ages.”

The national epic of Finland, the Kalevala, or Place of Heroes, stands midway between the purely epical structure, as exemplified in Homer, and the epic songs of certain nations.

It is a purely pagan epic, and from its complete silence as to Finland’s neighbors, the Russians, Germans, and Swedes, it is supposed to date back at least three thousand years.

The first attempt to collect Finnish folk-song was made in the seventeenth century by Palmsköld and Peter Bäng. In 1733, Maxenius published a volume on Finnish national poetry, and in 1745 Juslenius began a collection of national poems. Although scholars saw that these collected poems were evidently fragments of a Finnish epic, it remained for two physicians, Zacharias Topelius and Elias Lönnrot, to collect the entire poem. Topelius, though confined to his bed by illness for eleven years, took down the songs from travelling merchants brought to his bedside. His collections were published in 1822 and 1831. Lönnrot travelled over Finland, collecting the songs, which he published, arranged in epical form, in 1835. A revised edition was published in 1849.

The Kalevala consists of fifty parts, or runes, containing twenty-two thousand seven hundred and ninety-three lines. Its historical foundation is the contests between the Finns and the Lapps.

Its metre is the “eight syllabled trochaic with the part-line echo," alliteration also being used, a metre familiar to us through Longfellow’s “Hiawatha.”

The labors of a Wolf are not necessary to show that the Kalevala is composed of various runes or lays, arranged by a compiler. Topelius and Lönnrot were conscientious collectors and compilers, but they were no Homers, who could fuse these disconnected runes into one great poem. The Kalevala recites many events in the lives of different heroes who are not types of men, like Rama, or Achilles, or Ulysses, but the rude gods of an almost savage people, or rather, men in the process of apotheosis, all alike, save in the varying degrees of magic power possessed by each.

The Finnish lays are interesting to us because they are the popular songs of a people handed down with few changes from one generation to another; because they would have formed the material for a national epic if a great poet had arisen; because of their pictures of ancient customs, and particularly the description of the condition of women, and because of their frequently beautiful descriptions of nature. But because they are simply runes “loosely stitched together” we can regard them only with interest and curiosity, not with admiration.

Bibliography and Criticism, the Kalevala.

Andrew Lang’s Homer and the Epic, pp. 412-419;

Andrew Lang’s Kalevala, or the Finnish National Epic (in his Custom and Myth), 1885, pp. 156-179;

C. J. Billson’s Folk-songs, comprised in the Finnish Kalevala, Folk-Lore, 1895, vi. pp. 317-352;

F. C. Cook’s Kalevala, Contemporary, 1885, xlvii., pp. 683-702;

Preface of J. M. Crawford’s Translation of the Kalevala, 1891.

Standard English Translations, the Kalevala.

The Kalevala, Tr. by J. M. Crawford, 2 vols., 1891;

The Kalevala, Tr. by W. F. Kirby, through the German translation of Schiefner;

Selections from the Kalevala, Tr. from a German version by J. A. Porter, with an introduction and analysis of the Poem, 1868.


Preface  •  The Râmâyana  •  The Story of the Râmâyana  •  Selections From the Râmâyana  •  The Story of the Mahâ-Bhârata  •  Selections From the Mahâ-Bhârata  •  The Iliad  •  The Story of the Iliad  •  Selections From the Iliad  •  The Story of the Odyssey  •  Selections From the Odyssey  •  The Kalevala  •  The Story of the Kalevala  •  Selections From the Kalevala  •  Selection From the Aeneid  •  Beowulf  •  The Story of Beowulf  •  Selection From Beowulf  •  Selections From the Nibelungen Lied  •  The Story of the Song of Roland  •  Selections From the Song of Roland  •  The Story of the Shah-Nameh  •  Selections From the Shah-Nameh  •  The Story of the Poem of the Cid  •  Selections From the Poem of the Cid  •  The Divine Comedy - The Hell  •  The Story of the Divine Comedy - The Hell  •  The Divine Comedy - The Purgatory  •  The Story of the Divine Comedy - The Purgatory  •  The Divine Comedy - The Paradise  •  The Story of the Divine Comedy - The Paradise  •  Selections From the Divine Comedy - Count Ugolino  •  Selection From the Orlando Furioso  •  The Lusiad  •  The Story of the Lusiad  •  Selections From the Lusiad  •  The Jerusalem Delivered  •  The Story of the Jerusalem Delivered  •  Selection From the Jerusalem Delivered  •  The Story of Paradise Lost  •  Selections From Paradise Lost  •  Apostrophe to Light  •  The Story of Paradise Regained  •  Selection From Paradise Regained