’Do not laugh!’ Tolkien famously wrote in a letter to Milton Waldman
‘But once upon a time (my crest has long since fallen) I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and the cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story -- the larger founded on the lesser in contact with the earth, the lesser drawing slendour from the vast backcloths -- which I could dedicate simply to: to England; to my country….I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama. Absurd.’
What we have in terms of Tolkien’s surviving works and notes gathered together by his son Christopher resembles this ‘body of more or less connected legend’, but it also resembles the Finnish national epic. In the 19th-century Elias Lönnrot, a Finnish physician, philologist and collector of traditional Finnish oral poetry gathered what became known as The Kalevala from Karelian and Finnish oral folklore and mythology. Regarded as the national epic of that region, and one of the most significant works of Finnish literature, The Kalevala went on to play a role in the development of the Finnish national identity.
Tolkien read this both in translation, and, teaching himself Finnish, in the original, first discovering the tale as a schoolboy in Birmingham. As his father had died when he was a young child, and his mother had passed away when he was 12, the tale of Kullervo the orphan, raised into slavery, who commits incest in the darkness of Finnish Karelia and later slaughters himself with his own blade, may have had a particularly poignant appeal. Later, he liked the fact that The Kalevala was a national myth. Britain had had Celtic stories and later had imported an entire Anglo-Saxon mythology, but these things had been largely wiped out by progressive invasions, particularly that of the Normans in 1066. Tolkien regretted that loss.
Though he never visited Finland, Tolkien was captivated by its language. In 1955 he told the poet WH Auden that discovering Finnish had been like ‘entering a complete wine-cellar filled with bottles of an amazing wine of a kind and flavour never tasted before’. At an early age, Tolkien began his own translation. Prof Verlyn Flieger of the University of Maryland, who edited Tolkien’s manuscript of The Story of Kullervo for publication, says ‘The landscape of Finnish mythology is very mysterious. It is a distant, northern country. Some of the stories even take place within the Arctic Circle. The country lends itself to a sense of magic and mystery.’ Tolkien was entranced and it is easy to see some of the elements of this romantic country in Tolkien’s own Beleriand, the first landscape of his created world of Middle-earth: ’In his letters he enthuses about this “very great story” but the translation ends abruptly. The manuscript runs to about 26 pages, but it breaks off in the middle of a sentence,’ Flieger explains. ‘He had just got to the climax, the most dramatic scene, and it stops. There is no full stop, no continuation of any kind. Only the words 'so terrible his haste’.
Instead, Tolkien went on to invent his own Elvish languages, and to write about hobbits, elves and dragons, while working as a professor of Anglo Saxon. As its impact upon him was so great, though, it’s worth examining The Kalevala in some detail.
Lönnrot’s first version, called The Old Kalevala, was published in 1835, but the version most commonly known today consists of 22,795 verses divided into fifty songs and was first published in 1849. It begins with the conventional Finnish creation myth, and is largely composed of characters singing of their exploits or desires: stories of romance and lust, kidnapping and seduction involve protagonists performing often superhuman feats, or tragically failing to do so.
Much of the work revolves around a magical artefact known as the Sampo. This is variously envisaged as a world tree, a compass or astrolabe, or a treasure chest, a magical coin or a shield, and even a Christian relic. Lönnrot himself saw it as a device for producing flour, salt, or gold out of thin air. One key thing to note is that the Sampo itself seems capable of instigating action, as well as a character's interaction with it. From a purely Tolkien perspective, there is a resemblance between the Sampo and the One Ring, the nature of which is purposely unclear in The Lord of the Rings: it appears to have a mind of its own, but it also seems only able to prey on the minds of those who wear it.
In the first songs, the Earth is created from the shards of a duck egg and the first man (Väinämöinen) is born to the goddess Ilmatar (a name strongly resonant of Tolkien’s mythology). Väinämöinen brings trees and life to the barren world, then, in further songs, he meets the jealous Joukahainen. In the ensuing battle, Joukahainen loses and promises his sister's hand in return for his own life, but Aino his sister drowns herself in the sea.
In Songs 6 to 10, Väinämöinen seeks to propose to the Maiden of the North but Joukahainen attacks him again and he is lost for days at sea until he is carried by an eagle to Pohjola (another Tolkien-esque image). Here Väinämöinen has Ilmarinen, a heroic maker who crafted the dome of the sky and various other magical devices, create the Sampo. In further songs, the character Lemminkäinen (a composite figure made up of several separate heroes of oral poetry, young, good-looking, with wavy red hair) sets out in search of a bride. Lemminkäinen also sets off to woo the Maiden of the North, disregarding his mother's warnings. After a long journey to the North, Lemminkäinen asks Louhi, the Mistress of the North, the shamanistic matriarch of the people of Pohjola and a powerful witch with a skill almost on a par with that of Väinämöinen’s, for her daughter's hand but she assigns tasks to him. This evokes Thingol’s demand that Beren recover one of the Silmarils before he can earn the hand of his daughter, Luthien.
On one of these quests, Lemminkäinen is shot by the Shepherd of the North who is annoyed by Lemminkäinen’s bad behaviour, and falls into a river of death. His mother at home notices blood flowing from Lemminkäinen's hairbrush, a sign that he is in trouble, and she goes in search of him. Ilmarinen gives her a rake with which she collects the pieces of Lemminkäinen from the river and pieces him back together; a bee brings her the items necessary to revive him.
In Songs 16 to 18, Väinämöinen, still seeking a bride himself, builds a boat to travel to Pohjola but is held prisoner in the land of death. Escaping with the use of magical powers, Väinämöinen sets out to gather the necessary songs of boat building from Antero Vipunen, but is swallowed and has to torture Antero Vipunen to get the spells and escape. Ilmarinen learning of Väinämöinen’s escape, sets out for Pohjola himself to woo the Maiden of the North. In the end, the much-pursued Maiden chooses Ilmarinen.
However, in Songs 19 to 25, Ilmarinen is similarly assigned dangerous tasks before he can claim the hand of the Maiden. He accomplishes these tasks with some help from the maiden herself, again evoking the cooperation of Beren and Luthien in Tolkien’s tale. Lemminkäinen, resentful for not having been invited to the wedding, arrives at Pohjola. and is challenged to and wins a duel with Sariola, the Master of the North. But an army appears to enact revenge upon Lemminkäinen and he flees to his mother, who advises him to head to the Island of Refuge. He emerges to find his home destroyed and travels to Pohjola with his companion Tiera for revenge, but has to return home when Louhi freezes the seas. There, he is reunited with his mother and vows to build larger better houses to replace the ones which have been burned down.
In Songs 31–36, Untamo kills his brother Kalervo’s people, but spares his wife who later begets Kullervo, a vengeful, mentally ill and tragic figure. Abused as a child and sold into slavery to Ilmarinen, Kullervo is put to work and treated badly by Ilmarinen's wife whom he later kills. After unsuccessfully trying to kill him, Untamo sells Kullervo as a slave to Ilmarinen. Ilmarinen's wife torments Kullervo so much that he tricks her into being torn apart by a pack of wolves and bears and escapes from Ilmarinen's homestead. After being reunited with his family, Kullervo meets and seduces a young maiden, only to find out that she is his sister. She commits suicide and Kullervo returns home distressed, seeking revenge and waging war on Untamo and his people. On returning home, he finds his farm deserted and he kills himself in the place where he seduced his sister.
Songs 37–38 tell of Ilmarinen’s grief. He creates a wife from gold and silver, but finds her to be cold and discards her. Journeying to Pohjola, he kidnaps the youngest daughter of Louhi, but she is outraged; in return, he turns her into a bird (reminiscent of Elwing’s transformation in The Silmarillion).
Ilmarinen returns and tells Väinämöinen about the prosperity and wealth that the Sampo has brought to Pohjola's people which prompts Väinämöinen, Ilmarinen and Lemminkäinen to set sail to Pohjola to claim the magical device. On arrival, they demand a share of the Sampo's wealth or they will take it by force. Väinämöinen puts everyone in Pohjola to sleep with his music and takes the Sampo from its vault (just as Luthien puts Morgoth to sleep in order for her and Beren to steal the Silmaril). Louhi creates a great army by magic, turns herself into an eagle and battles to recover the thing, but it is lost to the sea and destroyed. One can’t help think of the Silmaril which is likewise lost in the Sea, nor of the suggestion that the One Ring be thrown in the ocean as a way of dealing with its threat.
In Songs 45–49, Louhi launches an onslaught on the people of Kalevala, sending diseases and a great bear to kill their cattle, concealing the sun and the moon and stealing fire; however, Väinämöinen heals all this and, with Ilmarinen, restores the fire, also forcing Louhi to return the Sun and the Moon to the sky.
Song 50, the final song, tells of the young virgin Marjatta who becomes impregnated from a lingonberry she ate and begets a son. Väinämöinen orders his death, but the boy begins to speak, reproaching Väinämöinen for ill judgement. The child is then baptised King of Karelia and Väinämöinen sails away leaving only his songs.
In The Silmarillion, Kullervo becomes Turin Turambar, the emotionally torn warrior hero.
Tolkien-biographer Prof John Garth from the University of Nevada explains that the range of The Kalevala probably had an appeal to Tolkien: ‘There are clodhopping idiots, treated in a really down-to-earth, anti-heroic way. In Tolkien's own fiction, he creates totally different moods. The hobbits are very relatable, very friendly; and then the elves are much more remote.’
Dr Riitta-Liisa Valijarvi, senior teaching fellow in Finnish Language at University College London, explains the appeal of the Finnish language for Tolkien: ‘There are many grammatical cases. It is not an Indo-European language and so the vocabulary is not familiar. But the sound system is very easy, very basic, and that is what inspired [Tolkien's] Elvish’. Tolkien liked the long vowel sounds of Finnish and the umlaut accents.
‘Tolkien realised with The Story of Kullervo that language, culture and mythology are inextricably linked,’ Flieger explains. ‘He had invented a language - and so he invented a mythology.’ Flieger also thinks that the mood of the Finnish epic affected Tolkien's writing: ‘There is a strain of deep tragedy and pessimism that runs through Tolkien's work, even The Hobbit and certainly The Lord of the Rings. The Story of Kullervo is without a doubt the darkest story he ever wrote. It is our first experience of that darkness.’