Tolkien and 'The Kalevala'


’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 W.H. 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 te