The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw a rise of interest in national roots, and thus in folklore as such, the antiquities of different nations. The most notorious case in the eighteenth century was MacPherson's Ossian, purportedly a cycle of poems drawn from Gaelic poetry and capable of constituting a Scottish national epic. The project eventually came to be regarded as a forgery, which is somewhat harsh, given that MacPherson's work was certainly based on real Gaelic oral tradition, albeit heavily worked-over to make it conform to the poetic conventions of the day and MacPherson's own sensibilities. In truth, MacPherson was simply too early. The real age of constructing national epics from folk poetry was yet to come, and the nineteenth century gives us the two greatest examples of such a constructed national epic, both related to each other (but very different): the Kalevala, compiled by Elias Lönnrot out of Finnish and Karelian folksongs; and the Kalevipoeg, constructed by Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald out of (a much more fragmentary set of) Estonian folksongs. The Kalevala will be our fortnightly book.
Elias Lönnrot (1802-1884) was a health officer for the district of Kajaani, a position that required him to interact with a very scattered rural population. Like many doctors in that time, however, he was something of a Renaissance man, with interests in language, folklore, and botany. Over the course of eleven major expeditions he collected a very large number of folksongs directly from folksingers. During one of theses expeditions the idea occurred to him that there might be an implicit overarching story in many of the narrative tales, and he set out to try to reconstruct -- or perhaps construct -- this architectonic narrative. The firstfruits of this was what is now known as the Old Kalevala, which was published in the 1830s. More extensive research allowed Lönnrot to develop and expand this first start, and the Kalevala as it is generally known today was published in 1849.
It is difficult to determine Lönnrot's exact contribution to it. There's reason to think that most of the particular verses are simply derived from folksongs. Lönnrot's genius, however, is in the ability to blend widely different folksongs into a single narrative, allowing each strand to play off the others in a sort of polyphonic harmony. In this sense, the Kalevala is one of the most eminently successful examples of the attempt to put Romantic ideals into practice, not merely in its close connection with Romantic nationalism, not merely in its Romantic interest in the heroic, but also in the very structure of the work, in which Lönnrot started with a relatively unformed chaos and created out of it an order. Novalis somewhere talks about the regulative ideal of writing being to create a Bible -- not the Bible, but a Bible; an unattainable ideal, an ideal that would be crazy to think you have achieved, but nonetheless an ideal that is inherent in writing itself -- writing tends not merely to scripture but to Scripture. The writer seeks to write something fit for God, or, at least, for the gods, the Muses, and saying that something is literarily great is another way of saying that it speaks the world in as close to this godlike way as human beings can achieve. Reading Homer or Virgil, you can believe that they record the voice of the Muses. In many ways, the Romantic attempt to create national epics is precisely a reaching for this, and the Kalevala is the Romantic work that comes closest to doing justice to it: it is a national book, and a universal book, touching the origins and the ends of the things as the backdrop of heroes, speaking of timeless themes in the context of a time (albeit a vague time) and place. There were several attempts at this extremely ambitious goal, and, as I noted, Kreutzwald's Kalevipoeg is a notable attempt; but none have ever been as successful as the Kalevala.
We are no longer Romantics, but this ambitious kind of project has an enduring appeal. It constitutes much of the interest in the work of Tolkien, for instance. And, indeed, Tolkien's work, although it transformed into something rather different, began as Tolkien's own attempt to build a national mythology and epic for England. And the influence of the Kalevala on Tolkien is clear sometimes palpable. Tolkien himself noted that the story of Túrin Turambar began as an attempt to rework the tale of Kullervo, from the Kalevala, into a form that fit his languages and tastes. This turned out to be a very major reworking indeed, especially as the work connected up with other stories original to Tolkien.
The translation I will be using is that of Keith Bosley. I'm not a huge fan of it; but it is the one I have on hand. The Finnish of the Kalevala is by all accounts colloquial and folksy, but Finnish is a language that can easily get away with that. English, being less alliterative, less flexible, more stress-driven, and, in short, more prosaic language, needs a little help. I do not think Bosley has managed to hit the sweetspot ; but in fairness, he does try while giving something as accurate and readable as possible. And there's something to be said for simply letting parallelism, which pervades the work in intricate ways and yet also is perhaps the most translatable feature, perform its task, even if it has to shoulder more than could be wished. And Bosley is, in all fairness, quite good at this.
There's simply no better way to end this post than with an excerpt from Jean Sibelius's Kullervo, Op. 7 (the whole thing, of course, is too long to post). From the introductory movement: