Saturday, November 10, 2012

Elias Lönnrot, The Kalevala


Opening Passage:

I have a good mind
take into my head
to start off singing
begin reciting
reeling off a tale of kin
and singing a tale of kind.
The words unfreeze in my mouth
and the phrases are tumbling
upon my trongue they scramble
along my teeth they scatter.

Summary: What shall we say about the Kalevala? The Kalevala is divided into fifty songs, each called a runo. There are different ways you can divide them, but this one makes sense to me:

(1) Väinämöinen opens the poem. He is the son of the daughter of the air, and is born old and wise in the creation of the world; he is the mightiest singer in the world, and he settles in the land of Kalevala. His excellence as a singer leads a young singer, Joukahainen, to challenge him to a singing duel; Väinämöinen sings him into a swamp until Joukahainen, to save his life, promises Väinämöinen the hand of his sister, Aino. This does not turn out well; afraid to marry such an old man, Aino chooses to drown herself instead. Väinämöinen then sets out to ask for the hand of the Maid of the North, but on his way there he is attacked in revenge by Joukahainen and is lost until an eagle carries him to the Northlands, Pohjola. There he strikes a deal with Louhi, the Mistress of Pohjola, that if he can get Ilmarinen to make a marvelous mill, the Sampo, for her, then she will let him marry her daughter. Ilmarinen is the greatest smith; he had forged the very firmament itself. The Maid of the North is not quite so thrilled, and sets Väinämöinen all sorts of impossible tasks, which he completes; and then he convinces Ilmarinen to make the Sampo. However, he never gets the bride. This takes us to the tenth song.

(2) We then get the story of lusty Lemminkäinen, who sets out to woo the beautiful maiden Kyllikki; which he does by kidnapping her. However, he becomes dissatisfied with her ways and abandons her to woo the Maid of the North. This venture is utterly ill-fated; he dies. However, he has a mother who loves him very much, and she goes to the Deathlands, Tuonela, to bring him -- and does. This requires actually putting him back together piece by piece. This gets us to the fifteenth song.

(3) We then get quite an elaborate wedding cycle that begins pulling various strands together. Väinämöinen makes a boat, which he only manages to complete by going to Tuonela to get magic charms. He then heads off to Pohjola to win the Maid of the North, but Ilmarinen hears about it and sets out by sled to get there first. They get there about the same time, but given a choice between the old Väinämöinen and the handsome young Ilmarinen, the Maid of the North has no hesitation in choosing Ilmarinen, despite the fact that Louhi would rather she marry Väinämöinen, who is at least not a grimy smith. Ilmarinen completes the requisite impossible tasks, and then there are several songs devoted to the wedding. However, Lemminkäinen was not invited, and he tries to crash the wedding; which leads him to kill the Master of the Northlands, to the obvious fury of Louhi. He is forced to flee and hide on an island. Which he is again forced to flee due to the husbands of the wives he seduces. He finds that Pohjola has destroyed his home, and he sets out to have his revenge, but he can't even get there because Louhi captures his ships in ice. This takes us up to the thirtieth song.

(4) We then get the story of Kullervo, Kalervo's son. Two brothers, Untamo and Kalervo, quarrel, which leads Untamo to kill Kalervo. Kalervo has a son, however, Kullervo, who lives in Untamo's house for a while. One of the things that's important to grasp about Kullervo is that he is quite literally larger than life: and, as one might expect of a real larger-than-life person let loose on the world, he destroys everything around him. Set to the task of making a clearing in the woods, he levels the forest, including the good timberland. Set to the task of beating wheat to separate grain from chaff, he beats both grain and chaff into dust. Untamo sells the boy to Ilmarinen, whose wife dislikes Kullervo for some reason and mistreats him every chance she can get. At one point, making him a meal for taking the cows out to pasture, she deliberately bakes a stone into his bread out of malice. In response, Kullervo, as unrestrained as ever, brings home a pack of wolves and bears instead of the cows. When she goes out to milk the cows, she is attacked; she begs Kullervo for help, but he refuses and she dies. Kullervo flees back to his family, where he discovers that his sister has vanished. Later, on a trip for the family, he comes across a woman, whom he seduces. They learn too late that she is his sister. Ashamed, she drowns herself. Kullervo sets out to revenge himself on Untamo, and manages to do so. But when he returns home he discovers that all of his family is dead. He asks his sword if it is willing to drink his blood, and it speaks, saying that it is; and he falls on his sword.

It is this part of the story that influenced Tolkien's story of the Children of Hurin; Turin Turambar's story shares all the tragic elements of Kullervo's. It is very noticeable that Turin's story is massively darker, and part of this is because Kullervo is so absurdly over-the-top of everything that there is a sort of dark comedy, at least at first, to the fact that he destroys everything around him. But there is no comic element to Turin's story. Unlike Kullervo, Tolkien gives us much of Turin's motivations, and this is, I think, the reason. The major difference between Kullervo and Turin is simply that Kullervo is practically born to tragedy; his life is the working out of the Fratricide with which it starts. He can hardly help himself, although the killing of the wife of Ilmarinen was a very cold-blooded thing to do. But Turin's tragedy all comes from his pride, and there is nothing comic about pride.

(5) Ilmarinen, distraught over the death of his wife, tries to make a new one out of metal, but he finds this unsatisfactory for the obvious reasons. He then goes to Pohjola to get another of Louhi's daughters, but both Louhi and the daughter refuse. He returns and tells Väinämöinen about the Sampo, which is providing Pohjola with an inexhaustible source of wealth, and together they set out to steal it, soon joined by Lemminkäinen. In the course of their trip, Väinämöinen catches a pike and makes the first kantele of it, making extraordinary music. With this kantele he is able to enchant the whole of Pohjola, and they steal the Sampo. When the people of Pohjola awake, they are, of course, outraged, and Louhi raises obstacles against the thieves, leading to the loss of the pike kantele, and eventually attacks herself in the form of the monstrous eagle. A terrible battle follows, during which the Sampo is destroyed, and its pieces fall into the sea. Some of the pieces, however, wash up on the shores of Kalevala, bringing the people of Kalevala good luck. Väinämöinen manages to make a birch kantele to replace his pike kantele. Louhi attempts to destroy the prosperity of Kalevala by sending first plagues and then a bear. Väinämöinen is able to counter these. Finally she steals the sun and moon, which ends up being a much more troublesome problem. Väinämöinen and Ilmarinen try several different ways to get around this, and finally determine a complete assault to get the real sun and moon is the only way to solve the problem. Louhi gets wind of this and, knowing she is in no position to deal with such a thing, sets the sun and moon free.

The battle over the Sampo, incidentally, makes a good point at which to talk about Bosley's translation. Bosley's very good at keeping the swiftness of narrative verse -- as I've mentioned, narrative verse has to be much swifter than most poetry -- but not so great at the savor of it. We get this here and there with some of the expressions; Bosley has a bad habit of consistently erring on the side of making them more prosaic than they strictly need. For instance, there is a recurring expression in the poem, "Not in a gold-white moon," which means 'never'. Bosley translates it as "Not in a month of Sundays". There is no conceivable argument for this being better as a translation than "Not in a gold-white moon" -- yes, the latter is obscure, and yes, it's just an expression without quite the exotic glamor it has in English, but Bosley has to explain his translation, anyway, and the translation he does give is clearly a demotion. Take this bit from song 37 (pp. 503-504):

'Do not, luckless boys
fellows just growing
whether you're wealthy
even if you're not
ever in this world
not in a month of Sundays
don't woo a woman of gold
or work on one of silver
for the gleam of gold is cold
and silver's glitter is chill.'

Is there anyone who can possibly think that "not in a month of Sundays" was a better translation here than "not in a gold-white moon," even if the latter required an endnote? There are plenty of examples of this sort of thing; for instance, in his search for synonyms for 'said', he repeatedly uses the word 'chattered' in contexts in which it makes no sense.

But it is in the battle scene, in Runo 43, that I think we see the real limitations of Bosley's approach. To show this, here is someone singing parts of the battle scene in Finnish (to a modern melody, although one designed for the Kalevala), with John Martin Crawford's 1888 translation on the screen.

The section about Väinämöinen taking on Louhi in eagle's form, with just part of a boat, is, again, in Crawford's translation:

Wainamoinen, ancient hero,
The eternal wisdom-singer,
Thinking he had met destruction,
Snatched the rudder from the waters,
With it smote the monster-eagle,
Smote the, eagle's iron talons,
Smote her countless feathered heroes.
From her breast her hosts descended,
Spearmen fell upon the billows,
From the wings descend a thousand,
From the tail, a hundred archers.

Here, however, is how Bosley translates it (pp. 568-569):

Steady old Väinämöinen
the everlasting wise man
saw that it was time
knew the moment had come. He
drew his paddle from the sea
the oak sliver from the wave:
with it he bashed the woman
struck the claws off the eagle;
the other claws fell to bits
but there was one talon left.
And the boys fell from under a wing
and a thousand fellows from the tail.

Now, I have no doubt that Crawford takes more liberties with the translation, although some of them are due to the fact that he keeps some suggestion of the meter. But the difference is that Crawford has given us an epic battle, while Bosley has managed to make the description more vague and prosaic and, simultaneously, more obscure. It's not a total loss; Bosley always has a good sense of parallelism and how to use it, and it comes out here. But, again, and this is the thing of it, Crawford's translation, whatever else one may say about it, gives us a stunning battle. It gives us something like Akseli Gallen-Kallela's The Defense of the Sampo (from Wikimedia Commons):

Gallen-Kallela The defence of the Sampo

Bosley gives us an old guy beating a bird with an oar. Strictly speaking, there's a sense in which that is exactly what is happening, but this is in fact a clash of titans: Väinämöinen against Louhi; Louhi has come against the heroes with overwhelming power, and Väinämöinen rises to the occasion. This is a recurring fault in Bosley, and, actually, in most modern translators of narrative verse: consistent error on the side of the prosaic. But while narrative verse may be like prose in being narrative, it is not prose.

(6) Finally, we get song 50, which is in a class by itself. A young woman named Marjatta, who is a virgin, eats a berry (marja) and becomes pregnant. She has to fend off accusations of being a whore, and when it comes time to give a birth, she needs to find a sauna, but nobody will let her use one. Finally, her little servant girl, Piltti, comes to the home of a man named Herod, and while they refuse to let Marjatta use the sauna, they do let her use the stable. There she gives birth to a baby boy. He vanishes and she finally finds him in the swamp, like an abandoned child. She then tries to get him christened, but no one will do it because they want an inquiry into who the father was. Väinämöinen tries to decide the case, but when he comes down on the wrong side, he is sharply scolded by the little boy for his sins, and is so ashamed that he leaves Kalevala, leaving behind only the kantele. Thus with the coming of the Son of Mary the age of Väinämöinen ends. I have previously talked a bit about Runo 50, so I won't do so here.

Favorite Passage: There are lots to choose from, but the following is a good one. Lemminkäinen's mother has sent a bee to the house of God in order to get the last bit for her resurrection charm.

And the bee rose from the earth
the mead-wing form the hummock;
now it fluttered off
whizzed on little wings.
It flew beside the moon's ring
the sun's border it skirted
past the Great Bear's shoulderblades
the back of the Seven Stars;
it flew to the Lord's cellar
to the Almighty's chamber.
There ointment is being made
and salves are being prepared
in pots of silver
and in pans of gold:
honey boiled in the middles
at the brims melted butter
mead at the south tip
at the north end salves. (p. 182)

Recommendation: This is one of those literary works everyone should read at least once in their lives. And despite my complaints about Bosley's weaknesses, his is in fact a good translation in many other ways, being swift and rich with parallelisms.

All references to The Kalevala: An Epic Poem after Oral Tradition by Elias Lönnrot, Keith Bosley, tr. Oxford UP (New York: 1989).

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