Last month the Finlandia Prize, Finlandâs most prestigious literary prize, was awarded to Juha Hurme for his novel Niemi [âHeadlandâ]. In praising the work, the jury said that it âtreats the myth of Finland and the Finns with all the knowledge that our culture contains. A scope of this breadth can only be explored with the magnificently dilettante literary style in which Hurme boldly challenges both the legendary Egon Friedell and Zachris Topeliusâ (translation by Helsinki Literary Agency).
The last of these comparisons is inevitable for any writer who attempts a history of the Finnish peninsula. The reference to Zacharius (Zachris) Topelius draws our attention to a great author perhaps not so well-known outside of the Nordic region, and on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of his birth (14 January 1818).
Born in KuddnĂ€s in Ostrobothnia, Topelius wrote mainly in Swedish but was focal in Finlandâs growing self-consciousness as a distinct nation. Since 1809, Finland had been a Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire yet Finland managed to gain more freedom to develop a national movement in the 19th century, than it had been allowed to do under Swedish rule previously. First as editor of the Swedish-language Helsinki daily, Helsingfors Tidningar, and later as a writer of historical novels and as Professor of History at the Imperial Alexander University in Helsinki (1854-1879), Topelius crafted exceptionally popular, romanticized and patriotic national histories and thereby heavily shaped the future identity of the burgeoning nation.
His first published book, Finland framstĂ€lldt i teckningar, was the earliest book of steel engravings of the Finnish landscape, for which he wrote a commentary. In later works, such as En resa i Finland (1872-74) and Boken om vĂ„rt land (1875), he continued to offer comprehensive overviews of his country, bringing the whole of Finland to readers with the help of masterful engravings by the likes of, among others, Magnus von Wright (1805-1868), Johan Knutson (1816-1899), and perhaps Finlandâs most famous landscape painter, Bernt Adolf Lindholm (1841-1914).
Recently, the Society of Swedish Literature in Finland has created a digital portal for Topeliusâs works, Zacharias Topelius Skrifter, which has so far published eight digital critical editions. This year, has released a digital critical edition of Boken om vĂ„rt Land (âThe Book of our Landâ), which was and is still one of the most important history books in Finland, not least because it was, in the words of critic Pertti Haapala, âthe foremost history textbook used in elementary schools between the 1870s and the 1940s, and it was read and commented on a great deal after the Second World War as wellâ (Haapala, p. 26). The British Library has an 1886 copy of the Finnish translation, Maame kirja (first published 1876), which shows signs of being well-used by a young Finnish student, presumably the âYrjĂ€ Hagelbergâ named on the inside cover. On the fly-leaf, you can make out a pencil drawing of a male figure coloured in red, lifting what apper to be weights. Later, we see several of the woodcuts coloured in (very capably) by young YrjĂ€. All in all, this Maamme kirja, a near 500-page textbook for young learners, full of lengthy verse quotations from the Kalevala and the Kanteletar, has however been treated with the respect that the seminal history text deserves.
Not only did Topelius frame his Finnish history from the perspective of a childâs experience, but he wrote a great many successful and enormously influential childrenâs books, which gave him the name âMr Fairy Taleâ. As Haapala notes, âit is easy to see that the childâs experience in reading The Book of Our Land is a metaphor for the emerging historical consciousness of a nationâ (p. 38). The childrenâs tales too are important in the development of the nation, as folk tales, myths, songs have always been in the foundation of national identities. Topeliusâs LĂ€sning fĂ¶r barn series (1864-1896, BL 12837.m.11) contains stories that continue to be translated into many languages. Each of the eight volumes contain around two hundred illustrations, some subtle and others of a more epic imagination.
For the centenary of Topeliusâs birth in 1918, the Swedish Academy asked the eminent Nobel Laureate Selma LagerlĂ¶f to write something on him. Topelius was a clear influence on the Swedish author of Nils Holgerssons underbara resa genom Sverige (The Wonderful Adventure of Nils), which takes much from Topeliusâs Boken om vĂ„rt Land, not least the idea to explain national geography from a childâs and birdâs eye view. LagerlĂ¶fâs paean is to a writer of both Finland and Sweden, and ultimately âthe Northâ â its life and landscape. Zachris Topelius asks âCan you love a country, so hard, so cold, so full of neglect?â His answer follows, âWe love it because it is our roots, the essence of our being, and we are the ones our country has made â a hard, frosty, fierce people [âŠ]â (En resa I Finland). The country that âmadeâ its people was itself created in the words of Topelius and fellow patriotic writers. And so, by extension, we might even say Topelius made a nation.
Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections
Zacharias Topelius, The Sea Kingâs Gift and other Tales from Finland (Retold by Irma Kaplan; illustrated by Anne Knight) (London, 1973), X.990/4615.
Ibid., Sammy and the Mountain King (illustrated by Veronica Leo) (London, 1984), X.995/461
Selma LagerlĂ¶f, Zachris Topelius. Utveckling och mognad (Stockholm, 1920), 011851.aa.54.
Pertti Haapala, âWriting our History: The History of the âFinnish Peopleâ (As Written) by Zacharias Topelius and VĂ€lnĂ¶ Linnaâ, in Pertti Haapala, Marja Jalava, and Simon Larsson (eds.), Making Nordic Historiography: Connections, Tensions and Methodology, 1850-1970 (New York, 2017), 5353.922500
Maija Lehtonen, âUn Finlandais du XIXĂšme siĂšcle face Ă lâEurope. Les rĂ©cits de voyage de Zachris Topeliusâ, in On the Borderlines of Semiosis. Acta Semiotica Fennica 2 (Imatra, 1993) YA.2003.a.18418. pp. 401-412