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Exploring Europe at the British Library

28 February 2014

A Day to Celebrate Finnish Culture

Mastered by desire impulsive,
By a mighty inward urging,
I am ready now for singing,
Ready to begin the chanting
Of our nation's ancient folk-song
Handed down from by-gone ages.

So starts one of the earliest English translations of the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic, which tells the stories of mythical heroes and heroines.  The Kalevala is based on poetry in the oral tradition and is an arrangement of material collected by Elias Lönnrot and his assistants during their travels in Finland and Karelia in the first half of the 19th century. Lönnrot was a doctor, researcher and writer, with a particular interest in the Finnish language.

Cover of a biography of Lönnrot with his portrait and an image of an angelic figure playing a harpCover of August Ahlqvist’s biography Elias Lönnrot: elämä-kerrallisia piirteitä (Helsinki, 1884) 10602.d.28(4)).

There are two main editions. The first, published in 1835, was called Kalevala taikka vanhoja  Karjalan runoja Suomen kansan muinosista ajoista (‘Kalevala or old Karelian poems about the ancient times of the Finnish people’) and is known as the ‘Old’ Kalevala. In 1849 a new edition was published with the extra material that Lönnrot had gathered in the intervening years.  It is this second edition, the ‘New’ Kalevala, containing 50 poems and almost 23,000 lines, that is the one most commonly read and referred to when Finns talk of the Kalevala today. 

Title page of the 1835 edition of Kalevala.
Title page of the 1835 edition of Kalevala. Ac.9080 [no. 2]

Both editions were published by Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura (The Finnish Literature Society) which was founded in 1831.  Lönnrot was its first secretary, and his notebooks and manuscripts can still be seen there.  Its website today states that ‘SKS's primary functions are the research and promotion of Finnish oral tradition, the Finnish language and literature’ and in this its aims have remained the same for almost 200 years. It had a central role as a cultural institute at a time of national awakening, after Finland broke away from Sweden in 1809. The Kalevala was a powerful symbol of this developing national identity, and many new works in the fine arts were inspired by it, perhaps most famously the paintings of Akseli Gallen-Kallela.     

Painting of a woman kneeling by the body of her dead sonLemminkäinen's Mother by Akseli Gallen-Kallela.  Image from Wikimedia Commons 

In the British Library, holdings of Kalevala-related material, both primary texts and secondary literature, are extensive.  Searching our catalogue for the term ‘Kalevala’ brings up some 370 entries, revealing a wealth of treasures.  Aside from the 19th-century originals (which appeared in the Proceedings of the Finnish Literature Society, a series we still collect today), there are also later editions and adaptations.  There are translations into many languages, which are an indication of how the work has captured the imagination of readers from all over the world.  Secondary material includes the yearbooks of Kalevalaseura (The Kalevala Society)and a wide range of other research publications. 

Book cover with an image of a young man in a forest blowing a horn Cover of Kalevalavihko (Helsinki, 1909)  11852.v.20

Those researching Lönnrot himself will also find much of interest, including a presentation copy (to his friend J.F. Granlund) of Mehiläinen (‘The Bee’), the first Finnish-language periodical, which he founded, and a copy of Suomalais-Ruotsalainen Sanakirja (‘A Finnish-Swedish Dictionary’) which he edited in his later years.

  Handwritten inscription by Lönnrot
Inscription by Lönnrot on the title page of Mehiläinen. (Oulu, 1836-37, 1839-40)  C.121.b.19

Today, February 28th, is Kalevala Day in Finland and flags will be raised to commemorate the publication of the first edition.  A wreath will be placed at Emil Wikström’s statue of Elias Lönnrot in Helsinki.  It is an occasion for celebrating not just the Kalevala itself but Finnish culture as a whole. 

Barbara Hawes, Curator Scandinavian Studies


The Kalevala, the epic poem of Finland, Translated by J. M. Crawford.  (New York, 1888.)  11557.d.8.

Kalewala taikka Wanhoja Karjahan Runoja Suomen kansan muinosista ajoista.  (Helsinki, 1835, 1849.)  Ac.9080 [nos. 2, 14]

Suomalais-Ruotsalainen Sanakirja. Finskt-Svenskt Lexikon  (Helsinki, 1874-86.)  Ac.9080 [no.50]



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