European studies blog

14 posts categorized "Finland"

31 December 2015

‘On the hay in horses’ stable’: a Kalevala nativity

As 2015 comes to an end, the year in which the 150th anniversary of the birth of Jean Sibelius was celebrated with concerts of his music throughout the world, it is also appropriate to recall that it also marked the 180th anniversary of the publication of the first printed version of the Finnish national epic which inspired so many of his works – the Kalevala.

Kalevala 1835
The first  printed edition of the Kalevala (Helsinki, 1835) British Library Ac.9080 [no. 2]

The edition was composed of material gathered by Elias Lönnrot (1802-1884), a physician whose work  as district doctor of Kajaani in Eastern Finland took him deep into the countryside, as the 4,000 people for whom he was responsible lived in scattered communities. He arrived in the area at a time when it had been ravaged by disease and crop failure, causing his predecessor to resign in despair. However, Lönnrot was ahead of his time in many ways, recognizing the importance of preventive measures such as hygiene and vaccination and also the value of traditional remedies, many of which he employed himself rather than dismissing them as primitive nonsense, and thus won the trust of his patients.

Kalevala Elias Lönnrot
Portrait and facsimile signature of Elias Lönnrot, frontispiece from O.A. Kallio, Elias Lönnrot (Helsinki, 1902) 10760.aa.12

Along with these folk remedies Lönnrot, a passionate advocate of the Finnish language against the enforcement of Swedish and Russian by successive governments, began to collect fragments of ancient lays taken down from local singers. These told of the feud between the people of Kaleva and those of Pohjola, the quest for the Sampo, a powerful talisman, and the exploits of the legendary heroes Lemminkäinen, Kullervo and Väinämöinen, a smith, musician and adventurer who devised the Finnish national instrument, the kantele. Like the Homeric epics, the Kalevala also includes many fascinating details of crafts, warfare and household management, as well as enshrining the values by which the people of Kaleva lived.

Not only Sibelius, in his Kullervo symphony and cycle of Lemminkäinen legends including The Swan of Tuonela, was inspired by the Kalevala. Composers, poets, painters and sculptors in Finland and abroad seized upon the magic and mystery of its verses to explore its many layers of symbolism and potential for expression in a wide variety of media. It has also been translated into many languages since its first appearance. In Finland 28 February is celebrated annually as  ‘Kalevala Day’ to commemorate the publication of Lönnrot’s first version of the epic in 1835.

One  of the less familiar episodes, though, is especially suited to the Christmas season. In the 50th and final Runo (canto), the narrator tells of Marjatta, a cherished and protected young girl so pure that she will not drive in a sleigh pulled by mares who have been running with a stallion, or drink milk from cows who have been kept with a bull. Sent to the upland pastures to guard the flocks, she eats a magical lingonberry and shortly afterwards finds that she is expecting a child. Her parents cast her out, and she seeks refuge in vain with neighbours who drive her away with harsh words. In a stable deep in the forest she gives birth to a son, warmed by the breath of the horses:

And a sinless child was given,
On the hay in horses’ stable,
On the hay in horses’ manger.

Then she wrapped the little infant
And in swaddling-clothes she wrapped him,
On her knees she took the infant,
And she wrapped her garments round him.

Kalevala Runo 50
The opening of Marjatta’s story, vignette and design by Akseli Gallen-Kallela, from Kalevala (Porvoo, 1949) o11586.ppp.1.

Shortly afterwards the baby mysteriously vanishes and Marjatta goes in search of him, asking the stars, moon and sun for guidance until she finds him in the marshes and carries him off to be baptized. The old man asked to do so demurs, asking Väinämöinen for his judgment. When the latter calls for the destruction of the child, the infant speaks out and denounces him, and Väinämöinen, realizing that his power is at an end, sings for the last time before stepping into his copper boat and sailing away, leaving his kantele as a final gift to ‘Suomi’s children’.  

Drawing together the threads of Christian and pagan tradition like Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue, the closing lines of the Kalevala sum up its enduring significance for the Finnish people and for poets throughout the world:

Here the path lies newly opened,
Widely open for the singers,
And for greater ballad singers,
For the young, who now are growing,
For the rising generation.

Susan Halstead, Content Specialist (Humanities and Social Sciences), Research Engagement.

Kalevala Runo 50 End
The last lines of the Kalevala, with vignette by Akseli Gallen-Kallela of a child playing the kantele, from o11586.ppp.1.

08 August 2014

Moomins and more…

Saturday 9 August will be celebrated in Finland and worldwide as the 100th anniversary of the birth of Tove Jansson, Finnish artist and writer. Born in Helsinki into a Finland-Swedish family of artists – her father was a sculptor, her mother an illustrator – Tove Jansson is perhaps best known in this country as the creator of the Moomintrolls. 

Self-portrait of Tove Jansson, surrounded by characters from her Moomin storiesTove Jansson, Self portrait with Moomins (© Moomin Characters™).

In the first book about the Moomins that appeared in English in 1950, Finn Family Moomintroll  (‘Trollkarlens hatt’), Moominmamma writes a special letter to English children, anxious that they may not understand trolls and explaining the particular characteristics of a Moomintroll, how it is “smooth and likes sunshine” unlike ordinary trolls which “popp up only when its dark”.  She ends the letter by asking to be excused her “rottn’ english” saying that “Moomins go to school only as long as it amuses them”. 

This was the start of a long association with British readers, further strengthened in 1954 when a comic strip featuring the Moomins began to appear in the Evening News. Originally created by Tove Jansson herself, after some years the comic strip was continued by her brother, Lars Jansson. 

  Photograph of Tove Jansson and her brother LarsTove Jansson and her brother Lars (© Moomin Characters™).

Less well known perhaps is that she also illustrated the Swedish translations of some British classics, notably J.R.R Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and The Hunting of the Snark. In 2011, the original English editions of the Lewis Carroll works, this time with the Tove Jansson illustrations, were published in the UK by the Tate, as the text on the back cover of The Hunting of the Snark puts it, “so that readers can enjoy this wonderful adventure afresh through the eyes of one of Europe’s finest illustrators”. 

Tove Jansson’s artistic flair was not only within the field of illustration and comic strips. A special exhibition at the Ateneum Art Museum in Helsinki to mark this year’s centenary demonstrates her enormous versatility as an artist, from landscapes to still lifes, from political caricatures to large wall paintings created for public spaces. She also painted portraits, including many of herself. 

  Self-portrait of Tove Jansson in 1975Tove Jansson, Self portrait, 1975 (© Moomin Characters™).

In recent years her writing for adults has become increasingly popular in the UK. Both new and reissued translations of her novels and short stories have been published by Sort of Books and have sold in large numbers. The Summer Book (‘Sommarboken’), which describes the relationship between a grandmother and her granddaughter as they spend a summer together on an island, has won particular acclaim.  Justine Picardie, reviewing it in the Daily Telegraph, describes it as “a marvellously uplifting read, full of gentle humour and wisdom”. 

  Photograph of Tove Jansson and Tuulikki Pietilä with a small boat on the island KlovharunTove Jansson and her partner Tuulikki Pietilä on the island Klovharun where they spent their summers (© Moomin Characters™)

Sort Of have also published the translations of Tove Jansson’s autobiography Sculptor’s Daughter (‘Bildhuggarens dotter’), which describes her childhood in Helsinki, and this year, of the authorised biography by Boel Westin, Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words (Tove Jansson: ord, bild, liv). 

For researchers studying Tove Jansson, the British Library’s collections have much to offer, including most of the original texts in Swedish, their English translations and a growing body of secondary literature, as her works have become the focus of increased academic interest. 

Last year we were delighted to add to our collections a copy of the very first Moomin book with its original pictorial card covers. Småtrollen och den stora översvämningen (‘The Small Troll and the Great Flood’) was first published by Söderströms in Helsinki in 1945, and later that year in Sweden by Hasselgrens. Surprisingly it was first published in the UK only a couple of years ago in 2012, as The Moomins and the Great Flood. Although Tove Jansson herself was later self-critical of this first Moomin story, it saw the start of the very distinctive characters which have become some of the best loved in children’s literature worldwide.   

Barbara Hawes, Curator Scandinavian Studies


Tove Jansson, Finn Family Moomintroll. Translated by Elizabeth Portch. (London, 1950)  012591.g.82

Tove Jansson, Trollkarlens hatt.  (Helsingfors, 1957)

Lewis Carroll, The hunting of the snark. (London, 2011)  YK.2011.a.33954

Lewis Carroll, Alice's adventures in Wonderland.  (London, 2011)  YK.2011.a.33960

Tove Jansson, The summer book.  Translated by Thomas Teal.  (London, 2003)  H.2003/2483

Tove Jansson, Sommarboken. (Stockholm, 1972)  X.909/25688

Tove Jansson, Sculptor's daughter : a childhood memoir.  Translated by Thomas Teal.  (London , 2013)  YK.2014.a.12669

Tove Jansson, Bildhuggarens dotter. (Stockholm, 1968)  X.990/1792

Boel Westin, Tove Jansson : life, art, words : the authorised biography.  Translated by Silvester Mazzarella (London, 2014)

Boel Westin, Tove Jansson : ord, bild, liv (Helsingfors, 2007)  YF.2007.a.26218

Tove Jansson, Småtrollen och den stora översvämningen (Helsingfors,1945) RF.2014.a.5

Tove Jansson, The Moomins and the great flood.  Translated by David McDuff.  (London, 2012)  YK.2013.a.14855

09 April 2014

Who or what were ‘the Vikings’?

Interest in ‘the Vikings’ seems boundless, and the current Vikings exhibition at the British Museum makes the subject particularly topical. Googling ‘Viking’ produces forty-seven million hits –  though most of them may be for computer games or brand names  –  and a search on our catalogue under vernacular forms of the term produces over 250 titles in Scandinavian languages and thousands more in English, with dozens of the latter published this year already in the BL catalogue. Beyond that narrow focus, however, the holdings of the British Library are very rich in printed materials, from the 16th century to date, relating to pre-Christian Scandinavia.

A recent article in the Evening Standard by the great medievalist David Dumville aimed to counter the ‘revisionist’ and ‘politically correct’ views that have “covered up the crimes of a bloody era” during the past half-century. He admitted that “Vikings are in general not coterminous with Scandinavians” yet capitalised the word as if it were an ethnic label – as misleading as using ‘Cowboy’ or ‘Cossack’ to describe the entire cultures of the USA or Russia, from their art forms and technology to their political systems and modes of warfare. The ancient Scandinavians’ name for themselves was ‘Northmen’ and for their language and culture ‘Norse’ (norrœn).  

Of the two Old Norse nouns víkingr (m.) and víking (f.), the first meant ‘pirate or sea-rover’ (OED),  the second an overseas plundering expedition. Their etymology is contested but related to the noun vík, ‘bay’, or the verb víkja, ‘to turn away’ etc., referring either to people from a bay area  –  such as the Vik region around the Oslofjord (though its inhabitants were called víkverjar, not víkingar)  –  or to those who ‘set out’ on raiding voyages. But such ‘vikings’ formed only a fraction of the Norse peoples.  Overseas trading voyages had been undertaken long before then, for instance by the peaceful  ‘farbönder’ of Gotland, while the fact that travel by boat was so much faster than overland was the basic reason why so many Norse groups lived near and moved around on water. Will scholars ever agree to stop using the over-worked term ‘viking’?   

Woodcut illustration of five men carrying a boat laden with weaponsCarelian raiders. Illustration from Olaus Magnus, Historia de gentibus  Septentrionalibus, bk 11, ch. 7 (Rome, 1555)   152.e.9.

The causes of the increase in overseas raiding around 800 were both external and internal. The main external one was the expansion of the Carolingian empire, its threatening proximity provoking aggressive reactions. The major internal factor was technological, the rapid development of open-sea sailing ships at that time.  (The best surviving examples are the beautiful Gokstad and Oseberg vessels  –  displayed in the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo.)  Another was the breakdown of a centuries-old social system in increasingly violent power struggles among the elites that eventually reduced the number of kingdoms in Scandinavia from dozens to the three still existing ones.  

Photograph of a Viking ship in a museumOseberg ship, built around 820, buried 834, now in the Viking Ship Museum, Oslo (Picture by Daderot from  Wikimedia Commons)

An aggressive warrior ethos – already vividly described in the Old English Beowulf  poem, preserved in the British Library – saw raiding and pillaging as a perfectly honourable pursuit, enriching the participants. Change came only with the adoption of continental Christianity and feudalism, which no longer permitted unprovoked attacks on co-religionists. When the neighbouring Slavic, Finno-Ugrian and Baltic peoples likewise converted, the now christianised Norse elites  –  after a short period of ‘crusading’ around the Baltic  –  simply ran out of legitimate targets.  

Peter Hogg, former Head of Scandinavian Collections

Recommended reading:

Stefan Brink and Neil Price (eds), The Viking world (London, 2008) YC.2009.b.524

Gareth Williams, Vikings: life and legend (London, 2014) Catalogue of the British Museum exhibition

Saga  book of the Viking Society for Northern Research (London,  1892-  )  Ac.9939; volumes over three years old are also available online at

Proceedings of the Viking Congresses (quadrennial since 1950). Volumes catalogued separately. See also:

Viking and Medieval Scandinavia  (Turnhout,  2005-  )  9236.374400

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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