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The Songs of Power
A Northern Tale of Magic


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Copyright © 1994, 1996–1999, 2005, 2006 Aaron Shepard. All rights reserved.


Here is a much longer version of the author note found in my mini-novel, as well as in my picture book, The Maiden of Northland.—Aaron

This story is based on the Kalevala (pronounced “KAH-lev-AH-la”), the great national epic of Finland. (An epic is a long narrative poem about one or more historic or legendary heroes.) The Kalevala itself was assembled from folk sources in the 1800s by Elias Lönnrot (1802–1884; pronounced “EL-ee-us LERN-root”).

Lönnrot was a man of exceptional character and many talents—physician, literary scholar, linguist—who was inspired by the nationalist philosophy of his times to uncover a literary heritage for the Finnish people. His medical circuits and research trips took him to outlying villages on both sides of Finland’s border with Russia, where he recorded Finnish folk poems performed by local singers. It was these poems, along with many collected by other researchers, that he combined into the most important book ever to appear in Finland.

At a time when educated, urban Finns spoke mostly Swedish and looked down on their native culture, the Kalevala brought to light an oral literary tradition of stunning beauty and vigor, and an epic lore rich in noble deeds and values. Lönnrot’s epic became a pillar of Finnish nationalism, helping to generate a new pride in Finnish national identity, a revival of the Finnish language, and an independence movement that eventually won for Finland its freedom from Russian rule.

Today every Finnish boy and girl knows stories from the Kalevala and studies the epic in school. Children, streets, towns, and businesses are named after Kalevala characters, and Finnish art, music, dance, and theater frequently draw on Kalevala themes. Internationally the Kalevala is recognized as a masterpiece of world literature and has taken its place alongside such other national epics as the Iliad and the Odyssey of the Greeks, the Nibelungenlied of the Germans, the Chanson de Roland of the French, and the Mahabharata and the Ramayana of the Hindus.

The Finns call one of their folk poems a runo, or “rune.” This can be translated as “poem” or “song,” but it is really a cross between the two. In the villages the runes were always sung, but individual runes did not have their own melodies. Instead the singer knew a number of simple melodies that could go with many runes and would pick a melody before singing.

Runes were sung at work, at social gatherings, and at festivals and other special events. Often two singers would sit side by side, join their right hands, sway to the rhythm, and sing in tandem, one repeating each line sung by the other. Sometimes singing contests would be held through the night, to see which singer knew the most songs and could stay awake long enough to sing them. Singing was often accompanied by the kantele (see below).

The runes gathered in the Kalevala were composed in unrhymed lines of an uncommon meter called trochaic tetrameter (“ONE and TWO and THREE and FOUR and”). Rare as it is, most English-speaking children have at least heard it, because the Kalevala’s meter, as well as many of its themes, were borrowed by Longfellow for his “Hiawatha.” (Those who know Finnish, though, say the meter is much more varied and interesting in its native tongue.)

In my retelling I have not attempted trochaic tetrameter or any other strict metrical form, but I’ve tried to convey some of the power and beauty of the original through rhythmic, unrhymed free verse and through other distinctive elements of Kalevala poetry. These elements include short, vigorous phrasing, stock epithets for characters, and repetitive structural elements. Perhaps most important is parallelism—immediately repeating a statement in different words or expanding on it. Unlike the Kalevala’s meter, these other elements are common to the oral traditions of many cultures.

The Kalevala has often been called a “folk epic,” in the belief that Lönnrot simply reassembled an ancient folk poem that had disintegrated into fragments over the ages. But what Lönnrot actually did was to take an enormous number of discrete shorter works and merge them into one. This he did by intermingling lines of similar poems, substituting and combining characters, shuffling the episodes of various poems into new sequences, and recomposing as needed to create logical links between passages. In all this he took his lead from the village singers, who regularly used these methods to create new and longer works from older ones.

For this retelling I’ve adopted a similar approach, selecting some of the most striking portions of the Kalevala, then reassembling them within a plot structure better suited to this much shorter work. I prepared for this by studying Lönnrot’s own two earlier versions of the epic—each with an arrangement different from the final one—plus some of Lönnrot’s source material, and also a number of rune variants collected by later researchers.

Lönnrot’s nameless “maiden of Northland” has here been named Aila, and in the first segment has supplanted Joukahainen’s sister, Aino (herself an invention of Lönnrot). Other changes involve occasionally replacing a detail from the Kalevala with one from an earlier version of the epic or from a variant poem.

Like Lönnrot, I have not worried overmuch about inconsistencies in character portrayal due to use of diverse materials. Various Kalevala runes originated anytime between 500 B.C. and A.D. 1000—a span of 1500 years—and all the runes were continually modified by succeeding generations. The oldest runes treat Väinämöinen and Ilmarinen as divine figures, taking part in the task of creation. By the time of Christ, Väinämöinen had assumed a role as tribal leader and shaman. In the early Middle Ages the two men were seen as culture heroes and adventurers. I’ve retained this full range of elements.

The following notes may help in understanding particular elements of the story.

Transportation. Finland is a land mostly of forests, lakes, rivers, and marshes, and in the absence of paved roads during Kalevala times, wheeled vehicles were impractical. In the winter, when all waterways were frozen and snow covered everything, the sleigh was the only vehicle of transportation. In the summer—the time of this story—both boats and sleighs were used, with the sleighs running over bare ground.

Magic. The descriptions of magic in the Kalevala have survived from an ancient time when shamanism was an important part of Finnish tribal life. A similar belief pattern has been found in existing tribal cultures around the world and is thought to have once been common throughout Europe as well. But nearly all the European oral tradition describing it has long been lost, so the Kalevala is a rare and invaluable relic of this ancient heritage.

In the Kalevala, magic is made by singing special runes. The text of many such runes is included in the Kalevala itself, though more powerful ones are generally just mentioned and left to the reader’s imagination. Magical runes were identical to other runes in form and recital, but they differed in content and purpose. For instance they often petitioned gods or spirits, or spoke of origins. Singing about the origin of a thing was believed to give the singer power over it.

According to the ancient beliefs, anyone could use the magic runes, but great magicians like Väinämöinen and Louhi knew more runes and more powerful ones than common people did. Another belief was that the spell created by a rune could be undone by singing the words in backward order—which is why Joukahainen pleads with Väinämöinen, “Reverse your words, undo your spells!”

In the Kalevala there are no separate terms for magical singing and the normal kind. To avoid confusion I have used “chant” and “chanting” when magic is involved, and “song” and “singing” elsewhere.

Northland. Lönnrot and many others believed that the epic poetry of the Kalevala was based on actual events and chronicled a rivalry between two tribes of Northland and Kalevala—“the land of Kaleva.” (Kaleva—pronounced “KAH-lev-ah”—was a legendary forebear of the Finns.) But today it is considered much more likely that Northland was a mythologic or literary creation, a vaguely distant and inhospitable place invoked for dramatic purposes.

For simplicity I have limited the inhabitants of Northland to Louhi and her daughter, but in the Kalevala there are always a number of other figures present, as would be the case on a prosperous Finnish estate.

Sampo. This may originally have been a shamanistic pillar—a giant good luck charm—but over the centuries, the original meaning of the term was lost. Various singers have described it as a chest, a boat, or an eagle, but almost always something magic that bestowed prosperity.

Lönnrot’s favored interpretation was that the sampo was a three-sided mill for grain, salt, and money—but the image is ambiguous and contradicted by his descriptions of the sampo’s functioning. I’ve simplified the image for the sake of coherency and harmonization of plot elements, though at the cost of much of the sampo’s mystique.

Kantele. This is a type of psaltery often used to accompany rune singing. (A psaltery—pronounced SAWL-ter-ee—is an instrument with strings stretched over a flat soundboard; the strings are plucked and played “open.” A common translation of kantele as “harp” is technically incorrect.) The kantele body is most often made from curly birch, sometimes from alder or pine. The strings are metal, though tradition says they were originally made from horse or human hair.

In its traditional form the kantele is a five-string instrument, small enough to sit on the player’s lap. The body is made from a single block of wood and hollowed at the bottom, with the hollow left open. The strings, spread farther apart toward the tuning pins, are commonly tuned to g, a, b-flat, c, d. Later versions of the instrument are about a yard (or a meter) long, have up to thirty-six strings, and are played on a stand or a table.

The kantele is still played by Finns around the world and in fact has undergone a renaissance. Kantele resources are easily found by searching the World Wide Web. (My thanks to Nancy Ogimachi for help with kantele resources.)

In the Kalevala Väinämöinen makes two kanteles, the first from the jawbone of a giant pike, the second from a birch. I’ve included only the second.

For my retelling I’ve consulted English translations of Lönnrot’s Kalevala by W. F. Kirby (Dutton, New York, and Dent, London, 1907), Francis P. Magoun, Jr. (Harvard University, Cambridge, 1963), Eino Friberg (Otava Publishing Company, Helsinki, 1988), and Keith Bosley (Oxford University, Oxford and New York, 1989). For earlier Kalevala versions and rune variants, I’ve referred to The Old Kalevala and Certain Antecedents, by Elias Lönnrot, translated by Francis P. Magoun, Jr. (Harvard University, Cambridge, 1969), and Finnish Folk Poetry—Epic, edited and translated by Matti Kuusi, Keith Bosley, and Michael Branch (Finnish Literature Society, Helsinki, 1977).

For further reading in the Kalevala itself, I recommend Friberg’s translation, which surpasses all others in accuracy, authenticity, and beauty. Magoun’s is a valuable second choice, and his Old Kalevala translation provides an alternate version of much more manageable length.

Good prose retellings of the Kalevala for young people include The Magic Storysinger, by M. E. A. McNeil (Stemmer House, Owings Mills, Maryland, 1993), Heroes of the Kalevala, by Babette Deutsch (Julian Messner, New York, 1940), and Land of Heroes, by Ursula Synge (Atheneum, New York, 1978). A portion of the Kalevala not included in my own retelling can be found in Louhi, Witch of North Farm, by Toni de Gerez, illustrated by Barbara Cooney (Viking Penguin, New York, 1986), a lovely, lyrical picture book that gave me my first glimpse of the epic.

Helpful references for background are Kalevala Mythology, by Juha Y. Pentikäinen, translated and edited by Ritva Poom (Indiana University, Bloomington and Indianapolis, Indiana, 1989), and Epic of the North: The Story of Finland’s Kalevala, by John Kolehmainen (Northwestern, New York Mills, Minnesota, 1973).

A Kalevala Bookshelf

Book cover: The Songs of Power
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The Songs of Power
A Northern Tale of Magic
Retold from the Kalevala

By Aaron Shepard