The Kalevala – its influence on Tolkien

The Kalevala, the Finnish national epic, has inspired several artists, particularily in the 19th century as National Romanticism was the leading artistic movement in Finland. But artists from other countries have also discovered it, and it was a particularily great source of inspiration to J.R.R. Tolkien. There are several thematic similarities in his works and The Kalevala: one of Elven languages – Quenya – is based on Finnish, and he even borrowed one of Kalevala’s stories, that of Kullervo’s life, and re-wrote it to fit to the world he created. After reading the story of Túrin Turambar in The Silmarillion, you also have a hint of what is in The Kalevala… except that dragons were not a part of Finnish tradition.

The Kalevala, Rune XXXVI, Kullervo’s Evil Deeds and Rune XXXVII, Kullervo’s Victory and Death

Translation by John Martin Crawford, 1888.

KULLERWOINEN, youthful wizard,
In his blue and scarlet stockings,
Henceforth lingered with his parents;
But he could not change his nature,
Could not gain a higher wisdom,
Could not win a better judgment;
As a child he was ill-nurtured,
Early rocked in stupid cradles,
By a nurse of many follies,
By a minister of evil.

To his work went Kullerwoinen,
Strove to make his labors worthy;

– – –

Came a golden maid to meet him,
On her snow-shoes came a virgin,
O’er the hills of Wäinämöinen,
O’er his cultivated lowlands.

Quick the wizard-son, Kullervo,
Checked the motion of his racer,
Thus addressed the charming maiden
“Come, sweet maiden, to my snow-sledge,
In my fur-robes rest and linger!”
As she ran, the maiden answered:
“Let the Death-maid sit beside thee,
Rest and linger in thy fur-robes!”

Thereupon the youth, Kullervo,
Snapped his whip above the courser;
Fleet as wind he gallops homeward,
Dashes down along the highway;
With the roar of falling waters,
Gallops onward, onward, onward,
O’er the broad-back of the ocean,
O’er the icy plains of Lapland.

Comes a winsome maid to meet him,
Golden-haired, and wearing snow-shoes,
On the far outstretching ice-plains;
Quick the wizard checks his racer,
Charmingly accosts the maiden,
Chanting carefully these measures:
“Come, thou beauty, to my snow-sledge,
Hither come, and rest, and linger!
Tauntingly the maiden answered:
“Take Tuoni to thy snow-sledge,
At thy side let Manalainen
Sit with thee, and rest, and linger!”

Quick the wizard, Kullerwoinen,
Struck his fiery, prancing racer,
With the birch-whip of his father.
Like the lightning flew the fleet-foot,
Galloped on the highway homeward;
O’er the hills the snow-sledge bounded,
And the coming mountains trembled.
Kullerwoinen, wild magician,
Measures, on his journey homeward,
Northland’s far-extending borders,
And the fertile plains of Pohya.
Comes a beauteous maid to meet him,
With a tin-pin on her bosom,
On the heather of Pohyola,
O’er the Pohya-hills and moorlands.

Quick the wizard son, Kullervo,
Holds the bridle of his courser,
Charmingly intones these measures:
“Come, fair maiden, to my snow-sledge,
In these fur-robes rest, and linger;
Eat with me the golden apples,
Eat the hazel-nut in joyance,
Drink with me the beer delicious,
Eat the dainties that I give thee.”

This the answer of the maiden
With the tin-pin on her bosom:
“I have scorn to give thy snow-sledge,
Scorn for thee, thou wicked wizard;
Cold is it beneath thy fur-robes,
And thy sledge is chill and cheerless.

Thereupon the youth, Kullervo,
Wicked wizard of the Northland,
Drew the maiden to his snow-sledge,
Drew her to a seat beside him,
Quickly in his furs enwrapped her;
And the tin-adorned made answer,
These the accents of the maiden:
“Loose me from thy magic power,
Let me leave at once thy presence,
Lest I speak in wicked accents,
Lest I say the prayer of evil;
Free me now as I command thee,
Or I’ll tear thy sledge to pieces,
Throw these fur-robes to the north-winds.”

Straightway wicked Kullerwoinen,
Evil wizard and magician,
Opens all his treasure-boxes,
Shows the maiden gold and silver,
Shows her silken wraps of beauty,
Silken hose with golden borders,
Golden belts with silver buckles,
Jewelry that dims the vision,
Blunts the conscience of the virgin.
Silver leads one to destruction,
Gold entices from uprightness.
Kullerwoinen, wicked wizard,
Flatters lovingly the maiden,
One hand on the reins of leather,
One upon the maiden’s shoulder;
Thus they journey through the evening,
Pass the night in merry-making.

When the day-star led the morning,
When the second day was dawning,
Then the maid addressed Kullervo,
Questioned thus the wicked wizard:
“Of what tribe art thou descended,
Of what race thy hero-father?
Tell thy lineage and kindred.”
This, Kullervo’s truthful answer:
“Am not from a mighty nation,
Not the greatest, nor the smallest,
But my lineage is worthy:
Am Kalervo’s son of folly,
Am a child of contradictions,
Hapless son of cold misfortune.
Tell me of thy race of heroes,
Tell thine origin and kindred.”
This the answer of the maiden:
“Came not from a race primeval,
Not the largest, nor the smallest,
But my lineage is worthy;
Am Kalervo’s wretched daughter,
Am his long-lost child of error,
Am a maid of contradictions,
Hapless daughter of misfortune.

“When a child I lived in plenty
In the dwellings of my mother;
To the woods I went for berries,
Went for raspberries to uplands,
Gathered strawberries on mountains,
Gathered one day then a second;
But, alas! upon the third day,
Could not find the pathway homeward,
Forestward the highways led me,
All the footpaths, to the woodlands.
Long I sat in bitter weeping,
Wept one day and then a second,
Wept the third from morn till even.
Then I climbed a. lofty mountain,
There I called in wailing accents,
And the woodlands gave this answer,
Thus the distant hills re-echoed:
‘Call no longer, foolish virgin,
All thy calls and tears are useless;
There is none to give thee answer,
Far away, thy home and people.’

“On the third and on the fourth days,
On the fifth, and sixth, and seventh,
Constantly I sought to perish;
But in vain were all my efforts,
Could not die upon the mountains.
If this wretched maid had perished,
In the summer of the third year,
She had fed earth’s vegetation,
She had blossomed as a flower,
Knowing neither pain nor sorrow.”

Scarcely had the maiden spoken,
When she bounded from the snow-sledge,
Rushed upon the rolling river,
To the cataract’s commotion,
To the fiery stream and whirlpool.
Thus Kullervo’s lovely sister
Hastened to her own destruction,
To her death by fire and water,
Found her peace in Tuonela,
In the sacred stream of Mana.

Then the wicked Kullerwoinen
Fell to weeping, sorely troubled,
Wailed, and wept, and heavy-hearted,
Spake these words in bitter sorrow:
“Woe is me, my life hard-fated!
I have slain my virgin-sister,
Shamed the daughter of my mother;
Woe to thee, my ancient father!
Woe to thee, my gray-haired mother!
Wherefore was I born and nurtured,
Why this hapless child’s existence?
Better fate to Kullerwoinen,
Had he never seen the daylight,
Or, if born, had never thriven
In these mournful days of evil!
Death has failed to do his duty,
Sickness sinned in passing by me,
Should have slain me in the cradle,
When the seventh day had ended!”

Thereupon he slips the collar
Of his prancing royal racer,
Mounts the silver-headed fleet-foot,
Gallops like the lightning homeward;
Gallops only for a moment,
When he halts his foaming courser
At the cabin of his father.
In the court-yard stood the mother,
Thus the wicked son addressed her:
“Faithful mother, fond and tender,
Hadst thou slain me when an infant,
Smoked my life out in the chamber,
In a winding-sheet hadst thrown me
To the cataract and whirlpool,
In the fire hadst set my cradle,
After seven nights had ended,
Worthy would have been thy service.
Had the village-maidens asked thee:
‘Where is now the little cradle,
Wherefore is the bath-room empty?’
This had been a worthy answer:
‘I have burned the wizard’s cradle,
Cast the infant to the fire-dogs;
In the bath-room corn is sprouting,
From the barley malt is brewing.'”

Thereupon the aged mother
Asks her wizard-son these questions:
“What has happened to my hero,
What new fate has overcome thee?
Comest thou as from Tuoni,
From the castles of Manala?”
This, Kullervo’s frank confession:
“Infamous the tale I bring thee,
My confession is dishonor:
On the way I met a maiden,
Met thy long-lost, wayward daughter,
Did not recognize my sister,
Fatal was the sin committed!
When the taxes had been settled,
When the tribute had been gathered,
Came a matchless maid to meet me,
Whom I witless led to sorrow,
This my mother’s long-lost daughter.
When she saw in me her brother,
Quick she bounded from the snow-sledge,
Hastened to the roaring waters,
To the cataract’s commotion,
To the fiery stream and whirlpool,
Hastened to her full destruction.

“Now, alas! must I determine,
Now must find a spot befitting,
Where thy sinful son may perish;
Tell me, all-forgiving mother,
Where to end my life of trouble;
Let me stop the black-wolf’s howling,
Let me satisfy the hunger
Of the vicious bear of Northland;
Let the shark or hungry sea-dog
Be my dwelling-place hereafter!”
This the answer of the mother:
“Do not go to stop the howling
Of the hungry wolf of Northland;
Do not haste to still the black-bear
Growling in his forest-cavern;
Let not shark, nor vicious sea-dog
Be thy dwelling-place hereafter.
Spacious are the rooms of Suomi,
Limitless the Sawa-borders,
Large enough to hide transgression,
Man’s misdeeds to hide for ages,
With his sins and evil actions.
Six long years man’s sins lie hidden
In the border-land of Kalma,
Even nine for magic heroes,
Till the years bring consolation,
Till they quiet all his mourning.”

Kullerwoinen, wicked wizard,
Answers thus his grieving mother:
“I can never hide from sorrow,
Cannot flee from my misconduct;
To the jaws of death I hasten,
To the open courts of Kalma,
To the hunting-grounds of Pohya,
To the battle-fields of heroes.
Untamoinen still is living,
Unmolested roams the wicked,
Unavenged my father’s grievance,
Unavenged my mother’s tortures,
Unavenged the wrongs I suffer!”

– – –

Kullerwoinen, wicked wizard,
Grasps the handle of his broadsword,
Asks the blade this simple question:
“Tell me, O my blade of honor,
Dost thou wish to drink my life-blood,
Drink the blood of Kullerwoinen?”

Thus his trusty sword makes answer,
Well divining his intentions:
Why should I not drink thy life-blood,
Blood of guilty Kullerwoinen,
Since I feast upon the worthy,
Drink the life-blood of the righteous?”

Thereupon the youth, Kullervo,
Wicked wizard of the Northland,
Lifts the mighty sword of Ukko,
Bids adieu to earth and heaven;
Firmly thrusts the hilt in heather,
To his heart he points the weapon,
Throws his weight upon his broadsword,
Pouring out his wicked life-blood,
Ere be journeys to Manala.
Thus the wizard finds destruction,
This the end of Kullerwoinen,
Born in sin, and nursed in folly.


The History of The Kalevala

Elias Lönnrot, a doctor who was interested in folk poetry and wanted to create a Finnish equavalent of Homer’s Odyssey, started gathering traditional folk stories from Eastern Finland, especially Savo and Karelia and the Archangel area in 1828. During his journeys he collected thousands of lines of this poetry. The tradition of singing is said to be still alive in the outskirts of the Russian Karelia, though it has been slowly vanishing ever since it was banned by the Church in the 16th century as it was considered to be pagan. Nowadays it is merely considered uncool.

The themes of The Kalevala are partly as old as 3000 years, and they have hardly changed since. What has not changed at all is the way of singing them: every poem uses a certain metre that is most often referred to as the Kalevala metre – officially trochaic tetrametre. This means that, in Finnish, there are eight syllables on each line, and every other is stressed when sung. The melody is very simple, and the range covers only five notes. It might be claimed that this is not actually singing, but reciting these poems rhythmically.

First edition of The Kalevala was published in 1835, and was warmly received by the Finns, as well as other Europeans; it made Finland – then a part of the Russian Empire – a bit more known among the other nations.

However, Lönnrot was not quite satisfied with his work yet, and after collecting more material made a new version of the book, which he edited a lot more than the first one. This was crucial, as stories from different areas and ages – no matter how similar their themes were – did not form a unified body of text in the way Lönnrot wanted it to. Thus The Kalevala is as much his work, as it is traditional poems. This new version was published 1849 and is The Kalevala we know these days, and that has been translated to at least 54 languages. There are five different versions in English, one of them – the translation by John Martin Crawford in 1888 – available on the internet, in

By Aisheeya

Print Friendly, PDF & Email