Finland's folk epic

The Kalevala compiled by Elias Lönnrot, translated by Francis Peabody Magoun Jr. Cambridge: Harvard University. 410 pp. $9.75.

By Godfrey John

    Only as recently as the last century, the Finno-Urgic traditions out of which the Kalevala songs took shape existed solely in peasant memory and speech. And as Padraic Colum has observed, it is quite startling to realize that a mythology has survived on the lips of a European people in our time.

    Now at last the mythical Sibelius' "Finlandia" becomes available to us in our own tongue. Through the fine research and judgment of Francis Peabody Magoun Jr. "The Kalevala," Finland's national folk epic, comprising the poems of the Kalevala district compiled by that country's celebrated scholar, Elias Lönnrot, have been translated and gathered into one volume.

    Mr Magoun refers discreetly to his book as a prose translation. The volume contains a particularly illuminating foreword by himself, an informative glossary for which readers will be grateful, and some helpful appendices in unmistakably academic but readable prose.

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    The author has been linguistically honest to a degree in eschewing any attempt at an equivalence of the original Finnish metrical structure, and in adopting a style which rests its transposition of effects upon a simple, direct use of accentuals in the best tradition of English speech.

    The Kalevala, as Mr. Magoun has pointed out, is in one important aspect quite distinct from the aristocratic heroic tradition of epics like the Greek Iliad or the Chânson de Roland. It is essentially a concatenation of a wide variety of narrative , lyric, and magic songs "sung by unlettered singers, male and female, living in northern Karelia."

    The Harvard professor emeritus has not been guilty of attempting to impose the coherence of a chronological whole on Lönnrot's collection. Each group of poems, however, reflects a certain fidelity to character that is intrinsic to the original. The exploits of Lemminkainen fit a hero who is reputed for his lightheartedness and youthful arrogance; while those of Vainamoinen (except perhaps his courtships) are in keeping with the steadfast "eternal sage" whose utterances by an interesting paradox, constitute some of the most lyrical and ingenious poetic flight, in this volume.

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    But what of the translation? Mr. Magoun has not only preserved his manuscript from the shades of Victorian translators by not presuming to transpose directly the rhythmic effects of a quantitative language. He has also notably avoided poeticising and established in the reader's ear a detail of diction that is surely closer to the original spirit of the Finnish peasantry. Take, for example, the delightful sketch of the man from the sea--"neither very big, nor really very small ... tall as an upright thumb, high as a steer's hoof." Or the crossbow that "costs a little something,"

    A kind of blank verse is achieved with much of the quality of isochronous prosody retained in psalm-like continuity within the epic's lineal structure. At the same time, there is retained the desirable freedom of the translator in the realm of prose. But quite apart from it's faithfulness to Elias Lönnrot's original through his inartificial use of such devices as the historical present, repetition, omission, and parallelism, Magoun has produced something much more remarkable here.

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    Into the shifting of tone from lyrically tragic poems to those about warfare, from wedding lays to sheer horseplay--he has infused the unmistakable speech rhythm and diction of our own language. Take this reference to Ilmarinen, "downcast ... high peaked hat all askew." Or Joukahainen's "hoeing out the hollows of the sea, digging deep spots for fish."
    Mr. Magoun's Athene springs from the head of Zeus with encouraging vigor. In this respect alone, "The Kalevala" is a monumental work.