Send your email address today and be part of this Blog

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Reading Group meeting 9/4/11


Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...


Today we were again discussing one of Tolkien’s acknowledged sources – The Kalevala (in translation, of course). We had delayed tackling it as an unknown quantity, but everyone seems to have found it interesting at least, and at least 2 of us have been persuaded to read more than just the Kullervo cantos.

This report has a small appendix outlining very briefly a bit of relevant history.

In addition to the text itself we were treated to musical accompaniment as Julie brought along the setting of the poem by Sibelius, and it provided a, sometimes stirring, background. Julie called our attention to the specific moment when Sibelius depicts the movement of Kullervo’s sleigh, the pace of the horse and the jingling of the harness were delightful. Julie also pointed out that as Elias Lonrot collected folk songs to create the final compilation that is The Kalevala, so Sibelius used Finnish folk music.

Ian began the discussion of the Kullervo cantos with the observation that in some respects the nature of the story reminded him of the work of the Welsh poet Taliesin, specifically the significance of trees. Legend places Taliesin in 6thC, although the Book of Taliesin (NLW Peniarth MS 2) dates from the early 14thC. Nevertheless, it contains archaic ‘praise-poems’ to 6thC Welsh rulers.

Laura commented on the formulaic language that is very evident throughout The Kalevala, which gives it an ancient ‘feel’. It may be that both the Finnish and the Welsh poems preserve an ancient cultural attitude to trees.

Apart from this, Laura thought the language of translation in The Kalevala was at times rather too colloquial, and this was a topic we would return to.

Julie was interested in Kullervo’s bad life and the rather glib assessment given that it was just bad upbringing by strangers. Laura wondered about this rather pathetic ending, and Angela observed that it restated the old debate about nature v. nurture. Julie thought that many unplanned aspects of his existence contributed to his strange life. Ian compared this to Tolkien’s rendering of the life of Turin which is more linear.

Mike remarked that reading the Kullervo cantos was like reading a song because the style used for the poetry is both repetitive and developmental, as songs repeat and/or develop, using different vocabulary to extend a single idea, or to make vocal and verbal sound patterns.

Julie and Laura considered the absence of the well-known ‘Hiawatha’ rhythm in the translation. This was regarded as not necessarily detracting from our reading experience.

Laura observed the very distinctively northern European setting of the Kullervo cantos. The scenery and atmosphere could not be anywhere else. Julie commented on the swamps that thaw quickly in the brief summer and are often mentioned. The wild crops of berries and references to birch bark are further indications of the northernness.

8:40 AM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

Angela turned our attention to Ilmari’s wife and her cows, remarking on the long invocation for their protection. This episode includes the naming of trees as guardians of her herd, ‘make a willow a herdsman / an alder a cow-watcher / a rowan a keeper, a / bird cherry a bringer home…’ and invokes the aid of other trees to help: Juniper-daughter, Rowan-daughter, Birdcherry-daughter … look after my herd / and cherish my wealth…’. Ian remarked that Tolkien changes this in LotR so that the Ents are tree-herds, rather than trees being cow-herds, while Laura noted that in spite of the length and detail of the invocation, it doesn’t work. Julie, however, regarded the detail as a sign of the richness of the natural environment as it was perceived by the original composer of the episode. Laura added that the story gives the cows names not the modern numbers, and Ian observed that the names are descriptive like those Tom Bombadil gives the ponies. Ilmari’s wife’s ‘Muncher’ and ‘Guzzler’ are just as descriptive as ‘Fatty Lumpkin’ if not quite so endearing.

Laura and Angela remarked on the fear of bears that is evident in the cantos where the common noun ‘bear’ is avoided in favour of ‘bruin’ or Beastie – both assume the translator’s attempt to render original terminology, and the descriptive ‘honey-pawed hunchback’ and ‘forest-apple’.

While we were discussing differences and similarities between the Kullervo episodes and the Turin story (in its various forms) Julie observed that Tolkien’s version is like German classical music – very structured and focused, while the Kullervo cantos are closer to Russian and other eastern European music which is more episodic. Julie thought from this comparison that Tolkien seems to have ‘Germanicised’ his source. Ian thought the Turin story was more ‘gothic’ than Kullervo, and Mike wondered if the difference was because Tolkien disliked loose ends. The story of Kullervo, Laura suggested, was also more symbolic than the Turin story. Julie noticed that no explanation is given for Kullervo’s apparently magical qualities, including being able to understand birdsong (like Siegfried) and the taboos that prevent him from being killed by any hand but his own. I remarked that these kinds of taboos seem to be associated with other mythical and legendary heroes like Achilles, and Cuchulainn.

Chris noted that unlike Turin, Kullervo is a prodigious infant. This reminded me of the myths about Achilles killing snakes in his cradle. Angela observed that in The Silmarillion Tuor is enslaved as a child, like Kullervo, but Tuor turns out good, while Kullervo seems reckless, while Turin is reckless although he is brought up first by his mother and then in Doriath. More distinctions probably should be made, but both Kullervo and Turin end their lives impaled on swords that speak.

When Chris remarked on the distinction in the incest motif: that Kullervo’s unsuspecting sister is corrupted by the money he offers her, Ian commented that Kullervo’s story is not set up to be moral, or immoral, but to show how the ‘hero’ is unsuited to live as an ordinary man in his society. Ian also observed that Turin’s story depicts him against the world, but in Kullervo’s story the world is against him.

Chris then remarked on the importance of fate, chance and doom in the Kullervo story. It is perhaps less obvious than in Tolkien’s stories generally. It is the same with prophetic references.

8:42 AM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

We all went on to discuss the significance of incest motifs found in very many different cultures. Mike suggested they were originally signs of anxiety over racial purity. Julie noted that they finally became a universal taboo. Mike added the story of the Victorian garrisoning of the Isle of Wight as an attempt to enhance the gene pool in that small community and this led Angela to wonder how much of a problem may then be perceived in the small remaining population of the Dunedain?

Ian also pondered again the problem of what may be lost because of cultural shifts in terminology. Kathleen thought that the ‘weirdness’ we might perceive in the story shows that something of the original had been lost. Mike observed the levels of language used in the Kullervo cantos, and the richness of descriptions that also at times become ‘homeric-style’ epithets or characteristic qualities. We noted the frequent introduction of ‘Kullervo, Kalervo’s son / the blue-stockinged gaffer’s son /yellow-haired, handsome / fair of shoe-upper.’ I had been puzzled by the shoe-upper until Diane pointed out the characteristic use of embroidery on the uppers of boots traditionally worn by some Scandinavians.

We spent some time working out what else we might investigate in the coming weeks and months and found plenty to keep us busy. However, Laura advised us that our next meeting falls on St. George’s Day, so our topic for the next meeting will be Tolkien’s dragons and their sources. After that, we will go on to read Tolkien’s letters.

Future topics are likely to include (in no settled order yet): William Morris’s House of the Wulfings, the sagas, The Mabinogion, the Tain bo Cuailgne (Cattle Raid of Cooley), Taliesin, Unfinished Tales, Modern Criticism,


There was some interest in the background to The Kalevala so I put together the following:

The Kalevala is a nineteenth-century compilation based on the oral poetry of Karelia in eastern Finland, on the borders of Russia. It was made by Elias Lonrot and published in 1835. Lonrot was ‘trying to set in some kind of order’ poems about ‘memorable ancestors’, after the fashion of the Greeks and the Icelanders. “The work became a rallying-flag for national aspirations”.

The Karelians probably arrived in Karelia from the south-east c.9thC and could still be distinguished from other sections of the Finnish people in the 1960s, being shorter and darker. They ousted the Lapps.

Christianity entered Finland in 11thC and spread slowly. The first bishop was Henry, and Englishman.
In 1293 the Swedes undertook a crusade into Karelia and Scandinavian influence took over.

The eastern frontier was harassed by the Novgorodians during the medieval period, then by the grand duchy of Moscow. Karelia, like Finland generally, suffered centuries of shifting influence, until power was ceded to Russia in 1809.

Swedish had long been and remained the language of administration and education. In 1960 Swedish was still an official language, alongside Finnish.

In 184os demand grew for adoption of Finnish as the mother tongue of educated classes and for it to be allowed in administration and schools. Some educated Finns adopted Finnish but the majority retained the Swedish language. This created 2 rival groups which became political parties in 1860s and 70s. Late 19thC Russians demanded the abolition of Finnish autonomy and the absorption of Finland into Russia. This led to demands for independence.

The war of independence became a savage civil war. Germany sent an expeditionary force in 1918 and it was hoped that Germany would guarantee Finland’s independence. The German prince Frederick of Hesse was elected King of Finland but the fall of Germany led to the forming of a Finnish republic.

Though the Finnish language is basically Uralic, Karelian Finnish is named in the Oxford edition and may thus be a dialect.

8:44 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home