February 28, 2013 - Kalevala Day in Finland

 Today is also known as Finnish Culture Day.

On this date in 1835, a collection of 12,078 verses was published in Finland under the title Kalevala. These verses told the oral folklore and mythology of the Finns, and they had an enormous impact on the people, helping them to form a national identity.

How did these oral traditions find their way onto paper? We have to thank a doctor and botanist (plant scientist) named Elias Lonnrot. He was the district health officer of all of Kainuu region of Finland, but in his spare time, he made field trips to collect the folklore of his people—songs that were sure to die out, he feared, as younger Finns read poems and stories from other European nations. The traditional songs had already all but disappeared from Western Finland!

After eleven collecting trips, Lonnrot published his first collection of songs woven into one long epic tale; he called the epic Kalevala, or “the land of Kaleva.” Lonnrot kept on collecting more verses, however, and later published another version of The Kalevala, this one 22,795 verses long.

This Finnish epic not only gave Finns pride but also influenced authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien (author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings), C.S. Lewis (author of the Narnia books), poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Finnish author Paavo Haavikko. Cartoonists and children's authors have published illustrated versions of the stories told in the epic poems—including Disney cartoonist Don Rosa, who drew a Donald Duck story called The Quest for Kalevala. The Kalevala also influenced painters, musicians, and filmmakers.

In Finland, company and brand names and even place names have been inspired by The Kalevala.

How's this for impact? I already mentioned that The Kalevala gave Finns a sense of pride and national identity; the epic is credited with helping the Finnish independence movement form and succeed in breaking away from Russia in 1917!

(By the way, a few other folklorists collected some of the Finnish songs, both earlier than and contemporary with Lonnrot. But it is Lonnrot's continuous epic story told in verse that made the enormous impact I have described here.)

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