If you have found this review appearing with the Magoun translation of "The Kalevala" -- that is a welcome paperback incarnation of a solid, reliable, standard translation, originally published four decades ago. I have reviewed the hardcover edition of this translation (see the variant title, "The Kalevala: Poems of the Kaleva District"), and also Magoun's similar rendering of the epic's first version, "The Old Kalevala," and will summarize my description of the Finnish "national epic," and its origin, here.
However, you may be seeing this review with the Keith Bosley verse translation of the (New) "Kalevala," another reputable version. Having found that the two translations seem inseparably linked in terms of reviews, I have revised and expanded an older posting to take fuller account of both; if this review seems familiar to you, that is probably why.
"Kalevala," variously translated as "Kaleva District" or "Land of Heroes," is a nineteenth-century compilation, revision, and expansion of narratives, spells and charms, and proverbial wisdom collected from the Finnish-speaking peasants and fisherman of areas of modern Finland and Russia. It is made up largely, but not entirely, of "runos," narrative songs which even then survived only in isolated, "fringe" areas; ballads with clear connections with other cultures also make an appearance. References to "The Kalevala" are usually to its second edition (1849), also distinguished as the "New Kalevala" in comparison to its shorter predecessor, the "Old Kalevala" (1835).
The material is, for the most part, clearly pagan in origin, with hints of roots in the Viking Age, if not earlier, but processed through centuries of Christianity, Catholic and Lutheran in Finland proper, Russian Orthodox in the Karelia district. Fortunately, Elias Lonnrot, the main collector, and the man responsible for this literary version, was also engaged in laying the foundations of the scientific study of folk traditions, and the collections he made or sponsored formed the basis of a major archive, the publication of which was only recently completed. In the meantime, his popularization had become a part of the world's culture, as well as that of Finland.
(As one example of its impact: the American poet Longfellow adapted a German translator's adaptation of the Finnish meter for his pseudo-Iroquois epic, "Hiawatha," with the paradoxical result that the original is sometimes described, in English, as being in Hiawatha-meter.)
The contents are various, but the main themes are the military and romantic adventures and misadventures of a handful of warrior-magicians, quite as quick with an incantation as with a sword. Vainamoinen, "the Eternal Sage," and a kind of demiurge who sings the Finnish homeland into being, is born an old man. His attempts -- always frustrated -- to find a young wife lead to the creation of the mysterious and wonderful "Sampo" by his friend, the smith Ilmarinen, as a kind of bride-price. However, Ilmarinen himself uses it in his own wooing -- and finds the bargain a bad one.
These two great heroes share the stage with the irresponsible Lemminkainen, a kind of combined Don Juan and Achilles, and the hapless Kullervo. Kullervo's story -- which you may know as a cantata by Sibelius -- is one of the underpinnings of Tolkien's tale of Turin in "The Silmarillion" and "Unfinished Tales," where it is combined with elements from the "Volsunga Saga." (When the "Silmarillion" first appeared, it seemed obvious that the Quest for the Sampo, and the Sampo's ultimate fate, was a direct source as well as a major inspiration for Tolkien; publication of his early drafts show that most of these resemblances emerged over time, in the course of endless reworkings, but they remain enlightening. Other resemblances include the creation of the sun and moon, and attempts to harm them, and the importance of trees. There are also some similar -- not identical -- names, and Tolkien's study of Finnish contributed to the development of a branch of Elvish.)
There have been a number of abridged or retold versions of "The Kalevala" in English, and two early complete versions in verse, that by Crawford (nineteenth-century, from a German translation; available on-line), and the 1907 W.F. Kirby translation, directly from Finnish (in -- if you will excuse the expression -- a version of Hiawatha-meter), which was Tolkien's introduction to the work. Magoun's translation (1963) filled a need for a more literal treatment, with more supporting information.
Since Magoun's prose translations, there have been two translations of the "New Kalevala" into English verse, by Eino Friberg (1988) and, as previously mentioned, Keith Bosley (1989), which many will find more appealing. But for those who want both the story and all of the details, but either don't care about, or don't care for, such things as meter and rhyme, Magoun's translation remains a first choice. For those who know the epic through other translations, it is still worth consulting.
It should be said that Magoun, despite translating as prose, marks the verse divisions. He follows some Finnish editions in presenting the verse form as a long line with a pause (caesura), instead of as twice as many short lines. His page count therefore is much shorter, even with abundant supplemental material, but he has omitted nothing.
Magoun's translation and critical apparatus, like his similarly-equipped English version of the "Old Kalevala" (which includes several earlier stages of composition as well), is extremely useful to the student, and answers many of the questions a reader is likely to have. There is no extended introduction; information is postponed to extensive appendices. It is well organized enough to be easy to use to find answers as questions arise, or be profitably consulted years later.
(A friend recently pointed out to me that, with their maps, appendices, and indexes and glossary, the Harvard University Press volumes even have a remarkable *physical* similarity to editions of Tolkien's works....)
Bosley, on the other hand, made an effort to produce a work of literature. This goes beyond translating verse as verse (which he does very well). Lonnrot's prose summaries of each *runo* (for this purpose, canto) are not translated; Magoun used them as "arguments" (in the manner of Milton's prose summaries for each book of "Paradise Lost"). For Bosley, nothing interrupts the flow of narrative and lyric, ritual and spell. The result is extremely engaging, far beyond Magoun's prosy rendition; a distinct plus.
There are, however, no glossaries or indexes to otherwise serve as a guide through the complex set of stories. Bosley offers just ten pages of brief (albeit extremely useful) notes. These are followed by a two-page appendix on "Sibelius and the Kalevala," which untangles the references -- and some non-references -- to the "Kalevala" in the titles of several of the Finnish composer's works. (A certain amount of garbling took place as his music publisher translated titles into German, and the German was turned into English without checking against the original meaning.)
Bosley's Introduction is excellent, and establishes the literary and cultural background of Lonnrot's work and the nature of the folk-poetry he collected, and makes useful observations about the structure of the completed epic. It is far better reading than Magoun's documentation. Of course, taking advantage of this synthesis means careful reading, ideally in advance of the story. The reader should take the time, but *should* is not *will.* Here, Magoun's formidable-looking book is actually more user-friendly.
The Magoun translation was available for decades as a hardcover (with endpaper maps), before being issued as an otherwise identical trade paperback. Either form should stand up to reasonable handling. (My copy of the 1975 hardcover third printing has suffered more from my marginal notes as a student than from later use or time; largely cross-references to the "Corrigenda," the list of corrections and revisions which he had included as a supplement in his "Old Kalevala" translation in 1969, and then added as Appendix E to reprintings of "Kalevala" proper. They have yet to be incorporated into the text.)
Bosley's translation apparently has been published in paperback only, in two different formats; first as a "World's Classics" mass-market paperback (1989), and then as a larger (but otherwise identical) "Oxford World's Classics" paperback in 1999. It is a very fat volume, over 700 pages long, due to Bosley's decision to treat the verse as short lines. Because of the different proportions of height and width to the binding, the slightly larger format of the OWC edition seems to me physically more stable, likely to stand up better to repeated readings and consultations; but I haven't heard of any problems with copies of the older World's Classics printings.
Lonnrot also published (1840-41) a collection of non-epic folk genres, including much material eventually absorbed into "Kalevala," as "Kanteletar" (roughly, "zither-daughter"). This has been under-represented in translation. Bosley translated a selection as "The Kanteletar," published in "World's Classics" in 1992, and currently out of print. It is an excellent companion to any "Kalevala" translation, but especially (of course) to Bosley's own. With luck, it will be reprinted sometime soon in the "Oxford World's Classics".