Top critical review
2 people found this helpful
Wanton, Steady, & Everlasting
on 9 September 2015
This is a review of the Oxford World Classics version that runs to over seven hundred pages, published in 1999. The introduction, translation, and notes are by Keith Bosley and were published separately in 1989.
The work begins with quite a beautiful creation myth of the earth and heaven; the world, sun, moon, and stars coming into existence through to birds’ eggs in the lap of the water-mother, who is “a lass, an air-girl, a nice nature-daughter.” We learn how vegetation began and the origins of agriculture. When reading it I was often drawn to comparisons with Tolkien in the ‘Silmarillion’.
Later we start to read of the adventures of wanton Lemminkainen and the tales of steady old Vainamoinen, as well as of the smith Ilmarinen, the everlasting craftsman. These are all full of bluster and boasting where ‘one’ becomes ‘a thousand’ within the same stanza. Kalervo and his son Kullervo do not appear until the thirty-first of the book’s fifty sections. The work is full of analogy, symbolism, and plays on words. Having read it once, though, I do not think I would choose to read it all again.
I decided to explore the ‘Kalevala’ because of the many links to the music of Sibelius. But it soon became a frustrating read due to lack of punctuation and the arrangement of the text. Often two sentences are joined together with no punctuation to indicate whether the central idea belongs to the first or the second. For instance: “the wealth grows chilly, the herds/get into a dreadful state/strange to the birds of the air/tiresome to mankind/that the sun will never shine nor/will the moon gleam.” Other editions may be more user-friendly.
In his well-written introduction, Bosley points out that the first publication of the ‘Kalevala’ did not take place until as late as the 1830s (by Lonnrot) and was part of the context of European vernacular literature popular at that time. Not knowing the original, I do not know how fast and loose the translator has played with the text, but Bosley remarks that the work is based on the Finnish oral tradition, so it adopts poetic formulas throughout its eight cycles. He indicates the problems of translation – “Kalevala poetry has neither rhyme nor stanza; its other formula features are alliteration and parallelism … like a good film it cuts from one close-up to another, adding the occasional long-shot for contrast.”
This edition could really do with a glossary of characters, or at least an index. It is quite inexcusable that there is none. But we do have a short appendix featuring a list of works of Sibelius that feature the ‘Kalevala’.