Kalevala Comments: Tolkien Influences and the Translations

For the first time in nearly twenty years, I’ve been reading through Kalevala, or at least an English translation thereof. Back then it was the old Kirby translation (1907), having swapped over from Crawford (1888). Now I’ve finished reading Bosley (1989). I have some thoughts to offer about these translations themselves, their stylistic choices, and their overall readability, but I shall get to that presently. As Kalevala is commonly cited as one of the key influences for the Tolkien legendarium, I also thought I would comment on that too. For now, I would suggest that Kalevala was more important for sparking Tolkien’s imagination than for being discernably present in the actual literature – an ingredient more apparent in the early stages than a feature of the final result.

For the unaware, Kalevala (or “The” Kalevala) is the Finnish national epic. It is a curious beast, in that it is one of those works that manages to be both simultaneously ancient and a mid-nineteenth century construct. Researcher and Philologist Elias Lönnrot basically went around the backwoods, collecting oral traditions from rune-singers, and writing those songs down. Lönnrot’s thesis was that these oral traditions were originally part of one big tradition, which he decided to reconstruct in the most nineteenth century manner imaginable – he smooshed the collected poems together into an overarching narrative of fifty Runos, added his own bridging material, and published the results in 1835 and 1849. This means that while Kalevala can feel like a window into a strange and alien world, one cannot take the text at face value, and it is of dubious value in making sense of real pre-Christian Finnish traditions.

But Kalevala’s social effects, especially in terms of nineteenth century Finnish nationalism, were immense. Culturally, it birthed copious art, and was a major influence on musical composer, Jean Sibelius. The Finnish language, hitherto the language of the peasant class (under Swedish-speaking elites) would grow into a respectable literary language, with the first major Finnish-language novel, Aleksis Kivi’s Seitsemän veljestä (‘Seven Brothers’)* eventually appearing in 1870, albeit Kivi’s work is realist and not fantastical like Kalevala. A later pivotal piece of Finnish literature, Väinö Linna’s Under the Northern Star trilogy (1959-1962), pokes fun at the phenomenon of romantic nationalism, featuring middle-class Finns naming their children after Kalevala characters, and affecting a peasant heritage when in reality they are thoroughly bourgeois.

*The seven brothers in question bear little resemblance to Tolkien’s own Sons of Fëanor.

But back to the translations. Comparatively little Finnish literature has appeared in English translation, because most translators are translating material into their native language… and comparatively few English speakers have been inclined to learn Finnish. Although things have changed more recently (and indeed there are far more resources for Anglophones to learn Finnish than there once were), it used to be the norm for English translations of Finnish literature to be made via a third language. Generally German. So you wound up with translations of translations, which is alas not exactly a recipe for accuracy. Kalevala itself is a particularly awkward beast, since it does not use modern Finnish, but rather the language in a much more archaic form.

This is how you got the first English translation of Kalevala, Crawford’s in 1888. Unlike Kirby and Bosley, I have not read this one in full, but I have read a decent chunk of it. Crawford was translating from a German translation… and following what has become the convention in terms of replicating the unique Kalevala meter, he represented the verse as trochaic tetrameter. The alliteration of the original gets dropped, but we are left with a pounding, rhythmic beat.


(Henry Wadsworth Longfellow famously borrowed this trochaic tetrameter from the German-translated Kalevala, and applied it to his Song of Hiawatha (1855). Trochaic is a very distinctive form of verse, an inversion of the more common iambic meter, and can sound like chanting, especially if you leave the last unstressed syllable on the line. Another example of trochaic verse in English would be the Christmas carol, Good King Wenceslas… whose tune, but not the words, also started out in Finland. As a Spring Carol, oddly enough. Tempus adest floridum: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zv8PgukSLX0).

Which brings us to Kirby. Kirby’s translation is notable for actually being a direct Finnish-to-English translation, which I think does recommend it over Crawford, and his naming conventions are not as weird (Crawford spells Väinämöinen with a W and Joukahainen with a Y. Sure, Finnish J is pronounced as Y, but Youkahainen just looks odd). Crawford is also more archaic generally, so I find Kirby more readable, which is why on my previous read, I gleefully took the opportunity to swap from online Crawford to physical-copy Kirby. But since Kirby also replicates the meter via trochaic tetrameter, he does take some liberties in order to make it all fit. Tolkien in Letter 163 refers to “Kirby’s poor translation”, though whether this refers to accuracy or to the translation as literature is unclear. It may have been been one of Tolkien’s periodic bouts of hyperbole.

For comparison, compare Crawford and Kirby’s versions of Kullervo’s death scene (Runo XXXVI). One of the most famous episodes in Kalevala, I am sure Tolkien fans will see the influence on a certain First Age story, and the role of the talking sword.


Kullerwoinen, wicked wizard,
Grasps the handle of his broadsword,
Asks the blade this simple question:
“Tell me, O my blade of honor,
Dost thou wish to drink my life-blood,
Drink the blood of Kullerwoinen?”

Thus his trusty sword makes answer,
Well divining his intentions:
“Why should I not drink thy life-blood,
Blood of guilty Kullerwoinen,
Since I feast upon the worthy,
Drink the life-blood of the righteous?”

Thereupon the youth, Kullervo,
Wicked wizard of the Northland,
Lifts the mighty sword of Ukko,
Bids adieu to earth and heaven;
Firmly thrusts the hilt in heather,
To his heart he points the weapon,
Throws his weight upon his broadsword,
Pouring out his wicked life-blood,
Ere he journeys to Manala.
Thus the wizard finds destruction,
This the end of Kullerwoinen,
Born in sin, and nursed in folly.


Kullervo, Kalervo's offspring,
Grasped the sharpened sword he carried,
Looked upon the sword and turned it,
And he questioned it and asked it,
And he asked the sword's opinion,
If it was disposed to slay him,
To devour his guilty body,
And his evil blood to swallow.
Understood the sword his meaning,
Understood the hero's question,
And it answered him as follows:
"Wherefore at thy heart's desire
Should I not thy flesh devour,
And drink up thy blood so evil?
I who guiltless flesh have eaten,
Drank the blood of those who sinned not?"
Kullervo, Kalervo's offspring,
With the very bluest stockings,
On the ground the haft set firmly,
On the heath the hilt pressed tightly,
Turned the point against his bosom,
And upon the point he threw him,
Thus he found the death he sought for,
Cast himself into destruction.
Even so the young man perished,
Thus died Kullervo the hero,
Thus the hero's life was ended,
Perished thus the hapless hero.

The poetic repetition comes through more powerfully in Kirby here, emphasising that beneath the nineteenth century editing, this text reflects an oral tradition, where such repetition served an important purpose in memorisation. I also prefer Kirby’s word-choice over Crawford’s, in that “wicked wizard” sounds both cheesy and overly judgmental about Kullervo. In truth, original wording aside, neither “wicked wizard” nor “hapless hero” necessarily fit the characterisation of Kullervo over Runos XXXI-XXXVI. He’s not a malevolent schemer, but rather an angry and mentally ill young man who lashes out against the world. On the other hand, no-one was forcing him to abduct random women, so he could fuck them in his sled. Maybe hateful (or hate-filled) hero? Albeit such tinkering would be venturing outside the scope of a translation, in terms of accuracy. Crawford’s excuse is that he’s translating German, not the original Finnish.

For comparison, Bosley – another direct Finnish to English translation, this time the work of a poet, rather than a scholar – drops the trochaic tetrameter altogether, preferring a looser form that allows him to concentrate on accuracy of meaning. Here is his rendering of the death of Kullervo:

Kullervo, Kalervo's son
snatched up the sharp sword
looks at it, turns it over
asks it, questions it;
he asked his sword what it liked:
did it have a mind
to eat guilty flesh
to drink blood that was to blame?
The sword followed the man's drift
it guessed the fellow's chatter
and answered with this word: 'Why
should I not eat what I like
not eat guilty flesh
not drink blood that is to blame?
I'll eat even guiltless flesh
I'll drink even blameless blood.'
Kullervo, Kalervo's son
the blue-stockinged gaffer's child
pushed the hilt into the field
pressed the butt into the heath
turned the point towards his breast
rammed himself upon the point
and on it he brought about
his doom, met his death.
And that was the young man's doom
the Kullervo fellow's death -
the end for the fellow, death
for the ill-fated. 

“Ill-fated fellow” is a much better fit for what Kullervo is, of course, and while still being a synonym for hapless, I personally feel it carries a slightly darker connotation than Kirby, which strikes me as appropriate.

Overall, while I miss the haunting chant of the trochaic tetrameter, I also do appreciate the clarity with which Bosley gets across the story – his version feels more fast-moving than the older ones, and once one gets used to the flow, the immersion is strong. In the case of actually reading Kalevala all the way through, I think this makes the world of difference during the dreaded Runos XX-XXV. Here the previously exciting story grinds to a halt as we get a very long and very dull description of a wedding – it really is a matter of pushing on through, until you get back to the good parts. Because don’t worry. There are good bits coming up – Lemminkäinen’s antics are awesome.

(On that subject… Kalevala’s protagonists are a world away from the grand and doom-laden heroics of Norse and Germanic myth. They might be considered a collection of roguish magical Bards with a fixation on finding love, or at least getting women into their beds. Heroism as a bride price is a recurring theme, albeit so is failure).

If I really had to criticise Bosley, it is that I don’t like his use of terms like Devil and Jack Frost to connote concepts within this world. By switching Ukko to God, Hiisi to the Devil, and, well, Frost to Jack Frost, he is not trusting his reader to make sense of this alien world. Instead, he is using terminology that feels anachronistic in the setting – both dumbed-down and Christianised, rather than something that both respects the reader’s intelligence and the authenticity of the setting. Christianity does creep into the original text in Runo L, but that is outside the control of the translator. This problem is within the control of the translator. Crawford and Kirby (particularly the former) might be tougher to read, but neither fall into that particular trap.

So much for the translations. Now to the Tolkien connection.

Tolkien famously stumbled across Kirby’s translation in his youth, and from there tried to teach himself Finnish to read some of the original. As Letter 163 and Humphrey Carpenter’s biography make clear, the young Tolkien was sufficiently mesmerised that he nearly failed his student course-work at Oxford. The result was that his invented languages took a rather more Finnish turn*, and he produced at least one bit of Kalevala fanfiction, eventually published posthumously as The Story of Kullervo (edited by Verlyn Flieger).

In an ironic twist, that fanfiction might actually serve aspiring writers better than those curious about Tolkien’s legendarium – The Story of Kullervo might be the earliest piece of Tolkien fiction yet published, but it also is not very good when viewed on its own terms, and as such demonstrates that even literary greats have to start somewhere. Yes, Tolkien himself started out writing mediocre Kalevala fanfiction – it’s enough to cheer up anyone who is depressed about their own literary aspirations. Anyone else, however, would probably be better off reading Kalevala, or at least Runos XXXI-XXXVI, which deal with Kullervo.

*For a look at Quenya’s relationship to Finnish, see here: http://www.sci.fi/~alboin/finn_que.htm

This is also the point at which someone will suggest that, based off Kalevala, Tolkien started musing about creating a mythology for England. That phrase that does, however, need to be treated with caution. Firstly, the expression is that of biographer Humphrey Carpenter and not Tolkien himself. Secondly, it only ever referred to the later-abandoned Book of Lost Tales, and not to subsequent works, especially not to The Lord of the Rings. It might be more accurate to say that the legendarium started life as a means of giving his Finnish-influenced Elvish language somewhere to live, whereupon it took on a life of its own.

But leaving aside Quenya, Tolkien’s fondness for Finnish remained. The Father Christmas Letters has the real name of the North Polar Bear being Karhu, and the Bear’s nephews are Paksu and Valkotukka. The names are Finnish for Bear, Fat, and White-hair, respectively. In short, Polar Bears.

And then there are the story influences, which are clear, but can possibly be overstated. I think it best to see Kalevala as a starting point for Tolkien’s imagination, rather than as something that profoundly shaped his invented mythos. But for the sake of completeness, let us examine the influences in question.

(i) The Power of Music

The world of Kalevala is both profoundly magical and profoundly musical. In contrast to the setting of Norse stories, where magic-use is rarer and often sinister, in Kalevala magic is everywhere – recall too that Lapland magicians had quite the real-world reputation. It shows up in Olaus Magnus’ History of the Northern Peoples (1555). It even shows up in English Jacobean drama, with an allusion to wind-ropes in The Chances, by John Fletcher (1617):

 “… his Devil Comes out of Lapland, where they sell men Winds For dead drink, and old Doublets.”

Kalevala magic commonly takes the form of singing, or of powerful words. Knowing the origins of something is of great assistance in controlling and mastering it. Smaller wonder then, that when Väinämöinen and Joukahainen face off in a magical battle of supremacy (Runo III), it takes the form of what amounts to an Epic Rap Battle, with Joukahainen literally being sung into a swamp. These roguish Bards are powerful because knowledge is power, and magical song is how they exercise that.

In the case of Tolkien, one might note that his world is literally sung into the existence during the Music of the Ainur, and that the Vala Ulmo – associated with the sea – is deeply instructed in music. Music is a cosmic underpinning to Tolkien’s world, the blueprints from which the world was built, so it is of little surprise that Tolkien throws in plenty of his own songs and poems into his narrative.

But though there is even the occasional magic singing-battle, Kalevala-style, there is not as many as one might expect. None of them actually involve Tolkien’s wizards, nor even the two greatest in-universe Bards, Maglor and Daeron. But there are at least three major incidents that spring to mind. Finrod Felagund versus Sauron from The Silmarillion, and Tom Bombadil versus Old Man Willow and the Barrow-Wight from The Lord of the Rings.

Finrod Felagund versus Sauron:

He chanted a song of wizardry,
Of piercing, opening, of treachery,
Revealing, uncovering, betraying.
Then sudden Felagund there swaying
Sang in answer a song of staying,
Resisting, battling against power,
Of secrets kept, strength like a tower,
And trust unbroken, freedom, escape;
Of changing and of shifting shape
Of snares eluded, broken traps,
The prison opening, the chain that snaps.
    Backwards and forwards swayed their song.
Reeling and foundering, as ever more strong
The chanting swelled, Felagund fought,
And all the magic and might he brought
Of Elvenesse into his words.
Softly in the gloom they heard the birds
Singing afar in Nargothrond,
The sighing of the Sea beyond,
Beyond the western world, on sand,
On sand of pearls in Elvenland.
    Then the gloom gathered; darkness growing
In Valinor, the red blood flowing
Beside the Sea, where the Noldor slew
The Foamriders, and stealing drew
Their white ships with their white sails
From lamplit havens. The wind wails,
The wolf howls. The ravens flee.
The ice mutters in the mouths of the Sea.
The captives sad in Angband mourn.
Thunder rumbles, the fires burn —-
    And Finrod fell before the throne.

This is a literal battle of magical power, as expressed through the form of singing, but Tolkien definitely puts his own spin on things, and departs from Kalevala for his own purposes. Väinämöinen defeats Joukahainen because he is the wiser and more knowledgeable sage. Finrod versus Sauron is rather a contest of wills, where Sauron wins because he is able to manipulate Finrod's guilt, and so breaks him. 

Tolkien's choice strikes me as artistically sound. If Finrod were losing because he knows less than Sauron, that would not carry quite the same poetic effect - it would make the battle about Finrod as an individual, rather than about the Elves as a people. Moreover, Finrod (unlike Joukahainen) is not an egomaniac. He would not dispute Sauron's mastery of lore, but only his moral status. Finrod is battling on behalf of others, and not himself - he is motivated by desperation and not by pride.

(Moreover, Tolkien does not serve up a regular meter here, much less trochaic tetrameter, and the reference to the wolf howling is much more Norse than Finnish. But he does at least have four beats per line...).

Tom Bombadil versus the Barrow-Wight:

Cold be hand and heart and bone,
and cold be sleep under stone:
never more to wake on stony bed,
never, till the Sun fails and the Moon is dead.
In the black wind the stars shall die,
and still on gold here let them lie,
till the dark lord lifts up his hand
over dead sea and withered land.

Get out, you old Wight! Vanish in the sunlight!
Shrivel like the cold mist, like the winds go wailing,
Out into the barren lands far beyond the mountains!
Come never here again! Leave your barrow empty!
Lost and forgotten be, darker than the darkness,
Where gates stand for ever shut, till the world is mended.

Tom wins the battle, of course – his power as expressed through song is simply greater than the Barrow-Wight’s. As is the case with Finrod and Sauron, Tom is battling on someone else’s behalf, but this time the bad guy is overcome. Tom indeed expresses such magical power on other occasions too, such as when he sings Old Man Willow into submission, to rescue the hobbits:

“What? Old Man Willow? Naught worse than that, eh? That can soon be mended. I know the tune for him. Old grey Willow-man! I’ll freeze his marrow cold, if he don’t behave himself. I’ll sing his roots off. I’ll sing a wind up and blow leaf and branch away. Old Man Willow!”

Singing a tree’s roots away? Clearly the arboreal equivalent of singing one’s opponent into the swamp. But again, the emphasis on tunes, song and music is very clear, as is the ability of song to manifest real-world effects. Unlike the Barrow-Wight, we don’t hear the Willow’s own attempted enchantments, but Samwise Gamgee does make a side-comment in The Old Forest, that quietly fills things in for us:

“I don’t like this great big tree. I don’t trust it. Hark at it singing about sleep now!”

So Tom isn’t simply singing at a malevolent-but-dumb enemy. He’s responding to the Willow’s song with his own, which puts the Willow – like the Wight – into the role of Joukahainen. The foolish challenger that gets curbstomped by their older and wiser opponent. Tom Bombadil may be luckier in love than Väinämöinen, and a good deal sillier, but he is not to be trifled with.

The Old Man Willow example is also broadly interesting in that Tom’s domain seems to operate on a much more animistic basis than the rest of Middle-earth. Creatures, flora, and objects alike have an individual identity to them, with personalities to match. Closer to the world of Kalevala, perhaps, and while we do not have characters talking to roads and expecting them to talk back, it is worth noting the hobbits in Bombadil’s house find singing more natural than talking. As though for three chapters, our protagonists stumble into a setting quite different from what comes before or after. An oasis of Kalevala, if you will.

(As an aside, in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, Tom has another of these confrontations, this time with a badger. Which invites delightful parallels with Finrod versus Sauron – Tolkien’s later etymology has ‘Felagund’ as meaning ‘badger’).

(ii) Eagle-rescues

Perhaps the most straight-forward Kalevala “trope” in Tolkien is the conception of eagles rescuing protagonists. Indeed, it is present in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion, with Gandalf alone making use of it no less than four times. Tolkien himself was aware of the deus ex machina potential too, going so far as to label the eagles a “dangerous machine” (Letter 210), on account of how they affect the internal logic of his story.

The literary source for this is Runos VI and VII. As revenge for his humiliation in the song battle, Joukahainen shoots Väinämöinen’s horse out from under him, and the old sage is swept out to sea. Väinämöinen drifts around for a while, before being rescued by an eagle:

Came a bird from Lapland flying,
From the north-east came an eagle,
Not the largest of the eagles,
Nor was he among the smallest,
With one wing he swept the water,
To the sky was swung the other;
On the sea his tail he rested,
On the cliffs his beak he rattled.
Slowly back and forwards flying,
Turning all around, and gazing,
Soon he saw old Väinämöinen
On the blue waves of the ocean.
"What has brought you here, O hero,
Wandering through the waves of ocean?"
Väinämöinen, old and steadfast,
Answered in the words which follow:
Said the bird of air, the eagle,
"Let thy heart be free from trouble;
Climb upon my back, and seat thee,
Standing up upon my wing-tips,
From the sea will I transport thee,
Wheresoever thou may'st fancy.
For the day I well remember,
And recall a happier season,
When fell Kaleva's green forest,
Cleared was Osmola's famed island,
But thou didst protect the birch-tree,
And the beauteous tree left'st standing,
That the birds might rest upon it,
And that I myself might sit there."
Then the aged Väinämöinen
Raised his head from out the water,
From the sea the man sprang upward,
From the waves the hero mounted.
On the eagle's wings he sat him,
On the wing-tips of the eagle.
Then the bird of air, the eagle,
Raised the aged Väinämöinen,
Through the path of wind he bore him,
And along the east-wind's pathway,
To the utmost bounds of Pohja,
Onwards to the misty Sariola,
There abandoned Väinämöinen,
Soared into the air, and left him.

If one plays up the parallels between Gandalf and Väinämöinen – and as we shall see, such parallels exist – the fact that Gandalf is the eagles’ most regular customer do strengthen the connection between Tolkien and Kalevala. Especially because in The Hobbit, it is explicit that Gandalf did the eagles a favour earlier, via healing their lord from an arrow-wound. Here, Väinämöinen has previously done the eagle a favour – in a different context – and also earns a rescue out of it.

However, I have mentioned that Tolkien’s Kalevala influences can be overemphasised, so once again, the point needs some qualification. The major issue is that Kalevala uses eagles – both real and artificially-constructed – in a variety of contexts. Lemminkäinen has to deal with a malevolent fiery eagle on his way to the Lapland wedding, and only once in the entire epic does the narrative serve up a Tolkienian-style rescue. Tolkien, by contrast, largely reserves his eagles for deus ex machina situations, invariably to get a protagonist out of a mess. So while he is making a literary reference to Kalevala, the way in which he uses the trope is decidedly non-Kalevala. The eagle-rescue may have started out in this text, but Tolkien transformed it into something quite different from his source.

(iii) Smithing and Avian Transformations

I have previously noted that Kalevala is very alien in character and sentiment to Norse material. Far more magic, and far more lowbrow heroes. Or rather anti-heroes. But one rare area where the Finnish and the Norse overlap is in the importance placed on the role of smithing and crafting. Norse myth throws up Dwarven artisans – who are sufficiently horny that they would fit right into Kalevala – and the grim legend of Wayland. Kalevala serves up a single supreme smith, Ilmarinen, who is responsible for forging the sky and the Sampo. Ilmarinen also serves as one of the big four hero characters of the Finnish epic, along with Väinämöinen, Lemminkäinen, and Kullervo. He is genuinely important.

Tolkien clearly wanted to have his cake and eat it too, so far as smithing goes. Not only does he have artisan Dwarves – minus the horniness of their Norse counterparts – and a Wayland analogy in Eöl of Nan Elmoth, but rather than just having lots of little smiths, he also runs with a collection of supreme smiths, more akin to the Finnish Ilmarinen. Hence Aulë, the literal god of smithing (and note that there is no such god equivalent in Norse mythology. The Aesir hired others to do the work). Hence Fëanor, creator of the magical artifact that drives everyone crazy (why, yes. Kalevala has one of those too. It’s called the Sampo). And hence poor sad Celebrimbor.

Well and good. But once again, Tolkien goes places Kalevala does not – this time in terms of theme. Specifically on the theme of smiths as creators, and associated moral issues.

In Kalevala, Ilmarinen’s creative activities are unproblematic. He can forge the Sampo, or a new Sun and Moon, or whatever items the other heroes need in a hurry… and the text does not treat it as morally wrong. It is merely an act of creation, to be admired for the benefits it brings people. The most morally dubious thing Ilmarinen creates is a woman of gold and silver, to replace his previous wife, who (courtesy of Kullervo) has been murdered by bears and wolves. Turns out, such a bride is not really an appropriate substitute, and in his second-funniest ruling in the book, Väinämöinen declares that no man may marry such a woman in future. More charitably, it is an assertion that gold and artifice cannot replace the important things in life. Cue analogies with Thorin Oakenshield’s deathbed words to Bilbo in The Hobbit.

(Väinämöinen’s funniest ruling? That vipers may henceforth not drink beer. I defy anyone to read Runo XLIX and not chuckle at that. But speaking of Väinämöinen… the old man is no slouch at creativity himself. Not only is he in the boat-building business, but he also crafts a kantele – a musical instrument – out of a pike’s jawbone, and then another out of birch and other materials. That replacement kantele actually involves him asking a woman for strands of her hair to use as the strings. A touch of the Fëanor there, minus the egomania. But like Ilmarinen, and unlike Fëanor, nothing Väinämöinen creates is treated as problematic).

Tolkien uses smithing for a quite different thematic purpose. Namely that smithing – like all acts of human or Elven creation – is but a reflection of the Primary Creation, that of Eru Himself. And to love too dearly the work of one’s hands… that runs the risk of ignoring one’s own place. The Silmarils may be the creation of Fëanor, but their light is not, and this is a setting that treats property relationships less as an absolute despotism, and more as a matter for stewardship. In a sense, Fëanor is falsely claiming divine authority over these objects, as well as withholding the benefits from the wider Elven community – and creator or not, Tolkien treats that as wrong.

By contrast, when the Kalevala protagonists resolve to steal the Sampo back from Louhi, they are doing it because they want to help their people. The resulting struggle is portrayed positively… because these people are our protagonists. It’s nothing more complicated than “our people versus the Laplanders,” and even though the Sampo is accidentally destroyed, the people still benefit from the fragments, so the struggle is “worth it.” The comparison with Fëanor and his blood-drenched sons, who slaughter innocents in pursuit of their precious gems, could not be more stark. That is not treated as an heroic struggle on behalf of one’s folk, but rather a tragic mess, one that can only be resolved via penitence and a desperate pilgrimage across the Sea.

From this, one can see that while Tolkien is happy enough to steal the concept of a supreme smith from Ilmarinen, he actively plays with underlying moral themes in a manner that his source material does not. Is there an influence there? Certainly. But it is the influence of a foundation – something to be built off – and not a shaping or an artistic homage. Tolkien was using something old to create something new, rather than writing the sort of pastiche (or fanfiction!) that he started out with.

Further on Ilmarinen, one additional aspect of his story that parallels Tolkien is the fate of the woman he claims as his replacement bride (Runo XXXVIII). Having discovered that the gold and silver woman does not work, he heads up to Lapland, and asks the sister of his first wife to come with him. She refuses, so he straight-out grabs her into his sled – and, yes, the protagonists of Kalevala all need a bit of education on sexual consent. Even Ilmarinen, hitherto the sane man of the bunch. The woman reacts badly, until she finally drives Ilmarinen to turn her into a seagull.

The analogy here would be Elwing fleeing Maedhros and Maglor after the Third Kinslaying. Not only are these two villains the sons of a smith, and making rather pointed demands of Elwing (albeit for the jewel she is withholding, and not her hand in forced marriage), but Elwing avoids those demands by literally being turned into a sea-bird. A strange and highly supernatural development for that part of The Silmarillion – which Tolkien handles by making it the work of Ulmo. Ulmo, as noted, also happens to be the Vala most instructed in music, and Kalevala is all about the magic of music.

It is definitely an interesting potential Tolkienian shout-out to Kalevala, but the major problem is that this sort of thing is not unique to Kalevala. It is a trope that is all over the sort of ancient literature Tolkien knew so well. Prior to this re-read, I had thought Elwing’s avian transformation was a reference to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, where countless hapless victims end up as birds after finding themselves on the receiving end of divine power. While Tolkien knew his Kalevala, he knew his Ovid too… so in a sense, this would be less about an individual reference to a specific text, and more about a homage to multiple influential texts.

(Furthermore, Tolkien does not simply use the episode to reference Kalevala and Ovid. He is a more creative writer than that. He also uses the episode to advance both his own plot and themes. Plot-wise, Elwing becoming a bird allows her to take the Silmaril to her husband, Eärendil, prior to his great voyage to Valinor. In terms of themes, this once more drives home the tragic futility of the Oath sworn by Maedhros and Maglor. The closer they come to their goal, the more success eludes them. So, again, we see Kalevala playing the role of an ingredient that Tolkien used for his own literary purposes. The lesson to aspiring writers is clear – references can be neat and all, but try to do something original with them).

(iv) Väinämöinen as Gandalf

Gandalf is one of the most iconic characters in Tolkien’s legendarium, and indeed in all of fantasy literature. He is simultaneously a mentor to Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, and an archetype of the benevolent and wise wizard – an old man with a long beard, who is more than he seems. Well and good. But in contrast to, for example, the hobbits, this is not a character that appeared out of Tolkien’s imagination whole-cloth. This is a character with many literary antecedents. Tolkien himself called Gandalf an ‘Odinic wanderer,’ (Letter 107), and there exists a famous picture postcard, which Tolkien considered an origin of the character (https://tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Der_Berggeist). But it is difficult to read Kalevala and not conclude that Väinämöinen was another particular ingredient in this soup.

Väinämöinen is an elderly bearded man – indeed in Kalevala it is clear that he has always been old, much like Tolkien’s own conception of Gandalf and his fellow Istari. He also plays the narrative role of wise old sage, a benevolent mentor to his people. As noted earlier, he performs a favour for an eagle, and earns himself a rescue from a tight spot as a result. And in Runo L, he leaves in a (copper) boat across the Sea, anticipating perhaps the eventual departure of Gandalf from the Grey Havens – just as Gandalf leaves, to make way for the Dominion of Men, so our Kalevala hero leaves to make way for the arrival of Christianity in Finland. Like Gandalf, Väinämöinen might be a mighty loremaster and magician, but he also eventually becomes a relic of a bygone age, and while the Christianity in Runo L feels a tad intrusive, it is also a comment on the End of an Era. A Tolkienian theme if ever was one.

The comparison is a valid and interesting one. It is, however, necessary to make two caveats:

Firstly, Väinämöinen has certain elements to him that do not carry across into Gandalf. As per the Kalevala setting, Väinämöinen is distinguished as a mighty Bard. Multiple Runos are devoted to his construction of his kanteles – the pike one and the birch replacement, and he is able to mesmerise anything that comes near with his beautiful music. In contrast to, say, Tom Bombadil, there is nothing musical about Tolkien’s Gandalf, and in contrast to the enchanting voice of Saruman, Gandalf comes across more as a gruff splash of cold water. One is actually reminded about how Plato’s Socrates compares himself to his Sophist opponents – as a doctor, rather than as a cook serving up sweet-treats to children.

Moreover, as befits a Kalevala character, Väinämöinen is appropriately horny, and age has not dampened his desire for companionship. Unfortunately, his age does interfere with his ability to actually find a willing partner, as both Joukahainen’s sister and Louhi’s daughter reject him, never mind his respected status. We are talking about a character whose love-interest winds up as a salmon, rather than marry him. Ouch. By contrast, sexuality is simply not an element of Tolkien’s Gandalf. Tolkien’s Maiar are capable of romantic love and children (Melian), and the mysterious Tom Bombadil* has Goldberry, but such activities do not befit the story role of Gandalf. He is there to inspire others against Evil, not to start his own family. Besides, the future belongs to Men.

*There is the point that Tom Bombadil – noted musical character, victor in singing battles, and older than anyone, would himself serve as a decent Väinämöinen. One who actually gets the girl, perhaps. It is just that Tom does not play an analogous story role. He’s an isolationist, uninterested in the wider affairs of Middle-earth. He is not a guiding mentor, and is also too fundamentally silly.

The other caveat with Väinämöinen/Gandalf is that Väinämöinen is clearly only one of many ingredients for Tolkien’s character. Gandalf is the Wizard with a Thousand Faces, if you will, and with that number of antecedents, it becomes difficult to clearly separate out and discuss a single influence. Tolkien himself drew analogies with the Norse Odin – though while the appearance of the character as an old man in a battered hat fits, Gandalf utterly lacks Odin’s sinister nature. John Boorman’s infamous 1970 Lord of the Rings screenplay sees Merlin in the character. The wise old bearded mentor and magician, who is also ultimately side-lined once he has outlived his usefulness.

Perhaps, but Gandalf bears very little resemblance to the mad forest-dweller that appears in, say, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s twelfth century Life of Merlin. So among this myriad of wizarding archetypes, Väinämöinen is as solid a reference as any. It is just important to remember that he is not the only one.

(v) Kullervo as Túrin Turambar

Now we turn to the epicentre of Kalevala influence on a mature Tolkien story: the connection between Kullervo and Tolkien’s Túrin Turambar. In a sense, Tolkien fills out three of the four major Kalevala protagonists with his own legendarium characters. Ilmarinen the smith influences Fëanor, Väinämöinen the sage influences Gandalf, and and now we have Kullervo the hapless informing the ultimate fate of Túrin son of Húrin. Only a Lemminkäinen analogy is missing to complete the quartet, though the idea of Tolkien putting a lecherous, charismatic playboy into his world would no doubt raise some eyebrows. Maybe the fanfiction can be seen as filling that particular niche.

Anyway, as noted earlier, Kullervo garnered sufficient interest from the young Tolkien that the tale sparked his own fanfiction efforts. Even into the actual Túrin tale, as it appears in the published Silmarillion, the shadow of the Kalevala is long indeed:

  • Kullervo and Túrin both lose connection with their biological family early in life, and grow up in a fostered setting – albeit Kullervo is a slave, and Túrin is pampered.
  • Kullervo and Túrin are both moody, angry young men with a tendency to over-react to slights. Kullervo arranges for Ilmarinen’s wife to be torn apart by bears. Túrin throws a goblet in Saeros’ face, then later strips him naked and chases him through the forest at sword-point.
  • On killing their immediate tormentors (Ilmarinen’s wife and Saeros), both Kullervo and Túrin flee the perceived wrath of a Reasonable Authority Figure (Ilmarinen and Thingol of Doriath).
  • Kullervo and Túrin are both innately talented individuals, skilled at magic and fighting respectively. It is just that everything they do seems to end badly for them.
  • Kullervo and Túrin both wreak bloody vengeance (against Untamo and Brodda’s Easterlings respectively).
  • Kullervo and Túrin both run across their sister unknowingly. The sister had wandered away from their mother, and basically gone missing.
  • Kullervo and Túrin both commit incest with aforementioned sister.
  • Aforementioned sister discovers the incest and immediately drowns herself in a river.
  • When the weight of their sins grows too much for them, Kullervo and Túrin pull out their creepy black swords, and have a chat with them. The swords talks back, and are perfectly fine with killing their owners.
  • Kullervo and Túrin force their sword-hilts into the ground, and then both characters commit suicide by impaling themselves upon the blades.
  • Túrin is buried under the Stone of the Hapless. Kullervo is referred to as “the hapless hero” in the Kirby translation, and then later as “Kullervo the hapless” by Tolkien himself in Letter 163.

Quite the list of parallels. But even here, there needs to be qualifications, which I might list as follows:

  • Tolkien’s Túrin is an altogether grander figure than Kullervo. He is the heir to a powerful lord of men, and a celebrated warrior whose martial abilities are remembered for millennia afterwards. He wins the esteem of not one but two Elven kingdoms. Kullervo, by contrast, is a backwoods bumpkin, whose misfit status aligns with prodigious magical talent to cause disaster. In fact, Kullervo’s early life in slavery is arguably a better fit for Túrin’s cousin, Tuor, than for Túrin himself.
  • Appearance-wise, Túrin is handsome, earning the name Adanedhel and the attention of Finduilas in Nargothrond. Kullervo’s appearance is unclear – he’s described as handsome in Runo XXXV, but in Runo XXXVI his brother says he would prefer another brother, one more handsome. Kullervo is also terrible with women, to the point where he only gets sex with his unknown sister after he forces her into his sled and reveals his collected tax money. In Tolkien’s own fanfiction, Kullervo is explicitly described as ugly and unattractive to women.
  • Not only is Túrin grander, but the root of his calamities is accordingly more mythic. Túrin’s family has been cursed by a literal Dark Lord, and the character devotes much effort to escaping the supposed curse. Kullervo, by contrast, is considered to be the product of bad parenting.
  • Túrin is given a series of opportunities by friendly voices, most notably Beleg, to back away from his destructive path. Túrin has several genuine friends over his lifetime. Kullervo, by contrast, is a friendless pariah, who finds himself disowned by his entire family, save his mother. The effect is that the role of personal choice and culpability in Túrin’s story is emphasised, in a way it is not in Kullervo’s. Túrin is far less evil on paper, but he also has more control over his own predicament, which allows for a greater sense of tragedy. Kullervo’s tragedy is that (via upbringing and mental illness) he never really learned how to act as a functional human-being within society.
  • The incest takes place under very different circumstances. Túrin finds Nienor in the forest, rescues her, gets to know her… so they marry, and she gets pregnant. Kullervo abducts a random woman on his journey, in the name of casual sex under dubious consent.
  • There is no analogy to Glaurung in Kullervo’s story. Not only does the slaying of Glaurung make Túrin a bona fide hero, but the dragon’s memory-wiping allows for the incest plot to take place at all. Kullervo’s situation would be more analogous to a situation where Túrin goes straight from Doriath to Brethil, forces himself upon a random woman, and only finds out who she is during the post-coital chat.
  • Túrin’s response to learning of the incest is to go into denial, then snap and kill himself. Kullervo – unlike his sister – does not commit suicide immediately on learning the truth. The suicide comes in the following Runo, when the guilt finally gets to him.
  • The talking sword is much more unremarkable in Kalevala than it is in Tolkien. The world of Kalevala is dripping in animism. One can talk to roads, trees, and celestial objects, and they can talk back. Small wonder that a sword can. In Tolkien, Gurthang is another matter, allowing for a much stranger and creepier scene. There is the logic hole of how the narrator was aware of Gurthang’s speech, given Túrin was the only person to have heard it… but it is still a delightful artistic flourish.

From this, one can ascertain that Tolkien had to perform a fair amount of surgery on Kullervo in order to turn him into Túrin Turambar. Once again, I feel that Kalevala ought to be seen as a foundation ingredient to Tolkien’s legendarium, rather than as something that enables us to say that Túrin son of Húrin “is” Kullervo, or even that Kullervo defines Túrin. In my earlier discussion of suicide in Tolkien, I also noted that Tolkien the writer was turning this particular story into the grandest tragedy he could concoct, even if it meant throwing ethics or metaphysics to the wind. In the present discussion I thought I would elaborate on that process of building a grand tragedy.

I would summarise Tolkien’s literary method here as follows:

  • Start with the bare bones: Kullervo, as he appears in Runos XXXI-XXXVI of Kalevala.
  • As per Aristotle’s Poetics, tragedy portrays Men as better than they are, in order that we might feel the magnitude of their Fall. Rather than a backwoods bumpkin, Túrin ought to be something grander. Eliminate the ugly cow-herder, and replace him with the famed Black Sword of Nargothrond, a handsome and esteemed warrior. Eliminate the mere background of mistreatment, and replace it with a powerful Dark Lord’s curse. Cue a thematic exploration of Free Will and Fate. And eliminate Kullervo’s toxic attitude towards women, in favour of something more sympathetic (or at least tolerable).
  • Inject elements from classical Greek tragedy. Rather than starting out a slave, Túrin starts high – he attains the high favour of Thingol of Doriath, before squandering his position through poor choices. Indeed, Túrin has plenty of opportunity to make poor choices, with other characters trying to talk sense into him. Túrin has a clear tragic flaw here, and in accordance with tragic conventions, his efforts to flee from his fate only bring him closer to it. He is not simply lashing out at the world like Kullervo.
  • Following on from the above, the tragic trope of Dramatic Irony is in full effect. The reader of Tolkien knows who Túrin’s wife is before he does – with all the associated dread – whereas the reader of Kalevala merely finds out with Kullervo himself. It is the famous distinction between Suspense and Surprise.
  • Raise the stakes. Kullervo’s sister drowns herself after a single night with her brother. Túrin’s sister is married and pregnant, so her suicide is even more horrifying.
  • The dragon allows the introduction of Dramatic Irony, via Glaurung’s mind-wipe on Nienor. It also shifts Túrin away from Finnish material, and into Norse and Germanic material. Sigurd the Dragonslayer is now the other great influence on Túrin. The central character is thus allowed to achieve a great and unparalleled feat before his doom catches up with him.
  • Túrin’s suicide follows Dramatic Irony out of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex – extensive denial, followed by terrible realisation. Knowledge of the incest itself is enough to drive Túrin to these tragic steps, whereas Kullervo delays his suicide significantly.

In essence, Tolkien adapts Kullervo’s story, and bolsters its tragic elements by importing influences from outside Kalevala, specifically the Greek (Oedipus Rex) and the Norse (Völsunga saga). It is a solid artistic choice, and one that speaks positively of Tolkien’s instincts as a writer. Túrin might no longer be the Kullervo of Kalevala, but he is an artificial Kullervo, imbued with sympathetic grandeur, and alloyed with other metals to strengthen him for the purpose of The Silmarillion. I wonder if Ilmarinen the smith would approve.

Thus concludes my extended thoughts after finishing Bosley’s translation of Kalevala. There is much to recommend Bosley, at least in comparison with the other translations of my acquaintance, though I will always retain a soft-spot for Kirby. Never mind strict accuracy, I just happen to enjoy the effect of trochaic tetrameter. I have also sought to explore Tolkien’s engagement with this nineteenth century Frankensteinian Monster of a text, looking at the ways in which the Finnish epic sparked his creative imagination. Linguistically and conceptually, it was unquestionably a pivotal point in the development of his legendarium. Kalevala’s shadow does hang over Tolkien’s work, in at least an indirect sense.

But as indicated, I think it is easy to overstate the direct influence of Kalevala on the stories themselves. Yes, Tolkien borrowed from Kalevala, but be borrowed in a creative way, as fuel for a wider story, and not merely in a referential way. Even in the case of Túrin’s debt to Kullervo, that most commonly cited example, I think there is a genuine transformation of the character, away from the Finnish roots and towards both the classical and the Norse. And artistically, I think Tolkien’s instincts were pretty sound here, at least in the sense of what he was trying to achieve. On the other hand, next time you get irritated by the arrival of deus ex machina eagles, you know what to blame.

4 thoughts on “Kalevala Comments: Tolkien Influences and the Translations

  1. This post is serendipitous, as I am currently working my way through the Bosley translation, fast approaching the Kullervo section. Of the “great tales,” The Children of Hurin is the easiest to trace in terms of its inspirations, which are, as you point out, quite diverse.

    Meanwhile, The Fall of Gondolin is loosely reminiscent of the Trojan War, with Tuor a sort of Aeneas. The others are trickier to pin down, except in a general sense. Beren and Luthien evokes medieval romances and later fairy tales—I could see the lovers starring in a Keats poem—, and the never-quite-realized Earendil story reminds me in the broad strokes of Irish immram tales.

    Incidentally, that Tolkien writes so wistfully of the sea and keeps alluding to maritime adventures we never see makes for some of the most frustratingly tantalizing lacunae in the legendarium.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Another precedent for the role of Gandalf, in my opinion, is the angel Raphael in the Book of Tobias, disguised as a human and displaying knowledge of arts that some would consider magical -such as the fish he uses to cure Tobias’s father’s blindness- , as well as fighting the demon Asmodeus -and Gandalf faces Sauron, who is explicitly called a “demon” in the Legendarium-. Although of course, “Azariah”, Raphael’s alias, is a strong amd young man, not the old wizard Gandalf.

    Túrin has many elements on him, including, of course, the sons of Job brutally murdered by Satan – whose role in the Legendarium belongs to Morgoth. A comparison of who suffered more about the children, Húrin or Job, would be pending.

    By the way, I like the Gray Annals version better where Túrin accidentally kills Saeros with a cup at the feast, in front of Thingol, instead of stripping him naked and mercilessly chasing him through the woods. And where of course, we are introduced to Túrin reciprocating Finduilas’s love, in stark contrast to the Túrin siscon of the Narn who ignores the love of the elven princess and is only capable of being romantically attracted to his own sister.

    Now, I agree with the theme of Túrin’s free will, but that largely happens because the Narn being a Christian story, it is obvious that the Devil must have certain limits when it comes to causing the corruption and fall of Túrin and Nienor, because otherwise, Eru’s omnipotence would be questioned.

    For something Tolkien even goes to the trouble, just like Gandalf with Theoden and Denethor, that Eru commissions a Maia, Melian, to operate as a kind of Guardian Angel of the house of Húrin, and if Melian fails in such a task, it is only because she cannot force the free will of Húrin’s family. Not many can say in the pre-LOTR Legendarium that an Ainu directly watched over them.


  3. Hi Daniel. Thank you for this post. Fascinating read, and now I am so interested in reading The Kalevala. By the way, do you know of a 1959 Russo Finnish film called Sampo, based on The Kalevala. It’s a fantastic film and has the legendary epic feel that I wish Rings of Power had. Here’s a review of the recent Blu Ray release: https://trailersfromhell.com/sampo/


  4. I’m a Finn who has read The Kalevala, and I must say that I prefer Kirby’s translation. It FEELS more like The Kalevala, at least the part about Kullervo’s death, than Crawford’s translation. I guess it is the repetition instead of “purple prose”, if that is the correct term in this case.

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