The literature of Finland

The literature of Finland

Until the 16th century, Finnish was a language rich in a folklore of songs and poetry handed down through oral tradition from generation to generation. It had no written form until Mikael Agricola began to construct a Finnish alphabet. As Bishop of Turku, he researched the old Finnish gods as a means to further the cause of Lutheranism and so began the research of documenting the folklore in a Finnish written form. The Bishop of Porvoo, Daniel Juslenius (1676– 1752), is known as the first of many 18th century scholars to research Finnish culture, people, and language. This was at a time when Sweden was a great power and dominated the political structure in Finland. His work was always in praise of the Finnish people. The language, cultural traditions and the feeling of a distinct national identity owed much to the survival of their oral traditions which had been passed on for centuries by a people with no written language, telling tales of the supernatural and legendary characters. Juslenius used folk song texts as proof of an ancient Finnish civilization and his work drew patriotic appreciation from many scholars who followed in his footsteps.

The Finns are a nation of tough guys and gals… It’s only logical that they also like strong language. In most cultures, swearing is considered something you shouldn’t do. In Finland, it is an essential part of effective communication. If you really want to verbally interact successfully with Finns, you have to learn to enhance your lingo with those special little words that add emotion, depth and meaning to your message.

—Roman Schatz (From Finland With Love, 2006)

The first detailed account of Finnish poetry, De Poesi Fennica, was written in 1778 by Porthan. His approach was to compare and look for variants of the same song. This work was to lay the foundations of Finland’s most significant literary masterpiece, The Kalevala, by Lonnrot (1835). Although Porthan was interested in history and folklore, he did not write about Finland as a «nation». However, nationalistic ideas were beginning to spread through scholarly circles in Finland and these were given voice through a literary association set up by Porthan, known as the Aurora Society. Promotion of the Finnish language and culture gave expression to their patriotic ideals. Sixty years after his death, Porthan was recognized as a national hero and a statue of him was erected in Turku.

In 1809, Finland was ceded to Russia after 700 years of Swedish domination, and Alexander I granted Finland the status of an autonomous Grand Duchy of Russia. It was during this period that the awakening of the Finnish Nationalist Movement came about. Research into the rich and authentic folk culture which was distinctly Finnish gave inspiration for the movement of national independence. Folklore was to play a significant role in the development of a national identity. The period from early to mid-1800s is known as the age of Turku Romanticism. Many scholars from the university collected and published folklore material, but it was one scholar, in particular, Elais Lonnrot, who was to set the Finnish world on fire. With a grant of 100 rubles from the newly formed Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura (Finnish Literary Society), Lonnrot traveled to Russian Karelia to collect folk poetry. He made several field trips to the Finnish-Russian border and in a letter written in 1834 wrote that: «a desire to organize and unify them [folk poems] awoke in me, to extract from Finnish mythology something corresponding to the Icelandic Edda.»

During his fifth field trip, Lonnrot met up with a renowned singer who was then aged 65. The singer had learned his songs as a child from his father and had an extensive repertoire. In two days, the singer sang over 4,000 lines of poetry to Lonnrot, which he captured as the vehicle to narrate his future Kalevala.

More on the Kalevala

The Kalevala has been translated into 40 languages. Kalevala Day is on 28 February. The national epic of Finland starts with the whole world being created. The main character is the god of the seas with a mighty voice called Väinämöinen, who sets out on a journey and has several mishaps. These include having his horse shot from under him by the wicked shaman, a young chap called Joukahainen. He challenges the older man to a singing contest and Väinämöinen literally gets sung into a swamp. As he is about to drown, young Joukahainen thinks up an idea to save his life. Thus, he promises his sweet sister Aino to Väinämöinen, who accepts the offer. However, Aino drowns herself rather than having to be with the old man. Väinämöinen also gets swept out to sea by a tempest, is rescued by an eagle, and eventually reaches the land where he is shown hospitality by its rulers, Louhi, the Mistress of Pohjola.

In the evolution of the Finnish National Movement, the most important literary event was the publication of Elais Lonnrot’s Kalevala in 1835. This was a compilation of the Finnish folk poetry he had researched and which he transformed into a national epic. With its publication, the status of the Finnish language and of Finnish literature heightened. The positive response to the Kalevala enabled Lonnrot to expand his work through collections made available to him by other scholars, and in 1849, a new edition known as the «new» Kalevala was published.

«I am driven by my longing,
And my understanding urges
That I should commence my singing,
And begin my recitation.
I will sing the people’s legends,
And the ballads of the nation.
To my mouth, the words are flowing,
And the words are gently falling,
Quickly as my tongue can shape them,
And between my teeth emerging.»

(Kalevala Poem 1, opening lines 1–10, translation Kirby)

Towards the end of the 1800s, the study of Finnish folklore and Finnish culture assumed great importance. It gave the Finns a self-awareness which eventually made it possible to build a political movement and was instrumental in the process of nation-building.

In terms of modern day literature, Aleksis Kivi is seen to be the founder. He penned a book called The Seven Brothers about seven brothers who try to escape education and civilization in favor of the forest. The Egyptian, published in 1945, is a world-class bestseller from the author Mika Waltari. His book depicts the ancient Egypt of the Pharaohs and contains so much detail that, to this day, it is still regarded as a masterpiece. (He never visited Egypt in his life!)

The most widely translated Finnish author is Arto Paasilinna. He writes picaresque novels which are especially popular in France. The titles of his books include The Year of the Rabbit, The Howling Miller, The Forest of the Hanged Foxes, Charming Mass Suicide and The Sweet Old Lady who Cooks Poison. The author Tove Jansson is known all over the world for her books about the Moomin Family. The popularity of the Moomin characters has resulted in them appearing in over 120 magazines and newspapers in 40 countries, in children’s books and comic strips, and then in a 78-part Japanese television series.