The Octave: Kalevala and the Silmarillon
Tehanu's Eighth Note
o, a slow circling approach brought me to
The Silmarillion at last. I went via the
Kalevala whose idea was that?
"I read one day, I read two,
on the third day I was still reading.
It was not a great book, no
Nor a very small one..
It was a whacking huge great read that went on for ever and ever
It started on Monday and carried on til Sunday
And I had issues with the translation."
I thought I might elevate whinging to an artform in the epic style.
What did Tolkien take from the Kalevala? The names, I guess I heard
him crediting his knowledge of Finnish for the inspiration behind many of his
names. I couldnt believe that Vainamoinen and Ilmarinen the Smith
werent really Tolkien characters already. The names seemed that familiar!
But in fact Ive never come across them before.
Another familiar thing is the Kalevalas setting in an open wild country
where anyone can build a farmstead and rule their individual lot in the vast
forest. In the Kalevala there is no government; everyone seems to live like Beorn,
in the midst of a wilderness. They talk a lot about herds and hives, and not much
about war. Its a contrast from reading the Norse sagas. Like Tolkiens
work, the Kalevala observes nature with intense affection:
suns were free to shine
Moons were free to gleam
Clouds to scud along
And heavens arches to curve
On the misty headlands tip
At the foggy islands end.
The the backwoods began to flourish
The forests to sprout gladly
Leaf on tree and grass on ground
And birds on a tree to sing
Thrushes to rejoice
The cuckoo on top to call
On the ground berry stalks grew
Golden flowers upon the lea;
Grasses grew of every kind
Or every form sprang
Only barley did not rise
The precious crop did not grow
My version of the Kalevala lurched from some gorgeous surprising imagery to the
most grating colloquialisms, which is always a problem! Whose colloquialisms are you
going to use? To call somebody a fellow sounds pretty naff right now
I live its not particularly rude to call a foolish fellow a silly
old bugger but in other parts of the world theyre not going to forgive you
that in a hurry. The generation before me might have used the word joker
in its place, but thats becoming dated now. Colloquial language dates fast and
the best kind is intensely local anyway. And Finnish doesnt even have any close
relatives in the European languages. Tricky to translate gracefully.
Live storytellers such as told the Kalevala stories would have picked just the word
that was current yet not too slangy.
but as soon as its written down, it
Anyhow, I was using the Keith Bosley translation and once I got used to it, I loved
it, though I did wonder how Tolkien might have done it.
Heres some magic, the power of the word to bring things into being:
"At that old Vainamoinen
sings and practises his craft:
he sang a spruce topped with flowers
ttopped with flowers and leaved with gold;
the top he pushed heavenward
through the clouds he lifted it
spread the foliage skyward
across heaven scattered it."
That all reminds me of the way the Valar could sing things into being: Yavanna
and the Two Trees of Valinor.
It seems to me that much of the magic in Tolkiens world is of this understated
kind: Wizards are people who have knowledge of words of power and of the origins of
things. That is the way magic is practised in the Kalevala too. Remember Gandalf trying
to find the right word to open the Gate of Moria?
This is Vainamoinen, trying to find the spell to cure a wound. To do that he must
understand the origins of iron, and speak of them to the wound, which is a cut from an
O you hook-beaked axe
you hatchet of even blade
did you think you had a tree
to bite, a fir to attack
a pine to put down
a birch to meet with
when you slipped into my flesh
slithered upon my sinews?
He started then singing charms began reciting:
He told Origins in depth
And spells in order
But cannot remember
Some of the great iron words which would prove a bar serve as a firm lock
Against those rents of iron
Those slashes of the blue-mouth
The life the Kalevala describes was hard and it seemed that people had enough to do to get
fed, and not much left over to worry about fighting. Who in the western world now would write
"..fruit of my youth, dont lament!
One year eat melted butter:
Youll grow plumper than others;
The next year eat pork:
Youll grow sleeker than others:
A third year eat cream pancakes:
Youll grow fairer than others
The Norsemen also lived a life on the edge, though perhaps as much because of their
violent culture as because of the intrinsic harshness of their climate. Fine words were
about the only luxury most people could afford, much as we might remember the Vikings for
their hoards of gold and weapons. Sagas dont mention the long, dark, cold and
claustrophobic winters in households that must have cried out for songs and stories to send
the imagination elsewhere for a while.
Finally I got hold of Egils Saga, thank you very much to my correspondent who
"So I rise up early
to erect my rhyme,
My tongue toils,
A servent at his task;
I pile the praise-stones,
The poem rises,
My labour is not lost
Long may my words live."
Since they didnt believe in much of a life after death, words were the best thing
that might hold and preserve a person in memory after death.
Odin from ogres tore
In ancient times,
Purest of possessions,
Poetic craft, power
Drew first breath
I muse how my mother met her end,
First that, then my fathers
Fall I sing
In a poem of praise
From my palace of words,
From my temple the word-tree
Tells its growth-tale."
Egils saga like the other Icelandic sagas gave a sense of people living on a knife-edge,
always close to sudden death. I wonder how much of a spur to creativity that kind of thing is?
How many subsistence cultures have built the most sophisticated art out of words that vanished
forever as soon as their language died out? Who knows what poetry the cave-men may have had to
complement their paintings? You cant pretend that people used to be dumber or less alive
to the world about them, or less able to read the visible world as a metaphor for the unseen
mysteries of life.
Modern living provides plenty of grief and sharp edges for people to rub up against, but we
dont expect famine and slaughter as commonplace events. I wonder if the our ancestors
sharp awareness of mortality gave them an urgent need to create, with word and song, something
out of nothing.
"In the beginning was the Word
." And indeed in most cultures the power of the
word has been set against Unbeing and against Time. In Egils saga its put like this:
Odin is the master of battles and death, but his compensatory gift is poetry.
Like the other sagas, Egils tells of a life where murder was common, unpredictable
"Now the bitter bearer
of the blazing war-blade
has taken ten
of my trusted followers:
But my salmon-like spear
Settled the score
When I cast it through
The curved ribs of Ketil." Egils saga
Tolkien saw the First World War and his friends fought in the trenches. I wonder if he was
drawn to recreate the heroic ideal of the far past because in his life he saw this instead:
"It is reasonable to obey the law, it is good to organise well, it is ingenious to devise
guns of high technical capacity, it is sensible to shelter human beings against massive firepower
by putting them in protective trenches," (Gil Elliot.)
The end result of this complex organisation was the manufacture of corpses, 6000 a day for
1500 days. Historian Richard Rhodes calls this an essentially industrial operation.
We take it for granted now, but in 1914, and for Tolkien, it was a fresh invention.
A historian could compare that to ancient wars battles where a person could see their attacker,
and it mattered a great deal whether they had the force of will, the confidence, the belief in their
own luck as well as the skill and strength to counter him. The berserkers, for instance, were believed
to be men who were proof against irons bite. I think that they were so terrifying in their
self-belief that few opponents could strike with conviction. It must have seemed like magic.
It made a difference, in that Iron Age culture, whether somebody faced their battles with courage or
not, and individuals want to feel that their spirit makes a difference in the world. Courage had a
survival value then in a way that it doesnt now. If youve seen Gallipoli, or the
first few minutes of Saving Private Ryan youll know what I mean. Its one thing to
fight for what one believes in, and quite another thing to be mown down for it.
Bad luck and stray arrows could kill an Iron Age warrior, sure, but his own bravery and attitude
improved his odds in a fight. Tolkien saw the culmination of a process where this was no longer
the case and would never be again.
What ever else The Lord of the Rings is about, it is a response to this new thing in
our world, and you could hardly expect such a powerful book to spring from less compelling need to
make sense of the world. You can argue all day whether heroic fantasy is or isnt a good and useful
response to war in the twentieth century, but seems that creative imagination is one of the few things
we have to set against it.
In Tolkiens world, Death is the Gift of Men that is denied to the Elves; and that is taken to have
a purely Christian meaning, Death offering the hope of Heaven. I bet that Tolkiens breadth was great
enough to encompass a second meaning : that Mans cruel and poignant mortality lends urgency to our
imagination, and lights as many fuses as it burns out.
I have prowled around the Silmarillion and got no closer to addressing it than before
Tehanu loves feedback (and by the way, does anyone have a copy of the Sogubrot Saga in English?)
Contact her at email@example.com
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