Thursday, August 11, 2011

Book Report

The Kalevala
A Bunch of anonymous Finnish types

This is a thought-provoking piece of majestic work. Thought-provoking because as I read it, an insane amount of questions kept coming to mind which I will try (completely incompletely) to compile here, although not with the mastery of Elias Lonnrot.

Like many of my recent reads, my decision to read the Kalevala was based on a cheap History Channel documentary on the life of JRR Tolkien and some random you-tubing of the gorgeous little ditties sung by really old men and Finnish schoolchildren.

So gorgeous in fact, even "viking metal bands" have gotten into the act. Because if you can't rape and pillage with a measure of approval these days, the next best thing is interpreting traditional songs with synth instruments. Obviously.

So, without further ado, three important lessons that I learned from The Kalevala:

Lesson 1: The Kalevala has fuck-all to do with Lord of the Rings. (In fact Lord of the Rings is actually better.)

Yes, yes, I know. Tolkien studied Finnish - an impressive feat because it holds the records for the most possible cases in a language. Which makes it, like Navajo, a perfect spy language to use in America where people already have issues distinguishing between "your" and "you're."

Ahem. This will not be the first pretentious aside.

But as far as anything resembling LOTR, I guess you could compare The Kalevala's main protagonist, Vainamoinen ("V," because I am lazy), to Gandalf. Except you cannot, because the only thing they have in common is a long white beard and magical powers. However, V's magical powers - like pretty much all of the magical characters - comes from "singing" his spells. In fact, all the magical battles sound a lot like American Idol with people in fur and armor. V also spent a lot of time (unsuccessfully) looking for a bride, while Gandalf had more important things to do, like saving Middle Earth. Finally, and this was really the winning blow, V neither smoked a pipe or appeared to have a sense of humor. Which made caring about whether he lived or died sort of a tossup for me.

And then there are other differences, like the Kalevala's lack of a coherent plot. Which has led me to conclude that if someone says to you, "Oh! You should read The Kalevala, it's just like Lord of the Rings!" they have not actually read the Kalevala and should be shunned for their dishonesty. Getting through an unannotated 666 pages of Finnish epic is not a light task, and saying something like that is like telling someone you ran a marathon when you can barely survive a 5K.

But you'll be glad you did, because then you can learn a lot about life choices. For example:

Lesson 2: Never get romantically involved with a man from Finland.

He will fuck you up.

I know that technically my chances of having sex with a Finnish guy are probably slim in New Orleans, and I know that wife-beating was probably completely legit until the '60s, but it's a little terrifying when it's apparently part of a national identity. But, to be fair, it's not like this text was without its romantic moments. For example, Ilmarinen a blacksmith-god type goes to build the Sampo (more on this in a second) as part of a mission to woo and win the fair girl of North.

Actually, he didn't do this on purpose - ol' V sent him because he couldn't do it himself. But he does all these wonderful tasks, forges the Sampo, and what does the fair girl of the North say then?

Well, apparently the whole duirnal cycle of Northland depends on her, so she says a lovely little, "thanks, but no thanks." Ilmarinen takes it on the chin, goes home and obsesses for six years, then returns to compete for her hand with crafty ol' V again. Except the fair maid of the North has in the meantime realized her biological clock is ticking, or maybe she's tired of her witch of a mother, but either way she helps him out in a bunch of other crazy tasks, and when her mother tells her to give a beer to the one she prefers, Ilmarinen gets that frothy mug.


That's when things start getting a little iffy.

Everyone's having a great time at the wedding, and then the bride gets ready to leave with her well-deserving groomsmen. And all of the sudden, she's like "Holy shit, I am leaving the home of my father's father's fathers." So, of course, to cheer her up, the wedding party tells her the following (in song, of course):

"Your in-laws are going to suck. They will scold you, starve you, beat you, spit on you, make you do all the household chores. No one will ever love you like the family you are now leaving behind. Especially not that dastardly bridegroom who's going to start chasing tail as soon as he can. And eventually, you're going to get tossed from the house and go to other people's weddings as an old crone in the corner and sing about it."

The circle of life.

But, there's hope. The kid on the ground tells the maid not to listen, because she picked a good man (more on THAT in a second). And for good measure, an old man advises Ilmarinen not to beat her right away if she's bad, but if it does come to blows:

"Always warm up her shoulders
soften her buttocks -
don't chastise her eyes
and don't box her ears: a lump
would come up on the eyebrow
a blueberry on the eye.
Brother-in-law would ask about it
father-in-law would wonder
the village ploughmen would see
the village women would laugh[.]"

That's right. Beat her, but leave no evidence. What will the neighbors think?

To his credit, maybe Ilmarinen is a good husband who rarely leaves visible bruises. But probably not. When we again meet the fair presumably-no-longer-a-maid of the North, she's turned into a real bitch. In fact she's so awful, she taunts the mentally handicapped serf, Kullervo, to such an extreme that he kills her with a wolf and a bear disguised as cows. Then he goes and has sex with his sister.

You can't make this shit up. Okay, apparently Fins can.

So, Ilmarinen does the logical thing. He grieves awhile (aw, again), makes a woman out of gold who is unsatisfactory (ie, it might hurt to beat or have relations with her), and then decides to kidnap his dead wife's younger sister. Who is really not thrilled and actually dares to say so. At which point he turns her into a seagull. Then decides to go back and steal the Sampo from his mother-in-law, because you need to kick an old woman when she's down.

I haven't even bothered to go into the other dude, "wanton Lemmenkainen." He's pretty much a Snoop Dogg song. Good luck with that, hos.

Lesson Three: You really don't need to know what a Sampo is to enjoy this thing.

And they're sure as hell not going to tell you. Use your imagination, or drink a lot of beer (just skip over the twenty something pages of ingredients, because it will make you rethink the beer decision).

Three and a half (with half a star thrown in for my obvious cultural misunderstanding.)

No comments: