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The Tale of Kullervo

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The “Tale of Kullervo” from the Finnish Kalevala begins with a blood feud between Untamo and Kalervo.  Kalervo’s people are wiped out, save for one pregnant woman whom Untamo takes to be his serf.  When her child, Kullervo, is born, Untamo tries to kill him to prevent Kullervo from taking revenge on him when he grows up, but his attempts to slay the child fail.  Untamo gives up and decides to raise Kullervo as a serf.  However, Kullervo botches every task assigned to him, so Untamo sells him to the smith Ilmarinen.  After Kullervo breaks his knife on a stone baked into a piece of bread by Ilmarinen’s wife, he kills Ilmarinen’s wife and then leaves to seek revenge on Untamo for the death of his kin.  Along the way he discovers that his kin had not all been killed after all.  He seduces a young girl, only to discover afterwards that she was his sister, whom he had supposed to be dead.  His sister then kills herself, as described below (Bosley’s translation):

She just managed to say this
and to tell it once: at once
she tumbled out of the sledge
then ran into a river
into a rapid’s steep foam
into a smoking whirlpool.
There she brought about her doom
there she met her death
found refuge in Tuonela
mercy among the billows.
Kullervo, Kalervo’s son
dashed out of his sleigh
began to weep greatly, to
lament grievously:
‘Woe, luckless me, for my days
a woe, wretch, for my horrors
that I have used my sister
and spoilt her my mother bore!
Woe my father, my mother
woe, woe my honoured parents!
What did you create for me for
and why carry this mean one?
I would have been better off
had I not been born, not grown
not been brought into the world
not had to come to this earth;
doom did not deal straight
disease did not act aright
when it did not kill me, not
lose me as a two-night-old.’

After this tragic incident, Kullervo goes to war and exterminates Untamo and his people.  However, in despair over the disastrous and unlucky course his life has taken, Kullervo decides to kill himself:

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 even eat guiltless flesh
I’ll even drink 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.

One may compare Kullervo’s death-scene with the death of Turin Turambar from Tolkien’s The Silmarillion (or the death of Kullervo’s sister with that of Turin’s sister Nienor):

There he drew forth his sword, that now alone remained to him of all his possessions, and he said: ‘Hail Gurthang! No lord of loyalty dost thou know, save the hand that wieldeth thee. From no blood wilt thou shrink. Wilt thou therefore take Turin Turambar, wilt thou slay me swiftly?’

And from the blade rang a cold voice in answer: ‘Yea, I will drink thy blood gladly, that so I may forget the blood of Beleg my master, and the blood of Brandir slain unjustly. I will slay thee swiftly.’

Then Turin set the hilts upon the ground, and cast himself upon the point of Gurthang, and the black blade took his life.


Written by uncudh

April 9, 2009 at 8:59 pm

The singing contest

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In the 1830’s and 1840’s the Finnish physician and scholar Elias Lönnrot traveled throughout  the Finnish district of Karelia, collecting and recording various traditional folk songs.  He arranged and edited this source material to create the Kalevala, the great national epic of Finland.  The influence of the Kalevala on the writings of Tolkien is well-known.  (One can find several essays on the subject in the collection Tolkien and the Invention of Myth.)  The most notable example of such influence can perhaps be seen in Tolkien’s tale of Turin, which contains several themes and plot elements that are strikingly similar to those of the tale of Kullervo from the Kalevala.  This too is a subject that has been much studied.

In Tolkien’s world, as in the Kalevala, much of the “magic” is accomplished through song: Luthien enchants Morgoth through song; the magic of Tom Bombadil seems strongly connected to his singing; the world itself is created through the “Song of the Ainur”.  The following passage from the Kalevala (Magoun’s translation) describes a singing duel between the “wizards” Väinämöinen and Joukahainen:

He sang the cap off the man’s head    into the peak of a cloudbank,
he sang the mittens off his hands    into pond lilies,
then his blue broadcloth coat    to the heavens as a cloud patch,
the soft woolen belt from his waist    into stars throughout the heavens.
He bewitched Joukahainen himself,    sang him into a fen up to the loins,
into a grassy meadow up to the groin,    into a heath up to the armpits.

Written by uncudh

November 28, 2008 at 8:23 pm

Posted in literature

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