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The Octave: Kalevala and the Silmarillon Tehanu's Eighth Note

Current Note
 The Return of the King
Past Notes
 Following Tolkien's Footsteps
 Tad Episode
 Scary Stuff
 Monstrous Regiment
 Kalevala and the Silmarillon
 Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, Middle-earth
 Silmarillion, Creation, sins of the artist
 Rarefied Air
 Quests, Myths and Archetypes
 Arthur: Quests and Legends
 Yin and Yang Quests
 The Power of Myth
 His Dark Materials
 Are We Not Geeks?
 The Two Towers Film: Tricks And Treats
 Two Towers Review, Part 2
 The Return of the King
 Where To From Here?

So, 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 couldn’t believe that Vainamoinen and Ilmarinen the Smith weren’t really Tolkien characters already. The names seemed that familiar! But in fact I’ve never come across them before.

Another familiar thing is the Kalevala’s 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. It’s a contrast from reading the Norse sagas. Like Tolkien’s work, the Kalevala observes nature with intense affection:

"…suns were free to shine
Moons were free to gleam
Clouds to scud along
And heaven’s arches to curve
On the misty headland’s tip
At the foggy island’s 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…Where I live it’s not particularly rude to call a ‘foolish fellow’ a ‘silly old bugger’ but in other parts of the world they’re not going to forgive you that in a hurry. The generation before me might have used the word ‘joker’ in its place, but that’s becoming dated now. Colloquial language dates fast and the best kind is intensely local anyway. And Finnish doesn’t 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 it’s written down, it dates.

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.

Here’s 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 Tolkien’s 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 axe:

"… ‘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 longingly:

"..fruit of my youth, don’t lament!
One year eat melted butter:
You’ll grow plumper than others;
The next year eat pork:

You’ll grow sleeker than others:
A third year eat cream pancakes:
You’ll 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 don’t 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 Egil’s Saga, thank you very much to my correspondent who suggested it.

"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 didn’t believe in much of a life after death, words were the best thing that might hold and preserve a person in memory after death. "..poet’s power
gold-praised, that
Odin from ogres tore
In ancient times,

Purest of possessions,
Poetic craft, power
The dwarf-devised,
Drew first breath…"

"…I muse how my mother met her end,
First that, then my father’s
Fall I sing
In a poem of praise
From my palace of words,
From my temple the word-tree
Tells its growth-tale."

Egil’s 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 can’t 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 don’t 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 Egil’s saga it’s 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 and close-up.

"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." — Egil’s 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 iron’s 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 doesn’t now. If you’ve seen Gallipoli, or the first few minutes of Saving Private Ryan you’ll know what I mean. It’s 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 isn’t 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 Tolkien’s 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 Tolkien’s breadth was great enough to encompass a second meaning : that Man’s 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….maybe next time.

Tehanu loves feedback (and by the way, does anyone have a copy of the Sogubrot Saga in English?)

Contact her at tehanu@theonering.net
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