Finnish History

Saturday 10 May 1997, 10am-4pm

Finnish-Karelian Oral Poetry and the Kalevala (or how Archangel Karelia came to the Queen Elizabeth Hall)
Professor Michael Branch, School of Slavonic and East European Studies

Writing in the mid-nineteenth century, when written literature in the Finnish language hardly existed, Elias Lönnrot claimed: "In literary poetry Finland lags far behind many other nations; but this need not greatly trouble us, for in folk poetry it is among the leaders"1. This talk will discuss the wealth of oral poetry in the Finnish-Karelian-Ingrian context and stir the whole melting pot of oral tradition that readily mixes the indigenous with the international.

Michael Branch examines the relationship between traditional Finnish-Karelia-Ingrian oral poetry and two works by Elias Lönnrot: the Kalevala and the Kanteletar. He will explore the religious origins of oral tradition, showing how it gradually changed from a ritualistic oral accompaniment into a community-based form of oral art recorded by early Finnish nineteenth-century nationalists in eastern Finland, Archangel and Olonets Karelia and Ingria.

Secondly, he will discuss how Lönnrot used these materials to create an epic which served the purpose of a 'foundation myth' for the emerging Finnish nation. He will also consider how the myth became a 'reality' in popular perception and discuss the influence of this 'reality' on the Finns' self-image as seen in the blossoming of the arts at the end of the nineteenth century and in its incorporation into the educational system.

Finally, he will look at the phenomenon of the traditional Finnish-Karelian-Ingrian oral tradition today. Since 1985, the tradition has reasserted itself. Numerous groups in Finland are now re-generating the tradition. Their popularity has been enormous. The best known is Värttinä ('distaff' - a courtship symbol) whose songs are mostly based on centuries-old wooing ritual materials. Performing such songs, the words of which are meaningless to non-Finns (and to many Finns, too), the group nowadays draws audiences in their thousands around the world. The speaker will invite participants to speculate on the reasons for this.

Professor of Finnish and Director of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London, Michael Branch is a specialist in Finnish cultural history. His publications include a study of the Finnish nineteenth-century scholar A.J. Sjögren, and he is co-editor of Finnish Folk Poetry: Epic. An Anthology in Finnish and English (Helsinki, London, Montreal, 1977) and of The Great Bear. A Thematic Anthology of Oral Poetry in the Finno-Ugrian Languages (Helsinki, 1993; New York, 1994).

1 See Preface in The Kanteletar (Oxford, 1992), which contains a selection of lyrics and ballads after oral tradition, selected and translated from the Finnish by Keith Bosley.

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