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Custom and Myth

Page: 58

A comparison of the collections proves that among all European lands the primitive ‘versicles’ of the people are identical in tone, form, and incident. It is this kind of early expression of a people’s life—careless, abrupt, brief, as was necessitated by the fact that they were sung to the accompaniment of the dance—that we call ballads. These are distinctly, and in every sense, popular poems, and nothing can cause greater confusion than to apply the same title, ‘popular,’ to early epic poetry. Ballads are short; a long ballad, as Mr. Matthew Arnold has said, creeps and halts. A true epic, on the other hand, is long, and its tone is grand, noble, and sustained. Ballads are not artistic; while the form of the epic, whether we take the hexameter or the rougher laisse of the French chansons de geste, is full of conscious and admirable art. Lastly, popular ballads deal with vague characters, acting and living in vague places; while the characters of an epic are heroes of definite station, whose descendants are still in the land, whose home is a recognisable place, Ithaca, or Argos. Now, though these two kinds of early poetry—the ballad, the song of the people; the epic, the song of the chiefs of the people, of the ruling race—are distinct in kind, it does not follow that they have no connection, that the nobler may not have been developed out of the materials of the lower form of expression. And the value of the ‘Kalevala’ is partly this, that it combines the continuity and unison of the epic with the simplicity and popularity of the ballad, and so forms a kind of link in the history of the development of poetry. This may become clearer as we proceed to explain the literary history of the Finnish national poem.

Sixty years ago, it may be said, no one was aware that Finland possessed a national poem at all. Her people—who claim affinity with the Magyars of Hungary, but are possibly a back-wave of an earlier tide of population—had remained untouched by foreign influences since their conquest by Sweden, and their somewhat lax and wholesale conversion to Christianity: events which took place gradually between the middle of the twelfth and the end of the thirteenth centuries. Under the rule of Sweden, the Finns were left to their quiet life and undisturbed imaginings, among the forests and lakes of the region which they aptly called Pohja, ‘the end of things’; while their educated classes took no very keen interest in the native poetry and mythology of their race. At length the annexation of Finland by Russia, in 1809, awakened national feeling, and stimulated research into the songs and customs which were the heirlooms of the people.

It was the policy of Russia to encourage, rather than to check, this return on a distant past; and from the north of Norway to the slopes of the Altai, ardent explorers sought out the fragments of unwritten early poetry. These runes, or Runots, were chiefly sung by old men called Runoias, to beguile the weariness of the long dark winters. The custom was for two champions to engage in a contest of memory, clasping each other’s hands, and reciting in turn till he whose memory first gave in slackened his hold. The ‘Kalevala’ contains an instance of this practice, where it is said that no one was so hardy as to clasp hands with Wäinämöinen, who is at once the Orpheus and the Prometheus of Finnish mythology. These Runoias, or rhapsodists, complain, of course, of the degeneracy of human memory; they notice how any foreign influence, in religion or politics, is destructive to the native songs of a race. {160} ‘As for the lays of old time, a thousand have been scattered to the wind, a thousand buried in the snow; . . . as for those which the Munks (the Teutonic knights) swept away, and the prayer of the priest overwhelmed, a thousand tongues were not able to recount them.’ In spite of the losses thus caused, and in spite of the suspicious character of the Finns, which often made the task of collection a dangerous one, enough materials remained to furnish Dr. Lönnrot, the most noted explorer, with thirty-five Runots, or cantos. These were published in 1835, but later research produced the fifteen cantos which make up the symmetrical fifty of the ‘Kalevala.’ In the task of arranging and uniting these, Dr. Lönnrot played the part traditionally ascribed to the commission of Pisistratus in relation to the ‘Iliad’ and ‘Odyssey.’ Dr. Lönnrot is said to have handled with singular fidelity the materials which now come before us as one poem, not absolutely without a certain unity and continuous thread of narrative. It is this unity (so faint compared with that of the ‘Iliad’ and ‘Odyssey’) which gives the ‘Kalevala’ a claim to the title of epic.

It cannot be doubted that, at whatever period the Homeric poems took shape in Greece, they were believed to record the feats of the supposed ancestors of existing families. Thus, for example, Pisistratus, as a descendant of the Nelidæ, had an interest in securing certain parts, at least, of the ‘Iliad’ and the ‘Odyssey’ from oblivion. The same family pride embellished and preserved the epic poetry of early France. There were in France but three heroic houses, or gestes; and three corresponding cycles of


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