If I were rating the national epics of the world, Finland’s Kalevala would not be near the top of my list. It has too many inconsistencies, does not form a consecutive whole, and features too much shamanistic magic—something that, for me, dehumanizes the story. And, as far as I can tell from consulting a couple of translations, it is not all that poetic either.

Elias Lönnrot, a scholar who walked about collecting the ancient material, pared it down very considerably and fairly freely imposed his shaping hand on it. Out of some hundred thousand verses, he arrived at twelve thousand, ordered into thirty-two runes (cantos) for the first edition of 1835; the second, definitive one of 1849 comprises twenty-three thousand verses in fifty runes. They are in trochaic tetrameter, a measure well suited to the Finnish language, which accentuates the first syllables of words. I know the epic from Anton Schiefner’s...

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