EPIC WINS (2)
May 30, 2011
Swept by the romantic nationalism that made modern Europe a patchwork of feverishly-imagined communities, 19th-century Finns went in search of a distinctive identity rooted in their barbed and frost-clipped language and the boreal forests from which it emerged. The physician and linguist Elias Lönnrot (1802–1884) sought the roots of that national spirit in Karelia, the land of lakes and taiga that rolls from eastern Finland into latter-day Russian and Estonia. Collecting thousands of lines of oral poetry from kantele-strumming singers in the Karelian backcountry, Lönnrot limned the arc of an epic in their tales of the god-wizard Vainamoinen. Much of the story recounts his attempts to acquire the a magical object called the Sampo; variously described as a grinding mill, a primitive astrolabe, or the Pillar of the World, the Sampo is perhaps the original Macguffin. But in this section of the epic, lovingly ripped up and rearranged by longtime Hilobrow friend and contributor James Parker, the Sampo makes no appearance. Here, brooding Vainamoinen is challenged by the upstart Joukahainen, a whelp-wizard ignorant of the danger he puts himself in with his doggerel music. Spilled by Vainamoinen, songs have the power to wither crops, slay monsters, and make worlds — the very sort of properties Elias Lönnrot hoped his epic would furnish a hopeful homeland. —Eds.
[being a bastardization of Rune 3 of
The Kalevala, lines 1-278]
A tree-stump his seat,
Vainamoinen’s at his pipe again,
puffing away, brows shaggy with
Silent utterance of smoke goes up
into the big blue, the purifying
He lowers the pipe and sings,
lazy chant like smoke-rings,
deep rhymes, elemental
that charm the glade to a
the buzz and tick of the summer.
A verse, a verse, another verse…
Ah! Such songs.
Tingling the wires of reputation,
every rival bard’s frustration,
across the heaths of Kaleva.
Then he plugs his mouth with the
and puffs and re-puffs.
Miles away, in well-farmed Lapland,
young Joukahainen savagely mops
“What is it, son?” asks Mother.
(Mother, oh Mother,
how many times have you waited
at his bedroom door,
at the entrance to his cave
“What is it, son?” asks Father.
(Father, oh Father,
have many times have you waited
feeling your skull-plates grate
Now the boy erupts in oaths,
“VAINAMOINEN IS DRIVING ME
Alarmed, the sparrow quits the sill.
The fireside dog lifts a dozy ear.
“Distinguished Vainamoinen?” asks
“The greatest of our singers?”
“Ach! He is my nemesis!”
“Bit remiss of your nemesis not
to have heard of you,” observes
“I mean to say — working your
downfall with never a word
The boy’s on his feet, chair going
“Fetch my sleigh! There’s going to be
My sleigh, I say!”
“But…” Mother begins to wring her
“But he’ll sing you into a snow-heap,
wad you in there with whiteness
“My boy,” adds Father, “he’ll
cold as a frostburned carrot,
and croaking like a broken parrot.”
“He’ll pack your gizzard with
blizzard, this wizard,”
says Mother. “O leave him alone!”
“Bah!” says the boy. “I’ll wind up his
whiskers for him.
And now: the lens of day is failing.
from the greedy wood. I must
“But son — !”
“No more! Enough parent-prattle.
My horse is having tremors in
my hell-gelding, greedy for action.
One flick of the beaded lash across
and the sparks spatter back at me.
Snow whizzes under the sleigh
“Son!” cries Mother.
“Let him go,” says Father, weary
“Let him go.”
So brimstone-nostrilled goes young
towards the heaths of Kaleva,
brimstone-nostrilled his little horse,
a hectic progress, snorting through
A day he travels, another day,
and then — who’s this, coming
It’s that old wizard Vainamoinen,
cruising crookedly through the
muttering, making his wizard
Drinking? Yes, he’s been drinking.
He smells slightly of vomit
and his beard glitters behind him
like the trail of a comet.
Joukahainen meets him,
meets him head-on,
in a rending of runners,
in a tangling of traces,
in a cracking of horse-collars.
What an impact!
The sound of it flits across white
Wrenched sleigh-shafts smoke in
“Young man,” says Vainamoinen
“might I enquire as to your family
Are you perhaps from the tribe of
or the clan of Careless Driver?”
“My name,” says the boy,
“is Joukahainen the Youthful. And
“I am the sage Vainamoinen,
a harmless traveller on these
You tell me you are Joukahainen
Very well, let an old man pass.”
“If you are truly the sage
Vainamoinen,” retorts the youth,
“famous across the heaths of
famous all the way to the farms of
then you can sing me right off this
“Me?” asks Vainamoinen. “I’m
I sit under a blanket, or potter
No singing. The cuckoo sings in my
that’s all I know about singing.
I would love, however, dearly love
to hear one or two of your songs.”
“Hear them you shall, grandfather,”
says Joukahainen, and sings, thusly:
“Smokeholes go in the ceiling.
The fireplace holds the fire.
The seal he swims at his watery
Which all the fish admire.
The Northman ploughs with a
In the South they use a mare.
An elk is the choice of the gristley
Because the ground is tough up
The pike eats whitefish, he’s a
The perch is a fellow who — ”
“But these,” interrupts Vainamoinen,
“are childish sounds, aren’t they?
Nursery rhymes. Speak more
Joukahainen colours, inhales, tries
“Handle damp clods,” he sings,
“if you’d feel how the world began,
how mud spoke to mud, with murky
Stick your finger in the — ”
“Womanish noises,” says
Vainamoinen. “Laundry songs.
Come now, speak more deeply!”
Joukahainen colours, inhales, tries
“At the beginning of this whole
operation,” he sings,
“I was person number six or seven.
The scooping of the sea-bed,
the mountains heaped up with an
nearly all of that was me.”
Comments wise old Vainamoinen:
“These verses of yours, if I may say,
are poor as a pinched fart.
Let me tell you something
about the beginning of the world,
I, Vainamoinen, was there.
I saw the cosmos branched with
and the frozen disc of the zodiac.
All pale I hung at Heaven’s precipice
and the stars formed in my beard,
“Old boaster!” cries the broody
“Tell it to my sword!”
His blade twangs in the air.
“Put it away,” says Vainamoinen.
“I don’t fight amateurs.”
“Fight me,” says Joukahainen.
“or with my singing I’ll
plonk you right in my father’s pigsty,
face-up under a farrowing sow!
My songs make corpses, old man.
This one I drove deep into a
That one I crammed into a corner of
Fight me! Fight me!”
“Indeed,” says Vainamoinen,
“you have succeeded in getting my
And begins to sing…