"Neither highbrows nor lowbrows nor midbrows, but elastic-brows.” — George Orwell

Second in a series of translations/variations of epic poems.

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 Hilobrow favorite 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 retelling of Poem 3 of The Kalevala, lines 1-278.


A tree-stump his seat,
Vainamoinen’s at his pipe again,
puffing away, brows shaggy with thought.

Silent utterance of smoke goes up
into the big blue, the purifying afternoon.

He lowers the pipe and sings,
lazy chant like smoke-rings,
deep rhymes, elemental accountings
that charm the glade to a stillness —

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 pipe,
slurps air,
and puffs and re-puffs.


Miles away, in well-farmed Lapland,
young Joukahainen savagely mops his plate.
“What is it, son?” asks Mother.
She waits.

(Mother, oh Mother,
how many times have you waited thus
at his bedroom door,
at the entrance to his cave of moods?)

“What is it, son?” asks Father.
He waits.

(Father, oh Father,
have many times have you waited thus,
feeling your skull-plates grate and shift?)

Now the boy erupts in oaths, spits gravy:

Alarmed, the sparrow quits the sill.
The fireside dog lifts a dozy ear.

“Distinguished Vainamoinen?” asks Mother.
“The greatest of our singers?”

“Ach! He is my nemesis!”

“Bit remiss of your nemesis not to have heard of you,” observes Father.
“I mean to say — working your downfall with never a word of you?”

The boy’s on his feet, chair going over behind.
“Fetch my sleigh! There’s going to be a bard-battle.
My sleigh, I say!”

“But…” Mother begins to wring her hands.
“But he’ll sing you into a snow-heap, he will,
wad you in there with whiteness and chill!”

“My boy,” adds Father, “he’ll have you
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. Shadow spreads
from the greedy wood. I must away!”

“But son — !”

“No more! Enough parent-prattle.
My horse is having tremors in his traces,
my hell-gelding, greedy for action.
One flick of the beaded lash across his flanks
and the sparks spatter back at me.

Forward, Fire-Eater!”

Snow whizzes under the sleigh runners.

“Son!” cries Mother.

“Let him go,” says Father, weary beyond weariness. “Let him go.”


So brimstone-nostrilled goes young Joukahainen
towards the heaths of Kaleva,
brimstone-nostrilled his little horse,
a hectic progress, snorting through the snow.

A day he travels, another day, a third,
and then — who’s this, coming towards him?
It’s that old wizard Vainamoinen, sleigh-borne,
cruising crookedly through the wilderness,
muttering, making his wizard rounds.

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 fields.
Wrenched sleigh-shafts smoke in the stillness.

“Young man,” says Vainamoinen at last,
“might I enquire as to your family background?
Are you perhaps from the tribe of Roadhog,
or the clan of Careless Driver?”

“My name,” says the boy,
“is Joukahainen the Youthful. And you are…?”

“I am the sage Vainamoinen,
a harmless traveller on these snow-roads.
You tell me you are Joukahainen the Youthful.
Very well, let an old man pass.”

“If you are truly the sage Vainamoinen,” retorts the youth,
“famous across the heaths of Kaleva,

famous all the way to the farms of Lapland,
then you can sing me right off this snow-road.”

“Me?” asks Vainamoinen. “I’m retired.
I sit under a blanket, or potter about.
No singing. The cuckoo sings in my garden,
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 whim,
Which all the fish admire.

The Northman ploughs with a reindeer.
In the South they use a mare.
An elk is the choice of the gristley Lapp,
Because the ground is tough up there.

The pike eats whitefish, he’s a spawn-at-night fish.
The perch is a fellow who — ”

“But these,” interrupts Vainamoinen,
“are childish sounds, aren’t they?
Nursery rhymes. Speak more deeply!”

Joukahainen colours, inhales, tries again.

“Handle damp clods,” he sings,
“if you’d feel how the world began,
how mud spoke to mud, with murky electricity.
Stick your finger in the — ”

“Womanish noises,” says Vainamoinen. “Laundry songs.
Come now, speak more deeply!”

Joukahainen colours, inhales, tries again.

“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 elbow-heave —

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, boy.

I, Vainamoinen, was there.

I saw the cosmos branched with black,
and the frozen disc of the zodiac.
All pale I hung at Heaven’s precipice
and the stars formed in my beard, like ice.”

“Old boaster!” cries the broody Lapp.
“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 dunghill.
That one I crammed into a corner of my cowshed.
Fight me! Fight me!”

“Indeed,” says Vainamoinen,
“you have succeeded in getting my goat.”

And begins to sing…


Photo: moss on the floor of the Finnish boreal forest by MPortiusCato via Wikimedia.

EPIC WINS: SERIES INTRO by Matthew Battles | THE ILIAD (1.408-415) by Flourish Klink | THE KALEVALA (3.1-278) by James Parker | THE ARGONAUTICA (2.815-834) by Joshua Glenn | More TK


MORE original fiction at HiLobrow.

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