By: James Parker
May 30, 2011

Second in a series of translations/variations of epic poems, by various HiLobrow contributors. For more Kalevala retellings by James Parker, click here.


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.



             WIZARD BATTLE
             [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
                  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
             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
             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
             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
             “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
                  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
             “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

             “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

             “Son!” cries Mother.

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


             So brimstone-nostrilled goes young
             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,
             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
                  the stillness.

             “Young man,” says Vainamoinen
                  at last,
             “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
                  you are…?”

             “I am the sage Vainamoinen,
             a harmless traveller on these
             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

             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
                  spawn-at-night fish.
             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
                  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,

             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,
                  like ice.”

             “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
                  my cowshed.
             Fight me! Fight me!”

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

             And begins to sing…


ALL INSTALLMENTS SO FAR: RUNE 3 (1–278): “Wizard Battle” | RUNE 4 (1–56): “A Failed Seduction” | RUNE 4 (300–416): “Aino Ends It All” | RUNE 5 (45–139): “An Afternoon Upon the Water” | RUNE 5 (150–241): “The Blue Elk” | RUNE 6 (1–114): “Therapy Session” | RUNE 11 (1–138): “Introducing Kyllikki” | RUNE 31 (215–225): “The Babysitter” | RUNE 31 (223–300): “The Screaming Axe” | RUNE 33 (73): “Song of the Blade: Kullervo” | RUNE 33 (1–136): “The Cowherd”

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

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