Book: Kalevipoeg

F. R. Kreutzwald, Kalevipoeg, translated by Triinu Kartus, 2011.

If you don’t know, Kalevipoeg is the Estonian national epic poem. Kreutzwald started writing it around 1850, and it had a series of publications beginning in 1853 and ending with the Estonian-language book form publication in Tartu in 1875. It is the foundational text of Estonian literature.

It’s a strange text. I haven’t read any other romantic-era heroic literature, but I have seen Wagner’s Ring cycle. They’re hard to compare, and I won’t try in any greater depth than to say that Kalevipoeg, a bit like Wagner’s Siegfried, kind of just … does hero stuff. It’s nothing like the Homeric Epics, which have strong, unifying plots. Odysseus may get blown all over the Mediterranean, but the story remains singly about his attempt to get home.

Kalevipoeg lacks that, which makes it hard to read from beginning to end. I was talking to an Estonian friend about it recently and she, having been through Estonian school education, admitted to never having read the whole thing. I imagine that’s true of many Estonians, but that’s no slight to Estonian education. Kalevipoeg doesn’t lend itself to straight reads. It’s a collection of anecdotes about a man who is less of a character and more of a name.

Fittingly, I think, Kalevipoeg doesn’t actually have his own name. For non-Estonian readers, Kalevi poeg means “Kalev’s son.” This is fitting because as I say, Kalevipoeg doesn’t have as fixed a characterization as you might expect if you read his poem as a single story. Like a good mythical character, he can wear the clothes he needs to wear at any particular time. There are things that unify him across the whole work. of course, but there are also strange contradictions.

For example, Kalevipoeg is at times lightning sharp and at times comically stupid. In book 17, Kalevipoeg and his friends Olevipoeg, Sulevipoeg, and Alevipoeg are hanging out with an old woman whose pot of stew they’re guarding. They take turns keeping watch over the stew, but Olevipoeg, Sulevipoeg, and Alevipoeg all fall prey to the trickery of a dwarf, who manages to trick them into letting him drink the stew. They each then have to remake the stew before waking the next up to take over. Kalevipoeg has the last shift and knows instantly–we get no hint why–that this little dwarf man is actually Sarvik, the “Old-Horned-One” in disguise. Kalevipoeg flicks him down into a valley back into Hell.

But in the next book, on his own way to Hell, Kalevipoeg is pretty slow on the uptake. He faces five obstacles on the way down: impenetrable smoke, pitch darkness, an inescapable spider’s web, an unfordable river, and an onslaught of insects. In each case, the solution is to ring the magic bell that he got from the dwarf who wanted to drew the stew. Each time, a helpful little creature has to tell him, “hey, Kalevipoeg, why don’t you ring that bell?” After the bell saves him all five times,

Dear good son of the Kalev Heroes
Sat down on the grassy green toHave a rest just for a bit,
Give his wearing strength some bracement;He began to mull the matter,In his mind to think this way;Racking in his head he finallyFound quite luckily an answer:
"May what p'raps must come to pass,Any troubles rising up,This dear precious helping bellIn my hand I mean to hold.

Took him long enough.

There is a lot of scholarship on Kalevipoeg, of course, and these are just impressions. I imagine Kalevipoeg’s intelligence is one of them topics likely of debate among scholars of Estonian literature. My Estonian isn’t good enough to read that sort of thing yet.

The thing that makes Kalevipoeg really work, though, is the poetry. The translation is line-by-line, reasonably literal, and shows the Estonian text in a column alongside the English. The Estonian is both archaic and archaicising, so I’d never be able to read it on its own, but I can read it out loud no problem. I can’t say I’m some connoisseur, but it has a music like no poetry I’ve ever heard.

I used to have this argument with friends that (English) Slam Poetry wasn’t actually poetry, because for the most part it’s written in free verse with no poetic devices endemic to the flow. Any poetic element was therefore the affect of the speaker and not the natural text. I’m not a snob about Slam Poetry anymore, but the question of whether something is naturally or affectedly poetic is still interesting.

Not only was Kreutzwald a great poet, but the Estonian language has a natural rhythm that English simply doesn’t have. Kalevipoeg falls somewhat flat in translation because Kreutzwald wasn’t really writing a story, or even a series of stories. He was writing the foundations of the Estonian national literature, and so, as far as I can tell, he was more interested in the act of reciting poetry and in the words themselves than in what those words mean. His frequent references to laulik “songster,” that is, himself, are a testament to that.

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