Kalevipoeg, a great European epic

by Jüri Talvet

On the bicentenary of birth of Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald,
the author of Kalevipoeg and the founder of Estonian literature

Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald (1803-1882) was born in a humble serf family in the county of Kadrina (North-Eastern Estonia, or Virumaa; Kreutzwald has been revered by posterity as “the Poet of Viru” or “the Father of the Song”).  His father, a granary keeper, and mother, a chambermaid, were liberated from serfdom in 1815, a year before the Russian Tsar’s decree, abolishing serfdom in Estonia, was passed. Like the great majority of his autochthonous fellow-countrymen, peasant serfs or their children, Kreutzwald received his name from his German landlord, and that is why, instead of Ristmets (as the name would have been in Estonian), he had a German name. 

   Despite a number of difficulties, Kreutzwald managed to receive a reasonably good education. He studied at a district school in the capital Tallinn and was first trained as an elementary school teacher. After a failed attempt to enter the Military Medical Academy of St. Petersburg (he was not admitted because of his peasant origin), Kreutzwald started in 1825 studies of medicine at Tartu (Dorpat) University, the most renowned educational centre of Estonia, founded in 1632 by the king of Sweden Gustav Adolf II and re-inaugurated by the Emperor of Russia, Alexander I, in 1812.

   Besides medicine, Kreutzwald became fascinated with literature at quite an early stage. For instance, even before entering the university, he had translated into his native Estonian fragments from Friedrich Schiller’s famous first play The Robbers (1781), one of the boldest calls for social justice and freedom voiced by the influential German pre-romantic Sturm und Drang movement. By the way, one of the key figures of Sturm und Drang, Friedrich Maximilian Klinger who became a high-ranked military officer in St. Petersburg, was the curator of Tartu University from 1803 to 1917.

   As a young and bright student, Kreutzwald soon became influenced by the ideas of Johann Gottfried Herder, the great “architect” not only of Sturm und Drang and German Romanticism, but of the mighty wave of national “awakening” and liberation of the peoples of Eastern Europe, from the start of the 19th century. Incidentally, as a young man, Herder was active as a pastor and freemason in Riga, the capital of Latvia. He later published his influential collection of folksong Stimmen der Völker in Liedern (1788-89), where he gathered also folk lyrics of Baltic people, Estonians included.

   During the student years Kreutzwald became a friend of another student of Estonian origin (they were in those times a tiny minority at the university!) Friedrich Robert Faehlmann. From the small nucleus of Estonian students there the germ of defending Estonian nation, language and culture started to sprout. Faehlmann was the principal founder, in 1838, of Gelehrte Estnische Gesellschaft (Estonian Learned Society) that Kreutzwald joined a year later. Under the influence of the famous Finnish epic Kalevala (1836), created by Elias Lönnrot, Faehlmann also started to envisage the first contours of a similar Estonian epic, Kalevipoeg. In 1839 he presented at the Estonian Learned Society his Ancient Tales, where, in the spirit of Romanticism, he had converted the figure of Kalevipoeg (the son of Kalev), known in the Estonian folklore rather as a malevolent giant, into an ancient king of Estonians who fights for his country’s liberty.
   One should not forget either that the author of Kalevala, Lönnrot, visited Estonia in 1844, meeting Faehlmann in Tartu, and Kreutzwald in Võru.

   Another key “engineer” of the epic was G. J. Schultz-Bertram, a Baltic-German medical doctor and folklorist who passionately advocated the creation of an Estonian national epic, following the Finnish example, and thus, laying a firm foundation for the further spread of the ideas of national independence of the Estonians.

    Faehlmann died in 1850. Kreutzwald, by that time (from 1833) a medical doctor and people’s enlightener in Võru, a small town in southern Estonia, turned the idea of the epic into reality. His verse epic Kalewipoeg, eine Estnische Sage (‘Kalevipoeg, an old Estonian Tale’) was first published (with a parallel translation in German accompanying the original Estonian text), by instalments, in the proceedings of the Estonian Learned Society (1857-1861). As a book, first the German translation appeared in 1861 in Tartu. The Estonian original came out a year later in the Finnish town Kuopio (1862). In Estonia itself, Kalevipoeg appeared in book form only in 1875 (in Tartu), two years before Kreutzwald moved from Võru to Tartu, where he spent his old age.

    By that time Kalevipoeg was well known all over Estonia and its author became to be considered the true founder of Estonian literature, as well as a principal fomenter of the idea of a free Estonian nation. Outside Estonia, however, Kreutzwald was hardly known beyond the fact that the Russian Academy of Sciences gave him a prize for Kalevipoeg, in 1860, and that he was named a foreign member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, in 1871.

   As can be seen, the “official” honours conferred on Kreutzwald in his lifetime recognised his merits as a learned man, first of all. Later, too, there has been a tendency to value Kreutzwald’s work, in the first place, from a folkloric point of view. The most extensive monographs on Kalevipoeg, so far, have been written by Estonian folklorists, like August Annist (1899-1972; he was also the Estonian translator of Kalevala) and Felix Oinas (b. 1911).
   On the other hand, there has been a considerable failure to appreciate Kreutzwald duly as a writer and a poet. 

    Despite being influenced by Kalevala, the epic of Kreutzwald differs radically from the Finnish epic. Kreutzwald’s folkloric sources were much scantier than those of Lönnrot. He had to invent himself the myth and folklore. Kalevipoeg is, first and foremost, a literary work. As such, it should  not be researched, really, in the canon of the ancient Greek Iliade, the medieval Icelandic songs of Edda or Lönnrot’s Kalevala, all of which are based predominantly (though not entirely either!) on authentic folklore, reflecting primeval tribal conscience.

    Kalevipoeg, on the contrary, belongs clearly to another – by no means less valuable! – canon, the one of individual verse epics, starting in the West from Virgil’s Aeneid, to be followed in the late Middle Ages by the French  Chanson de Roland, the Spanish Cantar de Mío Cid, the German Nibelungenlied  and, in the Renaissance, by Os Lusiadas (‘The Lusiads’), the great epic written by the founder of Portuguese literature, Camões.

   A number of outstanding poets of the past have tried to create majestic epic works. Not all of them succeeded in finishing their epics (thus, the Frenchman Ronsard managed to write only the initial part of his planned Franciade). Sometimes historical conditions were unfavourable to the enterprise, in other cases, epic poets let themselves be influenced by a “genre contamination” to the extent that the outcome were “novels in verse”, rather than true epics, capable of reflecting reality beyond amorous love stories.
   Kreutzwald, without any doubt, is one of the few European late romantic writers who did succeed in creating a verse epic in its full rights.

   Kalevipoeg’s “national” Estonian dimension can be seen, in the first place, in the verse form employed by Kreutzwald. He basically used in Kalevipoeg the 4-feet trochaic meter, with abundant alliterations and parallelisms, characteristic of all the rich treasury of Finno-Ugric folksongs – thus a form that has emerged from the very national poetic soil. For instance, the US poet H. W. Longfellow was like Kreutzwald influenced by Lönnrot’s Kalevala in creating his Song of Hiawatha (1855), a work that was meant to be “American indigenous epic”. However, Longfellow could not rely on any verse form of the American indigenous people, but had to “import” it from the Finno-Ugric traditional poetics. The English 4-feet trochee, besides, can never convey the interior flexibility and rhythmic variety of the Finno-Ugric traditional meter. To say nothing of the fact that even though Kreutzwald did not dispose of such ample folkloric material as Lönnrot, he genially imitated it (like the Scotch James Macpherson, in his Ossian’s Songs). As a result, Kalevipoeg is abounding with lyrical metaphors and subtle poetic imagery as intensely as Estonian genuine folksongs.

   Kalevipoeg is a “nation-building” epic. I do not know any other European epic of Romanticism that would have emphasised, with such intensity as Kalevipoeg, the patriotic ideal. The only possible parallel for Kalevipoeg in this sense could be found in Camões’s The Lusiads, from the European Renaissance. Both are national-patriotic epics par excellence, designed to inspire a nation by its great deeds in the past, to project its future.

   In Kalevipoeg’s plot and even philosophical structure a certain similarity with Goethe’s Faust could be observed. (The great difference, naturally, lies in the fact that Goethe employed amply Greek mythology and ancient verse meters, whereas Kreutzwald relied exclusively on national folkloric sources: even when complementing them by his own invention and “imported” intertextualities, he “Estonised” the whole story).

   Kalevipoeg is first presented as the youngest son and successor of Kalev, the ancient mythic king of the Estonians. Linda, his mother, brings him into the world, when the old Kalev is already dead. Soon Linda, too, dies, as she is raped by a Finnish sorcerer and, though saved from the latter by Heavens, is converted into a rocky pillar in Iru (near Tallinn). From Linda’s tears, when she mourned her husband, Kreutzwald claims, the lake Ülemiste (today there is the Tallinn International Airport nearby) was formed. Kreutzwald mythologised the geophysical Estonia, scattered its soil with the seeds of spirituality.

   There is a special relationship between the hero, Kalevipoeg (also called, like his father, simply Kalev) and his parents. At the most dramatic moments of his life he returns to his parents’ grave: they give him advice, how to find his way in the world. Kalevipoeg’s conversation with his dead mother and father are really among the most lyrical episodes of the whole epic. In one episode, Kalevipoeg confesses that he has no intention to marry any girl. The highest goal for Kalevipoeg, like for the count Roland, as well as Faust, is to serve his country and people.

    Yet Kalevipoeg’s path to such a lofty moral understanding is gradual and painful. As a young man (cf. a young nation) he commits several grave sins. He causes the death of the Island Maid to whom he had made love (parallels not only with Faust but also with Don Juan are not missing!) and in a gust of anger, being drunk, he kills a son of a Finnish blacksmith. The latter event provides the main turning point for the following dramatic developments. Even though Kalevipoeg subsequently, thanks to his noble actions – he regrets his sins, has compassion for the weak and the humble, builds a town, makes, like Ulysses, an exploratory ship voyage to the end of the world, fights the Devil and the hostile troops of invading nations – achieves a genuinely ethical dimension, the imprecation on him of the Finnish blacksmith is fulfilled. Kalevipoeg loses his legs by his own sword and dies. However, in the same way as Faust’s soul is finally redeemed by Heavens, the ancient Estonian gods led by Taara (the thunder god, comparable to Thor, in Scandinavian mythology) decide to bind the revived Kalevipoeg to a rock at Hell’s gate (a parallel with Prometheus), making him the guardian of the inferno.

   Kreutzwald’s epic ends with the author’s augury that one day Kalevipoeg would be freed from the rock and he would return to Estonia, to bring freedom and happiness to his people.
   Kalevipoeg has inspired in Estonia numerous works of art (including a ballet, by Eugen Kapp) and the hero’s figure has expanded through a great number of interpretations in Estonian literature, ranging from pathetic images to humorous and parodic travesties. Beyond doubt, Kreutzwald’s great work has been essential in the forging of the national “awakening” movement in the 19th century and in the persistence of national memory and the ideal of freedom during the 20th century, under foreign occupations and repressions that Estonians have had to suffer.

    Kreutzwald’s augury is not, however, devoid of ambiguity. In a sense, it may well be even more subtle than the final symbol in Goethe’s Faust. One should not overlook the fundamental relatedness of Kalevipoeg’s life and action with nature around him. The epic, in fact, is saturated with lyrical (and sometimes also coarsely sexual-physical) images that bind the hero to the nature and the soil of his country. It restrains the hero’s actions, makes his moral growth a slow process, contrary to any too straightforward rationalistic optimism. The same could be true of Kreutzwald’s prediction about the return of Kalevipoeg. Estonia is now free again, but Kalevipoeg still seems to be lingering on his way.

Jüri Talvet,
Professor of Comparative Literature
University of Tartu