Longfellow and Tolkien: the Finnish Connection

What do the “shores of Gitche Gumee by the shining Big-Sea-Water” have in common with the “Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie”?

The Protestant American author of Evangeline and The Song of Hiawatha is not generally associated with the Catholic British author of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. But there is one literary connection at least — curiously, a Finnish one. Both writers were influenced by the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala.

Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha was written in  the meter known as trochaic tetrameter, sometimes called “archaic trochaic tetrameter,” sometimes called “Kalevala meter.” This is rarely used in English. It is known that Longfellow had read the Finish epic — at least in a German translation and possibly in its Finnish original. Two journal entries, only a couple of weeks apart, reveal that Longfellow had recently read the epic, and soon after landed upon a meter for his own “Indian Edda” (as he called the Song). Longfellow was known to spend much time studying and meditating his subject before choosing an appropriate meter for his poem, so this is of great importance.

Longfellow’s interest in Catholic things can be seen in his Evangeline and Santa Filomena, as well as in the fact that, in the Song, Hiawatha welcomes the Blackrobes (Jesuit missionaries), and tells his people to follow their teachings.

For his part, Tolkien was influenced by the Kalevala as a linguist and philologist. He knew Finnish, and collected knowledge, not only the of the language, but also of its associated national legends and myths. Tolkien did not limit himself to one source in his quest for myth; just as he was multilingual, so, too, he was well versed in various ancient mythologies. The ring, for instance, is a theme of Norse-German mythology, as any fan of Wagner and his 16-hours of “Ring Cycle” opera can tell you. Tolkein was of the opinion that English as a language was lacking in mythology, and he wanted to supply it with one. Hence his Middle Earth series.

One theme in the Kalevala that works its way into Tolkein’s work is the Sampo. The Sampo is “a magical artifact of indeterminate type constructed by Ilmarinen that brought good fortune to its holder. When the Sampo was stolen, it is said that Ilmarinen’s homeland fell upon hard times and sent an expedition to retrieve it, but in the ensuing battle it was smashed and lost at sea.” Sound a bit like the “One Ring”? Indeed. So, too, does it sound like the Silmarils.

According to Liisa Berg,

The Finnish national epic Kalevala appeared in its fullness in 1849. (The first edition, though not complete, was published in 1835.) The name of its author is unknown; indeed, no one person created it. It is a combination of fifty poems—runos, or Anglicized “runes”—which lived among the ancient people of Finland for several centuries, repeated from generation to generation by the word of mouth. They were performed in pentatonic chant; thus they can be rightfully called songs. Most of these stories date back to the pre-Christian era in Finland, to approximately 1000 A.D.; some were created during the Finnish crusades, 1150-1300 A.D. This is why Kalevala is a quaint mixture of Christianity and paganism.

I first heard of  the Kalevala (and its hero, Väinämöinen — a rather Gandalf-like character) when a Finnish visitor, Vili Olavi Lehtoranta, came to our monastery in 2007. You can read about Vili (William) and Finnish Catholicism in this Mancipia (scroll to page 3).