Although the title says "tales," this is actually one long tale where the characters have many adventures (which is why it is listed on the
fiction index rather than the collections index). They are delightful little stories with a fairytale-like quality, easy to read, and could be enjoyed by
even a young reader with above-average reading skills. They are reminiscent of J. R. R. Tolkien without the complicatedness. The blurb on the back cover of
the Dover edition mentions that Tolkien did draw material from Northern mythology, This particular myth is from the folklore of Finland.
The Kalevala is the national epic poem of Finland. It was painstakingly compiled throughout the nineteenth-century by the physician, botanist, and linguist Elias Lönnrot (1802-1884), who traveled the country in search of stories which make up this monumental work. The version published in 1849 consists of 22, 795 verses, divided into fifty songs. For more information on this subject, Wikipedia provides an excellent article.
For this Dover edition, James Baldwin has converted 38 of these poems into prose; a continuous story that reads more like an epic novel with lots of wizardry, fantasy, and heroic feats.
It takes place in two lands: Pohyola, the Frozen Land, (in the North), and Wainola, the Land of Heroes, (in the South). It begins as the wise old Minstrel, Wainamoinen, is rescued from his boat by Dame Louhi in Pohyola. She is an ugly, toothless witch, and she can be pretty nasty and conniving, too. But she and her beautiful daughter, the Maid of Beauty, nurse him back to health. He had been fishing and gotten lost. Mistress Louhi knows of him, and he is treated well, but misses his homeland and yearns to return. The greedy witch promises him the means to get home, if he just create for her the magic sampo. He does not know how, but says his friend back home, the hero and wizard Ilmarinen, who is also a smith, can create what she desires in his smithy. Louhi promises that if Ilmarinen can make the sampo, he will win her beautiful daughter. Wainamoinen promises to send his friend, and Louhi gives him the means to return home. She also warns him if he doesn't keep his promise he's in big trouble.
Now, Wainamoinen is old and Ilmarinen is young, but the two love each other as brothers, except Wainamoinen is a bit of a double-crosser sometimes when he doesn't get his way. And when Ilmarinen refuses to go willingly, the wizard Wainamoinen gets him there unwillingly. So after he goes through tremendous effort, both physical and magical, to build the precious sampo, the Maid of Beauty decides she doesn't want to marry him anyways and Ilmarinen returns home empty-handed for all his trouble. Then Wainamoinen decides he will build a beautiful boat using spells, and woo the lovely maiden for himself, but he can't remember the last three magic words, so he journeys to the land of Tuonela, where no living person ever escapes (because it's the land of the dead, but supposedly King Tuoni has the magic words hidden there, so he takes his chances). And the tale continues. . . The two heroes, seem to keep ending up back in Pohyola. It is really a charming story, and quite enjoyable reading, with lots of humor, and some real tragedy.
Incidentally, I found the Tuonela part interesting, having spent thirty years of my life in classical music, I immediately thought of the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius and his gorgeous tone-poem The Swan of Tuonela. Here is an interesting article on the story behind it, which is of course from the Kalevala (but not included in this book). And here is a YouTube so you can listen to this exquisite piece of music. Enjoy!
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