Into Songland

companyI have been out into the wilds of Finland, up near the Russian border on the edges of songland, the place that supplied so much of the material for the Kalevala, the Finnish national myth. In the company of Mrs Clements, Delia Sherman and Ellen Kushner, I spent a fascinating day at Kalevala Spirit, a recreation of a medieval Karelian stockaded clan-house, wherein the inhabitants lived, worked and cooked using only the means and materials described in the pages of the Kalevala.

As regular readers will know, I have been writing on matters Finnish for several years, but there was much to learn at Kalevala Spirit, thanks to Akke Virtanen, a man with a mission to codify and preserve some atavistic sense of Finnishness. Able to answer questions on any subject, from skis to saunas, bears to berries, he demonstrated old-world skiing and the right way to grill a salmon, and we kept him busy with plenty of the sort of questions that only authors really need to know. While our fish was gently tanning by the fire, Akke’s colleague Ilkka led us into the forest to inspect bear traps and fox snares, and to spend an idyllic time fiddling with hammer, anvil and bellows in a reconstruction smithy. Our tour ended on a distant hilltop, where amid totem poles depicting the ancient Karelian forest gods, there was an incongruous metal cube carved with intricate sigils in classical Chinese. I recognised it as the legendary sampo as depicted in the film Jade Warrior, now on permanent loan to the Kalevala Spirit in thanks for their pre-production assistance. And I can believe it, too — I left the place with Finno-Ugric metre in my head and the sting of embers on my hands, with new words and new connections roving around my brain in search of places to turn into prose.

We were even getting poetic ourselves by lunchtime, as witnessed by my Heroic Omelette: “To the fridge went Lemminkainen / searching for the milky dregs / on the upper and the lower / shelves he sought for several eggs”. Akke talked at lunch about his Damascene moment, as an advertising man who realised one day that he lived his life in airports, turning back into his native culture with a vengeance, not merely to recreate it, but to do so from solid, empirical bases in surveys of national character. And to use a book of poems and legends as the blueprint for an entire community… just think of the possibilities! You won’t get *that* with Harry Potter. Or at least, I hope you won’t.

After taking our leave of Akke and his minions, we headed into nearby Kuhmo, the home of the Juminkeko Foundation, an organisation dedicated to the Kalevala itself. If there were any proof needed of the international appeal of the Kalevala, it came in the form the guides on duty that afternoon, Natalia from Russia and Giorgia from Italy, without a Finn in sight. Juminkeko was perfect for me; it had a collection of music that included an Inehmo CD I have meaning to buy for four years, but also a selection of in-depth documentaries on the collection and compilation of the Kalevala. We had the place pretty much to ourselves, so we just took the lot, sitting in the auditorium and watching one excellent film after another, until we sheepishly got to the end and filed out in the realisation that we’d kept the gracious staff waiting past closing time.

It was an inspiring, wonderful day, and fired all of us up with thoughts of Finnishness and Karelianism, and the glorious, quixotic mindset that bootstraps a revolution and an entire country out of a book of poems. Ellen, I know, is already percolating ideas around for a story based on her experiences; Delia is sure that something fictional will come of it in her own work… and so am I.