Red Women and Red Beards

Girls with Guns and Chinese Mercenaries… in Finland

ForRedPetrograd,ForRedFinland-LIn May 2008, at the 90th anniversary celebration of the end of Finland’s Civil War, organisers were surprised that the Finnish President Tarja Halonen didn’t show up. Instead, the social democrat stateswoman was at a different ceremony at Tammisaari, commemorating the losing side. Her point, subtly and quietly made, was that she was not skipping the commemoration at all, but merely a commemoration, of a history that had many perspectives and narratives, victors and victims.

The Finnish Civil War of 1918 caused 38,000 deaths in a few short months, only a third of whom fell on the battlefield. Another third were executed or murdered by kangaroo courts; the rest died in prison camps after the war was over – of disease, hunger or violence. Halonen’s attendance at a ceremony for dead POWs restated the case for the Civil War as a national tragedy, the narrative of which has been dominated for decades by the victorious Whites.

History, after all, is written by the winning side, and those Reds that did not die in the conflict often exiled themselves thereafter from the telling of the tale. Some emigrated to the United States and forgot they were Finns at all. Some flocked to the Soviet Union, where they mostly saw their socialist dreams savagely crushed – not for nothing, the spiteful Finnish joke that Stalin was a great man because he killed a lot of Commies. Others faded into the general population, while the anti-Soviet Whites dominated the government, the army and the history books.

55969In their book, The Finnish Civil War 1918: History, Memory, Legacy, editors Tuomas Tepora and Aapo Roselius chronicle the many faces of Finland’s bloody national birth trauma, in which the new republic briefly became the high tidemark of Soviet revolution in Europe, before Mannerheim and his White Guards (with the oft-redacted assistance of German allies) retook the south. This collection of academic authors regards the war as a terrible national hysteria that divided families, set neighbours at each other’s throats, and offered handy excuses for outlaws and murderers to settle petty scores. There was also, of course, the heartfelt political beliefs of the two sides – the German-supported Whites swelled with a desire for liberation from Russia, and the Reds with their faith in the Soviet dream.

It has always baffled me that modern Finland, which continues to have military conscription for able-bodied youths, does not similarly insist on women soldiers as some sort of feminist statement. I have heard multiple explanations for this from Finns, including simple logistics (lack of toilets, which I find hard to believe), demographics (there aren’t enough places even for the boys), and pedagogy (Finnish national service being seen as a last-ditch effort to smack some sense into modern milksops, and hence not necessary for supposedly no-nonsense Finnish women). But this book offers a new line of explanation, citing the arch-conservative Mannerheim on his distaste for women fighting on the front line:

“I expect help from the Finnish women for the various dreadful needs of the army like nursing, making clothes, taking care of the home and comforting those who have lost their loved ones. Whereas armed fighting at the front I regard as an exclusive privilege and duty of a man.”

Girls with guns, it transpired, were largely a Red Thing, most memorably the 15-year-old amazon Laura Alanen who favoured men’s clothes and long, flowing locks, and who was apparently a sight to behold at the head of a column of armed cavalry. In the trials and putsches that followed the White victory, Red women in trousers were treated as combatants; Red women in skirts were regarded merely as collaborators.

The book also features a fascinating chapter on the irredentist battles of the late 1910s and early 1920s, in which Finnish nationals participated in wars elsewhere. Most notable among these is the Estonian War of Independence, in which Finns fought on both sides, including a detachment of Red Finns fighting alongside Chinese soldiers at the Battle of Paju – some Chinese labourers in Tsarist Russia, shipped into Finland to fortify Helsinki at the outbreak of WW1, became mercenaries after the Russian Revolution. There are reports of some Chinese fighting in the ranks of both the Whites and the Reds in the Finnish Civil War, apparently chiefly honghuzi (“red beard”) bandits from Manchuria, that same breed of irregulars who formerly rode alongside a young Mannerheim during the Russo-Japanese War.

FinnishCivilWarMapMiddle.svgAs Tarja Halonen’s controversial no-show attests, the story of the Finnish Civil War continues to echo and ripple today. Tepora and Roselius’s book is particularly good on the historiography of the conflict, and the fluctuating fortunes of the combatants in national memory. I have already written much about the White story of Finland’s formation. Writing the Red version is substantially harder, not for lack of sources, but because the likely readership is supposedly dead or underground, or now carries a foreign passport and has largely forgotten its Finnish roots. Essays in this collection explain why, noting the way that the White story has not only slapped down many alternate views, but also reached into the past to retcon it. It was the post-war White Guards, for example, who changed the name of their society magazine to Hakkapeliitta, associating themselves with warriors of the 17th century and thereby implying that they were not only inheritors of Finnish tradition, but its founders. It is not until after WW2, which itself augmented the Civil War story by proclaiming both sides to be reconciled against a common enemy, that the Reds start to get their due in fiction, with works such as The Unknown Soldier and Under the North Star presenting them as humans, and more importantly, as Finns.

As for the facts, there are heartbreaking stories like that of Algot Untola, the dedicated editor of the Red newspaper Työmies (“The Worker”) who stayed in Helsinki to single-handedly edit the last edition for a readership that was already dead or fled. Captured by the Whites, he leapt from the deck of a ferry heading for Suomenlinna prison, and was shot as he tried to swim away. But there are also witty tales of daring, like the massive stone memorial to the Reds which suddenly materialised in a Turku graveyard in the 1920s. It had been dragged there overnight by cheeky stone masons, who sneaked it in by knocking down the wall and then rebuilding it before anyone noticed.

The most telling memorial of all is a lonely statue of Mannerheim, sitting in a forest. Commissioned in Whiter times, it was delivered to a newly Red-leaning council in post-war Tampere, which refused to put it in the centre of the town he had once bombarded. Instead, they dumped it quite literally in the middle of nowhere, where it stares grimly today at an audience of squirrels and sparrows.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland.

The Bear and the Maiden Fair

A new collection of essays on Finland in World War II.

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Finland fought three conflicts between 1939 and 1945. The first was the notorious Winter War (1939-40), in which the country stood alone against Soviet invasion. “Only Finland,” thundered Winston Churchill, “superb, nay, sublime in the jaws of peril – Finland shows what free men can do.” What Finland, under its famous leader Mannerheim, managed to do was put aside the festering civil strife of Red versus White, left over from the civil war of 1918, and unite against a common enemy, fighting the Russians to a standstill while the world looked the other way. In the process, the map of Finland, sometimes described as the “Maid” for its resemblance to a girl in a dress, lost an arm of territory to the Russian bear.

41wDEOVZcaL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The second was even more divisive. The Continuation War (1941-44) saw Finland joining forces with Nazi Germany in a renewed attack on Russia. As noted in Tiina Kinnunen and Ville Kivimäki’s insightful collection of academic essays Finland in World War II: History Memory, Interpretations, it was the Germans who swiftly announced this to be Waffenbrüderschaft – a “brotherhood in arms.” It was the Finns who pushily translated this into English as a “co-belligerency pact”, refusing to call themselves allies of Hitler, even as they overshot their original targets, clawing back the land lost to the Soviets and rolling onwards to the East, seizing the lands of Karelia, which had arguably never been Finnish before, creating an entire new industry in manufactured traditions and rescue ethnology, well covered in Kinnunen and Kivimäki’s book.

One might suggest that the third was even more controversial. Whereas the Continuation War was a shocking deal with the devil (a devil that, as noted here, more crucially sent the food supplies that saved the Finns from starvation), the Lapland War (1944-45) was its shocking turnabout, as the Finns turned on the Nazi troops on their territory, chasing them out of the country in a conflagration that saw almost all human habitation destroyed north of the Arctic Circle.

It never ceases to amaze me how historians can find new angles on the war, and Finland in World War II does not disappoint, with space devoted not only to geopolitics and treaties, army operations and tactics, but also to such oddities as the psychological effect of burying the fallen in their home towns (Finland today boasts 600 “heroes’ cemeteries”), the countrywide ban on dancing (an activity regarded by grim Lutherans of a betrayal of comrades’ sacrifices on the front line), and the DIY magicians’ kits sent to entertain troops in their trenches. Modern trends to conflate history with memory also lead to some interesting areas, such as accounts of the historiography of the war as told in movies and novels, as well as changing public perceptions of Finland’s attitude towards the Holocaust. The editors aim to both summarise and outline the most recent researches on the subject, with chapters firmly grounded in Finnish-language academia, and a bibliography of many obscure English-language academic papers on Finnish subjects.

Later essays include several welcome treatments of the role of Karelia in the conflict, not only as a land to be defended, but also as the new frontier of a Nazi-inspired expansion into conquered lebensraum, and a lost land ceded to Russia – source of thousands of refugees in the 1950s. One remarkable section even delves into Sain Karjalan takaisin (“I Got Karelia Back”), a 2003 account of a woman’s trips to the place of her birth, now a Russian republic where her childhood home is occupied by strangers, and where she is inspired by the landscape to stay and build a house.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland, available now in print and on the Kindle (UK/US).

The Finland Station

polarbear-transpSo I have paid my membership for the Helsinki Worldcon next year. Yes, yes, there’s still a year to go, but there are Progress Reports to read, and hotel rooms to book, and plans to be made. Also, who knows how low the pound will sink in the meantime? And for those of you looking for a quick introduction to a nation with a British patron saint, a death metal band in Eurovision, a language that helped inspire Lord of the Rings and an annual wife-carrying contest, look no further than The Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland, available now from all good bookshops, and most of the bad ones.

Sleeping with the Enemy

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All the Nordic countries had unique experiences in the Second World War. Sweden was neutral; Norway and Denmark were occupied by the Nazis; Iceland, rarely discussed, was occupied by the Allies. But Finland’s war was the most complex, abandoned by the Allies, left to fight alone against the Soviet Union, and entering a controversial pact with Germany, not as allies but as “co-belligerents” who happened to fight the same enemy. It was not the first time that Germany had proved to be Finland’s best friend in a time of need. The Finns ultimately turned against them in the little-discussed Lapland War, which destroyed every building north of Rovaniemi, and led to the bitter departure of some 700 Finnish women who refused to desert their German husbands.

Katja Kettu’s 2011 novel The Midwife (Kätilö) went out under that title in most of the 19 languages in which it was published, but seems to have been renamed Wildeye in attempts to flog it to the German- and English-speaking markets. Oddly, English seems to be one of the few major languages it hasn’t been translated into – perhaps there was some resistance among publishers to a romance that featured a Nazi male lead.

Antti Jokinen’s 2015 film version is now available to own – I could not face it raw in the cinema, but correctly guessed that it would have English subtitles on DVD. It is set in a Finland that no longer exists: that eastern arm stretching up to Petsamo and the Arctic coast, lopped off during World War Two and lost to Russia. Based on the depiction here, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Finns were well rid of it – broad strokes swiftly delineate it as a grimy, miserable place populated with cackling, brown-toothed witches, racists, and thugs. Helena (the award-winning Krista Kosonen) is the closest thing that the locals have to a paramedic, forced to oversee difficult, bloody births in remote cottages. The film begins with one such event, swiftly followed by the locals’ stoic, heartless decision to drown the unfortunate infant in a swamp.

Helena is sick of it, too, and sees her chance to escape when she meets the steely blue-eyed gaze of Johann (Lauri Tilkanen), a half-Finnish German officer who has been posted to the nearby concentration camp of Titovka. At no point does the film claim to be a true story, although media coverage at the time of the novel’s publication suggests that it is partly based on the life of a real person – Kettu’s own grandmother. This opens up a whole can of worms by even suggesting that there were Nazi concentration camps on “Finnish” territory, where human experimentation (“Operation Cowshed”) was carried out on Russian prisoners and other undesirables. You would think someone would have brought this up before, if it were true!

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Soon the sole surviving employee with any medical training, Helena finds herself complicit in the shaving of prisoners’ heads and the administering of “medicines” that turn out to be lethal viruses. This is explosive material to introduce into modern times. The extent of Finland’s cooperation or collaboration with the Nazi regime has been a matter of much reconsideration in recent years, most notably in the anthology Finland’s Holocaust: Silences of History, which challenges the nation’s usual narrative of firm resistance. In a 2011 interview in Kuvalehti, Kettu noted that modern historiography was reluctant to admit that one’s grandfather or uncle might have been a killer or a rapist. Her take on this, however, is gendered and universal, that war makes killers and rapists of us all. Helena is certainly an inadvertent stooge at Titovka, administering poison to doomed prisoners, and posing unhappily with two SS officers for the Third Reich newsletter. Even most of the Nazis are unhappy about their duties, but get on with it anyway in a jobsworth, everyday evil that is somehow more chilling than the open malevolence of the camp commandant Gödel (Tommi Korpela, channelling Ralph Fiennes).

This is no Schindler’s List – Helena ultimately only manages to help herself and a single prisoner escape, abandoning the rest of the camp to their fate. But that is at least part of Kettu’s point, that her heroine is almost entirely powerless, stripped of agency, left with little to live for but her own survival, and little to hope for but her unlikely prince charming.

Jokinen’s camera-work does a beautiful job of capturing a lost Finland on the edge of Norway, one with actual mountains. As with Jalmari Helander’s Big Game, this is achieved by filming somewhere that isn’t actually Finland – in this case Lithuania, which is not only 30% cheaper for film productions, but cheaper to reach by plane than the real Lapland. He also artfully captures the desperately awful conditions of Helena’s daily life, so that her decision to move to a concentration camp is indeed regarded as a step up. When it comes to the war itself, the film allots its €8 million budget superbly in capturing a worm’s-eye view of the Lapland War. In one notable scene, Helena is caught in the middle of an aerial bombardment, literally unable to turn in any direction for fear of death, spun in circles by a series of explosions like a human pinball.

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The film evokes elements of the novel’s cut-up format – each of its original six sections began with a flash forward of a starving Helena in the remote Dead Man’s Cabin, on the run from the war and waiting for Johann to show up at their agreed meeting point. Only then it would it jump back to her horrible life in 1940s Lapland, the brief flurry of joy at her romance with her dashing officer, and the collapse into hell of Operation Cowshed and the Lapland War.

Elements of it inadvertently recall earlier Finnish war films – there has in fact, been a degree of carping from online pundits that all Finnish war films are the same, and seemingly strive to fulfil an annual quota of grim sisu and pyrotechnics. This is a most unfair comment to level here, particularly in the case of Wildeye, which is not even the first film to give a Finnish woman’s perspective on WW2, but certainly does so in an original, if melancholy, manner. I will note, however, that those playing Finnish War Film Bingo will have plenty to keep them occupied nevertheless, including a gratuitous oral sex scene ripped off from Rukajärventie and three people in a shed recalling Käki (The Cuckoo). This isn’t even the first Nazi-Finnish romance movie either – the so-bad-it’s-good Sensuela managed to beat it by decades, and that was a remake.

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It also appears to have been a stage play.

From what I can glean from author interviews, Kettu never claimed that the Titovka concentration camp was a real place: her inspiration came from her grandmother’s letters about the war itself, the experience of stumbling across an abandoned hut on the Norwegian coast, and her childhood memories of playing in the ruins of a German prison camp near Rovaniemi. Instead, her interest was in telling the story of the human cost and effect of 200,000 German soldiers posted to Lapland, and their subsequent removal with extreme prejudice. The Lapland War is an embarrassment to the Finns, partly because it was one of those conflicts that effectively destroyed the place over which it was fought, displacing 168,000 residents, but also because it was a terrible betrayal of people who had been their friends.

The Titovka concentration camp is hence a handy device to confront the characters directly with the nature of Nazi evil, although it feels to me that this undermines one of the author’s intended points, that men like Johann were not goose-stepping fascists, but human beings caught up in a conflict not of their own making.

However, trawling through the Finnish-language web, I am surprised that nobody in Finland called the story out on its depiction of war crimes, which (commenters please correct me if I am wrong) seemed to have been invented by the author for dramatic effect, and yet are repeated in the film with an air of realism. Experience during the press junkets for my Mannerheim book taught me that many young Finns get far too much of their historical knowledge from movies and the internet, and are apt to accept any and all literary devices as representations of real events.

This is true all the world over, of course, and it is not the fault of Kettu or Jokinen that their book and film might be misinterpreted as more factual than they warrant. That would, perhaps, be something best addressed in DVD extras, but the version I bought in Finland offers nothing but a trailer, a teaser, and a picture gallery. For a subject that risks becoming so controversial, and so open to misinterpretation, this is a disappointment.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland (Available from Amazon in the US/UK).

The Girl King

kuningatar kristiina elokuva kuvauksetMika Kaurismäki’s latest film, Tyttökuningas uses a deliberately counter-intuitive coinage in Finnish, directly translatable as “The Girl King.” Like Empress Wu and Queen Hatshepsut, the titular monarch was a woman who sought the recognition and power of a man in a man’s world. In the case of Queen Christina of Sweden (1626-89) the terminology is truly apt – she was the sole heir of a doomed king desperate for a son, inheriting her father’s throne as a child, and, it seems, never quite growing up.

The movie is an earnest Europudding from multiple funding bodies – based on a French-Canadian play about a Swedish queen, but shot in Finland with Turku Castle and environs standing in for Stockholm. The Finnish connection eludes many international viewers, but is entirely apt; at the time that Christina took the throne, Finland formed the eastern marches of the Swedish empire. Christina was, indeed, also the Queen of Finland, and the Finnish republic remains peculiarly obsessed with Swedish royals.

tyttokuningasNETTIMichel Marc Bouchard’s script, based on his own 2012 stage play Christine: la reine garçon, makes much of Christina’s intellectual aspirations, depicting her as a crazy bibliomaniac, authorising the invasion of Czechoslovakia to get her hands on the king’s library (many books from which turn out to be in languages nobody can read), and frotting her girlfriend on the open pages of the stolen Codex Gigas or Devil’s Bible. In her own eyes she is a proud iconoclast, defying the old order represented by her chief minister, and scattering Enlightenment like fairy dust. In this mode, she pompously bestows china plates and wine glasses on the hidebound Swedish court, which she thinks is enough to qualify as a “revolution”, and pouts when she is not allowed to read books by Catholics.

Malin Buska smoulders persuasively in the title role, playing the clueless virgin queen as an occasionally saucy but usually baffled teenager with a winning lopsided smile. But if the film belongs to anyone, it’s the impotent menfolk who tut and wring their hands at the side lines. There is, to be sure, an argument that Christina’s mad life is best presented as a tragi-comedy, and the only moment that drew universal laughter in the Finnish cinema where I saw the film was the scene where Count Axel Oxenstierna (Michael Nyqvist) hems and haws and gamely tries to mansplain that “women’s friendships are different.” It’s Oxenstierna who shoulders the burden of running the country through his queen’s minority, and who begs her to do her duty, marry and get pregnant… and when she’s not up for that, to just try to be sane and not do anything daft like switch religious faiths at a time of political crisis.

True to any good historical movie, Kaurismäki and Bouchard do not rewrite the facts, although they do try and present them as best they can. A protagonist who does not change is a villain, not a hero, and the film struggles, as do historians and previous scenarists, to present Christina in any light other than that of a spoiled brat, impossibly deluded, drunk on power but shirking any sense of responsibility. She dresses in a tight, swashbuckling get-up, the first indicator of her androgynous personality, but then trips lightly around the castle balustrade pretending to be a pony: a far more evocative depiction of her infantile nature.

17-41592566ae4c65ab0dInitially, the story of Queen Christina must look like a dream come true for the queer film lobby: a European princess, raised as a boy, who falls in love with her lady in waiting and rails against the stuffy patriarchy! What a trailblazer she must have been… what a modern dash she must have cut among the dour Swedes. Except, no. The more one knows about the historical Christina, the more one cringes in embarrassment for any interest group that might dare to claim her. She has been depicted before in multiple media, including several operas, as well as the 1901 August Strindberg play Kristina, itself a source for the 1933 Greta Garbo costume drama Queen Christina. Garbo’s version pushed for an unlikely heterosexual resolution to her story, as did The Abdication (1974), in which Liv Ullman plays an older Christina, living in the Vatican and lusting after a cardinal.

There is, admittedly, some pleading of mitigation. Zachris Topelius, that great Finnish chronicler of the country’s Swedish past, wrote in his Stjärnornas Kungabarn of the similarities between Christina and her famous father King Gustav II Adolf, suggesting that her true misfortune was to inherit the hot temper and violent mood-swings that served him well on the battlefield, but which were deemed unwelcome in a regal daughter. Similar arguments are obliquely referenced in the film, particularly in an opening sequence which whisks through Christina’s awful childhood in thrall to a bonkers mother, who demands that she kiss her father’s putrefying corpse every evening, and who is later accused of having attempted to murder her. As the troubled dowager Maria Eleonora, Martina Gedeck periodically returns to chew the scenery, increasingly resembling a swivel-eyed Vivian Westwood, attended by an orbiting cloud of fops and dandies like a periodic pitch invasion by the cast of a Fellini film.

The script also pleads for the incipient intelligence of the young Christina. By the time she takes the throne in her teens, however, the bright, questioning girl of the early scenes has become a mercurial despot, unheeding of the advice of her ministers and generals, and promulgating a bipolar foreign policy that swings between hand-holding kumbayah internationalism and devious double-crosses. As her loyal subject Johan (Lucas Bryant) angrily berates her at one point, there is a human cost to every one of her decisions, and it is paid in the deaths and misery of others.

TheGirlKing_800aThere is an attempt in the closing scenes to present her abdication as a great self-empowerment, or the realisation of her True Self as some sort of wandering swordswoman. But there is also some sense remaining that this capricious termagant has skipped away from the burning wreckage of an entire kingdom, leaving broken treaties in her wake and a vast, costly expansion of the nobility, which someone else has to pay for. Queen Christina clung desperately to the trappings of royal power, even as she spurned any of the duties that it brought.

Christina is a privileged, predatory idiot when seducing her handmaiden Ebba (Sara Gadon), commanding her into bed and forcing herself upon her, only to realise that she has no idea what she should do next – a fitting metaphor for her entire life. And in the grand finale, as in the historical record, she marches smugly from the throne room, having dumped the crown on her cousin, riding not quite into the sunset, but into the Alps. A closing title reveals that she died in Italy as the centre of a great salon of intellectual debate, and understandably neglects to mention her pathetic return to Sweden in 1660, when she demanded the return of her crown and was sent packing by an establishment that was glad to be rid of her.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland, available now in print and on the Kindle (UK/US).

The Story of Kullervo

1379598266945164721The Tolkien Estate has long mined the rich resources of its own archives, not the least with Christopher Tolkien’s 12-volume History of Middle Earth, a shelf-busting sump of drafts, notes, unpublished manuscripts and annotations which cunningly smuggles pretty much all of Tolkien’s intellectual property, including The Lord of the Rings itself, into copyright until the 22nd century – as the “co-author”, the still-living Tolkien Junior and his heirs retain ownership until 70 years after his own death. Were it not for this clever move, the likes of The Hobbit would become public-domain within the next 30 years.

Unpublished manuscripts, of course, are a different thing, and Verlyn Flieger is but one of many modern academics who get to treat musty Tolkien files in an Oxford library as if they are long-lost scrolls from the Silk Road. Her account of the condition of Tolkien’s original papers, etched with crossings-out and multiple renditions of the same line, makes it clear how much of a reconstructive exercise The Story of Kullervo is, of a text that was never quite constructed in the first place.

330px-Akseli_Gallen-Kallela_-_Kullervo_Cursing_-_Google_Art_ProjectKullervo was a very early work, undertaken by Tolkien in his twenties when he had stumbled across the myths and legends of the Finnish Kalevala. The eponymous hero is a slave-boy prone to fits of murderous rage, who kills his brother, turns cows into bears, shags his sister and has conversations with a talking sword. Naturally, with a resumé like that, he became an icon of Finnish nationalism, the subject of the first ever Finnish language stage-play, as well as a bunch of adaptations into other media, of which Tolkien’s was perhaps the most obscure, languishing unread in a pile of papers until rescued by a group of academic scavengers.

In a continuing, and frankly welcome modern trend in Tolkieniana, the relatively slim text of Kullervo itself is bulked out with relevant academic essays, including a lecture by Tolkien himself, and Flieger’s own analysis of the place of Kullervo within his work. This occasionally confronts the reader with the cant and argot of Tolkien specialists, such as the use of the term Qenya, for the Elvish proto-language, rather than Quenya, the High Elvish spoken by the time of the Lord of the Rings. In general, however, they are far more interesting than the text of Kullervo itself – eruditely footnoted, and steeped in the historiography of both Tolkien and Finland, right from the very cover image, which seems to invoke the Sami flag.

There is a regrettable moment of sloppy editing, that one hopes can be swiftly redacted in at least the digital version. The introduction claims that Sophocles’ Oedipus was set in the 4th century BC; if that were true, it would have been a special sci-fi Greek tragedy, set a hundred years in the future. No, it premiered in the 5th century, and alluded to events from Greece’s semi-mythical past. Meanwhile, editor Verlyn Flieger did herself no favours in a breathless BBC online article in which she seemingly makes the spurious claim: “Kullervo is the origin story for Shakespeare’s Hamlet… It is likely that Tolkien knew that Shakespeare had used this tale.” Let’s assume she was misquoted, since such an inspiration would require Shakespeare climbing into a time machine, buying a copy of the English translation of the Kalevala in 1888, and then jumping back to the 1100s, Terminator-style, to kill Saxo Grammaticus before he could write the Gesta Danorum.

Much has been made of Kullervo as a defining tale of Finnishness, although from the very first line, Tolkien’s version is shamelessly Anglo-Saxon in its meter and tone. You can almost imagine a much older Tolkien, chuffing on his pipe by a fireside, and beginning with Jackanory cadences:

In the days when magic was yet new, a swan nurtured her brood of signets by the banks of a smooth river in the reedy marshland of Sutse. One day, as she was sailing among the sedge-fenced pools with her trail of younglings following, an eagle swooped from heaven and flying high bore off one of her children to Telea…

This is all very well, but it is a world away from the primal, recursive, repetitive song-talk of the original, which is faintly preserved even in the old 1888 Kullervo translation by John Martin Crawford. Your mileage may vary, but for Kullervo to really hit the right note with me, it needs to sound more like this:

In the ancient times a mother
Hatched and raised some swans and chickens,
Placed the chickens in the brushwood,
Placed her swans upon the river;
Came an eagle, hawk, and falcon,
Scattered all her swans and chickens…

500x500The original literally lacks the vocabulary to avoid repeating itself. It is a spiralling cycle, intended not to be read but to be performed, constantly checking over its shoulder to make sure that the audience is keeping up.

Tolkien’s version, meanwhile, turns it into a narrative story with an occasional song interlude. He buffs it up for a notional audience of hobbits – as we might expect, he is already working through his nascent idea for a mythology of the English, and Kullervo is a private experiment, unintended for publication. It also reads all too often like someone pastiching Tolkien, with awful dialogue like: “Yonder, wife, is no reek of autumn smoke nor any passing gloom, but I fear me a cloud that goeth nowise swiftly nor before it has harmed my house and folk in evil storm.” Flieger writes of Tolkien’s brief and abortive struggle to teach himself Finnish, leading me to wonder if such purple prose is some bumbling attempt to imitate the way Finns talk.

This is young Tolkien. He will have to live another lifetime before he completes The Lord of the Rings. There is not yet much sign of any greatness in him. Even when he tries his hand at a bit of Finnish singing, his lyrics are tin-eared and chinless:

Now a man in sooth I deem me / Though mine ages have seen few summers / And this springtime in the woodlands / Still is new to me and lovely.

These are jottings, rehearsals, juvenilia. Finnish meter gets to you after a while, and the temptation to doggerel is high. Five years ago, I found myself in Karelia with Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman, and we were all talking that way by lunchtime:

To the fridge went Lemminkäinen / Searching for the milky dregs / On the upper and the lower / Shelves he sought for several eggs.

“By my father’s knife,” proclaims Tolkien’s Kullervo, like some numpty at a Renaissance Fayre, “when I am bigger and my body waxeth stronger then will I avenge his slaughter and atone for the tears of thee my mother who bore me.” The absence of punctuation is faithfully replicated from the original, either a deeply intricate recreation of Finnish speech – Finnish sentences are often so long that Finns themselves have been known to breathe in while talking as well as out – or yet another indicator that this rough draft was rough indeed.

225px-The_Story_of_KullervoNone of this should bother you. It certainly doesn’t bother Flieger, who is making no claims for Tolkien’s Kullervo as great literature. Indisputably, we can see within it the germ of what would become his Middle Earth. This is Tolkien’s own Finland fan fiction, pastiching a work that he loves beyond all telling, caught at a crucial moment when he is starting to change the names and shuffle the ideas, discarding the bits that he thinks he can do better himself. Frankly, the text of Kullervo itself is the least interesting part of this book, while the essays that accompany it are undeniably worth the cover price. More by luck than judgement, Harper Collins have chosen to publish a book by JRR Freaking Tolkien, about Finland and Finnishness, the week after Helsinki is announced as the site for the 2017 Science Fiction Worldcon. I think the sales will be fine.

Tolkien himself, already a couple of years older and wiser, is far more poetic and lyrical in the book’s reprinted lecture on the Kalevala than in Kullervo itself. He speaks of Finland (or at least a Finland of the mind), a country he never visited, as if he had been spirited there by elves:

Trees will group differently on the horizon, the birds will make unfamiliar music; the inhabitants will talk a wild and at first unintelligible lingo. I hope… after this the country and its manners have become more familiar, and you have got on speaking terms with the natives, you will find it rather jolly to live with this strange people and these new gods awhile, with this race of unhypocritical scandalous heroes and sadly unsentimental lovers: and at the last, you may feel you do not want to go back home for a long while if at all.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland, available now in print and on the Kindle (UK/US).

Finland Expects

41CH3PO2YYL._SY445_With the happy news that Helsinki is the site of the 2017 World Science Fiction Convention, it’s time for foreign fandom to find out about their new destination. You need the Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland, available now in print and Kindle form from Amazon UK and Amazon US.

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One hundred years old in 2017, the modern nation of Finland is also the heir to centuries of history and heritage, as a wilderness at the edge of early Europe, an important component of the Swedish empire, and a Grand Duchy of Tsarist Russia. From prehistoric reindeer herders to the creators of Angry Birds, medieval barons to the rock band Lordi, Finnish history is rich with oddities and excitement, as well as unexpected connections to the outside world – the legendary English bishop who became its first Christian martyr; the Viking queen who hailed from the wastes of Lapland; the bored country doctor who helped inspire The Lord of the Rings; and the many war heroes who held off the Soviet Union against impossible odds.

Jonathan Clements examines Finland’s public artworks and literary giants, its legends, folktales and its most famous figures, building an indispensable portrait of this fascinating nation, sure to add value to any visitor’s experience, be it for business or pleasure. Particular attention is paid to the historical sites likely to feature on any tourist’s itinerary. Special emphasis is also given to the writings and reactions of visitors through the centuries.

A comprehensive and illuminating look at the rich history of this dynamic and little-known region, and an easy-to-use reference source for the tourist, traveller, and baffled science fiction fan.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Mannerheim: President, Soldier, Spy, the biography of the Finnish president whose former career included a two-year undercover mission in China, posing as a Swedish ethnologist.