J.R.R. Tolkien and the Kalevala

The following post is the sixth entry in a series by Music Library intern Dan Hunt discussing the musical influences on the works of fantasy writer J.R.R. Tolkien. Click here to view the previous post regarding the Jean Sibelius composition “Kullervo Op. 7.”

Mieleni minun tekevi,
aivoni ajattelevi
lähteäni laulamahan,
saa'ani sanelemahan. 
I am driven by longing
To commence a wondrous singing
Of the legends of our people
And the ballads of our kindred.
-Excerpt from “The Kalevala”

Over the course of the fall semester, this blog series has explored how J.R.R. Tolkien used music to develop the mythology of Middle-earth. The races of Men, Elves, Dwarves, Hobbits, Orcs, Valar, and Ents all have a unique set of customs, but their transmission of lore, history, and magic are unified under sharing songs. People sing when paying respect to the dead, recalling historical events, conjuring magic for battle, and partaking in merriment; the very creation of the universe, referred to as the “Ainulindale” (Music of the Ainur), tells how heavenly bodies sang everything into existence. Put simply, music is a participatory way to engage with the world. 

These specific functions of music raises questions over the inspiration behind the song cultures in Middle-earth. Examining the established books pertaining to Middle-earth reveals a variety of influences such as Norse mythology and Anglo-Saxon story-telling tradition, cultures discussed in previous posts. Of all the cultures that were weaved into Tolkien’s stories however, the region that arguably had the greatest influence on the musical aspects of Middle-earth was Eastern Finland. For hundreds of years, the Finns that resided in the republic of Karelia recited stories that were passed down only through song. People taught lessons, shared history, invoked magic powers, and celebrated life with these musical stories. Not only are these acts depicted in the cultures of Middle-earth, a number of Finnish folk stories inspired major sections of the legendarium. In the previous post, we saw how the Finnish anti-hero Kullervo served as inspiration for Turin Turambar, but consider the following comparisons as well:

Middle-earth Finnish Myths
The sorcerer Sauron makes battle with the Elf king Finrod Felagund in a singing contest. Their music becomes magic spells and is so legendary that the event itself is immortalized in a song. 

Jealous of the prosperity of Elves, the fallen Vala Melkor destroys the Lamps of the Valar and the Two Trees of Valinor, which acted as the sources of light for the world.

Feanor and Celebrimbor are two master craftsmen who create a variety of magical trinkets. Feanor creates the Silmarils, three precious gems that contain the light of the world, which Melkor covets and embroils the world in a cataclysmic war to take them. Celebrimbor meanwhile creates a series of magic rings under the guidance of Sauron, who wishes to bend all things to his will using his own magic ring. The wizard Gandalf sets out on several journeys to take Sauron’s ring and destroy it to secure peace in Middle-earth.
The boastful Joukahainen challenges the wizard bard Vainamoinen to a song battle. Though Joukahainen is powerful, Vainamoinen is the superior musician and defeats Joukahainen with a song that roots him to the ground. 

The witch Louhi steals the sun and moon from the world to spite Vainamoinen and the prosperity he brings to his country. 

Ilamarinen the master blacksmith forges the Sampo, a magic device that brings its wielder great fortune and power, for the witch Louhi in exchange for a bride. Louhi double-crosses Ilmarinen though and sends him home without his reward. Vainamoinen convinces Ilmarinen and a warrior named Leiminkainen that they should steal the Sampo for their own use. Louhi pursues the adventurers with a massive army and makes war with them, but during his escape, it becomes evident to Vainamoinen that the Sampo must be destroyed so neither his people nor Louhi can do harm to the world.

This last comparison connects the plots of both “The Silmarillion” and “The Lord of the Rings” with the Finnish tale “The Plunder of the Sampo.” J.R.R. Tolkien discovered many of these Finnish stories while a student at Oxford University when they were published under the “The Kalevala,” a collection songs and poems that have since been regarded as the national epic of Finland. The stories inspired the young Tolkien to learn Finnish so he could read the text in its native language, attempt his own translation of the poems, and eventually use Finnish as the basis for his invented languages. While “The Kalevala” is comprised of myths from ancient Finland, it also alludes to the struggles of the Finns and its background interestingly parallels the plight of the people of Middle-earth in maintaining existence in the face of overwhelming oppression. 

The Songs of Kalevala

Now men awoke and listened to Felagund as he harped and sang, and each thought that he was in some fair dream, until he saw that his fellows were awake also beside him ; but they did not speak or stir while Felagund still played, because of the beauty of the music and the wonder of the song. Wisdom was in the words of the Elven-king, and the hearts grew wiser that hearkened to him ; for the things which he sang, of the making of Arda, and the bliss of Aman beyond the shadow of the Sea, came as clear visions before their eyes, and his Elvish speech was interpreted in each mind according to its measure.

J.R.R. Tolkien. The Silmarillion. (Boston. Houghton Mifflin. 1977). 140-141.

The above quote comes from a section in “The Silmarillion” in which Elves and Men meet for the first time. They are curious and eager to learn from one another, but in this passage, the Elven king Finrod Felagund introduces himself and the existence of his people by sneaking into the men’s camp and playing music for them. It’s an enchanting scene to say the least, but note the information being relayed to the men as they wake up; the making of the world, the history of the elves, and peaceful times. This performance comes after the Men of Middle-earth had migrated from their homes in the eastern regions of the world. They are unsure if this new land will provide them with the security they seek, but they are relieved through the Elf king’s music. While perhaps unintentional, this interaction shares similarities with the history of the ancient Finnish people and their own migration across Europe. 

Thousands of years ago, the people known today as the Finns wandered north out of Asia and Europe. On their travels, the Finns undoubtedly encountered a changing landscape; new animals, new climate, and trepidation as the sun mysteriously disappeared during half the year and dancing lights appeared in the sky. Like other nomadic cultures around the world, when the Finns settled down and found other traveling groups they shared their perceptions of the world and hopes for the future, but they expressed these sentiments through song.

Kilpalaulanta (The Song Challenge)

Here is an example of one of the songs that would eventually be compiled into “The Kalevala.” Songs such as this one could last for hours and were recited as a way to entertain listeners throughout the night, during work, and/or travel. A unique aspect of this ancient Finnish folk music is that the songs use a stock melody that follows a trochaic meter. Finnish is derived from the Uralic family of languages and besides being highly alliterative it breaks syllables into a stressed or neutral emphasis which attributes to a poetic cadence in speech and song; in musical terms it can be counted in 5/4 time. In regards to the classical singing of these stories, the final beats of a phrase are often elongated, which some attribute to allowing a second singer an opportunity to join in at the beginning of the next verse. While the songs were sung in a variety of settings, many singers chose to sit down with their hands outstretched for another singer to hold while they traded verses back and forth. Besides a second voice, singers were also accompanied by an instrument called the kantele.

Nuku Nuku – Ancient Finnish Lullaby

There are a variety of kantele played around the world, each resembling a plucked lap harp, but the Finns used kantele with 5, 10, and 38 strings. The tuning of the kantele, though varied, commonly follows the tuning of a D major scale. The kantele accompaniment was significant also because it was the instrument of choice for the wizard bard Vainamoinen, one of the recurring characters in these stories. The wise shaman used his songs and kantele to conjure roaring winds, lull his enemies to sleep, bring fertility to the earth, and secure peace for his country. Those who could sing and play kantele were thus held in high regard and revered as keepers of lore.

Unlike other European countries during the middle ages, the people of Finland never united as one nation until 1917, instead maintaining three regions that shared a similar culture; Karelia, Häme, and Lapland. This was exploited by Swedish crusaders in the medieval era who used mass religious conversion to convert pagans and dismantle their traditions, including the song culture. The Lutherans continued this trend after the Protestant reformation swept through Europe and they further suppressed the expression of Finnish language when introducing literacy to the people.

…in the mid 1550’s Bishop Mikael Agricola reduced spoken Finnish to letters and, in the ensuing years, began working toward a translation of the Bible. In addition, he and his fellow clergymen began composing the country’s first Finnish language religious poetry. The folksongs surviving from Finland’s independent and pre-Christian era were at that time still known widely throughout the land and could have provided native models for the developing body of poetry. But these songs were undercut by the Lutheran clergy, who identified the songs with paganism, argued that they had been spawned by Lucifer for the corruption of the people, and set out to replace them with a new poetry based on foreign models.

Glenda Dawn Goss. The Sibelius Companion. (Westport, Connecticut. Greenwood Press. 1996). 44-45

Finland remained under the occupation of Sweden for several hundred years before Russia took over and made the region a Grand Duchy in 1809. The exchange of ownership came with a small extension of rights for native Finns, but with both factions making war and imposing change upon the Finnish culture, popular recitation of the folk songs diminished along with the prospect of self-rule. By the nineteenth century, knowledgeable rune singers could only be located in the far reaches of Karelia to the east. Only the uneducated peasant class used the native language and the ancient oral traditions nearly ceased to exist. 

The Journeys of Elias Lonnrot

In 1828, a Swedish medical student named Elias Lonnrot took a break from his studies at Turku University in Helsinki to travel the Finnish countryside. The young doctor-in-training spent three months roaming eastern Karelia before discovering a forester named Juhanna in the town of Kesalahti. From sunup to sundown, Juhanna felled trees, rowed boats, and split wood while singing spells out to the forest spirits. As it turned out, Juhanna and likewise his father were tietajats, speakers of the ancient rune songs. At the request of Lonnrot, Juhanna sang more that evening and shared with Lonnrot how he learned these songs from his father and how his kin would do the same. Lonnrot accompanied Juhanna whenever he could for the next week, often paying Juhanna to not go to work so he could sing more songs and spells. Once he had recorded everything Juhanna could remember Lonnrot departed for Helsinki, but he would return.

It may seem odd that a promising medical student would use his vacation time traveling around rural Finland in search of a few songs, but Lonnrot was determined to preserve the traditions of the rune singers. Lonnrot was a polymath and studied medicine, botany, linguistics, music, and literature. As a Swede living in Finland during the 19th century, Elias Lonnrot developed a fascination with Finnish culture thanks in part to the “Fennomans” who were proponents of Finnish independence. The Fennomans had gained momentum in the academic community and argued that Finnish culture had as much linguistic and literary merit as any other European nation. As an undergraduate at Turku University, Lonnrot and a few other students and faculty members shared an interest in reading Finnish mythology. His senior thesis discussed Vainamoinen and his impact on Finnish culture and literature. The more stories Lonnrot uncovered about the Finns, the more he wanted to learn, not so different from a certain English scholar 80 years later…

Lonnrot returned to Karelia on a number of occasions, using his free time and leaves of absence to find more tietajats and record their poems, stories, and songs. Though many go uncredited, Lonnrot made note of several singers who made an impression on him. In 1833 in a town called Latvajarvi he met the legendary Arhippa whose singing was so renowned that his village frequently elected him as their champion in song contests during festivals. While passing through Uhtua in 1834 he encountered a beggar woman named Matro who sang for him countless elegies and wedding songs. The old singer Vasilla who lived in a remote forest particularly captivated Lonnrot with tale after tale of Vainamoinen’s exploits. Lonnrot recorded it all. By 1835, he had recorded about 28,000 lines of verse. He tried to connect the stories of similar accounts and rearranged the songs into a narrative structure, converting the songs into rune poetry. The result of this work became the first edition of “The Kalevala.”

The publication of these folk stories did not immediately improve the political troubles of Finland, but it certainly kindled discussion about a national identity. The ancient stories originated during an era of an independent and empire-free Finland, an aspect that was not lost on Finnish readers. The scope of the stories and their rich history fueled Finnish academic discussion which gained international recognition and became a mark of pride among the Finns. Most importantly, “The Kalevala” helped legitimize the Finnish language. In the shadow of two empires, many educated Finns spoke either Swedish or Russian as it offered more opportunities for success. Throughout his life, Lonnrot encouraged the spread of the native language and published a number of texts that promoted Finnish linguistics and culture. These included the first Finnish dictionary, a collection of lyrical poems titled “Kanteletar,” and additional content to “The Kalevala” in 1849. 

Today the work is regarded as a national epic and for good reason too. “The Kalevala” compiled and arranged dozens of scattered stories from around the country into a single cohesive narrative. Finnish pride blossomed throughout the 19th century and the stories became the subject matter for countless artists, writers, and musicians. In regards to music, the Finnish composers Robert Kajanus, Jean Sibelius, Aulis Salinen, and Einojuhani Rautavaara frequently tapped “The Kalevala” for inspiration in countless classical compositions. The praise of the ancient stories spread across Europe and garnered recognition for its literary and cultural merit. A unified national identity coalesced and in 1917, Finland finally gained its independence from Russia, coincidentally around the same time Tolkien began writing his stories for Middle-earth.

Modern Day

In 2018, Jussi Huovinen, the last of the traditional rune singers, passed away at the age of 93. Sadly, this is the reality of preserving an endangered culture and language. Though the songs had become available in written form, the performance tradition of the ancient Finns slowly died out. This was the case even when Elias Lonnrot set out on his trips to Karelia. While most of the songs and poems have been recorded and we know how the melodies go, the world has lost the participatory tradition of learning the stories from a knowledgeable teacher.

Prior to Elias Lonnrot’s expeditions and publications, these rune songs could be quite varied in their recitation. Lonnrot put together a narrative that was made up of scattered songs and poems that varied from singer to singer. The idea seems foreign when framed in today’s understanding of music as a commercial product, but in regards to folk songs and oral tradition a singer could retell a story with a different ending, rearrange the verse sequences, or reuse the same melody without fear of plagiarism and legal ramification. Singers learned the music as a form of entertainment, but recited them because it kept their history relevant. Despite the stories being quite long they were not nebulous, rather they were alive. Singers like Jussi memorized thousands of verses to represent their culture in their own way and it made the songs more personal. Now they are gone. 

While this passing is lamentable, the consolation is that by recording the music of the rune singers, the legacy of the traditions lives on. Just as Vainamoinen left his Kantele on the beach before departing from the world at the end of “The Kalevala,” the songs, stories, and histories of the Finns are not completely gone. The impact of Elias Lonnrot’s work and countless other folklorists has left a lasting mark on the cultural landscape of Finland as well, arguably igniting interest in an independent nation, and ultimately influencing J.R.R. Tolkien to create his own mythology for England.

Below are resources you may wish to explore to learn more about the “The Kalevala” and Finnish folk music.

  • “The Kalevala, the land of the heroes” translated by W.F. Kirby and Michael Branch: MAIN PH324.E5 K5 1985

Jussi Huovinen:

Jean Sibelius:

  • The Complete Tone Poems: Audio 24053/4
  • Kullervo ; Origin of Fire ; Our Native Land: Audio CD CD 14076/7
  • Complete works = Sämtliche Werke: Monuments M3.S57

Aulis Salinen:

  • Kullervo Opera in Two Acts: Audio CD CD 1392/4

Einojuhani Rautavaara:

  • The Myth of the Sampo: Audio CD CD 4574

Robert Kajanus:

  • KAJANUS: Finnish Rhapsody, Op. 5 / Sinfonietta, Op. 16 / Kullervo: Naxos Music Library

Web Resources:


Goss, Glenda Dawn. A Backdrop for Young Sibelius: The Intellectual Genesis of the Kullervo Symphony. 19th-Century Music 27, no. 1 (2003): 48-73. doi:10.1525/ncm.2003.27.1.48.

ed. Goss, Glenda Dawn. “The Sibelius Companion.” Westport, Connecticut. Greenport Press. 1996.

Palkki, Joshua. The Influence of The Kalevala on Cotemporary Finnish Choral Music. The Choral Journal 54, no. 4 (2013): 34-43. Retrieved from: https://www-jstor-org.proxy.library.stonybrook.edu/stable/23646123?seq=2#metadata_info_tab_contents

Snyder, Christopher. The Making of Middle-Earth: A New Look Inside the World of J.R.R. Tolkien. New York. Sterling. 2013.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Silmarillion, ed. Christopher Tolkien. Boston. Houghton Mifflin. 1977.

Gisele Schierhorst

Gisele Schierhorst

Head, Music Library at Stony Brook University Libraries
Gisele is the Head of the Music Library. She is the liaison to Music, Africana Studies, Anthropology, and Sociology.
email: gisele.schierhorst@stonybrook.edu
Gisele Schierhorst

Latest posts by Gisele Schierhorst (see all)

Posted in Music, Music Library