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The Kalevala Received: From Printed Text to Oral Performance

Thomas A. DuBois

In the closing years of the nineteenth century, in the midst of a revived  national interest in the Kalevala and a neo-Romantic fascination with the fabled epic “song lands” east of the Finnish border, the lexicographer Kustaa Karjalainen recorded a set of epic songs from the illiterate peasant singer Vihtoora Lesonen. Vihtoora was a native of the Vuokkiniemi district of Viena Karelia—one of the most productive regions for the collection of Baltic-Finnic epic song in the nineteenth century. The combined length of Vihtoora’s songs amounted to 1483 lines, a substantial repertoire by Karelian standards, although nowhere as long or varied as that collected from some singers in the past. Upon returning home to Finland, however, Karjalainen discovered a terrible truth: in examining the content and phrasing of the songs, it became evident that Vihtoora had somehow learned his repertoire from the Kalevala. Rather than providing a further example of the oral tradition upon which the Kalevala had been based, in other words, Vihtoora’s songs furnished evidence of the profound effect of Lönnrot’s published epic upon local repertoires and understandings, even in the very heart of the song lands.

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