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Finnish literature (the s.c.nordic FAQ)
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Finnish literature

 



Subject: 4.7 

Finnish literature

Most of the text below is reproduced on the Project Runeberg pages on Nordic Authors <http://www.lysator.liu.se/runeberg/authors/>. Links to the Project Runeberg pages are provided when they hold also other information.

Fire has destroyed most of the early literature the Finnish church and monasteries must have produced. The first known Finnish author was Jöns Budde, a Franciscan monk who lived in the Brigittene monastery at Naantali in the latter part of 15th century, chiefly translating from Latin to Swedish, but he also wrote a few things of his own. Codex Aboensis written probably in Turku in the 1440's is an important collection of law texts; Missale Aboense printed in 1488 for the Finnish church is a beautiful book and a source of medieval Finnish religious life.

Mikael Agricola (circa 1510-57), a bishop of Turku and great advocate of Lutheranism, is considered the father of Finnish literature. His ABC-book published 1538 is the first known book in Finnish, but the translation of New Testament (1548) is his greatest achievement. Paavali Juusten (?1512-72) was another important 16th century author; his Chronicon episcoporum Finlandensium (Chronicle of the Finnish Bishops [published in Latin]) is an important source of early Finnish history. Erik Sorolainen (1545-1625) did most of the translation of the Old Testament when the whole Bible was eventually published in Finnish in 1642, delayed by the Thirty Years' War. The first grammar of Finnish, Linguae Finnicae brevis institutio [Latin], was written by Eskil Petraeus in 1649.

Daniel Juslenius (1676-1752) was an enthusiastic advocate of things Finnish. He wrote a baroque study on Finland (Aboa vetus et Nova [Latin], 1700) which among other things traced the origins of Roman civilization to Finland; a defense of Finnishness (Vindicae Fennorum [Latin], 1702); and most importantly, the first major Finnish dictionary (Suomalaisen Sana-Lugun Coetus, 1745), containing 16,000 entries. He and his ideological followers became known as Fennophiles (proto-nationalists, but not separatists). Jakob Frese (1691-1729) and Gustaf Filip Creutz (1731-1785) contributed importantly to the Swedish-language poetry of the era.

The first major Finnish poet, however, was Frans Mikael Franzén (1772-1847), whose fresh, romantic poetry was enormously popular in Sweden (including Finland!) in his time. His teacher was the great scholar Henrik Gabriel Porthan (1739-1804), a student of Juslenius and a Fennophile, who brought Finnish history-writing, study of mythology and folk poetry, and other humanistic sciences to an international level. His De Poësi Fennica (published in Latin in five parts 1776-78), a study on Finnish folk poetry, had great importance in awakening public interest in the Kalevala-poetry and Finnish mythology, and the study was also the basis of all later study of the poetry. He was among the founders of the Aurora Society that advocated Finnish literary pursuits and was the editor of the first Finnish newspaper, Tidningar utgifne af et sällskap i Åbo, founded in 1771. Antti Lizelius (1708-1795) published the first newspaper in Finnish, Suomenkieliset Tieto-Sanomat, 1776.

Porthan inspired the following generation of Finnish authors, poets and researchers, many of whom were among the founders of the Finnish Literature Society in 1831. A movement literary trend known as Helsinki Romanticism was born in the 1830's when the university was moved to the new capital. Four young university students came to have towering importance to the forming of the Finnish literature, and ultimately, the Finnish national identity. These were the poet Johan Ludvig Runeberg (1804-77), the scholar Elias Lönnrot (1802-84), the author Zacharias Topelius (1818-1898) and the Hegelian philosopher and statesman Johan Vilhelm Snellman (1806-81).

Especially important was Elias Lönnrot, who did a huge task of collecting folk poetry from the remote wildernesses of Karelia, and compiling these to what was to become Finland's national epic, the Kalevala. (1849). It is composed of 50 poems (sometimes called runes), altogether 22,795 verses. The book starts with a creation-myth, then goes on to recount the deeds and adventures of the three protagonists, Väinämöinen the magician and bard, Ilmarinen the smith, and Lemminkäinen the wanton loverboy and warrior, and ends with the introduction of Christianity to Finland. Lönnrot was under the influence of Homeric ideals and tried to forge the poems into a single epic, adding bits and pieces of his own and altering some parts to make them appear a whole, which they however never have been. Nevertheless, its role to the development of Finnish literature, arts and identity can hardly be over-estimated, and having been translated to all major world languages and lots of minor ones, it is no doubt the most important contribution of Finland to world literature. Lönnrot also published a counterpart to Kalevala, the Kanteletar, a collection of ancient lyrical poetry often sung by women. These two books, however, cover but a small part of the recorded Finnish folk poetry. For instance, between 1908-48 was published a massive, 33-volume book series called Suomen Kansan Vanhoja Runoja, containing altogether 85,000 poems, with well over a million verses. Kalevala & Kanteletar can be found (in Finnish) at <http://www.sci.fi/kalevala/> & <http://www.edita.fi/kustannus/kalevala/paasivu.htm>.

Runeberg's main works were the realist/idealist poem Älgskyttarna (Elk Hunters, 1832), which can be called the first major literary portrayal of ordinary people in Scandinavia, the Ossianic epic Kung Fjalar (King Fjalar, 1844) and the emotional and humane heroic poem Fänrik Ståls Sägner (The Tales of Ensign Stål, I 1848, II 1860) on the war of 1808-09, which enjoyed huge popularity in both Finland and Sweden and became something of a national romantic symbol.

Topelius was a full-blooded romantic, more superficial as a literary artist than Runeberg, and less of an innovator. His Fältskärns Berättelser (1851-67, The Barber-Surgeons Stories) is a historical novel set in the Thirty Years' War, in the tradition of Sir Walter Scott; he is also well known in Finland for his fairy tales.

Snellman's chief achievement was in his role as a national awakener, the editor of two newspapers, strongly encouraging literature as part of the process leading to independence.

Early writers in Finnish

The first great prose writer in Finnish - considered by some to be the most genial - was Aleksis Kivi (1834-72), a novelist and playwright who during his lifetime was largely ignored. Major works include Seitsemän Veljestä (The Seven Brothers, 1870), his most celebrated play, and the comedy Nummisuutarit (The Heath Shoemakers, 1864). He was more modern and many-sided in his expression than Runeberg, but his image of the Finnish people was too "raw" and realistic for most people of his era, and he died in extreme poverty, suffering from a mental illness.

Minna Canth (1844-97), an energetic fighter for women's rights and social justice, was a contemporary of Juhani Aho (1861-1921), a novelist and short-story writer known for his humorous sketches and lyrical, dreamy descriptions of nature. Eino Leino (1878-1926) was a poet of exceptional talent, drawing heavily on the Kalevala tradition. His main themes are love and nature, and poem collections such as Helkavirsiä (Helka-hymns, 1903), Halla (Frost, 1908) which includes the wonderful love/nature poem Nocturne, and Hymyilevä Apollo (The Smiling Apollo) are still much-loved. V. A. Koskenniemi often turned to classical themes. Uuno Kailas wrote harsh, self-analytic verse, whereas Kaarlo Sarkia sought solace in aestheticism and fantasy. The personal, abrupt, and humorous poetry of Aaro Hellaakoski and the equally humorous, learned, yet folklike verse of P. Mustapää were only appreciated after 1945. The generation of the 1950s, including Paavo Haavikko and Eeva-Liisa Manner, introduced new poetic forms to which their successors often added absurd humor, formalist experimentation, and social criticism.

Modern writers in Swedish

Finland-Swedish modernism was introduced by Edith Södergran (1892-1923). She didn't receive much recognition in her lifetime, but is now regarded one of Finland's foremost poets. She was first influenced by French symbolism, then German expressionism and Russian futurism, and creatively applied these to her own poetry. Her free rhythm, strong, challenging images fired by a Nietzschean self-conscience and conviction of the importance of her message were new and baffling to the Finnish audience, and she was almost without exception misunderstood and even ridiculed. Her first collection of poems was Dikter (Poems, 1916), which was followed by Rosenaltaret (The Rose Altar, 1919) and Landet som icke är (The land that is not, 1925) among others. Always physically weak and somewhat sickly, she died young just as she was starting to get followers. Among these the most important were Elmer Diktonius (1896-1961), Gunnar Björling (1887-1960) and Rabbe Enckell (1903-74).

In recent years writers such as Märta & Henrik Tikkanen, Kjell Westö (b. 1961) and others have proved that the size of a linguistic minority has very little to do with the quality of its literature.

The author Tove Jansson (b. 1914) has won much international fame for her creation of the Moomins, philosophical-minded, friendly trolls who live in Moominvalley. There are many books on their adventures, e. g. Muminpappan och Havet (Moominpappa and the Sea). Her fantasy world charms with its richness, inventiveness and wisdom of life spiced with witty humor. The events and imagery flow freely and uninhibited, yet reflecting the phenomena of the real world.

Modern writers in Finnish

Joel Lehtonen, Volter Kilpi, and especially Frans Eemil Sillanpää (1888-1964) dominated naturalistic prose in the first half of the 20th century. Sillanpää was awarded the 1939 Nobel Prize for literature for the book Silja, nuorena nukkunut (Silja, Fallen Asleep While Young, 1931). Also important are Toivo Pekkanen, who wrote about the plight of industrial workers, and Pentti Haanpää, who portrayed with a bitter but defiant humor the struggle of humans against harsh nature in northern Finland.

After World War II, Väinö Linna had great success with the novel Tuntematon Sotilas (The Unknown Soldier, 1954) which played a part in the healing of the wounds of the war and is read by almost every Finnish schoolkid. The extensive use of dialects make the book quite impossible to translate; translations into English and many other languages do exist, but cannot be recommended very highly (although I hear the Swedish one is pretty good). His other major work is the trilogy Täällä pohjantähden alla (Here Under the North Star, 1959-62), a story of the struggles of poor farmers that culminated in the Civil War of 1918. More recently, Veijo Meri has described the violence and absurdity of human life, especially during times of war.

Mika Waltari (1908-79) is among the Finnish prose writers best known to an international audience. He wrote his most successful novels in the 1940s and 50's, many of them on historical subjects; among these is Sinuhe egyptiläinen (The Egyptian, 1945), a novel set in ancient Egypt, about the collapse of traditional ways of life and the inflation of inherited values. It's also been filmed into a dreary Hollywood spectacle.

From the 1960s, social issues became central to the young novelists and poets. Hannu Salama went through a famous trial for blasphemy (after which the blasphemy laws were repealed) for his novel Juhannustanssit (Juhannus Dances, 1964). Pentti Saarikoski was the leading poet of the 60's. Often better remembered for his for his unhealthy lifestyle, Saarikoski was nevertheless one of the most genial poets in Finnish and a brilliant translator of e. g. Homer and Joyce. Such younger writers as as Alpo Ruuth and Antti Tuuri have also dealt with social issues.

Another author who has long been very popular in Finland and has started to win international fame recently is the humorist Arto Paasilinna; Jäniksen Vuosi (The Year of the Hare, 1974), is the story of an advertising man who gets sick of urban life and escapes to the wilderness with his pet hare.

For electronic versions of some of the works of Nordic literature, see the collection of Project Runeberg:

Biographical and bibliographical data are given also in English for a few of the Nordic authors.



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