To There and Back Again:
One morning, as I was sitting on the bench outside the Gimme! coffee shop, sipping my morning joe, my eyes fastened on the quote of the day on their blackboard — “Elen sil lumenn’ometielvo.” “What the heck is that? It sounds sort of like Finnish!” I asked the father and son sitting next to me. “Oh, it’s probably Elvish,” they answered, “It’s the language that Tolkien made up, which is based on the Finnish language.” That peaked my curiosity, so when I got home, I did a Google search for “Finnish” and “Tolkien.”
I discovered that there was a National Geographic movie special called Beyond the Movie: The Lord of the Rings. It’s about where Tolkien drew ideas for his stories. Many of his ideas came from the Finnish language and the Kalevala. At the age of 18, he taught himself Finnish so that he could read the Kalevala in its original language! (Every full-blooded Finn or Finnophile has probably heard of the Kalevala. It’s a collection of old Finnish songs and verses or “runes.” Those who play the kantele and sing runes from memory are known as “rune-singers.”)
Because my son Ryan has caught the Ring Trilogy fever, and is building models of Middle Earth all over the house, I had to order this National Geographic DVD. Parts of it are quite alluring. The National Geographic Society sent Wade Davis, an anthropologist, to Karelia, where the oral tradition of the Finnish language is still alive, but now contained in the memory of just a single storyteller. His name is Jussi Houvinen, and he is Finland’s last great rune-singer. He is a living link to myths and languages that have passed mouth-to-ear over the ages in an unbroken chain. The National Geographic team recorded him, and you can hear him singing his hypnotizing runes in the movie. They say that when this elderly man dies, the ancient succession of rune-singers will end.
However, as the movie explains, the Kalevala itself will not die with Jussi, due to the efforts of a country doctor named Elias Lönnrot. In the early 19th century, he became enamored of the Finnish songs and runes in Karelia. He devoted himself to traveling the district, listening to the rune-singers and writing down their songs. This was the beginning of the modern Finnish language, and it also inspired Finnish nationalism. If it had not been for Lönnrot, today’s Finns would probably be speaking either Swedish or Russian instead of Finnish.
As an aside, I like to brag that when I was a girl, my Aunt Helen told me that Lönnrot had spent some time at my great-grandfather’s home in Karelia, compiling the runes that were to become the Kalevala. I suppose we would have to employ the history detectives to verify that. I like to think it’s true and have told my sons that their ancestors may have played a small part in establishing Finnish nationalism.
Actually, I think they’re more impressed by the fact that their ancestors may have played a part in the writing of the Ring Trilogy! In a letter to W.H. Auden in 1955, Tolkien wrote about his discovery of Finnish, “It was like discovering a complete wine-filled cellar filled with bottles of an amazing wine of a kind and flavor never tasted before. It quite intoxicated me. . .” The Elvish high language in Tolkien’s books, called Quenya, is, in fact, based on Finnish. (Aha! I was right!) Also, the cant-like, melancholy singing by the elves has the same feel and sound as Karelian rune singing.
One day, I found my son trying to teach himself how to read and write in Elvish. “If only he would spend as much energy learning real Finnish!” I thought to myself. Oh well, perhaps someday his interest in Elvish will lead him to Finnish. Believe it or not, there are several websites devoted to Elvish and the other languages of Middle Earth. We looked up the meaning of “Elen sil lumenn’ ometeilvo.” It’s the standard Elvin greeting meaning “a star shines on the hour of our meeting.” I have to admit, it does sound more romantic than “hyvää päivää.”
I also hope that my son’s interest in the Ring Trilogy will someday lead him to the Kalevala, from which Tolkien took many of his story ideas. The Kalevala “is fundamentally a story of a sacred object which has power, and the pursuit of the mythic heroes who seek that power, to seek a way of understanding what that power means.” Väinämöinen is a wise old man with a long gray beard who has magical powers. He must destroy a forged magical mill called the “Sampo.” The bearer of the Sampo is given great wealth but becomes greedy. Therefore, for the good of everyone, the Sampo must be destroyed. If you’ve seen the latest Ring Trilogy movies or read the books, this should sound very familiar. Gandalf, in the Lord of the Rings, is a wise old man with a long gray beard (Väinämöinen!) who has magical powers. He must destroy the forged object of power, a ring, for the good of everyone. Whether through the Kalevala or the Ring Trilogy, it is gratifying to know that the ancient wisdom of our ancestors, so sorely needed in today’s world, is being passed down to today’s generation.
For more information on the one-hour documentary National Geographic special entitled Beyond the Movie.