Juha Y. Pentikainen, Kalevala Mythology: Expanded Edition (Indiana University Press, 1999)

Translated from the Finnish by Ritva Poom, Professor Pentikainen's scholarly text ambitiously seeks to put the Kalevala -- the epic Finnish poem set down by Elias Lonnrot in the 1830s and 1840s -- into a context that is at once mythic, political and religious. Because of its relatively recent creation, the Kalevala presents a unique opportunity for examining the development of national epics.

Pentikainen succeeds in providing a thoroughly researched and detailed study of the Kalevala, its origins and its role in the development of modern Finland. However, his text would benefit greatly from a re-ordering of chapters, as Pentikainen has jumbled history, biography and poetic analysis across several parts of the book, when one should have followed the other, in some cases. For example, he opens the book with a discussion of the scholarly environment Elias Lonnrot wrote in. But then he skips ahead to a lengthy discussion of the Kalevala's poetic structure before returning to a significant biographical chapter about Lonnrot. The middle chapter would have had greater impact had it followed the other two, and been paired with the other chapters about the Kalevala's content and structure.

The bulk of the book is devoted to an in-depth historical, literary and mythological analysis of both versions of the Kalevala, which were published about 15 years apart by Lonnrot. Pentikainen quotes significant portions of the Kalevala text, providing readers a glimpse of the important story arcs and how they fit together. He artfully demonstrates their similarities -- and differences -- to the runes sung by the Finnish rune singers Lonnrot collected from (Lonnrot rearranged many runes, and added his own text). Perhaps the most fascinating chapter of the book is that dedicated to the singers themselves -- including singers alive during the early to mid twentieth century. Particularly intriguing is Pentikainen's observation that the singers appear to tap into a mythic consciousness to remember words to runes not sung since childhood. Also fascinating is a digression in that same chapter on Old Believers, a particular, persecuted sect of the Russian Orthodox Church with close ties to the Finnish rune singers.

Pentikainen, a professor of comparative religion himself, posits that the Kalevala is, at its heart, a description of pagan Finland and its eventual transition to Christianity. This theme surfaces repeatedly in the book. It is not an unreasonable assertion, based on Lonnrot's own devout Christian background and the epic's overarching storyline: world creation by a old god (paganism), who eventually finds his demise at the hands of a mere babe (Christianity); but it ends up being a less interesting discussion than the entire chapter Pentikainen devotes to the Kalevala runes as evidence of Finnish shamanism.

Whether or not readers agree with Pentikainen's assertion, Kalevala Mythology is an invaluable tool for understanding the Kalevala's significance not only to Finland, but to students of folklore the world over.

[April Gutierrez]