Karelian song culture: a broad and in-depth perspective

Tarkka, Lotte 2013: Songs of the Border People: Genre, Reflexivity and Performance in Karelian Oral Poetry. Folklore Fellows’ Communications 305. Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica. 631 pages.

Clive Tolley


The declared focus of research for Lotte Tarkka’s Songs of the Border People sounds initially very limited: songs recorded from the Karelian village of Vuokkiniemi between 1821 and 1921, with the specific research ‘problem’ being the connection between this Kalevala-metre poetry and the lives of its makers and singers. The 631 pages that make up this study, however, will immediately allay any apprehensions about limitation of scope, as does the breadth of discussion implied in the title. In fact, Vuokkiniemi was one of the most significant of Karelian villages to produce traditional Kalevala-metre poetry, visited extensively by Lönnrot and other collectors, and the century under consideration marks the whole period during which such verse was gathered – and copiously – from there. Particular difficulties have to be faced with the specific research topic, the contextualising of the verse in terms of the singers’ lives, in that it was rarely a topic of any great interest at the time of collection; nonetheless, this has been a concern within Finnish folk poetry research for some time now (as Tarkka outlines) – yet the present investigation surely outdoes any other in the depth and breadth of its coverage of this topic and the well-grounded approach that is adopted in treating it, and this alone will make it a classic study for many years to come.

The study is divided into twelve main chapters (with many subchapters within each), the titles of which will indicate something of the range of topics considered, which in fact encompass many of the main themes of Finnish folk poetry research: Introduction – Vuokkiniemi 1821–1921 – Rune-singing in Vuokkiniemi – An intertextual reading of oral poetry – Metapoetic reflections – Epic representation of song and knowledge – Matters of Origins – Courtship as social drama – Forest and village – This world and the other – Between two worlds – Conclusions. Many of the topics have been discussed in recent years in greater depth elsewhere (e.g. the importance of väki forces in Finnish/Karelian tradition, for example by Laura Stark, or the role of the tietäjä, discussed by Siikala and others), but the present study is perhaps unique in synthesising the extensive and excellent research that has been undertaken in Finland and elsewhere as far as it is relevant to folk poetry research; a fair amount of this research is, regrettably, still available only in Finnish. Tarkka adopts the approach of dealing with all the verse from one place, rather than seeking song lines within individual clans: we are thus presented with the whole tradition of one place, the focus being on the poetry produced there, but in fact the study encompasses many aspects of folk life, without which an understanding of the verse is impossible.

The value of contextualisation

It is this contextualising approach, applied to a whole tradition within a defined area, that marks this study out as so valuable: we are able to see the workings of the verse that inspired the Kalevala (and the fervent nineteenth-century field-work collection that followed) far more objectively, from a perspective informed by a familiarity with the cultural milieu that produced it, than was ever possible through the blinkered viewpoint of national romanticism, which extended in some form well into the 1960s. The present study, it is true, deals only with the tradition of Vuokkiniemi, which forms but a small portion of recorded Finnish/Karelian traditional verse; nonetheless, the approach and findings will certainly be relevant, directly or indirectly, to much of the rest of the tradition recorded in other areas, as a sort of metonymic pars pro toto. It sums up how we need to approach traditional Kalevalaic poetry in the light of modern research.

Apart from the metapoetics, the contextualisation of the poetry in the culture, the book’s great strength is the systematic pursuit of aspects of intertextuality. The concept is essentially simple (and I found the initial discussion, drawing in Bakhtin etc., rather unnecessarily laboured): texts, be they written or oral, allude to others, and cite from them or draw from a common pool of expression, in a way that links them into a network. The ramifications are, however, immense. Tarkka has, in my view, made a major contribution in her presentation of a number of ways in which the many genres of folk poetry display aspects of intertextuality – a topic that has previously not been specially worked out in respect to this sort of material, not least because it demands a familiarity with a wide-ranging corpus of texts, and an understanding of the cultural significance of many motifs. I can only pick one or two examples here, but it should be emphasised that the book is replete with many more, the discussion of which significantly adds to our understanding of the workings of Finnish/Karelian folk poetry. A straightforward example would be the way in which a bride, passing from one world (of home) to another, is seen as ‘dying’, so the wedding rites may be presented as a funeral, using imagery and lines from funeral songs; and conversely, a funeral as a wedding. We have, throughout the book, beautiful nuggets, like the observation that a new bride’s life, under her mother-in-law’s thumb (a social position well illustrated with an old photograph), was indeed so miserable that young mothers would sing a lullaby to baby girls hoping that they would rather become brides of Manala, Death. The link between weddings and funerals is found, in more complex form, in bear-hunting rites; the bear wake was both a funeral, and, more obviously, a wedding. Although Tarkka’s treatment hardly covers all that can be said on this topic, it is full of insight and interest. Her analysis of the changing gender roles of the bear, depending on the specific part of the ritual, is particularly illuminating. Also fascinating is the intertextual spin-off, in which wooing is seen as a hunt: young men would visit ‘girl forests’, i.e. festivals, in search of a mate, and return after gaining their booty, acting as if returning from the hunt. And again we have one of the little nuggets, the comic verses which invert the gender and other roles of the hunt, in which female genitalia go in search of a penis, with all the hunt imagery being brought into play (inverting what occurs in the hunting verses, which use sexual images). These brief mentions scarcely do the topic of intertextuality justice: it requires a fair amount of space to present in any meaningful way, but, as noted, it is one of the book’s greatest strengths.

A few flaws, and comments on perspective

Tarkka’s study is not, for me at least, one that shouts out with obvious flaws. There are just a few practical annoyances. I sometimes found arguments difficult to follow, in terms of grasping what weight Tarkka was giving to different elements; this may perhaps be a translation issue relating to structuring. Quite separately, arguments sometimes seemed a little dubious; for example, it seems rather rich to attempt to undermine Arhippa Perttunen’s remarks on the decline in song quality since previous generations, citing Siikala’s observation that Lönnrot arrived in Vuokkiniemi at the height of the singing tradition – an assertion impossible to verify, as we effectively have no evidence for the tradition earlier on other than this very remark of Perttunen’s, which does not support the idea. At other times, there are gaps in arguments: the reader, when told merely that the hunter’s blue eyebrows as he returns from the bear hunt are a mark of his physical attractiveness, could be forgiven for thinking that nineteenth-century Vuokkiniemi had anticipated the penchant for punk hair-styles by a good century, whereas in fact it is a symbol of contact with the otherworld – which has been an important point of discussion in the preceding argument regarding the bear hunt. There has grown up a custom in Finland of giving the original texts only of displayed verse citations; but in the present study, it would have been a real benefit to have run-on citations presented in the original as well, especially given the detailed arguments about intertextuality. The titles of Finnish poems should also have been given in the original; in fact a catalogue of them is needed, with titles in Finnish and English, along with their Suomen Kansan Vanhat Runot (or other) reference – as things stand, some are neither listed in the Index, nor referenced, and the reader is confronted with unnecessary difficulties in tracing the texts which form the core research material of the study. Similarly, titles of archives should be given in Finnish as well as English, for practical reasons. While the English generally reads fairly well, and it is indeed quite an achievement to translate this mittava teos, there is a fair scatter of words misspelled or wholly misused, or generally just odd (e.g. ‘lucid hero’ – he sounds like he can explain things well, but in fact this should be just ‘real hero’ or ‘clearly a hero’, selvä uros), along with occasional grammatical and other errors.

A further matter, of rather more significance, should also be raised. This is not by way of criticism of the present study, as it falls outside its ambit – though that is precisely the point of mentioning this. The earlier romantic approach to folk poetry, and subsequent approaches lasting up to the time of Haavio and even Kuusi, were historically based, viewing folk poetry as ancient fragments of much older poetry: the focus was on this distant past, rather than the cultures that actually sang the songs. Since the very firmly synchronic approach of scholars such as Lauri Honko from the 1960s on, Finnish (and other) folklore research has undergone a volte face; this has been accompanied by a formal separation between folkloristics and comparative religion. Yet for those of us who (still) try to encompass both fields, and whose focus is on past cultures, the traditional historically oriented approach had much to offer. The present study is typical of modern Finnish research in being wholly uninterested in the historical development of the poetic or belief traditions from the time before the period under consideration. In many ways this puts things the right way round, after the strangely inverted interests of the national romantics, seeking after what had disappeared and ignoring what was before them: if we are to seek out a deep historical vista, we first need to establish the existing cultural context. If, for example, we are to continue to argue that the sampo originated as some sort of world pillar, the term being borrowed from the proto-Indo-Iranians dwelling on the steppe (a matter left entirely out of the discussion by Tarkka), then the understanding of the sampo’s role as a symbol of the regulation of fertility in the fields of Vuokkiniemi (delved into by Tarkka) needs to be our starting point, to work out how the symbol’s meaning may have been adapted over the centuries; and the sort of synchronic contextualisation of the image that Tarkka offers needs to serve as a model for past ages too, even if such discussions are necessarily speculative. It is to be hoped that some day the pendulum may swing back a little, to produce rather more nuanced approaches to historical origins; at least we have movements such as the Retrospective Methodology Network that do focus on such questions.

Nonetheless, I will conclude by emphasising that Tarkka’s work is an indispensable magnum opus for anyone interested in Finnish/Karelian folk poetry and folk traditions, and indeed for researchers into folk poetry more generally. It is fortunate that such a valuable work has been made available to a much wider readership through its translation into English. The approach is to an extent summative of other Finnish research, but it is also innovative in its own right, and in fact exciting to read – though it is full of such riches that I would not necessarily recommend reading it in one go (as I did for this review). And the book is accompanied by a large selection of aptly chosen classic photographs, showing both people discussed and cultural mores.


D.Phil. (Oxon.) Clive Tolley is a docent in the folkloristics department of Turku University, specialising in medieval Scandinavian pre-Christian religious traditions, Siberian shamanism, and traditional poetry.