A symposium commemorating the bicentennial of Elias Lönnrot’s birth, November 1–3, 2002 at the Kalevala Institute, University of Turku

by Lauri Honko, Director, Kalevala Institute, University of Turku

Authorship is no problem in the case of a literary epic. The writer is master of the plot, the materials to be used and the meanings to be constructed. Textuality, i.e. the cohesion of the story to be told is solely his/her responsibility. In so far as there may be literary models and intertextuality at play, the extent to which they will be followed is decided by the author without much immediate pressure from the audience, for example, be it real and well-defined or ideal and imagined.

The parameters change when we move to oral and tradition-oriented epics. Both must meet the criteria of traditionality as set by the audience at an oral performance or by a wider community receiving the epic. In the case of an epic rendered orally, the focus is on the situation of performance and the immediate reception within it. Close documentation (as such an alien feature in an oral culture) is necessary to prevent the performance from disappearing without a trace. The document, be it a notebook, soundtape or film, will provide an entry to the textual world of the oral singer and the mental text he/she utilised in performing the particular epic under scrutiny.

The dependence of a singer’s mental text upon other singers’ mental texts of the same story is a matter of conjecture but basically all mental texts are individual and private. Long oral epics cannot be copied orally, and even if they could, the singers would refuse to do it. They depend heavily on their own epic idiolect in the actual performance, which they construct on the basis of their own vision of the story, i.e. its textuality. Yet they are not free to do things that clearly deviate from “traditionality” as sensed by their audience. The private text must, at the moment of its performance, pass the public test, the social control of the group receiving the epic.

So long as oral epics are allowed to vanish without a trace after their performance or become hazy memories to be used selectively at best, there is no problem of authorship. The singer is the only candidate for the job. He/she is the only possessor of the mental text on which a particular performance was based and he utilised his editorial and performative powers when adapting the oral narrative to a special social situation. The singer may vehemently deny his ownership in view of the need to defend the traditionality and “truth” of the epic. Without the singer’s personal interpretation of the epic, however, it is not possible to postulate why the audience should accept a particular performance as the correct and probably the best available telling of the story. Epics are “songs of truth” and their events easily attain religious importance or are otherwise socially sacred. Only a competent singer can vouch that the events narrated actually took place just as he reported, i.e. the “truth” of the song is primarily his and he must be able to defend it, should the audience pose questions.

Quite often scholars are eager to see “collective tradition” as the only true source of the epic they witness, i.e. they put greater importance on “tradition” than on its performance. On the textual level, however, such a focus misses the point. It may be understandable in its context, for an epic really needs the authority of tradition, be it based on the claimed historicity of epic events or just on references to ancient tradition within the community. The “disclaimer of ownership” is in fact a tradition, too, followed by most singers of epics both in illiterate and literate cultural contexts. A South-Indian singer of epics admits that he has drawn the models and materials of his epic from many sources, yet he claims no authorship of the final product. The people of 13th century Passau probably knew the name of the singer of the Nibelungenlied but it went to oblivion and is not known to us. Elias Lönnrot put his initials on the cover of the Kalevala in the early days of the textualisation process but they disappeared from it later, and somewhat paradoxically, because his personal poetic grip of the epic grew tighter toward the end.

Scholars who want to underline the difference between oral and literary creativity even at points where it is less necessary may wish to minimise the impact of an individual creator of a text, i.e. the singer, on the final form. They seem to fear that the oral/literary borderline will be critically endangered if we accept the artistic quality of the singer’s work. Performers should remain safekeepers and transmitters of tradition and nothing more. The moment we apply concepts such as “author”, “artist” or “copyright” to oral singers and oral works, the somewhat mystical power of tradition tends to diminish. All that has been written on performance by folklorists during the past three decades may not have been sufficient to eliminate this stereotype.

However absurd it may sound, it is always possible to speak of “a tradition” in a way which either suppresses or marginalises its actual producer/performer. Yet, if we try to specify other shareholders of authorship beyond the singer of an oral epic, we will face great difficulties in pinpointing the “creators” of the story or the “owners” of the tradition which surrounds it. The empirical materials may be scanty and the theoretical alternatives few. Should we think about individual “teachers of tradition” and the learning processes involved, or should we simply stamp traditions as a property of the community in which they have been maintained? Since variation, not copying, is the true nature of oral tradition, neither “teachers” nor “communities” can be made responsible for the actual text world of epics.

Interestingly, the difference between oral and non-oral epics seems to be brought about by the creation of documents on oral performances. So long as there are no documents, the oral singer reigns supreme over his epic performance. The moment a documentation by pen, soundtape or film catches a slice of oral performance, the epic is codified, however onesidedly. It is made to stop, stay as it was at that crucial moment of performance. Stoppage and reviewability are features totally alien to oral tradition, which must freely flow forward and develop.

Thanks to the document, a host of new shareholders of ownership begins to emerge. The singer goes his way and the living epic with him, but the document begins a peculiar life of its own. It can be stored, shown, published and modified in numerous new and non-traditional contexts by new transmitters and users. It is this ambience of “the second life of folklore” which will from now on determine what the documented epic will be: a dusty notebook or tape cassette forgotten on a bookshelf, an archived sample of tradition frequently shown to the public or used in teaching, or a material point of departure for a more ambitious editing of the tradition item for publication purposes.

It is here that we begin to need the term “tradition-oriented” (or simply “traditional”) epic. The link with tradition is not severed but the document will be moulded into an edited version. More importantly, it will be codified in terms of written culture. The purely oral existence of the traditions on which European traditional epics from Homer to Beowulf, the Nibelungenlied, Edda and the Kalevala were based is a matter of history and the dependence of these epics on “anterior speech” (Paul Ricoeur), i.e. oral tradition and telling, must be assessed in each case separately. A general history of epic textualisation must allow for great variety as far as collecting the materials and choosing the methods of editing and publication are concerned. Since the epic is an identity-bearing genre, the process is mostly politically implicated. Valuable parallels for textualisation histories can be found outside Europe, e.g. in Central Asia, India, Africa and Oceania, where oral epics are still alive and even “new” epics may be found, collected, archived and published.

For analytic purposes we must accept that the turning of oral and tradition-oriented epics from an epic idea into a performance and publication normally involves more than one actor. Such roles as the “poet”, “singer”, “scribe”, “collector”, “archivist”, “translator”, “editor” and “publisher” indicate the line of creation and codification through which, for example, an epic performance attains permanence and readability. The epic is a complex genre, able to consume many other genres and integrate them in its own discourse. The multifaceted process of textualisation adds to its individuality.

Even if the authorship is relatively easy to define in the case of a particular oral telling, publishing the performed oral text adds many shareholders to the process, by the end of which we have a book on our hands. Assessing the relationship of the book to a multivoiced performance characterised by multiple channels of expression from language to gesture, dance, drama and music is a complex but rewarding research task. Tradition-oriented epics may not possess an external point of departure such as oral epics seem to have in a single performance; instead, they enjoy a multiplicity of sources. Yet the mental text in the minds of an oral singer and an editor of traditional epic functions in a similar way as the backbone for composition. Regardless of the variety of cultural context in the making of epics, both oral and tradition-oriented epics expound a solidarity with and a respect for the epic tradition. Whatever artistic innovation there may be at play, it will never be emphasised at the cost of traditionality.

Obviously, if we wish to learn more about the epic-makers we must penetrate the smokescreen of “disclaimer of ownership” and try to locate all the individuals that joined the long process of making an oral text an object of intersemiotic translation for publication in a medium which is totally alien to its real life in the original culture.

In order to highlight these problems a SYMPOSIUM ON THE SINGER OF EPICS will be organised by the Kalevala Institute at the University of Turku on November 1–3, 2002 to commemorate the bicentennial of the “singer/scribe/compiler/author” of the Finnish national epic, Elias Lönnrot (1802–84). A doctor of medicine and a professor of Finnish language, he produced during 1833–62 five versions of the epic story, the Kalevala, on the basis of a multitude of oral epic poems in a relatively short format collected by himself and others from Finland, Karelia and Ingria. Although the focus will be on the epic singer in an international, comparative perspective, and even though a few Finnish and international scholars will speak on epic traditions outside Europe, many of the papers will deal with the Finnish and Eastern Baltic (Estonian, Setu) experience on epic materials. The working language will be Finnish. Two sessions have been reserved for papers in English. The deadline for preliminary registration is May 31, 2002.

The thematic structure of the symposium will be the following:

Friday, November 1



Speeches (Univ. of Turku, Organising Committee)
Kekri Day Prizes by the Kalevala Society, Helsinki
Epic singing performance
Keynote papers on Setu epic poetry and the singer of epics as a research problem


The epic universe (papers)

What traditions must exist before the idea of an epic can be born? There are regional tradition systems, individual singer repertoires and other elements which do not represent a chaotic mass but are organised into something we may call an epic universe. In it we find thematic order, cohesion of elements and interaction of interpretations; we may study the mythical sources of poetry, intertextual relations and competing epic visions. The Kalevala constitutes a universe of its own but behind it there are other epic universes. The comparison of tradition systems from this angle is just beginning.

Epic poetry defined by region, form and/or interpretation (panel)

If the epic universe is a universe of meaning and intertextual impact, what is the contribution of different genres to the pool of tradition? Should we look for regional tradition systems, generic interaction or construction of meaning in trying to pinpoint typically “epic” discourse? Can individual repertoires be considered as epic universes?

Saturday, November 2


The ethnopoetics of the Kalevala (papers)

The Kalevala is at the crossroads of oral and literary poetics but in what way is a question still to be explored. The tension between ethnopoetic systems and the ideals of literary aesthetics may be studied by analysing the reactions of oral singers to the texts included in the Kalevala, their assessments of each other’s performances, their poetic rules and means, often unverbalised but observable in their textual behaviour. One special problem is Elias Lönnrot’s ethnopoetically oriented system of tradition and its comparison to the tradition systems of oral singers.

The textualisation of the Kalevala (papers)

The composition of the Kalevala cannot be understood as a jig-saw puzzle of verse elicited from the epic poems of oral singers, as the source analysis of the Kalevala, proceeding mainly on the basis of individual lines, has claimed. The Kalevala must be seen through its five performances by Elias Lönnrot and the mental text of the Kalevala story developing in his mind. The epic is multi-generic, so one task is to study the integration of incantations, lyrical poems and wedding or bear-hunt songs into the main discourse. Another field is the textualisation of the personages, say, how Kalevanpoika (a giant) develops into the mythical Kullervo and eventually the tragic Kalervon poika, a topic immensely important in modern Finnish literature and art. Equally important are the technical aspects of textualisation: the role of Lönnrot’s note-taking technique, the multiple fair copying and the editorial decisions reflecting ideological, poetic and pragmatic concerns.


The long format of the oral epic (papers)

The Kalevala differs from oral poems most radically in its format; the latter are usually a couple of hundred lines while the New Kalevala is over 22,000. The ideal of a short format seems to prevail in all parts of the Baltic-Finnish region and the neighbouring Slavic tradition. Yet there are indications that the poems written down could be much longer, if sung freely and not dictated to a slow scribe stopping the singer at short intervals. Some poems are lists of contents rather than fully developed treatments of all the themes mentioned. An interesting region, and an example of the survival of a truly epic long format, is Setuland, and especially Anne Vabarna. In 1923 she sang a peculiar twin-epic, the “Maiden’s Death Song” and the “Great Wedding”, in which the parts have the same introduction (700 lines) and continue with different numbers of lines (1,000 + 5,000). A Finnish-Estonian team intends to publish this unique text for the symposium.

Baltic-Finnish ideals of epic form (panel)

Why is the short format so dominant in the Baltic-Finnish region? What is the attitude toward epic expression in other genres, in ballads, prose narratives, etc.? What has been the impact of note-taking and collecting in interview situations on the epic materials we have?

Sunday, November 3


The epic-maker as poet, singer, scribe and editor (papers)

The turning of oral and tradition-oriented epics from an epic idea into a performance and publication normally involves more than one actor. Such roles as the “poet”, “singer”, “scribe” and “editor” indicate the line of creation and codification through which, for example, an epic performance attains permanence and readability. Case-studies and comparative analyses of Central Asian and African epic-makers will be provided in this session. They will illustrate how other roles, such as “historian” or “scribe”, in a way compete with the epic singer.


Present-day epic singers (papers)

In the background of the great European epics from Homer to the Eddas we find oral traditions which ceased to exist while the epics became part of literature. The empirical backdrop of Kalevala poetry is about 150 years back in time. If European scholars wish to study empirically the oral composition of epics and their performance in appropriate cultural contexts, they must travel to Central Asia, India, Africa, The Philippines, Indonesia or Oceania for fieldwork. Interestingly, the Lönnrot experience may find parallels in distant cultures. Many an oral epic has a textualisation history comparable, at least in part, to that of the Kalevala. Examples from South India and Central Asia will illustrate this point.

Tasks in the comparative research on oral and traditional epics (panel)

What are the imminent tasks of comparative research on epics? What about saving the still existing but unexplored oral epics or, at least, representative samples of them from all areas still on the map of living epic traditions? How do empirical studies on epic composition help us to understand the making of oral-turned-literary classical epics or the oral traditions behind them? What are the special tasks awaiting one epic, say, the Kalevala, or the Setu epics? Should we engage in “research on research” and deconstruct the political and philosophical premises of epic research past and present? Is cooperation within scholarly networks, such as the Folklore Fellows in Oral Epics, of any use and if yes, how could it be improved?

For updated information, see www.kalevalainstituutti.fi

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This