As a gifted and prolific philologist, J. R. R. Tolkien had great love of languages. During his life he studied many tongues of old: Gothic, Old English, Old Norse, and for Tolkien the languages were closely connected with the tales of the people who spoke them. Those tongues and tales influenced him, all in different ways, but one thing remains: Tolkien realised very well that language and mythology form one inseparable whole, and this interdependence permeates his own mythology of Middle-earth which rose out of his invented language.

Apart from old languages, there is a modern one and a collection of national tales that are often overlooked or their influence on Tolkien is underestimated. The language is Finnish and the collection is Kalevala.

Kalevala is a set of poems collected, compiled and published by Elias Lönnrot from oral Finnish and Karelian folklore in XIX century. Apart from collecting the poems, Lönnrot also put them in the form of a consistent narrative, which was not an easy thing to do and thus explains some inconsistencies in the plot. It was a very important step in the formation of Finnish culture and the identity of the Finns as people. Though Kalevala is not the only example of Finnish folklore literature, it is certainly one of the most important, as it appeared in the period that was crucial for the whole nation.

Tolkien first read Kalevala in W. F. Kirby’s translation in 1911 when he was at King Edward’s School. The poems, or runos, enchanted him immediately, for they were very unusual, very different from what young Tolkien had encountered before. In his paper on Kalevala Tolkien confessed that its “newness worried” him, but the more he read Kalevala, the more he “felt at home” there. A peculiar wild, primitive atmosphere of the tales with their inconsistencies and exaggerations was what attracted Tolkien so much: Kalevala felt “un-European, and yet could only come from Europe”:

The colours, the deeds, the marvels, the figures of the heroes are all splashed onto a clean bare canvas by a sudden hand; even the legends concerning the origin of the most ancient things in the world seem to come fresh from the singer’s hot imagination of the moment.

(Story of Kullervo, p. 109)

Tolkien used this beautiful quotation to describe how fresh and sudden Kalevala felt in comparison to other mythologies. Most of them had lost a sense of novelty and spontaneity through alterations and editing processes to make their tales appear more reasonable or sensible. Kalevala has a very different air, possessing what Tolkien called “untarnished freshness”. These poems were not tempered with: the tales of Kalevala were published unpolished, unchanged — they remained essentially themselves on publication.

Kalevala enchanted Tolkien, so in order to properly feel its flavour, he attempted to learn Finnish. In 1912, when he was supposed to be working hard for his Honour Moderations, Tolkien was instead getting acquainted with Finnish equipped with A Finnish Grammar that he had borrowed from Exeter College library. In the now often quoted words describing Tolkien’s acquaintance with Finnish, the Professor famously said:

It was like discovering a complete wine-cellar filled with bottles of an amazing wine of a kind and flavour never tasted before. It quite intoxicated me …

(Letters, № 163)

Finnish was as different from all the languages Tolkien knew as Kalevala was different from the tales he read. The language was an absolutely new territory for Tolkien, belonging to the Finno-Ugric group rather than the very familiar to Tolkien Germanic one. Everything about it was new and fresh: the grammar, the syntax, the morphology, the very sound of the language. A “flexible fluid unfixed state” of Finnish impressed Tolkien: he called it an odd language, but with the word “odd” meaning “different to what is usual or expected” (OED), it is indeed a compliment that describes Finnish very well.

Tolkien was very modest concerning his success at learning Finnish. He stated that he was “at first repulsed with heavy losses”, but still managed to “plod through” some portions of the original. In any case, Finnish had a great influence on Tolkien. It helped him grasp the very air of Kalevala, and he found the tales and the language very fitting for each other in air. Tolkien disliked Kirby’s translation, but one of the major reasons for that was obviously plain: English and Finnish are very different languages in their core, so a precise, adequate translation is impossible due to their fundamental differences.

The sound of Finnish especially attracted Tolkien. Because of dominating vowels and soft consonants this language sounds like music: there is melody even in common, everyday sentences when no poetry is intended. Finnish flows smoothly, graciously, reminding of the music of water. The Professor believed that it was very difficult to make Finnish sound more beautiful because beauty is its default quality:

Indeed it suffers like many languages of its type from an excess of euphony; so much so that the music of the language is liable to be expended automatically, and leave over no excess with which to heighten the emotion of a lyric passage.

(Story of Kullervo, p. 115)

Though considered by many a very difficult language to learn, Finnish sounds so beautiful that it makes the effort of learning it worthwhile. With such a phonetic quality the language was bound to impress Tolkien, who had an acute sense of phonaesthetics, was very perceptive to how a language sounded. Encountering Finnish turned Tolkien’s own language creation upside down: instead of making a language with a Germanic feel, he turned to constructing one with a Finnish flavour. That was how Quenya was born.

The language of the High-Elves can be none other than euphonic. Having come through several stages of changes, both — in Tolkien’s own imagination and in the natural historical process reconstructed by the author for the language, Quenya was the tongue of daily converse in Aman and was later brought to Middle-earth by the exilic Noldor. Following Thingol’s ban on the open use of Quenya, it came to be the language of learning and manuscripts used among the lords of the Noldor. Quenya is predominantly Finnish in phonetics and character: its sound is also based on vowels and soft consonants, the language has complex morphology and the syntax is similar to that of  Finnish.

Both, Kalevala and the Finnish language had a profound effect on Tolkien’s mythology. They became the germ of Middle-earth that set the grand wheel of the Legendarium in motion. It was Finnish that inspired the High-Elven tongue: its beauty enchanted Tolkien and still keeps on enchanting many students of languages, the author of this blog included. If you ask me what language the Elves in our world speak, I can definitely say that it is Finnish.

Works consulted:

  1. H. Carpenter – The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien; with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2012 (Kindle edition).
  2. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Story of Kullervo (edited by Verlyn Flieger); HarperCollinsPublishers; 2015.

Featured image: Kullervon sotaanlähtö by Akseli Gallen-Kallela.

21 thoughts on “In the Land of Heroes: Tolkien, Kalevala and Finnish.

  1. Soft consonants. I can recall only one case in which the distinction between hard and soft consonants was important in English. When you’re naming a dog, it’s best to use hard consonants — they are stronger in the high frequencies that dogs like hearing.

    So now I know why Huan left Valinor and followed Celegorm to Middle-earth!

  2. Finnish and the Kalevala have always come to me through the music of Sibelius. Actually I think that I need to say that they have only come to me that way. Sibelius seems to take me to a wild and empty land and it is in the north. Far, far in the north.

      1. I would recommend his Leminkainnen Legends to kick off. Wonderful music! And then his Kullervo symphony. The choral singing seems to reach into the heart of the text. Do let me know how if you find them when you do listen to them. I would be really interested to know how a student of the Finnish language and the heroic tales finds them. For a non specialist like me it is the way that Sibelius seems to reach into my inner being that makes him so effective as a communicator.

  3. I studied Finnish for 2 years in grad school. I can definitely see its influences on Quenya, and I agree it is one of the most beautiful and underrated languages out there. People always say French is pretty, but I actually think it sounds kind of ugly – it has the same guttural R and umlauted vowel sounds that people often say makes German sound harsh. Finnish is much nicer. I also think Hawaiian is a beautiful language, and it is also made up of vowels and soft consonants. Go figure!

    1. It’s a fascinating language to study, isn’t it? There’s something in Finnish that makes it very unusual and appealing, very different from other languages.
      I think that those who have created that opinion about French had definitely never encountered Finnish 😀

  4. Re: Tolkien’s description of _Kalevala_ as “un-European, and yet could only come from Europe,” It occurs to me that the newness and strangeness of _Kalevala_ and the Finnish language must have had the same effect on Tolkien that he describes fantasy as having in “On Fairy-Stories”: an “arresting strangeness”, leading him to a recovery of a clear view of European language and myth.

    I daresay the familiar — European language/myth, whose mysteries Tolkien probably felt he had thoroughly explored — became unfamiliar again to him when he came face-to-face with an unrelated non-Indo-European language/myth tucked away in Northern Europe, the place he identified so strongly with.

    1. It’s a wonderful comparison, Shawn! I think you’re right here: the feeling must have been exactly like this. Learning Finnish, I can tell you that it does feel strange, weird, new and very fresh in comparison with the two foreign (for me) languages that I speak: English and German. When I first began Finnish, I could virtually feel my brain working. It was and still is a venture out of my comfort zone: you feel uncomfortable, but can’t quit the language.
      I believe it was very similar for the Professor in his encounter with Finnish and Kalevala.

  5. Fantastic post!
    I know very little about the Kalevala, though I learn something from a friend who read it and researched it.
    And I do agree, Finnish (and many other Northern European languages – I’m thinking about Icelandic for example) have a fantastic sound. Years ago, I studied the history of Vikings for sometimes, and I ended up thinking that with those awesome names, of course there would be stories 😉

    1. Thank you!
      Languages are such a wonderful reflection of those who speak them. Finnish is so unusual — it feels almost alien. Its grammar, syntax, morphology are so different from what I’m used to. Icelandic is terrific, too. If I ever decide to learn yet another foreign language, it’ll be Icelandic 😁

  6. As a Finn I do understand how difficult language it is to learn just by our Finnish studies regarding grammar, although pronouncing is very consistent unlike in English. Although it seems still that most people learning Finnish won’t learn the pronunciation easily without an accent probably since it’s rather different.

    Since Finnish is normal for me I prefer elvish to me to be more “odd”. For example as I understand Quenya ought to have k in some words but c as cs sounds more beautiful to me and it’s not in Finnish so more unique. For example Maglor’s fathername Kanafinwe would sound better to me as Canafinwe (in large part also due to kana meaning chicken, and another fun fact, Nolofinwe means Embarrassing Finwe). There k is spelled so can’t be helped but in many words that are c I prefer it soft.

    Also the language used in Kalevala is very unusual even by poetic standards these days, so I wonder what Tolkien thought of more modern Finnish (well modern in 20th century).

    1. Thank you for your insights on the Finnish language! I’m learning it (albeit very slowly), and I find it both difficult and fascinating. The effort made is totally worth it. I do love many vowel sounds: there’s so much melody in it.
      I wonder that, too. Tolkien seemed to have a soft sport for older versions of languages, so I’m not sure what he would think of the modern version of Finnish.

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