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  • Songs of the Border People: Genre, Reflexivity, and Performance in Karelian Oral Poetry by Lotte Tarkka
  • Carl Rahkonen
Songs of the Border People: Genre, Reflexivity, and Performance in Karelian Oral Poetry. By Lotte Tarkka. Trans. Leila Virtanen. (Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 2013. FF Communications No. 305. Pp. 631, acknowledgments, introduction, bibliography, sources, indexes, 46 photographs.)

The Finns have had a long history of folklore research, much of which has focused on Kalevala meter poetry. In the nineteenth century, the Finns developed the historic-geographic method to analyze this poetry. After more than a century of textual analysis, we might think that there is nothing new to learn, but Lotte Tarkka’s book Songs of the Border People proves that the study of Kalevala meter poetry is still a rich field of inquiry. This book is an excellent English translation of her 2005 doctoral dissertation, especially considering the complexity of the language of the dissertation. The poems themselves are in Karelian dialect, and the book includes both the original language and English translations.

Tarkka develops a continuing trend in Finnish folklore research to learn as much as possible about the lives of the rune-singers from an analysis of their poetry, together with existing ethnographic descriptions. A central thesis of the book is to explore “how . . . poetry—the verbal and the imaginary [is]—related to reality”; as she explains: “For the wordsmiths of Vuokkiniemi, Archangel Karelia, the dilemma was effectively summed up . . . in a proverb: ‘The things I put into words, I make real’” (p. 19).

Tarkka’s study is narrowly focused, considering the Kalevala-meter rune-singing and poetry from the Archangel Karelian parish of Vuokkiniemi during a 100-year span from 1821– 1921. The total body of texts amounts to nearly 3,000 individual items made up of epic poems, incantations, spells, lyric poems, aphorisms, singers’ opening formulae, wedding songs, bear ritual songs, lullabies, children’s rhymes, and various other genres in Kalevala meter.

The first three chapters set the stage for the textual analyses that follow. Tarkka describes [End Page 225] the Vuokkiniemi culture from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the people and their livelihoods, their religious traditions, and their understanding of the outside world. They had a Karelian identity, rather than Russian or Finnish. In chapter 4, Tarkka offers “an inter-textual reading of oral poetry” through which she is able to discover how these poems reflect the lives, beliefs, and worldviews of the singers. In the broadest terms, she is able to discover the “contexts” of the poems. She explains: “As in any study based on archival documents, context is here largely a matter of reconstruction and interpretation: it is a hypothetical relationship between the text and a set of meaningful environments perceived by the scholar” (p. 79). She situates this methodology within the tradition of Finnish folklore research as well as international studies using textual analysis. It both complements and challenges genre analysis (p. 94) and is founded upon the rune-singing culture’s social foundation (p. 101).

Chapter 5 considers the self-reflective or meta-poetic aspects of the Vuokkiniemi corpus, which particularly come to light in poems about the sage or singer, in those containing spells or incantations, and those about the act of singing itself. The meta-poetic or meta-folkloric themes show the rune-singing culture’s representation of itself and its belief in the power of singing. Karelians believed in and respected sages and believed in the magic embodied in rune-singing. The poems became empowered through performance. Songs about singing describe how the songs were sung and in what contexts, and contain metaphoric language as well as language describing what existed in reality.

In chapter 6, Tarkka takes a closer look at epic songs, specifically those dealing with the magical power of singing. She describes how these poems relate to the actual practices of singers and sages, examining “The Song of Vipunen,” “The Journey to Tuonela,” and “The Knee Wound” in detail. Epics were most typically performed at festive social occasions, especially those involving drinking, which is reflected in poems such as “Lemminkainen’s Song” and “The Birth of Ale.” Väinämöinen’s voice lends...


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