What do you know about Finland or its literature? Have you ever read a book written in or about Finland? Most likely it’s a topic you have never even considered, unless you are either Finnish or Scandinavian.
Perhaps because of its pristine landscape, or the tendency of its residents toward verbal restraint, Finland has an understated national character that has kept generally out of the international limelight. Aside from being known for sauna, the northern lights, and the home of Santa Claus, its virtues have been relatively unknown by the outside world.
However, this largely forested country has much to offer in the way of culture and literature. Its language has developed since ancient times, and now represents a growing literary entity on the world stage.
First Known Finnish Text
The earliest text ever found in a Finnic language is the “Birch bark letter no. 292,” found in Novgorod, Russia in 1957. This document was written in a very old form of Finnish. It dates back to the beginning of the 13th century and reads (with rough English translation):
“God’s arrow, ten [is] your name
This arrow is God’s own
The Doom-God leads.”
Since the time of this letter’s creation, Finnish literary works have emerged to cover many styles and genres, both uniquely Finnish and of universal appeal. Let’s journey through Finnish history by means of 5 books to help us discover more about the Finnish literary voice.
1. Ancient Finnish – The Kalevala
The Kalevala is Finland’s most famous book of poetry. Its contents are ancient in origin, having accumulated through centuries of oral tradition. It was compiled by Elias Lönnrot and published in 1835, from Karelian and Finnish oral folklore and mythology. This epic work of poetry has influenced the art and music of Finland ever since. The famed Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (who wrote the Finnish national anthem) composed multiple musical works based on it (read about that HERE).
Before the 1800s, Finnish was a fairly obscure language for two reasons. First, that the literary tradition from the neolithic to the modern age was mainly shared verbally in the form of poems and songs, between the country people. They told stories. And sang. A lot. And secondly, because the Finnish nation was ruled by other sovereignties at different times, during which the Finnish language was repressed. Swedish was the literary language of Finland for many years, until 1809 when Russia fought Sweden for control of Finland. Then it became part of the Russian Empire.
Luckily, nationalism and the Finnish language were strongly encouraged under Russian rule in the 19th century. This rebirth of Finnish culture brought on a flood of ancient literature publication from what had been largely obscured during Swedish rule. While most Finnish language literature before 1800 was religious, this rebirth also brought back into public awareness the worldview of the original Finns.
Considered the quintessential Finnish national epic, the Kalevala gives us a glimpse into the ancient Finnish pre-Christian world by means of Finnic mythology. The heroes of the stories are shaman figures who hold magical powers that flow through nature and are controlled by those who are knowledgeable and skilled in poetry!
Some Viking influence is also found in the Kalevala.
2. Finnish Industrialization – Seven Brothers by Aleksis Kivi
The first novel published in Finnish was Seven Brothers (1870) by Aleksis Kivi (1834–1872), which is still considered to be one of the greatest of all works of Finnish literature. As was the case in the United States and Europe in the 19th century, industrialization in Finland began to make the novel a popular art form, and this novel was written right at that time.
Many of the first Finnish novels deal with the life of the modern middle-class. They often show the clash of traditional peasant life with modern technological developments such as the railway. Seven Brothers focuses on the struggle of uneducated peasants to survive under the onset of developing urbanization – a common theme in Finnish novels. You could well call Aleksis Kivi ‘the Charles Dickens of Finland.’
3. Post-War Finland – The Moomins by Tove Jansson
Perhaps the most famous works from Finland on the world stage are the Moomin books by writer Tove Jansson. Well known all over Europe as children’s stories about the hippo-like creatures who live human-like lives, the Moomins were first published in 1945 as children’s prose, but were later released in comic strip and cartoon forms during the 1960s and 1970s. A cartoon series of the Moomins was produced for television in Poland, Austria, Germany and the UK in the late 70s and early 80s, and is still still airs frequently in Europe.
Jansson wrote these books in Swedish, which was still a dominant literary language in Finland, but they have since been translated into multiple languages and have been enjoyed by many generations all over the world. You can read more about the history of the Moomin books HERE.
4. Contemporary Works – My First Murder by Leena Lehtolainen
Contemporary literary works of Finland have become increasingly more international in themes and distribution. One good example is My First Murder by Leena Lehtolainen, which is Book One of an extensive crime series featuring the Helsinki police detective Maria Kallio.
We’ve been reading this book in February as part of our online book club ‘Travel Europe Through Books.’ It follows a genre and style that’s well known in the rest of the world–crime investigation–in both books and film. The Maria Kallio mysteries are a popular TV series in Finland and other parts of Europe.
Though international in many ways, this book also incorporates some interesting features of Finnish culture. The foreign reader of this book learns more about Finnish food and social norms, the Finnish landscape, and classical Finnish literature. In Chapter 9 of the book, Lehtolainen refers to a musical piece called “Song of My Heart,” written by Jean Sibelius. Its lyrics draw from the novel Seven Brothers, the classic Finnish novel mentioned (#2) above.
In 2014 Finland became better known as a literary country on the international stage when it was named guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Kalle Oskari Mattila wrote the following about it in The Paris Review, “Obscurity became Finland’s calling card…Finland had largely fallen off the trend of Nordic noir and crime writing, but that exclusion provided a new kind of branding opportunity: ambitious literary fiction.” By 2018, Finland was exporting three times as many books as it had in previous years.
Some of the most prominent Finnish writers of this century are Pajtim Statovci and Laura Lindstedt, both winners of the presigious Finlandia Prize. A thriving fandom scene in the late 20th century has also enabled Finland to become internationally known for its fantasy and science fiction.
Click on book image to read a sample.
5. An Outside View of Finland – The Lucky Finn by V M Karren
As Finland has been gaining recognition in foreign literary circles, its fascinating landscape and unique culture have been capturing the imaginations of foreign writers.
One good example of a foreign work inspired by Finland is The Lucky Finn by American writer V M Karren. This myth-like novella tells the tale of a solitary Finnish woodsman in the early 20th century, whose interactions with mystical creatures and a pristine natural environment parallel the themes in the Kalevalla. One such creature featured in the book is a white reindeer, considered sacred in the Sámi culture of Lapland in northern Finland (read more about that HERE).
The recent Netflix film ‘Klaus’ shows further Finnish/nordic inspiration. Spanish director and screenwriter Sergio Pablos, who wrote the story, incorporated elements of Finland’s forested landscape and Lapland’s Sámi culture into the film. The young Sámi girl Márgu, who helps Jesper and Mr. Klaus carry out their mission to deliver gifts to the children, breaks the obscurity of the Sámi people who have rarely been portrayed on screen. (Read more about that HERE.)
The mythology from the ancient Finn’s Kalevala as well as the Sámi people of Lapland, the origin story of Santa Claus portrayed in the movie Klaus, and the modern fable of The Lucky Finn all share an important figure: the enchanted reindeer. It’s a character that has long captured the imagination of artists and the international public alike, especially at Christmastime. Santa’s village in Lapland has become a popular tourist destination, and reindeer are definitely part of the experience.
In our modern age the world is benefiting from new exposure into this northernmost region of the earth. Travel, new media, e-commerce, and book translation and distribution technology have delivered us a slice of Finland to tempt our already well-traveled palettes. We are discovering a new type of travel–adventure travel in Finland offers everything from dog sledding to ice hotels! We are benefitting from the tech-savvy innovators of this highly advanced nation, which ranked first in the world for technology in 2001, and has given us such tech gifts as internet browsers and SMS (texting). Now the world is discovering the thoughts and hearts of the Finns through their books and films (even Angry Birds is Finnish!).
It’s nice to discover something new and unique, a detour from the ever popular Paris or New York. How will we synthesize what we learn about Finland into our international consciousness?
That remains to be seen.