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Just to be clear, none of the bullet points in the strip actually happened.

I’m not saying that Väinämöinen, hero of the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, is a sissy. I’m just saying that compared to the heroes of other cultures, he may look a little…dainty.

I am kidding, of course. My sincere apologies to Finland, you know I love you guys and your national epic.

Väinämöinen, the eternal bard, has cropped up in the strip before, as has the smith, Ilmarinen. He is, to say the least, a different kind of hero. While the strip may paint him in a comical light, he’s really quite interesting. Unlike most other heroes, his quest isn’t merely to kill a bunch of monsters or set some political wrong to rights. Rather, the majority of the Kalevala is about the trials he suffers in search of companionship. His quest is, in many ways, much more human than the stories of his fictional peers. Heracles, despite the superhuman strength, does suffer from his own failings and his own human trials, but there’s something we can relate to very easily in Väinämöinen. All he wants is to be loved.

Of course, the trials of Väinämöinen are, by no means, simple ones. He is constantly traveling, running into some nasty situations here and there, being stuck at sea, getting into deals with sketchy witches, and there is some fighting. The character himself, however, is drawn more toward the magical, toward singing, and toward wisdom.

There is a little confusion about Väinämöinen, however. He seems to have been a god of sorts for the Finnish people before the Kalevala was compiled from oral stories and written down in the 1800’s by Elias Lonnrot. With the writing of the tale, however, he became something different. Not quite a man, not quite a god, and with some interesting parallels to the figure of Jesus in the Bible, particularly in his claim that he shall return to the land of Finland at some unspecified date after he departs the world at the end of the story.

Either way, it’s still a very interesting read with some lovely language use, though many editions can be difficult to follow if you’re not paying attention. This ain’t Harry Potter.

Väinämöinen is an intriguing figure and he is a uniquely Finnish creation. The emphasis on magic and singing in the stories sets him apart from other heroes and it is his wisdom, his wit, and his magic that secure his victories. As with other great heroes (like Heracles), he is also deeply flawed. The end of his adventure isn’t exactly a happy one, but it is poignant and powerful, nonetheless.

I realize that schools today (here in the US) don’t necessarily have time to teach world mythology or poetry beyond a few tidbits here and there, but it has long struck me as a little sad that many people in the US and Europe are completely unaware of the existence of this book. The stories of Heracles or Jason and the Argonauts are wonderful, to be sure, and we owe a great deal to the Greeks (in literature, government, and philosophy), but their tales are, in many ways, inherently familiar to us. They are the basis for many of the modern stories we tell today. Reading the Kalevala, on the other hand, or even just familiarizing oneself with the basic plot, is a different experience entirely. It is, in many ways, a European book, it features many of the literary devices we are familiar with but the characters and the atmosphere are unique and beautiful. They are at once familiar and alien.

There’s something terribly pleasing about that.

Hopefully, some time in the future, we will come to appreciate the mythologies of the world more and to view the literature that surrounds them as valuable to the minds of students. I remember being in English classes for four long years and the times I felt most interested were those in which we discussed mythology. Maybe I’m completely off here, but it seemed my peers also brightened up a bit during those lectures.

Maybe the spirit of old Väinämöinen, the eternal bard, could lift children from their boredom-induced comas and breathe a little life into the class room.

If anyone could, I think it’d be him.

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