Tales from a Finnish Tupa
It’s a frequently-cited notion that fairy tales and folk stories provide children with a sort of moral or educational compass. Don’t stray from the path. Don’t talk to strangers. Work hard and be honest. Don’t trust your stepmother. But while we may generally associate this literary form with children, it’s certainly one that continues to resonate with adult audiences. As the German poet Friedrich Schiller has been quoted as saying, “[d]eeper meaning resides in the fairy tales told to me in my childhood than in any truth that is taught in life.”
Tales from a Finnish Tupa, recently reissued in a lovely illustrated edition by The University of Minnesota Press, will certainly resonate with contemporary readers for its humorous anecdotes which value enchantment and practicality in equal measure. The collection, which includes over forty “Tales of Magic,” “Droll Stories,” and fables, reverberates with themes of kindness to those in need, self-sufficiency, and common sense—as well as frequent encouragements to take advantage of anyone who does not exhibit the aforementioned qualities.
In “The Ship that Sailed by Land and Sea,” a young chimney sweep accomplishes impossible feats and wins a princess’ hand in marriage—but only with the help of the many magical strangers who he helped while on his journey. (As in many folkloric traditions, there are, apparently, simply dozens of unwed princesses just waiting for a resourceful fellow to come along and free them from the evil spells that bind them or sweep them away from persnickety fathers.) “The End of the World,” will be familiar to those who grew up with “Henny Penny,” telling the story of a foolish brown hen who thinks the world is ending after she’s hit on the head with an acorn.
The importance of a strong work ethic and judiciousness comes across most clearly in the humorous tale of “The Wise Men of Holmola,” which introduces the residents of a village who are “quite different from the rest of the people in Finland, and rather queer in their ways.” The Holmolaiset, we’re told,
. . . were simple-minded and above all cautious. They liked to turn everything over very thoroughly in their minds before they came to any decision about it, and would make the most elaborate plans about even the simplest details of their daily life. When it came to any important question they would talk it over for weeks and months and even years, before they could make up their minds to act.
Egged on by a bemused stranger named Matti, the villagers allow their crops to go to waste and accidentally demolish their homes through their own foolish dithering. Their absurd demise serves as a humorous caution to those who would over-complicate even the most basic tasks.
Beyond considering the stories themselves, however, the collaborative authorship of this collection does need to be taken into account. There’s a fair amount of distance here from the original text: Tales from a Finnish Tupa is a reprint of an adaptation of a translation. The stories were translated by Aili Kolehmainen, for whom no biographical information is provided. (If Google can be trusted, though, Kolehmainen was also responsible for a prose translation of the Finnish epic poem Kalevala in 1950.) The translation was then co-adapted by James Cloyd Bowman, a children’s book author who was awarded the Newberry Honor Medal in 1938 for Pecos Bill: The Greatest Cowboy of All Time, and Margery Bianco, the author best known for The Velveteen Rabbit.
This adaptive approach is not problematic in itself—folk tales are part of a long oral tradition in which each new storyteller augments, edits, and personalizes familiar stories to suit his or her own preferences. However, without any contextual supplements—such as a scholarly introduction about Finnish literary traditions or information about how the stories in the collection came to be included—Tales from a Finnish Tupa feels somewhat isolated from its original material and fails to resonate as fully as it might otherwise.
Bowman’s brief Afterword on Finnish folk lore serves this purpose rather poorly, opting for generalizations about “a pastoral people” who, “[o]n the surface . . . were cold and inexpressive, and seemed as frozen over as their lakes in winter.” Given the lack of ready information (in English) about Finnish literature, and moreover, the scarcity of new Finnish translations, the omission of a more nuanced examination of the text is felt all the more acutely.
Tales from a Finnish Tupa nevertheless remains a welcome addition to the cannon of international folklore, a fanciful collection which might best be shared out loud on a cold winter’s night.