Welsh Dungeons and Finnish Dragons

Lucie wants to be a dragon when she grows up.

My kids play Dungeons and Dragons. It is the first thing they played together since the golden days of Star Wars Galactic Heroes invading Polly Pocket land, when they were about six and four. And it is glorious.

I had always thought, as a non-gamer-type, that those shelves of D&D books some of my friends had must have been full of rules and storylines. Otherwise, why would one need so many books? Then my kids started asking for Player’s Handbooks and Monster Manuals for holiday gifts. They’re not full of stories. They’re full of characters. You get to make up the stories.

My kids are all about stories.

The boyo started playing first, and when he brought in the girly, he helped her make her first character and get her head around the rules. It took hours, and it was adorable to watch. Her first character was a bard, and she wrote 20 different back stories, so she could roll a 20-sided die and tell a different version of herself to everyone she met.

The girly uses Finnish names when she’s making characters. When she was 7, and her principal suggested something to do about the “wonderful problem of your daughter” might be teaching her a foreign language after school, my daughter asked for Finnish. This probably has nothing at all to do with my reading her the Kalevala as a wee munchkin. The world will never know, really. But needless to say, I don’t speak Finnish, so that’s not what we did after school. But to her they sounded like magic, and they stuck. All the big players in the Kalevala have these long, thumping names: Vaїnӓmӧinen, Ilmarinen, Lemminkӓinen. They sound like a chant. She has never forgotten.

The boyo, who cut his teeth on fantasy video games and books, had hundreds of cool-sounding names at his fingertips. But when he wants to make a new character, he looks at Welsh stories. Welsh names are cool too: Pwyll. Culhwch. Blodeuedd. He may have run across a tattered copy of the Mabinogion in his youth. Realistically anything that looks hard to pronounce from Southern Californian English is fair game, but this is where they turn when they need to create.

Maybe before she grows up.

Because much of creating is starting from something and tweaking it. You have to have something to make art from. Sometimes it’s paint and canvas; sometimes it’s ink and paper; sometimes it’s Welsh folklore and a Character Sheet.

I’m thinking about creativity as I try to increase my output (summer is coming, after all). But it’s also creeping up on Mother’s Day, and I’ve been staring at my kids, being grateful for those quirky, wonderful humans, and marveling at how adorable they still are, even on the edge of adulthood.


Honey Magic

We interrupt National Poetry Month blogs with an unexpected bit of wonder. I recently became a bee foster-mother.

I care about bees. In recent years, as they have been victims of pesticide and other carelessness, I may have become sort of a bee-zealot. Some of this is because our eco-system and our food supply depends mightily on them. Some of it is that I have a sort of Moomin-like affection for All Small Creatures, and some of it is purely Alison aesthetic—they’re cute; they buzz; they produce honey.

We know that honey lasts a long time because we have found edible honey in Egyptian tombs. We know that honey has particular medicinal traits because it has been listed in healing handbooks for millenia. My favorite story about honey is the Finnish Kalevala’s account of its role in the resurrection of Lemminkainen.

There is a scene in the Kalevala where Lemminkainen is killed and dismembered, his body parts tossed in to the river of the dead. I’m not one to advocate for that sort of behavior, but this kid, in epic terms, really had it coming. He ignored sage advice, disobeyed his parent, and went off half-cocked on a crazy, invasive, revenge-fueled spree.

The upshot is that his mother can heal him. When she gets the right honey, she fishes his parts out of the river with a copper rake commissioned for that job, and sticks him back together with the healing goodness of honey. Lemminkainen awakens, thanks his mom for her knowledge and actions, and vows not to be such a big jerk next time.

So the honey, man. The honey is liquid gold. A panacea An antiseptic, antibacterial, antioxidant, wound-healing magic. And the reason I’m so excited about it today is that I had 20,000 bees removed from my front yard yesterday.

I knew when we realized that we had a “bee problem” I didn’t want an exterminator, but to relocate them. Through a friend, I found a hobbyist bee keeper and a professional bee handler, and they came to my house, sawed through the stucco on my front porch, and removed by hand (and by bee-vacuum) somewhere around 20,000 adult bees, eight 8” x 12” frames of eggs and larvae, and three buckets of honeycomb.

There are people who work with bees, and someday I may be one, but this was my first encounter, really. For them, this was just another day at work. For me, it was something of a revelation.

The bees were relocated, along with their queen, and will be re-homed on land away from city zoning and nervous neighbors. But they were nice bees, and I was delighted to have hosted them temporarily.

I was left with a sizable chunk of honeycomb to do with as I please. Today it pleases me to fish through internet videos and watch people employ different methods of honey extraction and wax rendering—to filter out some fresh honey made by bees in my yard, from flowers in my neighborhood, and eat it with all the atavistic delight of some pioneer woman living off the land, grateful for the bounty of the earth and the magic of bees.

I’ll make some toast and as I drizzle fresh, super-local honey on it, I’ll toast the bees who gave it to me. I’ll make some lip balm for sure, and maybe a candle or a stick of sealing wax. And I’ll make a poem about bees—probably a short one, but an earnest one. But I’ll leave you tonight with the image of the noble, little bee getting its quest from Lemminkainen’s mom:

“Honeybee,” she said once more,
“Bird of air, fly a third time,
Fly up to the highest heaven,
To the very ninth of heavens.
There the honey is overflowing
To the height of your desire,
With which once the great Creator,
Jumala himself made magic
For the healing of his children
Injured by an evil power.
Dip your wings into the honey,
Pinions in the liquid nectar.
Bring the honey on your wings,
Fetch the nectar in your mantle
As a medicine for the wounded,
An infusion for the injured.”

Words of magic worthy of the bees–and today’s piece of a poem for National Poetry Month.


The Desert Island Book List, or what can you not bear to live without?

I mentioned the Kalevala was one of my Desert Island books last week. It is. The Desert Island list is what it sounds like—if you were stranded on a remote island somewhere away from the honking of traffic, the onslaught of internet information, and could only carry ten books, what would they be?

It’s worth thinking about, and, I think, revisiting at various points in your life. It’s a good way to check in and see what’s changed in terms of values and passions, and to see if you’ve discovered some new treasure since you last thought about it.

So if I were stranded on an island in 2018, the books whose words I would feel lost if I could not read again are as follows, and you should know ahead of time that I intend to cheat:

A Collected Works of Geoffrey Chaucer. (See what I did there?) I don’t think I could live too long without access to the Canterbury Tales, but he has other lovely works, like the Legend of Good Women and the House of Fame that I would want those too, if we’re talking about forever.

Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler is also a frame narrative, or a story full of stories, and it’s the kind of book I’d reread once a year even if I didn’t teach it. It’s all about reading and writing and reading like a writer and writing like a reader, and I love it. There is a character who talks about translating like flow—moving in and out of languages like a fish swimming—and it has never left me.

Franz Xaver von Schonberg’s Collected Folk Tales. I used to say the Grimms,’ and I still love them, but if we’re only granted a limited number of books and they might be used to build a new civilization, I’d want the ones with more neutral gender roles, so we don’t have to relive all that damsel in distress nonsense.

The Arabian Nights. I get lots of stories here too, and since I know less about this area and language, I’d defer to the translation by Husain Hadawy, my first year composition instructor from the University of Nevada, so many moons ago.

The Mabinogion, a collection of medieval Welsh folklore and legends with some marvelous characters and scenes, like Caumniated Wives and Wizards who use transfiguration as a punishment.

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoesvsky because we probably should have a traditional sort of novel, and Grushenka’s onion was instrumental in my forming healthy adult relationships.

Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson because we probably should have an American, and Dickinson’s poems craft images as if out of clouds.

A World Mythology collection because it’s good to know where we came from and how much we have in common.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and I favor Allen Mandelbaum’s translation. But let’s face it, if I were on an island, I’d have lots of time to work up my Latin, so I should have a dual-language edition. I love so many of these stories so deeply, but the stories of Proserpina and Orpheus alone would merit its inclusion—Proserpina/Persephone so we remember that death and life are inseparable, and Orpheus so that we remember that while art can do almost everything, it cannot bring back the dead—nor do we mortals need it to.

And last, but not least, The Kalevala, because of all the reasons I mentioned last week and because it’s good to remember that words are magic and can change your world.

This is where I am now. If I were honest, I’d say I need ten picture books, ten children’s novels, ten poets, ten novels, ten essayists, and ten non-fiction, but this is where my mind lives most often at this stage in my career and life, and it is a happy place. A folkloric, mythic, medieval wonderland with only occasional forays in to the modern world, and usually by those who value the past.

Of all the personality inventories and internet quizzes that crank out a conclusion about us based on what we like, I think which stories we could not live without is probably the most accurate, at least for me. I need magic. I think in archetypes. I revel in beautiful words and compelling images. And I view story as the most valuable thread back to our collective past and in to our individual selves.


Loving the World: The Literature Approach

I had a cousin who was always fascinated with Japanese culture. He spent a lot of time and travel learning everything he could about it, and he worked it in to his life in lots of ways. With a Welsh last name, he didn’t know he had any genetic tie to Japan until he did a spit-in-a-tube DNA kit, which confirmed for him what he had always felt and even hoped: 5-10% East Asian ancestry.
But what about when you love something you have no claim to—just love?
My relationship with the Finnish Kalevala is long and convoluted. And there is, so far as I can tell, not a cell of Finnish in my body. I don’t care.
When I was nine, my aunt gave me a book about eggs for Christmas. It was a weird little book—not really for kids, I don’t think. I have seen it since (and books like it) in gift shops and bookstores over the years. It’s a little, hardbound, dust-jacketed gift book, with lots of folklore, vintage postcards, customs, and legends about eggs from all over the world. If it were bigger, it would be a coffee table book.
I read the whole book, but a few pages I must have read a hundred times over the years. Some had images that worked on my imagination, sticking there, rolling around, popping up when tangentially related topics or stories crossed my path. I grew up wanting to know how to make Ukrainian pysanky (I learned in grad school, as one does). I knew a Slavonian tale about a witch who turned an egg shell in to a boat. And I learned the weird, spell-like word Kalevala.
One two-page spread had an excerpt from the Kalevala, titled CREATION OF HEAVEN AND EARTH, which, in retrospect, seems momentous enough to catch a kid’s attention. The text describes the water mother Ilmatar, who lifts herself out of the sea, becomes a perch for a bird’s nest, and uses the eggs that fall when she twitches her knee as raw material to shape the cosmos: the shell for the dome of heaven and the earth below, the yolk for the sun, the white for the moon, the mottled parts for stars, the black bits for clouds.
There was a picture. I was done. It stayed with me forever.
All it said at the bottom of the page was Kalevala. Neither of my parents had ever heard of it, and there was no Google in 1980. That was all I knew of it for years and years.
One day in grad school, a friend and I were talking about what it meant to be well-read; we listed all the medieval epics we knew and felt we should know. He mentioned the Kalevala.
A bell chimed in my head, and that image of Ilmatar was right there, as if it had been fifteen minutes, not fifteen years, since I’d thought of it. Clearly I had to follow up.
A professor of Old English recommended the translation I love and teach now, by Eino Friberg, and the Kalevalabecame one of my “Desert Island” books. (Do people still do that—think of which ten books you’d need on a desert island?)
When I had the opportunity to design a course around epics, I included the Kalevala. It rounds any epic discussion nicely, being so lately “gathered,” like the Grimms gathered folktales, with similar nationalistic fervor in the 19th century. Students come in to the class expecting the Odyssey, which they get, but not many think of epics as still being a genre so late as 1870. It feels like a relic, with its shamanism and magic, but the culture it depicts feels fairly modern. It puzzles students and enchants them.
Two years in to my teaching of epics, I stood in line at Subway in Kalamazoo, Michigan at the conference on medieval studies I attend every spring. While chatting up the gal behind me (we all sported the spiffy lanyards with our names and institutions), I learned she was a Finn studying in the states, and she had never met any American who taught the Kalevala. Did I know, she asked, “The Canine Kalevala”?
Of course we’re still friends. The picture book she referred to was hard to find in the United States, but it was available in English. She sent me a copy from Helsinki filled with museum postcards because the illustrator had used famous art depicting scenes from the text, and she wanted me to see the originals.
I shared these “scholarly materials” with my students, and I read that children’s book to my kids any number of times. When my daughter was in second grade and the principal suggested–in light of the “wonderful problem” she presented as too advanced a reader–that I teach her a second language. My daughter chose Finnish. (She lost—I know several other languages well enough to teach a seven-year old, but still not Finnish).  And the Kalevala circle kind of closed.

We have no Finnish ancestry—just a deep love for the characters, the magic, and the world of the Kalevala. That’s enough.


Words of Power–the knotty beauty of the Kalevala

The Finnish national Epic, The Kalevala, begins and ends with the image of a skein of stories. The narrator talks of pulling one thread out and seeing where that story goes. One story connects to another, as we know, like drawing out more and more yarn from a skein.
I love to teach it at the end of our epics class, when people are well-versed in the distinctions between primary and secondary epics (primary being orally composed, the accretion of hundreds of years of story-telling finally written down, like the Odyssey or Beowulf, while secondary epics are authored, like Dante’s Divine Comedy or Milton’s Paradise Lost). I ask them on the first day which pile the Kalevalafalls in to, and the answer is both.
Not really, but close enough to be interesting. The Kalevala was collected and edited in the 19th century in a nationalistic effort comparable to the Grimms’ in collecting their fairy tales. And just as folklorists chide the Grimms for not being completely authentic in their reproduction of the tales they collected, Elias Lönnrot shaped, edited, and generally intervened in the song of the people much like an author would, even if not to the same degree.
The result is amazingly cool. Yes, I love it that much.
It’s got stories that feel achingly ancient, like the creation of the world by the water mother, Ilmatar. She is alone and lonely and begs for companionship, so allows herself to be impregnated by the sea. But when her child takes 730 years to gestate (!), she kills the time by shaping the heavens and earth from broken egg shells, the sun and moon from a yolk and some egg whites.
When her child is finally born, he is already an old man. He is a World Singer like Orpheus, capable of calling things in to existence, transforming things, and moving rocks and trees and animals with his songs. His name is Vainamoinen, and he is a rock star.
But he’s also old as the hills, so no one wants to marry him. In fact, the first girl we see him woo (and she is a girl—Merida from the Pixar film Brave leaps to mind), essentially kills herself rather than marry him. Aino goes to the edge of the water and is swept down in to the waves. It seems like she drowns, but she actually transforms in to a salmon that Vainamoinen catches later and must release. He mourns her twice. Like Orpheus.
So it feels old—very old—primal… creation of the world and human society sort of old. When Vainamoinen is wounded, he seeks the origin of iron, so he can write a spell to staunch the blood. The ancient motif of knowing “true names” or true history as a source of power over something feels prehistoric, almost. But here it is in a 19th century poem, where they’re also concerned about controlling the iron in his blood. It’s a beautiful mishmash.
These stories are so strange and so unsettling, they remind me what it felt like to be a child, when everything was new and therefore strange. But also marvelous. Also full of magic and potential. And because they elevate storytelling to the level of spell-casting, they remind me of our always present power to transform our world through words. Weaving is one of the oldest metaphors we use for storytelling. Text and textile are related. And we all have the ability to weave our words into wisdom; all we do is tug on that thread and see where it takes us.