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The Tales of Ensign Stål , by Johan Ludvig Runeberg

The Tales of Ensign Stål -

In a recent review of translations of poems of the Swede Tomas Tranströmer and the Finn Paavo Haavikko




I give a little background information about Finnish literature. There I mention the "national poet of Finland," Johan Ludvig Runeberg (1804-1877), who actually wrote in Swedish.(*) Curious, I looked into Runeberg's ouevre and soon found that his most highly regarded work is Fänrik Ståls sägner (The Tales of Ensign Stål), an epic cycle of poems about the Swedish-Russian war of 1808-09 in which Finland was forced into the Russian empire. Epic poems are not my favorite genre, but I learned of a translation into English by a certain Charles Wharton Stork,(**) published by the Princeton University Press in 1938, and located a copy through interlibrary loan.


Prior to the 1808-09 war Sweden and Russia had crossed swords quite often, but at the beginning of the 19th century they were both allied against Napoleon. Suddenly, Czar Alexander I went over to Napoleon's side, and when Gustaf IV refused to follow, the Russians fell upon Finland without even a declaration of war. A rich story of courage, cowardice, and stupidity; acts of honor and self-sacrifice, as well as acts of treachery, horror and depredation ensued - in other words, human beings being human, for better and for worse...  This is the subject of The Tales of Ensign Stål.(***)


Runeberg was a small boy during that war, but using various eyewitness accounts he collected over the years, as well as published and unpublished histories and memoirs, he wrote a sequence of poems which he published in two parts in 1848 and 1860, though some individual poems from the cycle appeared earlier. And what a reception the cycle received! I'll just mention that the first poem in the cycle, Our Land, now constitutes the lyrics of the Finnish national anthem.


The narrator, a young man having much in common with Runeberg in his 20's, meets an old down-on-his-luck soldier, Fänrik Stål (Ensign Steel), and the callow youth is soon sitting at the Ensign's feet, mouth open and heart pounding, as the old soldier spins his stories from the war. These stories are spun in verse - each poem a story, an episode - which is located a great deal closer to Robert Louis Stevenson's than to Alfred Tennyson's and is not in the least grandiose or pompous. 


Though idealized, the main figures, both leading generals and low ranking soldiers, emerge with their failings, eccentricities and courage. The little farmsteads isolated out in the forests and the relatively small scale engagements of the war are convincingly evoked. And, unusually enough for patriotic verse, the Russians are not uniformly monstrous, while the Finns and Swedes are not uniformly heroic.  


For those who care about such things, Stork faithfully maintained the rhyme schemes of the original. For example, the first poem is written in strict abaabb, the second in ababcc in both original and translation. The rhythmic differences between English and Swedish eliminated any real possibility to maintain rhythm schemes. The language is energetic, the line lengths and rhyme schemes change from poem to poem, assuring that no tedium arises. I did enjoy reading this little book, despite the occasional wince at lines like


Hurrah! What matters the dying?

We're gentlemen, boys, today.


or these, spoken by a young woman whose betrothed failed his duty,


Mother, I sought until the light no more the west was streaking,

But never found amid the slain the face that I was seeking.

I'll dwell no longer in a world when men deceive and lie;

I found not him among the dead, and therefore I will die. 


The edition I read includes an informative and extremely enthusiastic introduction by the Finn Yrjo Hirn.


(*) Finnish and Swedish are both national languages of Finland.


(**)  Poet, playwright, novelist (1881-1971) who translated from the Swedish and German. In this volume Stork translated two-thirds of the poems found in Fänrik Ståls sägner.


(***) The original Swedish can be found online here: