Review: William Albert Wilson’s Folklore and Nationalism in Modern Finland

Review: William Albert Wilson’s Folklore and Nationalism in Modern Finland

At first glance, a book about Finnish folklore and national identity by an American scholar might seem out of place. Nothing could be further from the truth in this case: Wilson showcases his knowledge about Finnish history and culture, and manages to write a very representative work on the ties of folklore and nationalistic movements in Finland, before and after the Independence.

The book is divided in three main parts, each one reporting and analyzing a different aspect of folklore scholarship and their links with the birth of a national feeling in Finland. The first section handles the influence of folklore on the origins of nationalistic movements in the centuries before the Independence, starting from Mikael Agricola’s prayer book going until the publication of the Kalevala and the decades after it. The rest of the work deals with the relationship between folklore and nationalism after the Independence, with a special emphasis on the period of World War II. Chapter 2 discusses political influences on folklore scholarship, while chapter 3 tackles the problem the other way around, i.e. how folklore scholars tried to apply and realize these political aspirations.

Throughout the book it clearly appears that Wilson aims to highlight the relationship that exists between folklore studies and the waves of Finnish nationalistic movements and propaganda. This relationship should not come as a surprise, as folklore is a fundamental part of every nation, but what Wilson tries to convey is how deeply these two fields are related. He believes the involvement of folk stories to be crucial: thanks to the first collections of folklore, nationalistic feelings were born in Finland in the time of Romanticism (and even before). In addition to this aspect, Wilson argues that the Kalevala, despite its unchallenged popularity and its position as the Finnish national epic, is not the most relevant folklore text when it comes to lighting the flame of nationalism, but it is rather a culmination of centuries of folklore studies. Wilson does not deny its role, but argues that without previous collections and their effect (e.g. Agricola, Ganander, …) the Kalevala would not have been so influential.

This publication offers a terrific insight in the field of Finnish folklore and it accurately explains how said folklore helped the Finnish people subjected to Swedish and Russian rules to become a close community animated by nationalistic sentiment.

Work cited:

Wilson, William Albert: Folklore and Nationalism in Modern Finland, Bloomington 1976.

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