Originally published in 1936 by Albert Whitman & Company, Tales from a Finnish Tupa has recently been reissued by the University of Minnesota Press. This collection of Finnish tales includes stories of magic and humor (“Droll Tales”) as well as fables or pourquoi stories.
I can remember reading the “Color Fairy” books when I was younger. Andrew Lang collected tales from most of the continents in books such as The Red Fairy Book, The Orange Fairy Book, and The Lilac Fairy Book. They are published today by Dover and they should be available at libraries. The black-and-white illustrations within are intriguing and the tales are as interesting now as they were to the child reader I was.
Reminiscent of those books, Tales from a Finnish Tupa has a charm all its own. The new version has a wonderful cover that implores the reader to pluck it off the shelves. I know this because I have repeatedly picked it up in the last several weeks, dipping deliciously into a story here and there, always thinking I can read just one, but so delighted that I’ve always ended up reading two.
In “Jurma and the Sea God,” a farmer is repeatedly duped into saving himself by giving one of his daughters to the Sea God. The first two daughters are just as greedy as their father, ending up in a vat of black tar. The third daughter is wise in the way that youngest children often are in folk tales … she figures out a way for the three sisters to escape.
In “Mielikki and Her Nine Sons,” magic and witchcraft, those explanations for the unexplainable, find the evil-hearted Noita-Akka substituting her own sons, black crows, for the King and Queen’s first seven children. The Queen, Mielikki, figures out what is going on in time to save her two youngest sons. The King, of course, assumes the evil one is his wife and he commands her to be put into an iron barrel with enough food for thirteen years and cast adrift upon the sea. The Queen hides her two youngest sons in the barrel with her and they eventually grow into young men, exploding the barrel open on a rocky island. More magic ensues and the Queen and King are eventually reunited. The two young sons set out to save their seven older brothers … and all ends well. The story is as action-packed an adventure as any Indiana Jones movie.
One of my particular favorites can be found in the section of “Droll Stories.” I believe “The Wise Men of Holmola” could be a thinly veiled commentary on any legislative body you care to substitute.
In fact, it’s great fun to imagine how these stories came to be. Were they commentaries on the times? Did someone in the coldest night of winter seven hundred years ago imagine a wild tale that went on and on and on to keep those gathered around the fire from going crazy with boredom? Is the sense of humor captured within these timeless tales evocative of the Finnish people? There are many descendants of the Finns living in Minnesota and Michigan. I have no trouble fitting these tales to the way they tell stories. It’s easy to imagine Matti Ojala’s family trading these tales in front of the fireplace in Song of Sampo Lake by William Durbin.
It’s also interesting to imagine how the team who originally created this book got together. Back in 1936, James Cloyd Bowman was 56 years old and Margery Williams Bianco was 55. Bowman’s Pecos Bill: the Greatest Cowboy of All Time (Albert Whitman) received a Newbery Honor in 1938. Margery Williams had published The Velveteen Rabbit in 1922. Laura Bannon, whose illustrations are still captivating whether they’re black-and-white or the seven color plates bound into the middle of the book, was a well-known Chicago-based illustrator who taught at the Art Institute there. The translator, Aili Kolehmainen, also translated the Finnish Kalevala. There’s a bit more about her and Finnish story tradition here.
I am grateful to the University of Minnesota Press for bringing these stories back to the light. Read Tales from a Finnish Tupa on your blanket under the summer canopy of leaves or take it along as the perfect read-aloud for your summer car trip.