for National Geographic News
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Generations of readers have cherished Middle-earth, the fantasy universe sprung from the mind of storyteller J.R.R. Tolkien. His magical world has been brought to life in the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, the third of which, The Return of the King, swept every category it was nominated for at the Academy Awards ceremony Sunday night. The movie most notably won Oscars for Best Picture and Directing, among 9 others.
While the author's imagination was vast, Tolkien's world and its cast of characters do have roots in real-world history and geography, from the world wars that dominated Tolkien's lifetime to the ancient language and legends of Finland.
Anthropologist and ethnobotanist Wade Davis traveled to a remote corner of Finland to uncover Tolkien influences that stretch back into the misty past of northern Europe.
Davis, a National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence, journeyed to what was once Finland's Viena Karelia region, along the Russian border, to study Finnish. By the 19th century this area was a last refuge for a unique dialect of the Finnish language.
Nearly all Finns at that time were speaking Finnish, Swedish, or even Russian, the region's established written languages. But a dialect still existed in this isolated region as it always hadin oral form, passed down through the ages from one generation to the next in songs and verses, or runes.
A collection of these runes, comparable to India's Ramayana, or the Greek Odyssey, is known in Finland as the Kalevala, and those who sing its lyrical verses from memory are known as rune singers. These elders long carried in their minds the entire record of the Finnish language.
"In an oral tradition, the total richness of the language is no more than the vocabulary of the best storyteller," Davis explains. "In other words, at any one point in time the boundaries of the language are being stretched according to the memory of the best storyteller."
In what was the Viena Karelia region, the oral tradition of the Finnish language is still alive, but now contained in the memory of just a single storyteller. His name is Jussi Houvinen, and he is Finland's last great rune singer. This elderly man is a living link to myths and languages that have passed mouth-to-ear over the ages in an unbroken chain.
"It's an amazing thing to be in the presence of a man singing even a snippet of the poem," says Davis of his meeting with Houvinen, "because it's so powerful that even if you don't speak Finnish it's profoundly moving just to listen to it, just the cadence of the sounds.
"Being in his presence, and knowing how few people can today recite the poem, you felt you were in the presence of history that was about to be snuffed out." When Houvinen dies the ancient succession of rune singers will end. No one from a younger generation has been able to learn the vast breadth of the saga.
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