The Gnarled-Pine People: Humility as nobility in Finland-Swedish Letters

Finland is a highly forested country, and trees are palpably present in its literature. I propose to examine the emblematic part played by one of them – the pine – in Finland-Swedish literature, from Finland's last decades as a Grand Duchy and through the interwar years of the independent republic which was born in 1917. Political history will be confronted with elementary semiotics for a look at the imaged notion of the Swedish-speaking population of Finland as a gnarled-pine people. I shall try to outline the genesis and dissemination of this notion through the agency, in the main, of a number of lyrical poets.

This may sound funny, as I should hope it does; it's much funnier in Swedish and other Germanic languages which use the same word for tree-trunk and for tribe. In Swedish I would call my topic „Martallens stam“ [the gnarled pine tribe or trunk]. The pun is unsubtle yet intentional: the project I am referring to was geared to a double-exposure of tribe and tree.  It was  an organicist endeavour, meant to signpost a biotope and to signal rootedness in this biotope. For my proposition to gain some little credibility I have selected a number of pictorial exhibits that expose the rugged charm of a Nordic gnarled pine.

Cover by Signe Hammarsten-Jansson, the mother of Tove Jansson

The cover of Elis Selin’s 1931 Utskärs [Outer Islands] shows us a pine that shouldn’t be there at all – how can it take root in solid rock? Selin was a vicar in a little parish that had many more islands and skerries than parishioners, and no regular service to the mainland. The Utskärstree is marked by solitude; on another cover the pine has been instructively provided with a human correlative. The man standing straddle-legged in front of his pilot station, telescope in hand, adorns the 1912 edition of an annual almanack published by a society called The Friends of the Swedish-Language Elementary School, a society created in 1882 for the furtherance of general education in Swedish in Finland. The pilot epitomizes steadfastness in stormy weather. On his right, the artist has drawn his arboreal counterpart, a knotted pine pressed by perpetual wind against the granite rock. As on the previous cover, a real-world pine would be less likely to be growing there. But it is no matter: the pictorial purpose of the pine pressed flat is to imbue the man with uprightness.

Arvid Mörne was no doubt the chief instigator and leading purveyor of the gnarled pine symbol, from his début at the very turn of the century. A  posthumous volume of poems published in 1946 was titled Solbärgning [Sunset]. Its cover pine is broken, cracked, at rest at last. My examples will have made it clear that this is a tree singled out for suffering on the threshold between land and sea – and that just happens to be the Finland-Swedish biotope, poetically speaking. The Swedophone part of the population (approx. 13 per cent in 1900) had settled on the western and southern coasts and in the archipelago but never ventured far inland.  The very first instance of a concrete mapping out of these demographic demarcations is found, in black, on the 1897 cover of the almanack published by the society mentioned above.

Nature, when touched by the human gaze, contracts sign functions; it turns into a source of symbols. One such resource, most appealing to man, is the anthropomorphousness that he finds himself surrounded by. Human beings have no way of not trying to translate the appearance or the tongues of other living things into human language.

Finnish artists and poets spent much of the ending 19th century charging nature with symbolic meaning, and the public duly learned to read these meanings. Much of this work came about as direct or indirect offshoots of the Kalevala vogue, which had been initiated in the second quarter of the century. And much of it was articulated in an Aesopian language, using artful circumlocutions that one tends to take to in the face of censorship. All of it was highly nationalistic, and seemed to emphasize the Finnishness of the country. There was a call for countermoves. It was becoming imperative to find ways of charging nature with meaning in Swedish as well, if that language was to have a future in Finland. The language conflict was on the agenda, and increasingly so. A decree stating that Finnish and Swedish were to be placed on an equal footing had been issued in 1863. The obvious purpose of this decree was to adjust the law of the land to linguistic fact. It prescribed a twenty-year interim before taking full effect.

The Swedish-speaking population was nonetheless apprehensive of the progress of the Finnish cause. The degree of anxiety varied from region to region. The province of Nyland (Fi. Uusimaa), along the southern coast, had a majority of Swedish speakers, albeit very marginally so (50.2 per cent in 1880). If in what follows I shall be focussing on Nyland, it is because Nyland was the province of the capital. This made it a test area of sorts, where the gamut of social, cultural and economic differences was wide both within and between the two language groups. Nyland is where most of my literary exhibits come from.

The Swedish speakers felt threatened by what became known as the Fennoman movement, that is, the advocates of a purely Finnish-speaking Finland. The thing to do for the Swedophones now was to assert their right to be part of that country – and preferably to do so in a potent figurative language that offered counter-images to what had already been achieved for Finnishness. The task of this imagery-to-be was to thematize Swedishness, to link the people to the territory on which it lived by connoting both. A 'natural' or 'organic' image was needed, and direly so after the radical overhaul of the parliamentary system in 1906. The move to universal suffrage could not but bring about a steep decrease in the political representation of the Swedish-speaking segment. A new strategy had to be devised, one which involved convincing the Swedish peasantry, allmogen, that it had interests in common with the upper classes. And that strategy was in need of symbols.

We should not be surprised by the choice of a tree for a symbol in a country which is forested to quite a rare degree. But what tree should be singled out?

'Panfinnish', all-Finnish, trees stud the writings of both Johan Ludvig Runeberg, national poet designate from the mid-nineteenth century onward, and Zacharias Topelius, the country's most popular writer in the same period. Both wrote in Swedish. None of the two thought of himself as a Swede, or a Finland-Swede, for that matter. The region of ‘Swedish Finland’, the ‘Finland-Swedes’, and the symbolic accoutrements to go with them and to distinguish these phenomena were not brought into being until the early decades of the twentieth century.

In 1832 Runeberg had published an ethnographical essay which translates as "Some Words on the Nature, Folk Character, and Way of Life in Saarijärvi Parish". This parish is situated in central Finland and Runeberg's enthralled little tract was instrumental in spreading a picture of the genuine Finn as a creature of his landscape: simple, honest, a man of philosophic joys, endlessly authentic. The awe-inspiring forests of this the very heart of the country are singled out for contemplation. "You wander in them as you'd wander on the bottom of a sea, in perpetual uniform stillness, and all you hear, high above your head, is the wind in the spruce fir tops or in the crowns of the pines towering sky-high."Spruce, here, is a tree you can't see for the wood, whereas the long-boled pine is a lone giant. There is a third very Finnish tree in the literature of the period, and that is the birch. In lyrical poetry, as in Topelius, the birch was known as fair, leafy and sweet.

The trees whose praise had been sung were all inland trees. Inland, heartland and genuine Finnishness had been conflated in one great maneuver by the nationbuilder generation born ca. 1800.  As time went by their preferences met with increasing dislike in Swedish-speaking quarters. If we jump all they way to the rather heated language conflicts of the 1930s, we can find, in Swedish-language dailies, a series of syndicated articles on the topic of coastal region and poetry. The purpose of this series was to foster the readers' feelings for their native ground, that is, for the country's coastal land- and seascapes. Here the luminaries, Runeberg and Topelius, were accused of having spellbound Finland-Swedish poets, and of deafening them to their proper and most urgent concerns.  They had strayed afield, „lured away by the lady of the woods“.

It was not, in fact, until the 1880s that Swedish-language poetry in Finland found its way down to the seaboard. The encounter is now a classic locus in its history: it takes place when the young Karl August Tavaststjerna, after what he calls a stifling summer in the smoke of inland slash-burning, ventures out to where Helsinki meets the sea, to stand before it in awe. More often than not, the birth of Finland-Swedish literature proper has been dated back to Tavaststjerna.

Now that the coastal region had been reached, which of the trees to be espied there was a proper candidate for embodying Swedishness? The first writer to use verse to claim a future for the Swedish tongue in Finland was a young student poet, Josef Julius Wecksell. His "Svenskan och Finskan" [The Swedish Language and the Finnish Language, 1860] is a dialogical poem on the nationality question. 'Finskan' is a long-boled pine in the heart of the country; 'Svenskan' is a sturdy oak on a stormy skerry. The oak symbol, of course, is of old Germanic stock and hence, in semiotic play, odious to non-oaks. In 1896 Eino Leino, soon to become the Finnish poet of his era but now in his bud, decreed that this stocky aristocrat had to go. In his poem "Tarina suuresta tammmesta" [The Story of the Huge Oak], it is felled at the instigation of Väinämöinen, sage and singer of Kalevala fame. The sacred will to do so was beckoned to the nation from the top of a giant spruce.

Leino's poem was criticized in no uncertain terms by Arvid Mörne, who called it a tendentious epopea, drab and strained.One can almost discern a poetical plan in Mörne's critique. He wanted to find a tree that would not lend itself to bombast. What he finds, soon after this, is the pine, which he calls "our holy tree"; the first person plural stands for the Finland-Swedes. And increasingly it is the stunted version that is being extolled, the twisted and martyred pine that braves any storm because it is firmly rooted on „the fatherstrand“. This word was coined, or at least given currency, by the poet Theodor Lindh, hailed by Mörne as the creator of Finland-Swedish sea poetry. The coinage is what Yu. Lotman would call a minus device. The word, we know full well, is Fatherland. Here, the coast of Nyland is proclaimed a Finland-Swedish patriot's homeland.

The Swedish speakers clung to a rim. This had been jeeringly noted as early as 1891 by Juhani Aho, a master of Finnish prose and an ideologue of sorts of the ‘Young Finns’: "The Swedes secured for themselves the most fertile topsoil that the coastland had to offer. But when just a dozen miles from the sea they met with marsh and woodland, they stopped."On the other side of their rim, however, there were vast expanses of water, with no borders in sight and a storm-swept scenography, ready-made for heroics. And the terra firma closest to these expanses, it bore pointing out, was not fertile topsoil but solid barren rock. The biotope of gnarly trees and a gnarly people was a motif to which Arvid Mörne remained faithful for almost fifty years. Solbärgning, the posthumous collection of poems from 1946, opens with a holograph frontispiece titled "Bön i nyårsnatten" [A New Year's Night Prayer], an artlessly verbatim translation whereof might read as follows:


You who are this New Year's Night looking down

from your far-off star worlds

on winter-white islands, frozen bays,

on me, your dried-up tree, consecrated to death,

your gnarled pine in its crevice,

let me live just one more spring

in a few green needles! You maker of miracles,

for a few smiling seconds let a glimpse be caught of

green needles on the wood of death!


The gnarled pine, writes Mörne's biographer Hans Ruin, was his way of condensing into one image his threefold pathos – his patriotism, his Swedishness, and his love for the poor and lowly. And not just Mörne's way. Ruin, too, joined the rank of gnarled-pine enthusiasts adopting this image for nationwide use, as seen on the cover of his post-Winter War book, Ett land stiger fram (1941). The title can be translated as „a nation comes forth“, meaning that Finland found more of an identity of its own through this war. The gnarled pine grew into a symbol in common and frequent use during the first half of the present century. It has ceased to proliferate new meanings. The old ones, however, still seem to be taken for granted even when general and mixed audiences are addressed. An occasional poem, a sonnet published in 1984 in a Helsinki daily, Hufvudstadsbladet, is a case in point. It moves with great confidence among the received connotations of dogged defiance, surly strength, asceticism, and firmness. It is called "Utskärstall" [Seaward Skerry Pine], referred to as „our classic symbol“, and it consists of a list of these and additional qualities.No strategies of persuasion are called for here: this fiction is fact.

I shall now turn to a brief survey of the main functions that the gnarled pine was to fulfill, and served to fulfill. The paradigm within which a choice was to be made will in what follows be called The Tree. My reading, I should perhaps add, is a brazenly teleological one. It knows what to find.

The Tree was to be non-aristocratic, for a number of reasons. The noble oak had to go. I already mentioned the overhaul of the parliamentary system in 1906. The move to universal suffrage meant that the image of the Finland-Swede had to be rendered more rustic, less manorial. This was important as part of a new strategy for the Swedophone population; it was useful, too, in order to qualify Finnish notions of what Swedishness in Finland implied.

Yet it is obvious that there is an air of nobility, of pauvres honteux, about the gnarled pine. It perseveres in the haughty pride of its long-boled kin. As a phenotype, it compares with, say, stunted Sierra Nevada pines like the aristata or longaeva, respected by dendrologists as true aristocrats. It is, I think, hard to overrate the Germanic – or Aryan – associations offered by the gnarled pine, as opposed to the hordes of spruce come from the East. In a bard like V.K. E. Wichmann, an unmistakable Vikingolater better known under his nom de plume, Gånge Rolf [Rollo], these associations are orchestrated with an endearing lack of abashment. The final stanza of a 1908 poem of his addresses "my own tribe of Aryan blood with the sunny temper of Swedes"; the survival instinct of this tribe is equated with "the toil of the pine on a rocky skerry/ and of the flower in the crevice of the cliff".A similar coupling was seen on the almanack cover featuring pine and pilot. The biotope rendered them similar.

The Tree was to embody an idea of defiant masculinity. It was also to provide a contrast with the leafy Topelian birch, epitome of the grace and peacefulness of inland Finland. And it was to be ever vigilant, always on guard; this is why wintering trees would not do. There is quite a number of deciduous trees – alder or rowan, for example – to be seen on the outermost skerries much more often than pines are. But they aren't evergreen. Moreover, they are bushlike, and the bush was claimed. The sole evergreen bush in the country was taken. It had been appropriated through Juhani Aho's 1891 definition of Finns as a juniper people, an epithet that Aho reiterated almost as diligently as Mörne repeated his. It has become part of national lore.

The lighting that strikes from on high leaves the pine of the wilds in splinters but the juniper bush is hit unharmed. The chargers speed over it, and the gun-carriage wheels bend it to the ground. But the juniper will not break. [...] And when tomorrow he who ran over it comes searching for yesterday's tracks, he can no longer find them. The road is no longer there, and the juniper seems untouched.

Aho's subject here is how to confront a superior force, be it Swedish, Russian or other. His immediate referent was the endeavour current at the time to russify the country. His polarization – bend or break – is a proven one. Aesop, like La Fontaine, had contrasted oak and reed. Juhani Aho now exchanges this classic pair for one with marked national traits. Trees as emblems give way to demands for realism, for images of resistance.  In a way, Aho's choice of the juniper brought about the choice of the gnarled pine: the two of them are so similar that their dissimilarity is brought to the fore. We now have a polemic that allows for fine adjustment.

One of the opposites activated here is that of collectivism versus individualism. Aho's Finnish juniper is a resilient multitude.  The gnarly Swede is a solitary hero, a watchman, an outpost; but also a demoted centre figure who now extols the moral superiority of the margin. He takes on all of these roles in Mikael Lybeck's 1903 poem "Trötta träd" [Tired Trees], known as the anthology exhibit of gnarled-pine poetry. The middle stanza (of three) runs: „Break our trunks, storm, and break the last/ roots still resisting in age-old soil!/ Night will not reveal it,/ the waves will not subside –/ there is no morning in store for us,/ only this: to break, not bend... just break."

The poem has two motifs, political misfortune from without (Finland v. Russia) and language strife from within (Swedish v. Finnish). It is close to the concerns of the Aho text. But the symbol is a different one, and the expected outcome is different indeed: there will be no break of day for us.

The pines standing sentry on their rock sing a minority's paean to itself. Being solitary, small in numbers, forgotten – all of these are aspects of haughty self-pity. But there is the breakability, too, is tacitly opposed to the pliability, or compliancy, of the juniper people. Lybeck's poem is an apotheosis of passive haughtiness, whether one looks at it from the pro-Swedish or from the anti-Russian angle. We might call it a non possumus stand, of the kind which is liable to end in tragedy. The cracked-tree cover of Arvid Mörne's Solbärgning showed us the scripted finale. And that is about the last we hear of the gnarled pine, as an active passive force. The Finland that emerged from the Second World War is known in Finnish historiography as the Second Republic. It was a distinctly post-war player, a pragmatic survivor, with little use for heroic antics.


Lecture given at the Visby conference on "The Baltic in Literature and Art" in November 2002