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||Zacharias Topelius (1818 - 1898)|
Prolific Swedish speaking writer, journalist, professor of history, whose historical novels became part of the national awakening in Finland from the 1850s. Zacharias Topelius had three major roles: he was a superb story teller for children, he described Finland and her landscape, and he was the founder of the Finnish historic novel. Topelius's works have been translated into some 20 languages.
"I will have air!
Zacharias Topelius was born at the Kuddnäs manor, in the province of Ostrobothnia – also Johan Vilhelm Snellman (1806-1881), and J.L. Runeberg (1804-1877) were born in the same province. The previous owner the house had hanged himself in the attic, but Topelius always described his childhood home as a place of love and care. Both of his parenst came from the educated classes, Katarina Sofia Calamnius, the daughter of a merchant, and Zachrias Topelius (1781-1831), a physician. Among his forefathers was Mikael Toppelius (1734-1821), a famous artist, who decorated several churches. The young Topelius was a voracious reader. His favorites were Franzén and Runeberg. At home he learned folk poetry and adopted a deep moral and religious world view.
In 1829 Topelius was sent to a school in Uleåborg, where he learned Finnish – unlike Runeberg he knew Finnish fairly well. From 1831 he studied in Helsinki, where he boarded for some time with the Runebergs. While traveling between Helsinki and Nykarleby, he met at Alavo Greta Mattsdotter (Matintytär), with whom he had a romance. In an unpublished poem he expressed his longing for her, the embrace of her arms: "hit i dina armars fängsel, / i din ljuva famn, o flicka, / vill jag fly och intill döden – / fast förblifva". After graduating, Topelius started his career as a journalist, working in the profession for 19 years, from 1841 to 1860. During this period he also wrote several collection of poems, novels and plays. In 1845 he married Maria Emilia Lindqvist; they had six children.
Topelius received in 1847 his Ph.D. from the University of Helsinki. His thesis was on the old marriage customs in Finland. Topelius was appointed professor at the University of Helsinki in 1854 – the decision was criticized – and later (1875-78) he became its vice-chancellor. Topelius died on March 12, 1898 in Sipoo.
"One folk! One land! One tongue! One song and one wise learning!
Most of Topelius's novels appeared first in the newspapers, and
were then collected into books. Between the years 1841 and 1860
he edited the Swedish-language daily Helsingfors Tidningar.
Six years after his editoship the newspaper was closed down by
censorship. Helsinki was changing from its humble beginnings to a small
metropolis in the outskirts of the Russian empire,
and its inhabitants eagerly read news from other parts of Europe. From
the French newspapers he adapted the practice to publish novels in
serialized form. Some of the insider information on cultural issues he
received from the members of Lauantaiseura (The Saturday Society),
which had been established in 1830. At its heyday, this small and
informal group brought together such prominent figures as Runeberg,
J.V. Snellman, Frederik Cygnaeus, J.J. Nordström, and M.A. Castrénfor
discussions on literature and topical issues. Topelius became the
youngest member of the group.
As a journalist Topelius had a great skill to enrich his text by lively details, as in the novella Vincent Vågbrytare, set in a summer evening on June 1835. It paints a vivid portrait of a small, rapidly developing but idyllic town, where everybody still knew each other: "The young men went marching off into that glorious June evening. They made their way out on to Unionsgatan street through the Botanic Gardens with their clipped avenues, where acacias had just opened their tender leaves, while oaks and maples were unfolding their first yellow leaf buds and the first narcissi beginning to waft their fragrance along the pathways. The walkers greeted the veteran Professor Sahlberg, who in his short garden coat was giving orders for the insertion of the windows to the new hothouse, so that aloe, fog and sugar cane might be made indigenous to Finland." (translated by David McDuff, from Helsinki: A Literary Companion, 2000)
Under Topelius Helsingfor Tidningar became the most important modern newspaper. Its only noteworthy rival in the public debate of contemporary topics was J.V. Snellman's Saima (1844-1846), which often attacked Topelius's views. Topelius's advocated energetically patriotic and liberal ideals, but he also saw, that peaceful progress under the Emperor would be benefit for the nation. "And this nation Lord has settled down on the edge of the world to turn stones up and around – oh – how much I love this nation and its calm strength, such as nature and wilderness have done it; rough old tree growing in a stony soil." Especially Topelius's vision of one nation with two languages led him to a collision course with Snellman, a Hegelian philosopher and statesman, who was a central figure in the national awakening.
In the Revolution year of 1848 Topelius tried to balance between the
Russian authorities and national movement – his ambiguous attitude has
been open to many interpretations. When he wrote about the breakup of
the ice in Oulu River (Islossningen i Uleå elf, 1856), his
reader understood in their own way the hidden meaning in
the phrase "the breakup of ice." Topelius welcomed the
revolution with the words "he comes, he comes, the mighty storm" (from
'Våren' 1848), but he also lamented the passing of the despotic
During the Crimean War Topelius sided against England and France. August Schauman followed in the 1860s Topelius at Helsingfors Tidningar – his line was more in tune with the readers, who already considered Topelius at that time a conservative. However, his journalism was not always smooth. Inspired by Victor Hugo's works, Topelius also reported on social issues, such as the lack of decent housing facilities for poor people live ('Kuinka köyhät asuvat Helsingissä'). He was one of the first to take up the women's question in Finland and at the university he fought for women's entitlement to advanced study. Challenging the censors, he described in En resa i Finland (1872-74) the force of Imatrankoski rapids, fully aware that many drew a parallel between the rapids and a nation striving for freedom. ('Visual Symbolism and Aesthetic Constructions: National Landscapes in the Making of Finland' by Maunu Häyrynen, in Literature of Nature: An International Sourcebook, edited by Patrick D. Murphy, Terry Gifford, Katsunori Yamazato, 1998, p. 418)
As a futurologist Topelius foresaw in 'Simeon Levis resa till Finland' (1860), published in Helsingfors Tidningar, that Finland will transform herself into a high tech country. This politically sensitive piece of science fiction – it was suggested between the lines that Finland has gained independence – told of a traveller, an agent of the Rothschilds looking for investment opportuninites, who visits the country in the year 1900. Topelius prophesied that there will be tobacco plantations in the north, and plans are made to erect a great wall to protect them from cold winds. Apparently Topelius did not see much future for steam engines, because they have been replaced by cars, or "hot air wagons," that have motors powered by hot air.
Topelius's first collection of poems, Ljungblommor (Heather flowers), came
out in 1845. His poetry is known through several songs, such as
'Sylvia's Song,' popularized by the music of Karl Collán, 'På Roines
strand' (On Roine's bank), and 'En sommardag i Kangasala' (A Summer Day
at Kangasala), set to music by Selim Gabriel Linsén in 1864. The hymn
'Julvisa' (En etsi valtaa loistoa / Christmas Song), set to music by
Jean Sibelius, has remained hugely popular: "Give me no splendor,
no gold, / no pomp / at blessed Christmastime; / give me God's glory
and angel hosts / and peace o'er earth so wide!"
As a poet
Topelius is generally regarded more sentimental and superficial than
Runeberg, and his character is often contrasted with that of Runeberg.
Children's literature historians have built up a picture of him as a
gentle friend of little readers, who remained true to his Christian
His most popular fairy tale in Russia was 'Sampo, the Little Lapp,'
which first appeared in 1877 in the magazine Semya i shkola (Family and School), edited by Yulian Simashko.
In Sweden Topelius enjoyed a wide acclaim. He was nearly 20 years the best selling author of Bonniers Publications. In this position Topelius tried to prevent the publication of some of August Strindberg's works, which he considered obscene. Topelius's own writing-style was dominated by romantic idealism and moralism, and as he grew older, religious themes began to take first place. Some of his hymns are still among the all-time favorites. With the theology professor Arthur Hjelt (1868-1931), Topelius founded in Finland a branch of Young Men's Christian Association.
"- Jag trår fast vid den evangeliska lära jag bekänneroch för vilken jag är beredd at, om Gud så behagar, dö. Men jag aktar en kristens tro, även om den i ett eller annat skiljet sig från min, och jag vet att Guds barmhärighet är i stånd att föra ett hjärta till saligheten, även om vägen är höljd ac villor och vädor. Gå, fröken von Emmeritz, jag fårlåter er att ni, förvillad av munkars fanatiska läror, vill vända Herrens kämpe från hans kamp för ljuset..." (from Fältskärns Berättelser)
historical novel is Fältskärns berättelser
(Tales of a field surgeon), a large family history, depicting the
conflict between different classes from the 17th century, from the
Gustav II Adolf victory at Breitenfeld, to the 18th century, when the
age of Gustav III began. The story appeared between 1851 and 1866 in Helsingfors Tidningar and was later collected into a
multi-volume book. In the saga Topelius follows the fates of two
families, the Bertelskölds and the Larssons. Fictional characters are
mixed with historical characters, such as Charles XII and Arvid Horn.
Father Hieronymys, who keeps a stiletto concealed in his
crucifix, the most memorable villain. He persuades a young
Catholic woman, Regina von Emmeritz, to kill Gustav Adolf, but the plan
fails when Regina fall in love with the king. Later Topelius made a
play from the story.
Gröna kammarn på Linnais gård (1859, The Green Room at Linnais Manor), a family tale, had some Gothic elements; the plot involves a ghost. Like in Topelius's Gothic short stories, the mystery of seemingly supernatural is given a natural explanation at the end. Noteworthy, Topelius was interested in the spirit world and folk myths, but resisted all kinds of vulgar superstitions. It has been argued that he used Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847) as an intertext in his work, transforming the the figure of Bertha Mason into a old aunt living in an attic room. ('From Italy to the Finnish Woods: The Rise of Gothic Fiction in Finland' by Kati Launis, in Gothic Topographies: Language, Nation Building and ‘Race', edited by P.M. Mehtonen and Matti Savolainen, 2013, pp. 175-176) Valentin Vaala's film adaptation of the novel from 1945, a lavish, Hollywood-style production, was a box-office hit, transporting the Finnish audience away from the austere post-war world, for a little while at least.
In addition to his novels, Topelius published a great deal of
children's literature, including the eight-part series Läsning för barn
(1865-1898, Reading for children) and Sagor (1847-1852, Fairy tales), a collection of stories. Many
generations read in primary schools Boken om vårt land
(The book of our land), an illustrated excursion into Finland's
history, people, countryside and geography – it was read even
after WWII. whether he had read or was otherwise familiar with the work
of Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803), Topelius's ideas about nation,
history, language, and great men had much in common with those of
Under the influence of H.C. Andersen, Topelius wrote educational fairy tales of good and bad and the ultimate triumph of goodness. His most popular tales include 'Koivu ja tähti' (1852, The birch and the star) and 'Prinsessa Ruusunen' (1870, Sleeping Beauty, a film adaptation in 1949 from Topelius's and the Grimm Brothers' tale, directed by Edvin Laine, starring Tuula Usva and Martti Katajisto)."There are two forces to move mountains: a fairytale and the faith." Planeternas skyddslingar (1886, The royal children of the stars) portrayed three persons, who have the same horoscope: Queen Christina of Sweden and a poor boy and girl from Finland, Hagar ja Benoni; the children have adventures all over Europe. The heroine is Hagar, the daughter of a Jewish mother and a Catholic father, who is orphaned and raised as a Lutheran in Finland. She is married to Mohammed IV, and in his harem she becomes a Muslim.
Although Topelius published almost all of his literary work in Swedish, he also produced the libretto for the first Finnish-language opera, Kaarle Kuninkaan metsästys (King Charles's hunt), which was composed by Frederik Pacius (1809-1891). In the story the young king goes to hunt elk and a young girl saves his life. Among Topelius's plays are Regina von Emmeritz (1853), set in the times of the Thirty Years' War, and Prinsessan af Cypern (1869, The Princess of Cyprus), a fairy-tale play partly based on Kalevala's characters. It became the libretto of Pacius's opera, too. The protagonist is Lemminkäinen, who falls in love with Chryseis at the island of Venus, Cyprus.
For further reading: Z. Topelius by E.G. Palmen (1898); Sakari Topelius by Eliel Vest (1906); Zacharias Topelius ihmisenä ja runoilijana by Valfrid Vasenius (6 vols, 1912-33); Zachris Topelius by Selma Lagerlöf (1920); Zachris Topelius' kärlekslyrik by Martin Graner (1946); Topelius saturunoilijana by Kaarina Laurent (1947); Z. Topelius by Paul Nyberg (2 vols., 1950); Kaitselmusaate Topeliuksen historianfilosofiassa by Mauri Noro (1968); A History of Finnish Literature by Jaakko Ahokas (1973); Kukkia kevään sylissä by Aarre Kantola (1979); Runoilija ja Kanervankukka by Aarre Kantola (1981); Harmaakiven maa by Allan Titta (1994); Finland: a cultural encyclopedia, ed. by Olli Alho (1997); A History of Finland's Literature, ed. by George C. Schoolfield (1998); Topelius ja tulevaisuus & Zachris Topelius: Simeon Levis resa i Finland by Jari Koponen (1998); Idylli ja uhka by Matti Klinge (1998); Finlands svenska literaturhistoria 1, ed. by Johan Wrede (1999); Topeliaaninen usko: kirjailija Sakari Topelius uskontokasvattajana by Pasi Jaakkola (2011); Haltiakuusen alla: suomalaisia kirjailijakoteja by Anne Helttunen, Annamari Saure, Jari Suominen (2013); Pieni kirja Topeliuksesta by Hannu Syväoja (2017) - Topeliuksen teosten suomentajista mainittakoon mm. Juhani Aho. Romantic historical novel, see Walter Scott; see also: Selma Lagerlöf