Seeking a Sampo and Tilting at Windmills

"Don Quixote's Windmill Adventure" by Dominica Alcantara (acrylic on canvas, 2006)

I’ve put off writing a post about the object (or objects) of my reading quest for the better part of a month out of sheer indecisiveness.  I haven’t been able to decide what the real object of the quest is.

When I conceived of a short story reading project, it seemed merely quixotic.  With apologies to Cervantes:  In short, my wits being quite gone, I hit upon the strangest notion that ever madman in this world hit upon, and that was that I fancied it was right and requisite…that I should make a literary knight-errant of myself, roaming my bookshelves in reading-glasses in quest of whatever adventures might be found between the covers of all those short story anthologies I had bought but heretofore left unread; and putting in practice myself all that I had read of as being the usual practices of English majors and literary critics; righting every kind of wrong, and exposing myself to peril and danger from which, in the issue, I was to reap eternal renown and fame.

That is to say, I had a feeling that I might be about to spend a year tilting at literary windmills. 

Writers and reviewers of short stories believe that the mission of a short story is greater than treating the reader to a simple adventure (the province of genre fiction).  Clearly adventure was an insufficiently grand object for this short story quest.  I needed to go after some kind of literary Holy Grail.

If anyone could define a literary Holy Grail, it would be Harold Bloom, the king of the Western canon.  In How to Read and Why, he says that the “most authentic” reason to read good stories is “…the search for a difficult pleasure.”  Like, dude.  That is SO not helpful.  Define “difficult pleasure.”  Charles E. May, whose writing I find to be less elitist than Bloom’s, gave me a push in the right direction with this comment in a recent blog post: “Readers frequently complain that whereas novels are usually satisfying, complete narrative experiences, short stories are often hard-to-understand, inconclusive, or just plain puzzling.” That’s certainly true in my case.  I’ve never met an Alice Munro story that I could say I understood, and that doesn’t make for a pleasant reading experience – difficult or otherwise.  So perhaps the object of the quest should be the key to unlock the “difficult pleasure” found in the short story. 

But what would that key be?  In what direction should I search?

When I can’t find the answer anywhere else, I make like my seventh-grader starting a research project, and turn in desperation to the REAL fount of modern knowledge:  Wikipedia. 

"The Sampo" (from The Canine Kalevala)

First I searched on “quest objects”.  The entry listed several possibilities, including the Sampo.

Ah.  Something familiar.  During my assignment to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, a Finnish colleague and his wife gave us a copy of Mauri Kunnas’s book The Canine Kalevala, which converts the 800-page Finnish national epic into a children’s picture book in which the heroes of the saga are depicted as…big googly-eyed dogs.  The Sampo, according to The Canine Kalevala, is “a fabled device that churned out salt, flour and coins.  Whoever had a Sampo never had to work, or suffer from hunger, or go running around in the dark woods.  A Sampo made life easy for its owner.” 

Maybe I could find a kind of literary Sampo.  Then I wouldn’t have to work at reading short stories; they would satisfy my hunger for reading, and illuminate my path in some way.  Sounded good. 

Back to Wikipedia.  Clicking on one of the links in the article led me to the web site of John Major Jenkins, an “independent researcher” who has written a number of books on the archeoastronomy of ancient cultures.  He notes that the Sampo, which has its origins in Siberian mythology, is also understood as a “cosmological metaphor for the stellar dome centered upon the Polestar.”  Cool.  I love celestial navigation, which is based on a notional “stellar dome” that we now know is an inaccurate – dare I say fictional? – concept of the universe.  (Although the “stellar dome” doesn’t exist, the mathematical concepts that enable sailors to “steer by the stars” are the same as those used by GPS systems; like short stories, GPS uses a good lie to deliver the truth.)  The cosmological link between the Sampo and the celestial pole seemed like a good omen. 

Possibly the most ancient story in Finnish mythology is “The Theft of the Sampo.” 

"The Theft of the Sampo", by Akseli Gallen-Kallela

You can read it as a little old adventure story and enjoy it just fine, but according to Jenkins the story is, at its deepest and most mysterious level, “…about the upsetting of the celestial frame, the removal of the celestial center to another place, and the beginning of a new World Age…[which] is tantamount to saying that the Polestar moves.”

I felt like I was really getting somewhere with that.  Charles May quotes author Wells Tower:  “A good short story should rock the axis of your world.”  That, my friends, is how the Polestar moves.  Over a cycle of 26,000 years, the axis of the Earth wobbles in a phenomenon known in modern astronomy as the precession of the equinoxes.  Because of the wobble of the axis of our world, the position of Polaris – the Polestar, or North Star – appears from our vantage point on Earth to move.

Precession of the Equinoxes, shown from outside the celestial sphere

Jenkins is better known for his writing on the true meaning of the “Mayan Apocalypse” (scheduled more or less for December 21, 2012; I was pleased to learn that I have time to finish this short story project before the end of…whatever ends then).  Like good literature, the Mayan Apocalypse seems to mean many different things to many different people.  In a 2007 interview for The New York Times Magazine, Jenkins says, “At any end-beginning nexus – at the dawn of a new religion or spiritual tradition – you have this amazing opening…Revelations come down.  There’s a fresh awareness of what it means to be alive in the full light of history.” 

Another archeoastronomer, Anthony Aveni, says of Jenkins and others who study the Mayan Apocalypse:  “They’re seeking higher knowledge.  They look for knowledge framed in mystery.  And there aren’t many mysteries left, because science has decoded most of them.”  The mystery is another link with short fiction.  Author John Edgar Wideman, also quoted by May, says that short stories “…acknowledge the mystery at the center of things…challenge the vision of reality most consenting adults rely upon day by day.” 

So I decided that I’m on a quest for the fabled device known as the Sampo, a thing that will grind out the salt and flour and gold of reading for me forevermore.  It’s a quest for a literary precession of the equinoxes; for a kind of Mayan Apocalypse in reading, a “fresh awareness of what it means to be alive”; for the key that unlocks the mystery of the short story so I can better understand  how a good one can “rock the axis of your world.” 

There’s just a possibility that there is no such Sampo.  A year from now, I might find that I was chasing a MacGuffin all along.  More on that possibility later.

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About readersquest

I'm a retired naval officer and writer. I live with my husband, two sons, and several family pets in a house in the woods.
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One Response to Seeking a Sampo and Tilting at Windmills

  1. Ric says:

    The Sampo: no-one knows precisely what it is, and what it is, is likely to be complex given Finland’s watershed culture on the edge of hunter-gatherer perspectives and the industry and agriculture to the east and west. It means that whatever the Sampo is, has a multi layered symbolism. The word ‘sampo’ may derive from Sanskrit ‘skambha’ or ‘stambha’ meaning a pillar. In which case it may be a loan-word from a once neighbouring culture dating back thousands of years. Indeed, some scholars see a parallel between the stambha pillar and the Sivalinga holy pillar (anicon) of India today, an image celebrating divine procreation. Another parallel may be found in Ireland’s prehistoric Bullaun Stones which resemble both corn grinding querns and the Shivalinga. Consequently there may be suggestions of some ‘sacred marriage’ between sky and earth here.

    The creation of the Sampo is linked with the mythical ‘Pohja’ or land of the north in the Finnish epic called the Kalevala. If the Sampo is a millstone then the image of the starry heavens revolving around the Pole Star may be significant, further so considering the metaphorical pillar of the world’s axis, which is also seen as the trunk of a ‘world tree’ in Finnish myth. Thus we have a fabled millstone being turned by the world’s axis centred on the Pole Star rooted in the earth. Such an image would readily be apprehensible in terms of the grain grinding windmills which appeared in Europe in the Middle Ages and spread to Finland and elsewhere.

    To seek the Sampo is nor exactly ’tilting at windmills’ but the Sampo is not ultimately a physical object, it is an elusive metaphor, a symbol for something else, just like the Grail. The Sampo seen as a fabled millstone is ultimately Neolithic mythic material since among other wonders it deals with the ‘magic’ of turning cereal grain into flour, a process at the very heart and root of western modern civilisation. The concept of the ‘world tree’ is probably even older than that.

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