Kalevala Playing Cards
I'll be honest. I'd never heard of Kalevala prior to hearing about this custom deck. There, now that I've got that confession out of the way, perhaps you won't feel silly if you've never heard of it previously either.
Kalevala Playing Cards, is the latest project from Sunish Chabba, from the Guru Playing Card Company (GPCC), the company that brought us the charming Indian folk art of the Bharata Playing Cards series. So far all of GPCC's previous four decks were based on Indian folk art and mythology, so this is somewhat of a change in direction. But given Sunish's commitment to quality, what we see here is the result of dedication and an appreciation of the wealth that is just waiting to be explored and enjoyed in literature and culture.
The new Kalevala deck is currently up for funding on Kickstarter, and is based on Kalevala, which refers to Karelian and Finnish oral folklore and mythology. Kalevala is a famous epic that is said to have had a profound impact on the young J.R.R Tolkien, creator of the Lord of the Rings - and when you see some of the artwork on these playing cards, you'll understand why! I was fortunate enough to receive a prototype copy of this directly from Sunish himself, so I have had opportunity to see and use this new deck in person, and it is my experience with this prototype that is the basis for the sentiments expressed in this review.
This deck consists of entirely hand-drawn artwork, and that starts with the delightful art on the tuck box. It was important to Sunish to stay true to Kalevala and Finnish folklore, and that's evident already just by looking at the box.
The central character of the Kalevala epic, Väinämöinen, is often depicted in paintings and illustrations holding a sword, and what is seen here reflects research of Finnish sword designs from 8th-9th century onwards, with knots/scrollwork. It also has a simple colour scheme which emphasizes the legendary roots of the tale that the deck tells.
The Kalevala epic
But first, before we dive into this deck, let's just share a few essentials about Kalevala, to help us appreciate what we're about to see. The Kalevala is considered to be the national epic of Finland, and was compiled and edited from oral tradition by Elias Lönnrot, the first written version being published in 1835. Kalevala is the poetic name for Finland, and means “land of heroes", and refers to the place where the poem's main characters live. This 19th century epic poem is considered to be an important cultural inspiration for the Finnish people, and has been translated into about 50 languages.
The Wikipedia article on this poem describes its significance as follows: "The Kalevala was instrumental in the development of the Finnish national identity, the intensification of Finland's language strife and the growing sense of nationality that ultimately led to Finland's independence from Russia in 1917." It has also inspired many important works of art. To give you some idea of the size of it: this is a beast that consists of no less than 22,795 lines of poetry!
As for its subject material, it deals with the story of a people, starting with the traditional Finnish creation myth which recounts the origins of the world, all the way up to the introduction of Christianity. Some of the characters that inhabit this story include the old and wise leader Väinämöinen, a powerful seer who is master of the harp-like Finnish kantele; Ilmarinen, a skilled smith involved in forging the lids of heaven at the creation of the world; Lemminkäinen, the carefree adventurer-warrior and charmer of women; Louhi, the female ruler of the northern land of Pohjola, a powerful and enemy land in the north; and Kullervo, a hero tragically forced to be a slave from his childhood.
Besides the creation of the world, the epic deals with the adventures of some of these characters as they travel to Pohjola to woo Louhi's daughter. It's during that episode that the magical sampo mill is forged for the people of Kalevala. Towards the end there are hints of Christianity, with the pagan leader Väinämöinen making way for a new king of Karelia, whose mother is a maid called Marjatta, a character reminiscent of the virgin Mary.
Sunish has poured a lot of time and research into the making of this deck. As part of that, he has consulted extensively with Indian poet and translator Vishnu Khare, who was awarded Order of the White Rose of Finland for his Hindi translation of this literary work, and is extremely knowledgeable about it.
All four Aces have an oversized pip, which has enough ornate decoration to make it look elegant, and yet which has somewhat of a primitive and vintage feel, appropriate for an epic.
Just like the successful Bharata deck that preceded it, the Kalevala deck was created in collaboration with Ishan Trivedi, a top Indian illustrator who has won awards and praise for his earlier work with Guru Playing Card Company. The style of drawing fits the thematic material perfectly, and I have seen feedback from people from Finland who spoke very positively about this aspect of the deck. The artwork uses a mono-coloured line style of drawing, which gives it an authentic old world field; this is strengthened by the antique look of the background artwork on the faces of all the cards.
The court cards are one of my favourite parts of this deck, and depict various characters from the epic.
Featured are the following (in order of King, Queen and Jack):
- Spades: Väinämöinen the main character, Aino the sister of Joukahainen, and Joukahainen.
- Clubs: Marjatta’s son the King of Karelia, Marjatta his mother, and Sampsa Pellervoinen the god of fertility.
- Diamonds: Seppo Ilmarinen the inventor blacksmith who creates Sampo, the Maiden of Pohjola who is the wife of Ilmarinen and daughter of Louhi, and Kullervo the tragic enslaved youth.
- Hearts: Lemminkäinen, Lemminkainen's Mother, and Tiera the friend of Lemminkäinen.
The card backs have a background that looks like antique parchment, with browned edges, creating an old world feel which really contributes to the legendary feel of this deck, and entirely fitting for a tribute to what is a national epic. The Kalevala is also the origin of Tolkien's concept of a rescue by eagles, and this is part of the reason why the card backs feature this image.
All the names of all the characters featured in the deck will be on an extra card included with the deck.
I also love the number cards. The pips are all oversized, and remind me of the style I've seen in playing cards from previous centuries stretching back to the playing cards from 15th century France, and this also contributes to an overall effect of a vintage feel. A soft maroon colour is used for the hearts and diamonds, which complements the black colour well, and prevents the indices and pips from making the rest of the artwork look cheap.
It would have been easy to have gone wrong here, either by using a garish red, or a modern font. But the colour choices and slightly unusual font that is used for the indices does just enough to make the deck feel unique, while at the same time ensuring that it is perfectly functional and recognizable in the event you did want to use this for playing card games.
The Jokers depict the sorceress Louhi, who steals the Sampo and provokes Ilmarinen and Väinämöinen to enter her stronghold to get it, leading to the combat between Louhi and Väinämöinen in which the sorceress is defeated.
The main deck will be printed with USPCC, so you can be assured of outstanding quality. The prototype deck which I have was printed by Shuffled Ink based in Florida, and I was pleasantly surprised with its quality as well; it certainly fanned and spread beautiful out of the box, although I'm not sure how it would stand up in the long term with frequent use. Then again, that's not something we need to worry about given that the published product will be USPCC printed.
If you want to see all the cards, you can also see the entire prototype deck in a video Sunish has made available here.
The Kalevala and Tolkien
Those who appreciate J.J.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings will also find much to enjoy about this deck. Tolkien is known to have drawn inspiration from Finnish and Nordic myths as the background to Middle Earth. When working on a Classics degree at age 21, he even attempted to learn Finnish, as part of his obsession with the Kalevala.
As an illustration of the influence of the Kalevala on Tolkien, it is very evident that much of Tolkien's account of Túrin Turambar in The Silmarillion is derived very deliberately from Kalevala. This will be easily recognized by readers familiar with the Kalevala's story of the tragic warrior hero Kullervo. In one of his letters Tolkien mentions that he was doing a reworking of one of the stories from the Kalevala, and in another letter (1955) he stated that "the beginning of the legendarium [...] was in an attempt to reorganize some of the Kalevala, especially the tale of Kullervo the hapless, into a form of my own." You can read more about this in various places online (including here and here and here and here).
The Limited Edition
In his past projects Sunish has produced top-of-the-line decks that are especially geared to collectors who want the very best, and that's the case with his Kalevala project as well. A Limited Edition of the deck will have the same images and artwork on the cards, but will these will have gold gilded edges for an antique look. The tuck box will have a different colour with red being the chief colour, and will be embossed and have gold foil accents for a more luxurious touch and lavish look. Less than 500 of these decks will be produced, and these will come with an individually numbered seal.
This limited edition deck will be printed by WJPC in China, the same outfit that did the main Bharata Series 2 deck. I have a copy of that deck, and was fairly impressed with its quality, which I'd rate between MPC and USPCC, and certainly more than adequate for a collector.
The project also has add-ons like art prints, uncut sheets, sword tie clips, cuff links, and something I've never seen offered before in a playing card project: a real sword forged by a bladesmith in USA! Check the Kickstarter project for all the details on this and more.
Just to give some sense of how good a job this deck does justice to the Kalevala epic, I checked out some reactions that people on the Finland subreddit had to the video that Sunish posted to show what the deck looks like. Here's some of the things they had to say: "Fantastic! Now just shut up and take my money! I want these" (Sumuttaja), "As a fan of Kalevala, I think this is awesome!" (k1ngDOE) "Amazinggg!!" (punakuono), "Wow!!! I want!!!!" (AnaitaWonder), "These look amazing" (IdiotOnInternet), "My wife is from Karelia and I'd love to give these as part of a birthday present" (The_Yellow_King), "These look amazing" (pan666), "Lovely! Also interested in getting a deck" (mjs), "Money being thrown at the screen about now" (XanII), "Amazing work. I want that deck!" (Loitsija), "The style of drawing fits perfectly to the theme" (Lapamato), "Wow!" (tunsku).
Positive comments like these from people who are familiar with Finland's culture and heritage are good evidence that this deck is indeed a fitting tribute to the famous Kalevala work!
The Kalevala Playing Cards deck is a dramatic change in direction from Sunish's previous Divine Art and Bharata decks, but what it shares with those is a loyalty to cultural traditions, and a desire to be true to folklore. Even though the subject material of this deck covers a different culture, what it has in common with those other decks is careful attention to detail, which is the result of significant research, and an artistic design that captures essential elements of the source material. With the Kalevala deck, Sunish Chabba has created a wonderful tribute to a classic epic, which will be enjoyed and appreciated by anyone who has a love for epic stories, Finnish myths and history, or even those who appreciate Tolkien.
Sunish Chabba is an experienced creator at this point, with a proven track record for fulfilling his projects speedily and on time. While the Kalevala Playing Cards marks a departure from his previous decks on an artistic and stylistic level, it is not unlike them in its goal of sharing something that is of cultural significance, in a fine and quality edition. I for one am glad of the opportunity to have learned about the Kalevala via this deck, and it single handedly helped me discover something more about the influences behind Tolkien's work. And as a collector of quality playing cards I'm only too pleased to add a unique deck like this to my collection!
Want to learn more? Visit Guru Playing Cards, where you can get the decks created by Sunish Chabba:
- Kickstarter: Kalevala Playing Cards
- Social media: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter
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- Last edited Sun Aug 5, 2018 7:34 am (Total Number of Edits: 1)
- Posted Sat Aug 4, 2018 4:32 pm
Unlike most, I guess, I clicked on these because of the Kalevala, not the playing cards!! One of my favorite epics -- now to spend the next few days waffling about backing or not.
Thanks for the review, Ender -- I always look for yours.
Unlike most, I guess, I clicked on these because of the Kalevala, not the playing cards!! One of my favorite epics
It's been on my (ever-growing) "to read" list for years, but I'm finally going to read it before next summer (due to visiting Finland next summer).
Good job. It can be seen that the artist drew not superficial maps. And I studied the question deeply.
An exciting news to share:
National Museum of Finland is going to have Väinämöinen's sword, Kalevala limited edition deck and Väinämöinen sotto (canvas print) as the part of their educational collection. All of these were created as part of my last Kickstarter project based on Finland's national epic, Kalevala and most of you here who backed that project as well, will recognize the above. It is an honor, and I am glad that I worked on this project. I'd received the email from the curator 3 days ago & had been working to send the items to the Museum.