Kyiv, 21st of May, 2008 at the Embassy of Finland to Ukraine

Presentation of the Ukrainian translation of Topelius’ Stories

Your Excellencies
Ladies and Gentlemen
Pani ta Panove

Thank you very much for the invitation to represent the Topelius Society on this festive occasion which marks the presentation of the book “The Sea King’s Gift, and Other Tales from Finland”.

Zacharias Topelius (1818-1898) was an author, university rector, social critic and respected opinion leader in Finland. He was an acknowledged pioneer in many fields: as a journalist, playwright and author of children’s literature and historical novels. He had a great impact on the society and culture of our country. Even today you can find his “finger-prints” for instance in the blue and white colours of our flag or in the way we celebrate Christmas.

What greatly interests me personally is his attitude towards women and girls. Topelius was engaged as the secretary of the Ladies’ Society for 13 years. He developed a special interest in women’s education and supported girls’ schools as he believed that boys and girls should be given the same kind of spirited and healthy education. This was quite an uncommon thought in his time. As the rector of the University of Helsinki, he advocated women’s right to pursue academic studies. Secondly he was the first children’s author to write about girls as principal characters. Girls in his stories are described not only as good and charming but also as intelligent, sensible and desirous of knowledge, often in contrast to power-seeking boys and men. In one of his stories “Aunt Mirabeau”, one of his characters predicts that in 100 years there will be more female than male doctors. I wonder how he was able to foresee this at a time when women were still not allowed to study at university!

In 1998 as 100 years had elapsed since his death and 180 since his birth, Topelius was commemorated nationally with concerts, exhibitions, seminars, lectures and performances. A medal -- the eighth of Topelius -- was made to mark the anniversary. On it Topelius is shown in his active years. On the reverse there are many symbols. There is a big tree and at its roots, there are two children. A star is twinkling through its leaves. This reminds us of Topelius’ most famous story “The Birch and the Star”. In it, a girl and a boy are carried away to another country during a war. Although people are kind to them, they long for their home, parents and sisters. Every evening they fall asleep crying. One day they finally escape. They put their trust in God. As they struggle through woods and briars, they notice two small birds which seem to be guiding them on their way. Finally they find the birch, see the star and know that they have reached home. Their old parents are alive but alone as their two younger sisters have died. This story drew on family history, on “real life”, for Topelius’ great-grandfather was seized by Cossacks when he was young and taken to Russia. After some years he escaped and made his way back to Finland and then to Sweden where he finally found his mother.

Love and longing for your native country is central to ‘The Birch and the Star’ -- a theme that was at the heart of much of Topelius’ writing for children. Topelius lived in the 19th century, at a time when nation states were beginning to form. He realised that in order to be able to love their country, children must learn to know the land, its history, culture and people. To this end, he wrote “The Book of Our Country” (Maamme-kirja / Boken om vårt land)”. Published in 1875, it was to play a seminal role in the development of a Finnish national consciousness and might have influenced books with similar aims elsewhere in Europe. In France, for instance, a book entitled “Le Tour de la France par Deux Enfants” came out two years later. Topelius’ book became a real bestseller and was read in schools by generations of children until the 1950s.

But let us look once more at the commemorative medal. The tree carries a banner with the text “Oh teach us to love our fair land” written in Swedish. This is a verse from one of Topelius’ most beloved songs which praises Finnish nature. A second text from the “Spinning Song” sung by a bride is in Finnish: “I embroider my love with the brightness of the stars”. You might wonder why there are texts in two languages. Finland has two official languages, Finnish and Swedish. At the time of Topelius, in the mid -19th century, there was a great dispute about which of these languages would be the official one. Topelius’ ideal was “one country, two languages” -- an ideal which should be remembered and was drawn from the history of our country.

An old saying goes:
If you want to get to know a time, learn its songs
If you want to know a nation, learn its songs
If you wish to know a person, learn his or her songs

I am convinced that by telling and listening to stories and tales, we reach across borders and glimpse the inner nature of other people, of other nations. Stories help us to communicate, understand and enjoy each other. I think this is one of the important functions of literature.

Today we celebrate the publication of Topelius’ stories translated into Ukrainian. This is a remarkable cultural event. I wish to congratulate two people for this great achievement: the translator, Professor Nataliya Ivanychuk and Maryana Savka, the editor in chief of the Stariy Lev Publishing house. I met Maryana a few years ago at a book fair and was fascinated by the wide variety of children’s books published by her company.

On behalf of the Topelius Society, I bring you its heartfelt congratulations and thanks. Now I also have the honour of presenting you with the Topelius medal.

Dyakuyu vam, dorohi druzi!
Dear friends, thank you very much!

Laura Finne-Elonen
Vice-Chair of the Topelius Society in Finland

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