The Vaaräsiin is the national literary epic of Karolia. It is a series of related chapters or 'runes' based on the myth of a young boy, Kalet, and his journey into a mighty warrior who defeats several tyrannous warlords and mythical monsters to unite a kingdom. The first written version of the poem dates from the 15th century, but the stories are of unknown antiquity and may originally date back as far as the second or third centuries BC. The Vaaräsiin played an important role in the establishment of the Karolian Nationalist movement in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, with the text often altered for political ends.
The opening book sets the scene: on earth, a series of small fiefdoms are ruined by war, poverty and tyrannous rule, and bands of mercenaries roam the countryside, murdering and thieving from the peasants who have not already been killed by the fighting or famine. One such band raids the village where the young Kalet lives, killing all but the boy, who has been up in the mountains feeding the sheep. When he returns to find the village burned and the people, including his parents and siblings, slaughtered, he assumes he too will die soon.
Kalet is approached by a mysterious stranger from the forest who is unlike any man he has ever seen. He does not know that the figure is the shaman Hiirtimaiken, an avatar of the god Lautinen, nor that Lautinen/Hiirtimaiken is interested in the boy because of a prophecy he has heard, which states that an orphan, pure of heart and sinless, is the only one who can find and restore to power the mysterious object known as the Siike. The Siike was a golden vessel of fire created by the mother-goddess Aulaume and has the ability to communicate with the dead ancestors, allow the gods to move between avatars and restore peace to the earth.
Kalet journeys with Hiirtimaiken into the forest, where he slowly starts to become aware that the cloaked stranger possesses magical powers. They travel far over the mountains until they reach a hall in which the gods dwell on earth. Like the land, they too are becoming ravished and weakening due to the absence of the Siike.
Kalet begins to be trained as a warrior, is taught to handle a sword, the bow and to ride as well as some magical abilities. At the same time, Lautinen and the other gods try to question him for any knowledge of the Siike, but he cannot tell them anything. Kalet is still unaware of their true identity
Kalet grows into a young man, handsome and a skilled fighter who is a match for the gods. Lautinen decides to reveal himself to the boy and induct him into the mission to find the Siike. He tells Kalet that the gods must leave earth to restore their health, but gives him several magical objects including a sword, spear, eagle and horn to aid him on his quest.
Kalet journeys alone using the eagle to guide him. He meets many foes along the way, firstly the bandits of the road whom he defeats easily with cunning, and then the dark spirits of the forest. Kalet is able to call upon good spirits to help him, but loses his eagle.
Whilst escaping from the forest, Kalet has taken a red bird that was apparently captured by the spirits. It is able to talk with humans and somewhat reluctantly agrees to stay with Kalet and guide him on his quest. The next obstacle to overcome is to trick one of the warlords into fighting another, both of whom are under the spell of an evil sorceress. Kalet tricks his way into the king's court in disguise and succeeds in this part of the mission, however gives himself away on the way out when he tries to seduce the eldest of the king's beautiful daughters, who are also under the spell. Kalet escapes, but his mission is now known to the sorceress and Jutokappi, the devil. He is also prone to becoming distracted by the desire for the eldest daughter.
Kalet must now journey north to find the Siike whilst the armies continue to fight. He is bitter at seeing the continued devastation of the land but is visited by the goddess Sarepa who alleys his fears and gives him a magical object; a kantala (the traditional small harp) which if he can master will be able to bewitch any creature. In the forests of the north he comes to a hall where a band of lords ceaselessly feast day and night. After taking up their hospitality for a night Kalet suspects that they have been bewitched but cannot persuade anyone to let him leave, nor can he fight his way out.
The bird, which has shown few of its powers up to now, reveals to Kalet that this was the band of mercenaries that killed his family and in a rage he kills them all.
Kalet travels on towards the domain of the Queen of the North, a witch who can be both on the side of the gods and against them. The witch-queen sets Kalet a series of seemingly impossible tasks; firstly, thread an egg through the eye of a needle without breaking it, which Kalet succeeds in doing by carving a gigantic needle. Next, he must capture and serve a savage boar that roams the woods and has killed many hunters; Kalet uses the harp to subdue the beast before spearing it. The third task is to answer a riddle, which he does with ease. The witch-queen now admits that she has used the Siike in the recent past, but that the object has become 'resistant' and that it will now only serve a new master, whoever that may be. She is torn between wanting to possess the Sikke and knowing that it must pass to its new master, but tries to cling on to it by promising Kalet the thing he most desires, hoping to trick him into allowing his soul to be stolen in order to reincarnate his family.
Kalet is ushered into the cave where the witch-queen has been keeping the Siike. He finds the magical object is willing to be taken into his care and immediately performs a ritual to allow the gods to draw upon the strength of the object. The witch-queen then tries to persuade Kalet to cast his little finger into the cauldron in order to resurrent his family, which she will really use in order to control the Siike through him. However, Kalet's real desire is for the king's daughter rather than for black magic and he draws his sword. The witch-queen prepares to kill him but is instead stopped by the red bird, who fights her and destroys the witch-queen's soul. Kalet then sets the bird free.
With the gods restored to full strength, they are able to intervene and fight the scheming Jutokaapi and his minions; armies of giants, unfriendly trolls and evil witches fight against the gods, and a war in heaven and earth wages with the gods eventually victorious. Peace is restored to the earth and one king is proclaimed ruler of all, with Kalet, who marries the eldest daughter, as his hero. The Siike vanishes during the battle, and it will fall to another in the future to find it in the next time of need. However, Kalet has managed to retain some of its power by forging a small device out of gold made in the magical cauldron.
In the Unification period, several aspects of the story were altered or omitted to serve political agendas:
- The use of magic and shamanistic elements was removed as these were still viewed with suspicion at the time. Hiirtimaiken is simply an old man who rescues Kalet and trains him in combat.
- Kalet's name was on occasion changed to 'Karolet' for nationalistic reasons.
- Many of the details of Kalet's warfare were removed to make him a 'purer' character, for example when Kalet finds the mercenaries who killed his family he orders then and their families to be tortured and put to death and their settlement completely destroyed. This was simply related as him having 'avenged' in the altered versions.
See also: Karolian mythology