The Story of Kullervo
By: J.R.R. Tolkien, Verilyn Flieger (editor)
Format/Source: Hardback; my purchase
The world first publication of a previously unknown work of fantasy by J.R.R. Tolkien, which tells the powerful story of a doomed young man who is sold into slavery and who swears revenge on the magician who killed his father.
Kullervo son of Kalervo is perhaps the darkest and most tragic of all J.R.R. Tolkien’s characters. ‘Hapless Kullervo’, as Tolkien called him, is a luckless orphan boy with supernatural powers and a tragic destiny.
Brought up in the homestead of the dark magician Untamo, who killed his father, kidnapped his mother, and who tries three times to kill him when still a boy, Kullervo is alone save for the love of his twin sister, Wanona, and guarded by the magical powers of the black dog, Musti. When Kullervo is sold into slavery he swears revenge on the magician, but he will learn that even at the point of vengeance there is no escape from the cruellest of fates.
Tolkien himself said that The Story of Kullervo was ‘the germ of my attempt to write legends of my own’, and was ‘a major matter in the legends of the First Age’. Tolkien’s Kullervo is the clear ancestor of Túrin Turambar, tragic incestuous hero of The Silmarillion. In addition to it being a powerful story in its own right, The Story of Kullervo – published here for the first time with the author’s drafts, notes and lecture-essays on its source-work, The Kalevala – is a foundation stone in the structure of Tolkien’s invented world.
The publication of this manuscript of Tolkien’s in 2015 actually snuck up on me; I wasn’t aware of it until some three months before its release. Naturally I was excited; it’s always interesting to find out more of Tolkien’s works, finished or unfinished, things he was thinking about. I was especially excited about this piece because it’s his attempt to fashion his own story from one of the stories and characters from The Kalevala (review), the Finnish epic. I read the epic myself a few years ago after learning how much of his own work was influenced by the piece and here I was very interested to see how he handles such a tale.
Suffice to say, The Story of Kullervo, the story itself that Tolkien worked on briefly, was interesting and very much his own approach to the story. I have yet to revisit the story itself in the original tale but my first impression was that you can really see where he was influenced for The Children of Hurin (review): the tragedy, the darkness, the misery. Like The Fall of Arthur (review) it does sort of cut off right when things hit the climax of the story (personally I don’t blame him, I’ve done this on occasion too, haha), but this publication does include a brief outline of what Tolkien planned on writing afterwards and how the story was going to end. So there’s that at least 🙂
I will have to say that perhaps this book is not for the casual reader, Tolkien or otherwise. Do you have to know the original tale from The Kalevala? No, but I did find Tolkien’s rendition to be a lot heavier/denser to get through than Keith Bosley’s translation of the epic itself (the current translation in the Oxford World’s Classics edition that’s available) and more so than The Silmarillion (review). Granted this tale was mostly written in prose than in verse, but still. But what’s also really cool is that this book really does delve much into Tolkien’s interests and how he gets into the epics, The Kalevala, and informs his future writing. I’ve read comments in the past noting how a lot of the recent publications of his unfinished works are mostly padding, but the academic essays included here are really interesting. Tolkien’s own presentation, making a case for The Kalevala and why it should be read, was quite a read; it spoke to me in a way that I totally understood where he was coming from and agreed as to why it should be read and checked out, it really is unlike a lot of the Scandinavian epics that are more recognisable and well-known.
So overall I thought The Story of Kullervo was an interesting read, more informative in understanding Tolkien’s writing, what he thought about The Kalevala and how reading the epic shaped his future thinking, academic research and interests, and his writings leading up to everything Middle Earth. Perhaps not for everyone but a fascinating read nonetheless.