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.