Over the past few years we’ve seen several releases of J.R.R. Tolkien’s retellings of ancient tales combined with scholarly notes/lectures by him: The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, The Fall of Arthur, and Beowulf. At some point (for all I know, we’ve already reached it) the posthumously published material is going to be greater than what appeared in his lifetime. I have no idea how he himself would react to that, but as a fan, I’m pretty much in the “keep ‘em comin’” mode. The newest one is The Story of Kullervo, edited and annotated by Verlyn Flieger, and it falls more to the side of the Arthurian tale in that it’s probably best for Tolkien completists rather than casual fans of either Tolkien himself or of myths and legends.
Interestingly, the most recent publication is actually the oldest in terms of when it was composed, which is roughly between 1912 and 1916 (it’s a bit fuzzy), when Tolkien was still a student and before he went off to war. The source mythology in this case is the Finnish collection of tales known as the Kalevala, translated as “Land of Heroes.” More precisely, it’s the story of Kullervo, a dark story of murder, incest, family betrayal, and suicide. Tolkien fans may be nodding their heads at this point thinking, hmm, that sounds kinda familiar… As well it might, as Kullervo’s story is clearly a precursor to Tolkien’s great tragedy of Turin Turambar, which was told in The Silmarillion and then fleshed out a bit as an independent story in The Children of Hurin.
How taken by the Kalevala was Tolkien? So much so that he tried to teach himself Finnish in order to read it in its original language (he remarks he was “repulsed with heavy losses”). More dedicated fans might recall as well that Tolkien’s original attempts at his Elvish language were, as he noted, heavily influenced by Finnish. So, clearly, this material had some long-lasting influence on him.
The Story of Kullervo itself runs only about 40 pages and is only “sort of” finished. What I mean by that is it abruptly breaks off at the close of one scene and what follows is a note-form description of how it ends, more quick outline (only about a page) than anything else. The construction is a mix of prose and poetry and song (another presaging of his later work) and I can’t say for instance that the six-page “Prayer of the Kine,” where one character asks the godfather to “Guard my kine O gracious Ilu/From the perils in the pathway/That they come not into danger” did much for me. It doesn’t help that Tolkien hadn’t yet settled on names or was employing the myth trope of naming a character with several appellations, so that “Kullervo” suddenly becomes ”Kuli” or ”Sake” or ”Sari, ” among others.
In fact, of all four legend/myth retellings, this was the one I had the most difficulty with and found the least engaging. Some of it reads like not-so-great faux high fantasy style with word/sentence inversions, sooths and spakes and whilsts, and lots of sentences beginning with “And,” etc. Which, of course, is unsurprising given that this is probably Tolkien’s first attempt at prose. I shudder to think of anyone reading my college-years writing, believe me.
As for plot, when Kullervo’s father is killed, he and his sister are taken in by the killer (Kullervo’s uncle) and mightily abused. When his uncle worries Kullervo might be a threat, he tries to kill him but, thanks to some magic hair from a magic talking hound named Musti, Kullervo survives all three attempts, only to be sold into slavery. When he is abused there by his master’s wife, he kills her (actually, he has a pack of wolves and bear tear her apart) and heads back home, after being gone for years. On the way he runs into a fair maiden, abducts her, eventually wins her over, and the two live together as lovers for a while until it is revealed that she is actually his sister. She kills herself, he goes home and kills everyone there, and then he turns his sword (who tells him he’s pleased to drink his blood) upon himself.
There’s absolutely a tragic drive to The Story of Kullervo, even if the narrative structure and style is rough going. But of more interest probably are the many connections to the Turin story, such as that talking sword. The notes are also fascinating in how they depict Tolkien already in the process of turning already-existent myths to his own ends, changing and shaping them to fit his desires. The addition of the hound Musti (think great hounds of Celtic myth and guardians of the underworld rather than talking dog) is one such example, as is making the sister Kullervo’s twin and naming her “Weeping.” Those interested in the writer’s craft will also enjoy the few pages of synopsis notes that show Tolkien working through various alternative endings and plots.
The two included lectures (really two versions of a single lecture on the Kalevala) are interesting both in how they offer up themes and topics Tolkien will revisit in his later fiction and for Tolkien’s views on not just the Kalevala but myth and legend in general. Written as lectures, these are not overly academic, and any points (not many) that may fly past the non-scholar are lucidly and concisely explained in Flieger’s notes that follow. And it’s hard not to get caught up in Tolkien’s enthusiasm as he describes how:
In the Kalevala, there is often no attempt at even the limited plausibility of the fairy-tale, no cunning concealment of the impossible — only the child’s delight in saying that he has cut down a million trees… Its delight depends on the dawning perception of the limits of ordinary human possibility and at the same time of the limitless power of movement and of creation of the human fancy and imagination.
Finally, after Tolkien’s lectures is an insightful essay by Flieger taking a closer look at what of the original Finnish tale Tolkien chose to keep and what to discard and thus tracing how “The Story of Kullervo was an essential step on Tolkien’s road from adaptation to invention that resulted in The Silmarillion.”
The Story of Kullervo is not a work to pick up for itself, as might be said, say, of Tolkien’s Beowulf or The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, each of which stand on their own as decent reads. Personally I found the hints of what was to come with The Silmarillion and Flieger’s essay fascinating, and thoroughly enjoyed Tolkien’s lectures. But my guess is this book is really of interest only to diehard Tolkien fans who aren’t so much looking for a story as for the path to a story. If that description fits you, then this is a book you’ll want to pick up since the source influence is so clear and because Flieger’s notes and essays are so good in tracing that path. If you’re not a diehard or completist, you won’t be missing much by passing on The Story of Kullervo and choosing to reread THE LORD OF THE RINGS instead.