by J.R.R. Tolkien

Reviewed by Gabriel McMahan

The Story of Kullervo is the most recent in a series of posthumous publications by Tolkien.  This time, the source material—the Kalevala—takes us northward to Karelia, the Land of Heroes, in the eastern part of modern day Finland. Tolkien’s story is more or less lifted from the Kalevala cycle that inspired it, with some minor changes to details of the plot, names, etc.  It follows the title’s eponymous anti-hero Kullervo—reckless, brooding, childish. In the beginning, Kullervo’s father is killed by his uncle Untamo, and the boy is left half-orphaned, under his evil uncle’s fosterage.  Nothing seems to go well for him. Failing to have Kullervo killed, Untamo sells him as a slave to the smith Ilmarinen, but the boy escapes into the wilderness after slaying Ilmarinen’s wife. The story concludes with Kullervo’s revenge and an incident of tragic incest and suicide which will be familiar to readers of Tolkien.

In addition to the story, which is very short, this volume includes a series of essays—two versions of a talk given by Tolkien about Kalevala and another by the work’s editor, Verlyn Flieger. There is also a list of names, in proper Tolkien fashion (disappointingly, there are no maps or genealogies.) The entire contents of the volume were first published in Tolkien Studies in 2010, but this is the first publication of the story or the essays made available to a broader audience. One can’t help but wonder at this choice. Comparing the earlier and later versions of Tolkien’s essay on Kalevala might be of value to the Tolkien scholar or dedicated hobbyist, but it can’t be of too much interest to the casual reader. Why are both versions included, then? One gets the impression that not much editorial effort went into this latest publication—that the whole of the work—story, essays, and all—was simply lifted from Tolkien Studies and put into print.  Nevertheless, the essays themselves provide crucial insight into the influence of Kalevala on his whole sub-creative process.

Tolkien’s work in general is steeped in the mythologies and languages of old Europe (and myth and language are intimately intertwined for Tolkien) but Kalevala bears a special significance. 

It is hard to know quite how to characterize The Story of Kullervo. It is certainly not an original work, but it is not true enough to its source material to work as a retelling. It sits somewhere in between.  Kullervo is mostly written in prose, broken by the occasional segment of poetry in the trochaic tetrameter of the original Kalevala, the most extensive of which in Kullervo is a six-page segment (the version in the Kalevala is over twenty pages) where the wife of Ilmarinen, the smith, offers up an invocation to the various powers of the Finnish mythos to protect her cattle in the forest, herded under the slack and reluctant eye of Kullervo. The expectation is that the invocation is felt to be sung—and this is fitting for a story that makes so much of the creative power of song, a theme which is nowhere more explicit than in the creation story of Tolkien’s own mythos.  Tolkien tends to slip into poetry when the characters are speaking, sometimes to one another, but more often the poetry gives voice to monologues of lamentation, e.g., when Kullervo snaps the heraldic knife of his father. The prose style in this work maintains a certain distance. It is a matter-of-fact recounting of events -not without flourish- but without the introspection that we have come to expect from modern prose fiction. As such, these intrusions into the poetic form introduce a sense of immediacy and introspection. In these moments, we are no longer just hearing the story as it is told, but listening to the characters speak.

But to say too much of Tolkien’s Story of Kullervo in isolation would be to miss the point. This early short story can only rightly be understood as a hinge—a turning point in Tolkien’s sub-creative journey.  We have to read Kullervo in light of other texts. The first text is obviously the Kalevala. The second is Tolkien’s entire mythos. In tales like the story of the Children of Húrin, we find obvious remnants of Kullervo e.g., the tragic incest and double suicide (Túrin and Kullervo fall on their swords; Nienor and Wanona throw themselves into rivers), the talking sword, the heroes’ de facto orphanage and fosterage, etc. But Kalevala pervades Tolkien’s works in more elusive ways.

Tolkien’s work in general is steeped in the mythologies and languages of old Europe (and myth and language are intimately intertwined for Tolkien) but Kalevala bears a special significance.  There is something out of place about it. Something uncanny. It feels at once European and not European at all; totally alien and yet still somewhat familiar. This is in the language itself.  Tolkien’s process began with his love of language—and he draws on the Celtic and Scandinavian languages, and on Greek and Hebrew in his philological play—borrowing roots, suffixes, etc. But in the reading of Quenya, the influence that is most felt and heard is indisputably the language of the Finns, a language which, except for Hebrew, is one of the few non-Indo-European languages that Tolkien draws upon.  This is no accident, as Finnish has the feeling of something very, very old. Of course the Eddas and Celtic stories feel old.  But Finnish feels like the language of a before-time—before an Indo-European Europe—a time disappearing or already lost. And yet Kalevala still evokes a sense of the here-and-now for Tolkien. This probably has something to do with Kalevala’s late transcription. As such, the oral quality of the work is preserved. Unlike Homer or Beowulf or the Eddas, Kalevala’s induction into the literary canon by Lönnrot is a late one.  It has existed as an oral work for far longer.

Why Kullervo’s story impressed itself so especially on Tolkien is answered, or at least speculated upon, at some length in the essays included in this bound copy. The Kullervo cycle is perhaps less robust than the main events of Kalevala, following the wizard-singer Väinämöinen, a precursor to Tolkien’s own wizard Gandalf. Its tragedy is perhaps less grand than that of rowdy Leminkäinen, whose fragmented corpse is fished from the river of death in Tuonela by his grieving mother.  Kullervo is a small figure in the grand scheme of things.  But the story has especial significance for Tolkien, himself an orphan, like Kullervo. And maybe it is just Tolkien’s love of the little guy that draws him to this peripheral figure from Finnish myth.

The text itself, obviously an early experimentation in story for the father of fantasy, holds no great interest in and of itself. It lacks the rawness of the Kalevala, which is only ever found in real oral myth, and it lacks the creative breadth and tragic awe of The Children of Húrin. It is a weaker work than both its source material and the works that grew out of it.
The Story of Kullervo is not a professional work of fiction, and would not likely be published now if it weren’t for Tolkien’s vast literary shadow.  It is better understood as mere literary play.   And it is of especial interest to the budding writer of fantasy. Tolkien is unapologetic in his appropriation of Kalevala in Kullervo. And the story itself is almost entirely derivative, but its writing set the ball rolling, or “set the rocket off in story”, as he put it.

There is a danger with Tolkien to publish any and every scrawl from his private notebooks, in hopes that his very name will draw the readers in.  That may well be what is happening here, and yet I have to say that I am happy that The Story of Kullervo is on the shelves.  It is a work I would not have discovered otherwise, and which I found deeply edifying as a lover of both Tolkien and Kalevala. I can’t recommend The Story of Kullervo to a more casual audience, but readers of Silmarillion should definitely pick this one up.