The Story of Kullervo by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Story of Kullervo 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 Story of Kullervo by J.R.R. Tolkien

Edited by Verlyn Flieger

Genre: Fantasy

Published: September 1 2015

Acquired: Review copy from Harper Voyager Australia

Thoughts:

This edition includes Tolkien’s poetic retelling of the Finnish revenge folktale, The Kalevala. The revenge tale itself is filled with family betrayals, neglect and dark magic.  In some of the darker moments of the story, Kullervo forces people to shift into wolves and turns to talking swords for advice, which, I found to be quite creepy. (The last talking sword I encountered was in Brandon Sanderson’s Warbreaker – a book I also really enjoyed.)

Since this is a preserved draft, the character name changes are confusing at first, but the notes provided clarity. Tolkien’s original retelling of the tale also ends abruptly. Though I appreciated the inclusion of his outline for alternate endings. There’s something comforting about reading another writer’s process – especially when a reader gets to glimpse the possible directions and ways for the story to unfold.

Tolkien’s love for this folklore is clear. In Tolkien’s personal essay on the original Finnish folklore, he acknowledges and laments over the difficulties of trying to both learn and and translate another language. It’s also interesting to learn that he thought British mythology was quite fragmented, especially considering the later impact of his work.

Though I didn’t agree with some of Tolkien’s early comments on folktales from outside of Britain. For example, Tolkien likened his initial discovery of certain folklore to Columbus and his ‘discovery’ of a new land. Also, the references to an ‘alien East’ carries contextual connotations of Othering.

On the other hand, I really loved the editor’s notes to the essay. These notes expands upon how folktales were perceived over time, which in turn, gives an insight into the context of this essay. For example:

I enjoyed this edition of The Story of Kullervo. In particular, the look at Tolkien’s early work, a glimpse of Finnish mythology (of which I had only previously encountered in Hannu Rajaniemi‘s work) and the in depth commentary of the two. This book is a thorough look at a retelling of a Finnish folktale that was evidently important to Tolkien’s mythological roots.

Thanks to Chiara for placing this book on my radar!

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3 thoughts on “The Story of Kullervo by J.R.R. Tolkien

  1. I’m fairly undecided whether this is something I want to read or would even overly enjoy. I think I’d find a lot of interest in the alternate ending outlines and the history and all those elements that are included here, but I have a feeling it wouldn’t actually be a story I’d enjoy. Although hey, turning people into wolves and talking to talking swords? I might be wrong. Possibly it’s going to be interesting from a writing point of view, but no so much enjoyable from a reading one.
    Lovely review, Glaiza! xx

    Like

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