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

The Story of Kullervo by J.R.R. Tolkien
3.75
Book Name: The Story of Kullervo
Author: J.R.R. Tolkien
Publisher(s): HarperCollins
Formatt: Hardcover / Ebook
Genre(s): Classic Fantasy / Mythology
Release Date: August 27, 2015

TolkienThe last few years have seen the publication of several of Tolkien’s versions of the literary works that sparked his imagination and influenced Middle Earth. From the poems of Sigurd and Gudrun and The Fall of Arthur to his translation of Beowulf, these renditions are a fascinating look at Tolkien’s creative engagement with the European stories that he studied.

A short story and prose retelling of the Kullervo cycle in the Karelian and Finnish epic poem Kalevala. The Story of Kullervo is, in Tolkien’s words, ‘the germ of my attempt to write legends of my own.’ Published with Tolkien’s drafts, notes and lecture-essays on its source-work, and finished by Verlyn Flieger’s analysis of its importance in the Tolkien canon, this slim volume is one for the hardcore Tolkien fans.

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 there is no escape from the cruellest of fates…

Roughly forty pages in length, The Story of Kullervo is one of several influences on Tolkien, and a clear ancestor of the epic story of Turin Turambar from The Silmarillion and The Children of Hurin, sharing not only a similar protagonist but also family figures, symbolic weapons and tragic plot twists. It’s compelling, but lacks a coherent world against which the story can be played out, and much of the first half feels like a melancholy coming of age tale, rather than the consistent high Greek tragedy and sense of foreboding sustained throughout The Children of Hurin.

Despite this and Turin’s greater psychological complexity, the depth of Kullervo as a protagonist is incredible for such a short fantasy, and it’s intriguing as a Tolkien fan to compare this early test of his creative power. The second half of the story is a masterclass in narrative drive and control, and, incomplete though it is, it’s a wonderful glimpse of the epic tragedy that Tolkien perfected later in his writing.

There’s an eerie otherworldliness to the Finnish landscapes that this story and the rest of the Kalevala occupy, and a sense that magic is a perfectly natural element. You can understand why Tolkien was so captivated, and the loneliness and desolation is certainly echoed later in the First Age lands that Turin lives in.

For the average fantasy reader, reading the equivalent of a first draft and scholarly analysis probably isn’t their idea of a good time. If you’re a writer, however, the comparison of Kullervo with the original epic and with Turin from The Children of Hurin makes this much more interesting. Seeing the development of the characters and the worldbuilding from each work is fascinating, and it is touching to see Tolkien effectively fangirling over the Kalevala in a way that might bring back memories of reading his books for the first time.

song-hiawatha-departureI particularly enjoyed Tolkien’s frequent digs at Henry Longfellow’s poem The Song of Hiawatha, which also took inspiration from the Kalevala (he calls Longfellow ‘a rather dull American don’), and Tolkien’s delight in the Finnish language. His lecture-essays are a premonition of his obsession with the importance of language in a country’s stories, and vice versa; it is no coincidence that Finnish was a great influence on one of his elvish languages, Quenya.

As a lifelong Tolkien reader, I give it 7.5 stars for the early glimpse of Tolkien’s command of high tragedy, and insight into the evolving imaginative landscape of his writing, but others may find the story too short and the essays a bit dry.

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Rating: 9.0/10 (3 votes cast)
The Story of Kullervo by J.R.R. Tolkien, 9.0 out of 10 based on 3 ratings
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