Expectations before reading
“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 cruelest of fates.”
On the back of the book it also says:
“Kullervo son of Kalervo is perhaps the darkest and most tragic of all J.R.R. Tolkien’s characters. ‘Hapless Kullvero’, as Tolkien called him, is a luckless orphan boy with supernatural powers and a tragic destiny.”
“Tolkien wrote 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’; his Kullervo was the ancestor of Túrin Turambar, tragic incestuous hero of The Children of Húrin. In addition to 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-essay on its source-work, the Kalevala, is a foundation stone in the structure of Tolkien’s invented world.”
So. I am very curious about this story. While I was working on my Master’s Thesis I had to deal quite a lot with the Finnish national Epic Kalevala and especially with the story of Kullervo. One of the texts above suggests that Kullervo is a Character invented by Tolkien. Which is not true. I have read the Kalevala-Version of Kullervo. I am very curious how Tolkien adapts this story. The Kalevala is more like a very long poem. So it is not like reading a good novel. It is.. I am not sure how to put it into words. You have to imagine a lot more that is happening. Or read between lines. As it is with poems. So.. I am really thrilled to have this story as a novel here.
Kind of funny that Tolkien’s Kullervo is supposed to be the ancestor of Túrin. When reading The Children of Húrin I always thought how similar the story was to the Kalevala-Story of Kullervo. And I knew that Tolkien had been inspired by Finnish mythology. So I thought he adapted those stories and created something new, like in Children of Húrin. Therefore I was so surprised to find The Story of Kullervo.
I am also curious what the foreword and introduction will say on the matter that the Character of Kullervo was not invented by Tolkien.
This book was not what I expected. It did include a story. But most of it was kind of a scientific approach. An essay. It wouldn’t make any sense to go with my usual rating.
Still, to at least somewhat stick to the style of my other reviews I’ll do the star rating first:
As I mentioned in the “expectations before reading” section I thought it would be the story of Kullervo. In a more novel-like style. Well. It was. The book included the story of Kullervo. But when I first looked at the table of contents I realized that this book was a lot more.
The author started out with a foreword to the book followed by an introduction to the story. This introduction gives the reader a short overview over the Finnish history, the history and the role of the Kalevala in Finnish society. It also explains how Tolkien worked on his story and hints some changes he made from the original story.
Then there is the actual story of Kullervo. It is rather short. The style is somewhat old-fashioned. Which is not surprising, since the Silmarillion is also written in this style. You can still see that Kullervo was one of Tolkien’s earlier stories. His style definitely improved later. Once more you can see all the parallels to Tolkien’s story The Children of Húrin. It is more or less the same story. And this is no secret, the author also pointed out that Kullervo was the inspiration for Túrin Turambar, the protagonist of The Children of Húrin. Already in his story of Kullervo you can see Tolkien’s tendency of changing the names of the characters during the course of the story. Which is confusing. Sometimes it took me a while to realize that there was no new character but the character had just a new name. (This is even worse in The Children of Húrin).
The story itself is not a really pleasant story. No sympathetic characters, a cruel story. But that is nothing Tolkien is to blame for. No, it is quite the contrary: Tolkien made this depressing story a bit more pleasant to read.
The story is followed by a more scientific approach. Drafts of the story with notes and comments and explanations of names. I was already familiar with most of the places and names but I found it still interesting. And I think it might be a great help/addition to anyone who is not familiar with the Kalevala but still reads this book.
In the next part the author provides an introduction to an essay Tolkien wrote about the Kalevala. The book includes two versions of this essay, the manuscript draft and the typed draft. The author provides an introduction to both essays as well as a commentary.
I have to admit that I found neither of the essays really easy to read but they were still really interesting. The content of the essays is, of course, more or less the same. But you can really see that Tolkien worked on it because the second version is a lot easier to read. I don’t agree with everything Tolkien writes about Finland, the Finnish language and the Kalevala. But I his thoughts and his approach are really interesting. I would love to discuss this essay and his points of view with Tolkien himself. (which is, of course, impossible)
Just a few excerpts from the essays for you to get an idea:
“Finnish is an odd tongue, very fitting to the ‘Land of Heroes’ (as is natural), and as different from anything that you are familiar with as the tales of these poems are from the tales you knew before.” (p.103)
“One repeatedly hears the ‘Land of Heroes’ described as the ‘national Finnish Epic’ – as if it was of the nature of the universe that every nation (dreary word), besides a national bank, and government, should before qualifying for membership of the League, show lawful possession also of a National Epic, hall-remark of respectability, evidence indeed of national existence.” (p.103)
“Short of going there, I imagine one could scarcely be made to see the land more vividly than by reading the Kalevala […]” (p.124)
The last part of the book is kind of a conclusion about Tolkien, the Kalevala and the story of Kullervo. It is also a critique on a Tolkien biography as well as an overview over different essays and papers that were written on Tolkien and the Kalevala’s influence on his stories. Moreover the author points out parallels between Tolkien’s books and other myths and legends.
Opinion after reading
This book is really interesting. It gives you great insight into Tolkien’s inspiration for his later works. I also liked how you can kind of track some of the names for characters and places he later uses for The Lord of the Rings. Even though I knew that Finnish was one source for his elvish languages, but I had never actually given it more thoughts. The story of Kullervo is not a pleasant one. Having read the original version before, I was aware of this. But Tolkien makes the story a bit more pleasant to read. Also the parts that follow the story, the essay, the explanations, the drafts – I can only repeat myself: very interesting. Even though in my opinion the style was not the easiest to read. I can really recommend this book to any Tolkien and/or Kalevala-Fan.