The Story Of Kullervo by JRR Tolkien, edited by Verlyn Flieger (book review).

September 28, 2015 | By | Reply More

This year’s addition to the ever-growing list of JRR Tolkien’s list of posthumously published books is ‘The Story Of Kullervo’, an early attempt by a young Tolkien to adapt a Finnish folk tale. Written between 1912 and 1914, when the student Tolkien was studying at Oxford, it shows a fascination with ‘The Kalevala’, a set of Finnish folk stories.


The story that most interested Tolkien and which finally finds itself recalled in the story of Turin Turambar in ‘The Silmarillion’ and ‘The Children Of Hurin’ is that of Kullervo, an orphan whose Uncle Utamo attempts to murder him and then sells him into slavery. Kullervo then acts out a revenge tragedy. Tolkien took the bones of the tale and added new layers such as Musti, the magical dog that befriends Kullervo and his unknowing incest with his own twin sister.

The story as presented in this books is slight and, not unusually, unfinished. For the Tolkien fan, it outlines where the seeds of his later tragic heroes Turin and, of course, Frodo come from. It also reflects on the life of Tolkien himself. Tolkien’s father died when he was four years old. His mother then died when he was twelve. The young Tolkien, encountering the story of Kullervo in ‘The Kalevala’ may well have already seen the parallels. The lines:-

‘I was small and lost my father,

I was young (weak) and lost my mother.’

feature in Tolkien’s version of the story, too.

Like many tales of antiquity it can be difficult to follow. Names of characters change quickly and, like ‘The Legend Of Sigurd And Gudrun’ and ‘Beowulf’, I kept referring to the notes to remind me which character I was reading about. This time around the notes are provided by Verlyn Flieger, an accomplished Tolkien scholar who contributes an introduction, notes and essay on the short story and its contribution to the later works. Flieger is diligent and enthusiastic analyst of Tolkien’s work, though I felt the personal touch of Christopher Tolkien’s usual notes was missing.

Also included within the book are two versions of an essay that Tolkien had written for a society at Oxford on why he loved ‘The Kalevala’ and ‘The Story Of Kullervo’ so much. He enthuses for the distant Finnish landscape and draws comparisons between ‘The Kalevala’ and ‘The Mabinogion’, the collection of Welsh myth.

‘The Story Of Kullervo’ is a smaller, earlier retelling of a myth by Tolkien, but its influence on the writer’s later work is undeniable. It would be easy to dismiss as too immature to stand comparison with some of Tolkien’s later writings, but I think that does it a disservice. The myth was clearly one that resonated with the author and its themes recurred throughout his work for years to come. Perhaps one for the Tolkien completest only, but interesting and enjoyable nonetheless.

John Rivers

September 2015

(pub: Harper Collins. 168 page hardback. Price: £16.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-00813-136-4)

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Category: Books, Fantasy

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