What: The Story of Kullervo by J.R.R. Tolkien
Who: Harper Voyager
When: September 1st 2015
How: A copy of this novel was provided by Harper Voyager Australia for review.
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
I am probably the only person whose first Tolkien read was The Story of Kullervo. I mean, it’s an unfinished draft of a story that is also a retelling of a Finnish ballad.
But I loved it. If this is what an unfinished draft of Tolkien’s work reads like (and also his first foray into fiction at all), then I am seriously in for a treat when I, one day, pick up The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
The Story of Kullervo has a certain fairytale quality to it, because even though we, as readers, are privy to everything that happens, we aren’t let into the mind of our protagonist. We know his motivation – the death of his father – but almost all other personal feelings of Kullervo are hidden from us.
It was quite sad that The Story of Kullervo was unfinished, because the story was just reaching its ultimate climax and was left off mid-sentence. There is, however, an outlined ending for the story written by Tolkien himself, so there’s no questioning about what happens in the end of this tale.
My favourite aspect of this part of the novel, by far, was the several alternate endings that Tolkien explored. I loved seeing his word shortenings (K for Kullervo, and the such), and also how clear his thoughts were. He’d outline one ending, and then write “or” before the next. I just loved how incredibly personal this was, and how much insight it gave into the kind of thought processes that Tolkien went through when deciding on the ending of this tale. It gave such an intimate feel to the whole thing, which is why it was my favourite aspect of this novel as a whole (and not just The Story of Kullervo section).
In the second section of this novel, there are two essays by Tolkien on the original ballad that The Story of Kullervo was based on (Kalevala). The first is the draft version of the second, and as I mentioned in regards to Tolkien’s planning of the ending of The Story of Kullervo, there was an extremely personal feel to the draft essay. There were shortenings and numbered sections, and it was wonderful to see how his thoughts progressed naturally on the topic.
Tolkien’s passion for Kalevala is undeniable, both in the draft and finished essays. He had such respect and admiration for the piece, and it was again very intimate to see how much the story had influenced him.
The finished essay (which he gave as a speech – how wonderful it would have been to hear Tolkien talk) was amazing. I was blown away with how far it had come from the draft in terms of flow and integration of his many ideas. Tolkien was a genius, there is no doubt about that.
The Editor’s Essay
The editor’s essay is the last part of this novel, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Flieger’s knowledge of Tolkien’s life and his works is completely astounding. His passion and dedication to Tolkien is evident in every word that was written, and commendable in the fact that it is completely undeniable.
This essay was intriguing because it made many links from The Story of Kullervo to Tolkien’s later work of The Silmarillion. Whilst I have not yet read The Silmarillion, I was able to see the clear connections between the themes, characters, and hero arc of The Story of Kullervo and The Silmarillion, because Flieger expanded upon each in great detail.
Once again, Tolkien’s love for Kalevala is evident in how he was first inspired to write The Story of Kullervo (even in its unfinished form), and how his interpretation of the original tale and character then formed one of his own creation (Turin from The Silmarillion). I cannot deny that I am extremely interested in reading The Silmarillion now that I know so much of its origins.
Overall, reading The Story of Kullervo was an utterly engrossing experience because I learned so much of Tolkien, and the beginnings of his fiction writing career, and also his passion for a tale I had never known existed.
I highly recommend this to Tolkien fans, both new and old.
© 2015, Chiara @ Books for a Delicate Eternity. All rights reserved.