Review: The Story of Kullervo

“In the days {of magic long ago} {when magic was yet new}, a swan nurtured her brood of cygnets by the banks of a smooth river in the reedy marshland of Sutse.”

The Story of Kullervo, by J.R.R. Tolkien, is a story of tragedy and cruelty, of abuse, murder, revenge, and suicide; a rather dark moment in Tolkien’s usual work. It was inspired by the Finnish epic poem Kalevala and its secondary character, Kullervo. The book is divided into four sections: the introduction, the story, an essay written by Tolkien on the story, and an essay by Verlyn Flieger, the book’s editor.

Kullervo is probably Tolkien’s most tragic hero. He is born to a great family, but when his father is killed and his mother is kidnapped by the dark Untamo, he is forced to endure a life of slavery and violence. His only hopes are his twin sister, Wanona, and the magical black dog, Musti. Despite everything, he goes on living and, as he seeks revenge on those who wronged him, he will discover that life has a cruel fate for him.

Tolkien read the Kalevala and was inspired to write his own prose version while still a university student; up until that point, he had only written poetry. Although it remained unpublished until 2015, it was the groundwork for his other tragic hero, Turin Turambar, the protagonist of The Children of Hurin and character in The Silmarillion.

I quite enjoyed reading this book. It came to me as a present from a very good friend and, although I had heard of it, I didn’t know what it was about. It reminded me of the books I read at my university’s library while doing research for a paper in Old English literature. Not the style of the story, nor the story itself (which we know is of Finnish origin), but the academic feeling of the whole book. The introduction, the short story with its footnotes and comments, and the essays on the manuscript. It made me feel at home. Old English was by far my favourite subject.

“At the worst I hope, however, that after this the country and its manners have become more familiar, and you have got on speaking terms with the natives, you will find it rather jolly to live with this strange people and those new gods awhile, with this race of unhypocritical scandalous heroes and sadly unsentimental lovers: and at the last you may feel you do not want to go back home for a long while if at all.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, On ‘the Kalevala’ or Land of Heroes

This book is only for fans of Tolkien’s less known and less polished works. It remains unfinished, but it is a glimpse into the hopes and aspirations of a young John Ronald, as it was his first shot at writing prose and mythology. It is how he started, long before the rings, long before the Silmarils, long before he was who we know now.

  My edition:  Hardcover, published in 2015 by HarperCollins.
My edition: Hardcover, published in 2015 by Harper Collins.