The Story of Kullervo by JRR Tolkien

(9.0/10)

Over the past several decades, the collection of published work by the brilliant J.R.R. Tolkien has expanded greatly beyond the few most will have heard of – The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, The Silmarillion – thanks to the tremendous effort of his son, Christopher Tolkien. A variety of Tolkien senior’s unpublished works have finally made it into print, giving us not only a greater grasp on the fantasy world that was the backdrop for The Lord of the Rings (although, it can be easily argued that The Lord of the Rings was itself the backdrop, and the unpublished work the greater focus of Tolkien’s literary efforts), but also a greater grasp on Tolkien’s academic and extra-literary work. In the past decade alone we have seen the publication of The Children of Húrin – which gives us a deep look into the background of one of Tolkien’s most enigmatic characters from the wider Silmarillion, Túrin Turambar – as well as The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, The Fall of Arthur, and Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, each of which gives us insight into the academic world that Tolkien flourished for most of his life.

This leads us to 2015 and the publication of The Story of Kullervo, one of Tolkien’s earliest works of fiction, and a perfect combination of the author’s academic pursuits and how those pursuits so greatly influenced his literary endeavours.

The Story of Kullervo is Tolkien’s own prose version of a tale from out of the Finnish collection of epic poems, the Kalevala. Written prior to the start of World War I, and Tolkien’s own involvement therein, it represents what is almost certainly Tolkien’s first journey into the world of prose. The story is a tragic tale that would fit well amidst many of the great tragedies of legend and literature, replete with orphanage, murder, magic, incest, and suicide, The Story of Kullervo serves as a fascinating insight into a side of J.R.R Tolkien that many readers will never have encountered.

The book itself is edited by renowned Tolkien-scholar, Verlyn Flieger, who is responsible for editing the existing fragments of Tolkien’s handwritten story into a readable translation, as well as similar work on two essays written by Tolkien himself, which express his love for the Kalevala and attempt to spread that love to those he spoke to. The story and both of the essays are accompanied by a separate “Notes and Commentary” section which shed further light on both the fiction and non-fiction aspects of Tolkien’s work on this Finnish drama. Bookending Tolkien’s work is an introduction and a separate essay written by Flieger which expound on her work on Tolkien’s originals, and the wider scope of Tolkien’s work on the Kalevala.

This book is admittedly geared more towards the serious Tolkien fan (of which I am one). The story itself takes up only 40 pages of this 166-page book, with the rest given over to essays and commentary. The story itself is not even fully completed, and we have to rely on Tolkien’s own handwritten basic plot outline for how the story is supposed to finish. But this is very much the way of things when dealing with Tolkien’s posthumously published work, as a lot of it was left unfinished, untended, or forgotten.

Taking into account my own Tolkien-bias, The Story of Kullervo was a wonderful read – not only informative by way of the essays on the various subjects, but informative to see some of the seeds of what would one day become Tolkien’s Silmarillion. There are language fragments that would one day form the basis of Tolkien’s elvish languages, as well as character fragments that would one day turn into fully-formed characters within his fiction. This book was truly a wonderful read, and worthwhile for anyone who is even halfway interested in the work of fantasy’s first hero.

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