“Very great and most tragic”

Kullervo, from Finland in the Nineteenth Century by Finnish authors. Illustrated by Finnish artists, edited by Leopold Mechelin (1894)
Kullervo, statue by C E Sjöstrand, from Finland in the Nineteenth Century by Finnish authors. Illustrated by Finnish artists, edited by Leopold Mechelin (1894)

J R R Tolkien The Story of Kullervo
Edited by Verlyn Flieger
HarperCollins 2015 (2010)

Tolkien’s reputation rests on two parallel streams of his work. First, and the more renowned of the two, is his creative work, his fiction, much of it founded on his secondary world of Middle Earth: The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, The Silmarillion and so on. The second stream is what was his day job, so to speak, his work as a scholar, the academic who specialised in languages and literatures and was well regarded by his peers and students.

Less well known, except to a host of die-cast fans and Tolkien scholars, is his work in which those two streams — the creative and the academic — co-mingle. His fascination with mythologies and folktales and legends led him to recast disparate ancient materials into what he must have hoped were coherent wholes, though none of it was published in his lifetime. The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún (2009) was his reconfiguring of the Northern myths that were to famously inspire Wagner’s Ring Cycle and Tolkien’s own Lord of the Rings, while The Fall of Arthur (2013) dealt with the Matter of Britain, tidying up plot inconsistencies through his own verses inspired by Old English alliterative verse. The latest Tolkien re-envisioning (ironically one of the first he attempted) is The Story of Kullervo, which first appeared in Tolkien Studies VII in 2010, and then in an expanded form by HarperCollins in 2015.

Whence then comes Kullervo? He’s a figure from Finnish tradition, subject of a number of ballads collected together in the 19th century by Elias Lönnrot in what he called Kalevala. Kullervo is a tragic individual; his family are the virtual slaves of his uncle but the lad shows prodigious strength and latent magical abilities.Three times his uncle attempts to have Kullervo killed, whether from drowning, burning or being hung on a tree, but to no avail. Sent away Kullervo proves to be as great a nuisance elsewhere, revenging himself cruelly on the wife of his employer; at another stage he unknowingly seduces his sister, and she commits suicide. Pushed beyond patience he exterminates his uncle’s tribe and then stabs himself to death.

What Tolkien drew from this Verlyn Flieger clearly brings out in her notes and in an essay. He’d early on (October 1914) told his fiancée Edith that he was “trying to turn one of the [Kalevala] stories — which is really a very great story and most tragic — into a short story … with chunks of poetry in between.” (This interweaving of prose and verse makes this what’s called elsewhere a chantefable; the lines of verse are modelled on the original Finnish metre, one which Longfellow famously borrowed for Hiawatha.) Dr Flieger sees it possible that Kullervo’s “most tragic” circumstances — particularly when the anti-hero describes himself as “fatherless beneath the heavens” and “from the first without a mother” — somehow resonated with Tolkien’s own childhood; she notes that his father died when Tolkien was four and his mother when he was twelve.

Because there were inconsistencies throughout the various episodes recounting Kullervo’s unfortunate life — as there were too with the Sigurd and Gudrún tales — Tolkien sought to harmonise the saga details in his own rendition. Strikingly he recasts it (whether consciously or not we can’t tell) as a primitive version of a tale we know rather better. Flieger briefly announces in her introduction that “[a]spects of Kullervo can be traced back … to the Scandinavian Amlethus of Saxo Grammaticus’s 12th-century Gesta Danorum, and to Shakespeare’s more modern Renaissance Prince Hamlet.” And so it is that in Tolkien’s Kullervo we see so many parallels with Hamlet: the wicked uncle, the absent father, the suicide of a young girl, the ‘madness’ (feigned or otherwise) and exiling of the protagonist, the appearance of a parent’s ghost, the final bloody revenge and death from a sword.

Yes, you must be saying, but is Tolkien’s version any good? Given that it isn’t complete (there is a scrappy outline ending in lieu of a conclusion) and that annotations are needed to keep track of who is who and what is happening, you might be forgiven for thinking you might save yourself the effort. But with only a bit of work I found it surprisingly attractive and engaging, despite Kullervo himself being neither attractive nor engaging. The interpolation of poetry — especially if you imagine the lines chanted or sung — adds to the magic that suffuses the tale, and even the archaic English (“he was fain to leave her”) rarely jars.

While Middle Earth aficionados will particularly welcome a chance to witness an earlier incarnation of Túrin Turambar from The Children of Húrin, an ordinary reader such as you or me may find in The Story of Kullervo a powerful revenge tragedy set around the dawning of the world.

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14 thoughts on ““Very great and most tragic”

  1. I had no idea Tolkien combined these two parts of his life – fiction and academic work. He was so heavily steeped in the Middle Ages, wasn’t he? I wonder if he had trouble functioning in the 20th century. Thanks for bringing this worl to wider attention, Chris 🙂

    1. You”re welcome, Lynn. I know he saw action in the First World War, which naturally had an effect on him, but I think you’re right, he very much lived in the past and in his own world(s). And I guess we should be grateful to him for allowing us access to those worlds of scholarship and his imagination.

      1. It’s why he was able to pull people into the worlds he created I suppose – because he was so knowledgable about the Middle Ages, he could draw on the world and its legends to convincingly create his own.

        1. Exactly that, Lynn. I suppose I’ll have to tackle LOTR again next year: it’ll be half a century since I first read it in the one-volume paperback edition which had just been issued. My copy fell apart after two readings, and I only acquired another copy about ten years ago for a third read. 2017 seems right for my 4th go …

          1. Fourth read! That’s pretty good going. I confess I haven’t managed one. I think I came to LotR at the wrong age. Odd, really, as I always loved myth and magic. I lost my copies of The Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper a long time ago and managed to pick up a one-volume copy a few years back. This ‘new’ copy is yellowed and blotched with age, being printed around the time I read the books the first time round, which is very pleasing. I can almost fool myself it was mine originally. Almost 🙂

  2. This is an interesting one. Strong echoes of the Norse sagas. I can proudly state that I must be one of the only people in the English-speaking world who hasn’t read Lord of The Rings. On the other hand, I know far more than I ever wanted to about Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Piers Plowman and Beowulf. I think that squares the ledger.

    1. And of course Tolkien was fluent enough in Old English and Middle English to lecture on, write about and translate pretty much all those titles you mention.

      I’m impressed you’ve resisted LOTR so long, but there just isn’t time for everything, is there, nor do we have to follow the crowd.

      1. It never really appealed to me. In any case, I’m contrary enough to want to go in the opposite direction when everyone tells me I MUST read something. It’s interesting though that I’ve known quite a few young men of a scientific bent who are not really readers for whom it’s the book of their lives. Never really understood that.

        1. I’m another ‘contrary’ person like you, Gert, I like to discover books for myself rather than because they’re the ‘in’ thing or somehow ‘essential’. It can sometimes be at the risk of cutting off my nose to spite my face, but then I’m also often moved to respond to someone’s bright-eyed enthusiasm over something I ‘ought’ to read, and that sways me. (Sorry about all the quotation marks, but then I’m quoting …)

          1. Yes, it all depends on who the recommender is. “The soul selects its own society” as Emily Dickinson said and no amount of hype can make you really love something even if you follow along and read it because it’s in.

  3. Paul

    What A Wonderfully Detailed & Very Well Written Interpretation/Review Of Tolkien & His Work As A Scholar & Creative Writer!! Also, To Me At Least, It Is Wonderful To Be Able To Find A Review That Is Full Of Well Chosen & Meaningful Words; As Well As Such Good Spelling!! I Have Never Really Been A Full-Fledged Member Of The Grammar/Spelling Police😀[Because Everybody Makes Mistakes], But With Such HORRIBLE Use Of Spelling & Grammar By So Many People Today It Is WONDERFUL To Read A Review Which Makes You Not Wish You Were Born Anywhere From 50 To 150 Years Ago Just For The Joy Of Not Having To Slog Through & Wince At Almost Every Word Of An Article Or Review!! THANK YOU For Your Review, It Made My Week😊 & I Hope You Have A GREAT Day!!

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