The Story of Kullervo – JRR Tolkien (ed. Verlyn Flieger)

The Story Of Kullervo by J.R.R. Tolkien, Verlyn Flieger
Also by this author: The Battle of Maldon: Together with the Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, The History of the Hobbit, The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun, Pictures by J.R.R. Tolkien
Published by HarperCollins on August 27, 2015
Genres: Academic, Fiction, Fantasy, Tolkien
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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 is the second of three non-Middle-Earth JRR Tolkien tales to receive a literary overview from noted Tolkien scholar Verlyn Flieger. Flieger had written several books about Tolkien and Tolkien’s legendarium, including an annotated commentary of Tolkien’s Smith of Wootton Major, published in 2005. That volume was reprinted in a pocket edition in 2015 and soon be followed by standalone editions of The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun and The Story of Kullervo.

Kullervo fits into the Tolkien corpus as one of those stories that stems from Tolkien’s fascination with medieval myth and fantasy. Aotrou and Itroun is a Breton poem. Smith of Wootton Major is an English fairy tale. Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are translations of Old and Middle English tales. And The Story of Kullervo is based on Finnish folklore, based on the Kalevala.

The story is one of Tolkien’s earliest. He read the Kalevala in 1911, at the age of 19. While working on his degree at Oxford in 1914, he wrote to his then-fiancée Edith that he was “trying to turn one of the stories [of the Kalevala]—which is really a very great story and most tragic—into a short story somewhat on the lines of Morris’ romances with chunks of poetry in between” (from Letters of JRR Tolkien). Tolkien never did complete the story, but instead used elements of Kullervo to create the character of Túrin Turambar from The Silmarillion (which was also not finished or published in Tolkien’s lifetime). Tolkien wrote that “The germ of my attempt to write legends of my own to fit my private languages was the tragic tale of the hapless Kullervo in the Finnish Kalevala. It remains a major matter in the legends of the First Age (which I hope to publish as The Silmarillion).”

The Plot

The Story of Kullervo is not a happy one. When Kullervo is young, his father is killed by the dark magician Untamo who takes Kullerbo and his mother to be part of his family. As if being the forced son of your father’s killer isn’t bad enough, Untamo becomes of afraid of Kullervo and attempts to kill him. Kullervo, however, manages to survive all of these attempts through the efforts of the magical dog, Musti, who gives him three hairs of his body and says that using one hair will save him from certain harm. As Kullervo grows up, his thoughts turn to vengeance and he seeks to kill Untamo, but he will some learn that vengeance does not bring peace. The narrative ends, and Tolkien has only sketched an outline of the third act, but it all comes to a conclusion with tortured, unhappy Kullervo taking his own life.

Like the other Flieger works, the story proper is only a small part of the book. The Story of Kullervo weighs in at 167 pages, but the story proper is only about 40 of that. Here’s how the book is structured:


2 pages – Foreword where Flieger talks about the genesis of this work as first appearing in Tolkien Studies Volume VII in 2010.

15 pages – A substantive introduction that contextualizes Kullervo within the literature and within Tolkien’s history.

Part 1 – The Story of Kullervo

40 pages – The Story of Kullervo proper

4 pages – A list of names attempting to recreate a handwritten page from Tolkien’s files.

4 pages – Draft plot synopses taken from Tolkien’s writings

14 pages – Notes and Commentary

Part 2 – Essays about Kullervo

3 pages – Introduction to the essays

24 pages – A reprinting of the manuscript copy of “On ‘The Kalevala’ or Land of Heroes,” a lecture Tolkien gave in November 1914 and February 1915.

8 pages – Notes and commentary on the speech

27 pages – A partial typescript copy of a lecture on the Kalevala with no known date

5 pages – Notes and commentary

21 pages – Flieger’s narrative on the development of Kullervo in connection to his other writing

4 pages – Works Cited

In my review of The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun, I wrote that Flieger did not provide enough in the way of narrative commentary to justify the work as a standalone book. That is rectified in The Story of Kullervo, where Flieger’s introductions, commentary, and narrative are all more substantive than Aotrou. Which means it is worth mentioning that most of what is written here is adapted from her 2010 work in Tolkien Studies. It seems that Flieger, in her mid-80s when these books were published, seems to have had the stamina to adapt previously written material but not to create new material. The narrative here is much more along the lines of what I expected.

One thing that I wish had been done differently is that there is no indication in the main text of selections where Flieger has provided commentary. Flieger states that they chose not to heavily footnote or endnote the story in order to keep the narrative flow, but for those wanting to engage with Flieger’s commentary, it can be difficult to know where and when she will comment. The Notes and Commentary are arranged with bolded selections from the text followed by commentary, but the lack of any indication in the main text that it will be commented on ends up breaking up the narrative flow even further as readers must jump back and forth, either anticipating the next comment or reading for it. Using bold, italics, or underlining—any sort of formatting—to indicate a comment would have kept the integrity of the narrative flow while also helping readers wanting to read the commentary to easily find it.

In terms of the story, it just doesn’t feel coherent. I know that Tolkien was writing the Kalevala, an established Finnish myth, but the story feels haphazard and is unfinished. It is interesting to read in light of Middle-Earth—with connections like the three hairs from Musti to the hairs of Galadriel, Musti and Huan, Kullervo and Turin, and so on. Had the book focused more on these elements, I think it would have had a wider audience and had a better reception. Overall, The Story of Kullervo is an important piece of Tolkien lore, but it’s really only a story for the Tolkien fan to enjoy because it is Tolkien, not because it is inherently a compelling story.