Approaching Tolkien: The Story of Kullervo

The Story of Kullervo (header)

In what has become something of a tradition in posthumous Tolkien publications, The Story of Kullervo is an unfinished literary work by the author, as he attempts to rewrite an account from the Finnish legend of the Kalevala into the short story format.

As I began reading the narrative, never could I have imagined such a different tone in style from Tolkien’s more popular Middle-earth stories. The language is archaic (much more so than The Silmarillion) and less accessible. The constant name changes (where each character is referred to by two or three different names without explanation) is somewhat confusing at first.

Yet, there is something subtle in the writing which elevates this from anything else we’ve read so far.

For a 24-year-old Tolkien to have written such an exquisite (albeit bizarre) piece, combining both prose and poetry, is altogether extraordinary. As Verlyn Flieger mentions in the book, one cannot fail to spot the similarities in tone, style and story structure to Tolkien’s more famous narrative of Túrin Turambar.

Unlike The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun publication, this work does not suffer from a lack of accompanying commentary. Indeed, over the years, Flieger has proven herself to be an excellent editor of Tolkien’s works, and this publication is no exception: providing notes and analyses to further expand on the author’s intentions, whilst delving into an explanation of Tolkien’s writing aspirations, influences and styles.

However, as with the publication of the Breton lay, The Story of Kullervo seems to fall into the same trap of duplicating content in an apparent attempt to expand the size of the book and justify the 40-page unfinished story. Indeed, Flieger provides two wonderful essays that Tolkien wrote about this work and the Kalevala. Upon reading these, one comes to the realisation that they are but one and the same essay, written a few years apart for different audiences, while containing a few alterations in its delivery and content – but ultimately providing the same message.

The Story of Kullervo might put off the casual Tolkien reader, but for the ardent enthusiast this is an essential read, as it provides further understanding into the mind of a young author who is just beginning to dip his pen into the creation of a complex and believable fantasy world.

4 thoughts on “Approaching Tolkien: The Story of Kullervo

  1. Totally agree with your analysis, James. A lot of these shorter poems would be better served by including them all in one volume rather than individual books. As usual, people are chasing the almighty dollar.

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