Review: The Story of Kullervo, J.R.R. Tolkien

Rating: 5 out of 5

The story of Turin Turambar is definitely one of the finest that Mr Tolkien wrote; ‘The Story of Kullervo’ is a first attempt at it while it is also so much more than that. The reader sees the origin of the later story in the Finno-Ugric (Karelian) mythology that was used. In all, the discussion could be focussed on the three main parts: the foreword, focussing on Elias Lönnrot’s gathering of the myths into a (semi-)coherent story; the central piece which is the actual prose story of Kullervo; and a final afterword, an essay on the mythology of Finland.

The foreword was illuminating: there is so much of the history of these legends, and not only on the Finnish side, that is not very well known (at least by me). Lönnrot’s work in gathering and putting the stories together into one whole forms a much needed stepping stone from oral folklore traditions on the road to a more commonly understood epic of the modern times. The finished work, ‘Kalevala’, is where Tolkien first saw Kullervo as a character, and in all he lamented the quality of the translation which turned the originally clever Finnish into less-than-excellent English.

The story of Kullervo, the second part, is absolutely wonderful: the reader easily gets the sense where the author has had to go beyond the myth to solve its inconsistencies. In this way, what was left unsolved by Lönnrot is given a new and complete life by Tolkien, but in addition to this the new author, the new re-writer also goes beyond this to actually develop Kullervo as a character. Throughout this story, a keen reader of Tolkien can also easily see how these items would come to affect his later work on the greatest of his own literary heroes, Turin Turambar. The primary problem of this is that the story is left unfinished, but it’s not something that we can hold against the author who would not have published the work in such a condition.

Lastly, the story is brought together by two essays. I feel this section could have used the most work because the essays are near-identical. It would have been much better work to actually combine the two into one essay with additions made about the parts that differed. This was a decision of composition, of course, and again not something that can be held against the original author who probably felt that both pieces were too incomplete to publish. The primary reason of these essays is to argue for the mythology of Finland because the characters in this are more wholesome than those in Germanic and Greco-Roman myths. Whether one agrees with the author or not, it is a compelling case and one which I enjoyed.

I liked this! I liked this more than I thought I would, and I wish I had read it sooner. The faults of this work lie not with the named author, but rather the people who brought it together into one composition—that editorial work could have been better devised, but the original writings in this are very good indeed.

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