Tolkien’s ‘The Story of Kullervo’, a Reworking of a Story in the Finnish Epic ‘Kalevala’ Is Released Today

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J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘The Story of Kullervo’ is released on August 27 by Harper Collins. Picture: HarperCollins

It is probable that more people alive have read Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings saga than have read the Bible. A very small number of those readers, however, will be familiar with the collection of Finnish folk ballads known as The Kalevala, let alone be aware of the enormous influence they had on Tolkien’s internationally adored mythical cosmos and his first attempt at writing mythical prose.

On August 27 2015, HarperCollins will publish a new edition of  The Story of Kullervo, one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s earliest pieces of fiction that was essentially a reworking of a story from The Kalevala and one of the most stunningly unusual and dismally tragic stories in the history of all known folklore. In a lecture given in 1914, the year he wrote The Story of Kullervo, Tolkien would explain his attraction to the Finnish stories, describing them as a “rich profusion and luxuriance”, “queer and strange”, “unrestrained” and “grotesque”. Alerting his refined and scholarly audience to the unprecedentedly animistic character and primitive tone of the stories, he declared that on reading The Kalevala “we are taking a holiday from the whole course of progress of the last three millennia; and going to be wildly unhellenic and barbarous for a time.”

Tolkien would explain his attraction to the Finnish stories, describing them as a “rich profusion and luxuriance”, “queer and strange”, “unrestrained” and “grotesque”.

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The Kalevala consists of ballads passed down orally over generations, and was compiled in written form by Elias Lönnrot in 1835. Rather like the Grimm brothers in Germany, Lönnrot was driven along with the north European wave of National Romanticism to make a vital written record of a folkloric culture and language that was fast dying out. The Kalevala was first published in a full translation in English in 1888, and Tolkien first encountered the book in 1911 when a student at King Edward’s School in Birmingham. Immediately fascinated with the book – which he described as a collection of “wild . . . uncivilized and primitive tales” – he borrowed a book on Finnish grammar and attempted (unsuccessfully) to read The Kalevala in the original Finnish. (To the reassurance of readers trying to learn Finnish, Tolkien – an expert philologist – said that the Finnish language “makes a strong bid for the place of the most difficult in Europe.”)

Tolkien’s choice of the tale of Kullervo as his first attempt at working out a mytho-poetic form of prose is notable, owing to the unsettling, almost perversely, fateful nature of the story. Beckett himself might raise his cap to its hapless account of the human journey. Kullervo, a tragic and yet impressively resilient character, has an inauspicious start in life. While in his mother’s womb he survives the massacre of his tribe by his father’s jealous brother, Untamo, who then takes Kullervo’s mother-to-be as his wife.

When Kullervo is only three months old, Untamo overhears him vowing to revenge the death of his father’s tribe, and attempts to kill him numerous times. Although accursed, Kullervo is not without a protective magic that foils his uncle’s attempts, enabling him to grow up, albeit massively disgruntled, in Untamo’s household until he is sold into slavery. Kullervo’s magic continues to bless and blight him in equal turns, and as he pursues his lust for revenge his fate only thickens until, lifted finally by the hope of love, the girl turns out to be his long-lost sister; an unwitting incest that leads to double suicide. Like Oedipus, Kullervo’s fate seems sealed whichever path he takes.

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Akseli Gallen-Kallela: Kullervon kirous, 1899. Picture: Wikimedia Commons

As a budding philologist and comparative-mythographer, Tolkien was drawn to the underlying tragic-heroic connections of Kullervo not only to Oedipus, but also to the Middle-English tale of Beowulf and the Norse hero, Sigmund. Despite these comparisons, Tolkien was struck by how the Finnish tales had an earthy poetic logic quite unlike anything he had come across. “I am very fond of these poems,” he declared in his 1914 lecture, “they are literature so very unlike any of the things that are familiar to general readers […] they are so un-European and yet could only come from Europe.” Unlike the kindred mythology of Europe, he observed, with the stories of The Kalevala “you are at once in a new world; and can revel in an amazing new excitement. You feel like Columbus on a new continent.” Tolkien saw it as significant to an appreciation of The Kalevala that Finland was one of the last lands in Europe to convert to Christianity, thereby leaving a more recent legacy of paganism than traced in other European countries. Kullervo, for example, is only two generations evolved form a swan. Tolkien’s encounter with Finnish folklore, then – its magical and richly textured topography as well as its language – was a powerful lyrical and mythical encounter which he interpreted in terms of the theories of comparative mythology of his era, as well as a starting point for the development of Middle-Earth, its various peoples, genealogies, languages, and geography.

So, in the autumn of 1914, when most British men of his age had been called up to fight at the front, the twenty-two year old Tolkien, ensconced in his rooms at Oxford University, began working on the story that would mark the origins of the enormous influence of Finnish mythology on his work.

 

Tolkien was struck by how the Finnish tales had an earthy poetic logic quite unlike anything he had come across.
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J.R.R. Tolkien in 1916. Picture: Wikimedia Commons

Although Tolkien could make certain correspondences with other known myths, it was the distinctly other-worldly and yet undoubtedly human nature of The Kalevala that made an impression on him, drawing him to the odd and yet powerfully rendered personae he would call a “race of unhypocritical scandalous heroes and sadly unsentimental lovers.” According to Tolkien scholar, Ann C. Petty, Tolkien shared with the Finnish scholar Elias Lönnrot a profound sense of national duty as “philologist-creator”; that is, a scholar who did not claim to invent stories as much as to gather and to adapt them. For Tolkien, the world, the language, the characters and the myths he developed were less of an original creation and more of a patterning of the poetic, magical logic of a world that had existed prior to the Norman invasion in the eleventh century. Petty compares Tolkien’s and Lönnrot’s achievements as the realization of “a sense of ancient times, told with realistic depth and detail – that reflects universal themes and motifs of exuberance, contentiousness, warlike aggression, loyalty versus deception, wickedness and guilt, generosity and trust, innocence and the ensuing heartbreak over its loss. The heroes of these works seem real and flawed, which makes their fates compelling.”

Tolkien experts have written much on the influence of The Kalevla on the universe of Tolkien’s work: the cosmology, the tragic, deceitful, flawed, fated and cherished characters, the shamans, the magic of song, the topography of domestic and distant lands, and not least the parallel between the epic pursuit of The Kalevala’s mysteriously beneficent object the Sampo and Tolkien’s rings of power. Tolkien’s rendering of The Story of Kullervo is a study that he would adapt and develop into his own mythical world, notably using Kullervo as the model for his character Turin Turambar from The Children of Hurin. An outlawed figure who also lived under a curse, Turin, after years of ill-fortune, finally believes the curse lifted and takes a wife, only to discover from the spiteful last words of a dragon he kills that she is in fact his long-lost sister. As in the story of Kullervo, she kills herself and he in turn.

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Kalevala themed frescoes by Akseli Gallen-Kallela from 1928 in the entrance hall of The National Museum of Finland. Picture: National Board of Antiquities, Arno de la Chapelle

In a letter to his friend, the poet W. H. Auden, Tolkien wrote in 1955 of his indebtedness to The Kalevala and Kullervo: “The germ of my attempts 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).” It was not only the remarkable mytho-poetic stories of The Kalevala that inspired Tolkien, but also the phonetic resonance of the language that led him to study Finnish grammar and to develop his own legendary language, which he called Qenya. This Elvish language, known to all fans of the Peter Jackson films, was inspired by the languages that Tolkien said gave him the greatest “phonaesthetic” pleasure: Finnish and Greek. Discovering Finnish was, Tolkien wrote to Auden, “like discovering a complete wine-cellar filled with bottles of an amazing wine of a kind and flavour never tasted before. It quite intoxicated me.”

It was not only the remarkable mytho-poetic stories of The Kalevala that inspired Tolkien, but also the phonetic resonance of the language that led him to study Finnish grammar and to develop his own legendary language, which he called Qenya.

Some of the elements of the folklore that Tolkien observed in The Kalevala and the Kullervo tale may be amusing, and carry some echoes into the present, for a contemporary reader familiar with Finnish mores. Remarking in his lecture on the profound animism of the Kalevalen world, Tolkien notes how everything animate or inanimate has a personality, even beer sings of its virtues as “the finest, best of drinks for prudent people.” Women have a powerful place in society: “the housewife’s opinion is universally put first. The feelings towards mothers and sisters are far the most genuine and deep and powerful throughout’. Saunas are ubiquitous, the worst insult seems to be that a character is “like a Russian”, and, while there is little hierarchy among the people, without talk of kings and mortal rulers (other than matriarchs) they nonetheless appear “governed from above by an alien power” – a note perhaps still identifiable in the currently mythical levels of paranoia in Finland concerning the European Union.

Tolkien was clearly drawn to the story of Kullervo and the tales of The Kalevala because not only did they represent an astonishingly rich primitive and poetic mentality of a people undetached from nature, but because they told in a visceral and lyrical manner of the perennials of human love and suffering, not only of magical entities but also of very human characters who “behave with a singular lack of conventional dignity and with a readiness for tears and dirty dealing.” Why read of Kullervo and the Kalevala? According to Tolkien, for “the delight of the Earth, the wonder of it; the essential feeling as of the necessity for magic; that juggling with the golden moon and silver sun (such as they are) that is man’s universal pastime: these are the things to seek in the Kalevala.”

All quotations taken from: Ann C. Petty, ‘Identifying England’s Lönnrot’, Tolkien Studies, Vol. 1, 2004, and J.R.R. Tolkien, ‘On the Kalevala or Land of Heroes’, Tolkien Studies, Vol. 7, 2010. 7 (2010)