Kullervo: A Tribute to Tolkien

Yesterday marked the day when J.R.R. Tolkien passed from this life in 1973. 48. years have passed since his death. 48 years in which the work he began has in turn begat (real word!) an entire genre of fiction. When I think of the great works of the 20th century, it’s not of anything Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, John Steinbeck, George Sand, Virginia Woolf, J.D. Salinger, or Vladimir Nabokov has written. No, what I think of is a battle-scarred Oxford don with a love of languages and a deep respect for the realm of mythology. 

With September also being the month of Hobbit Day (September 22), I decided to, every Friday at least, include a little piece about Tolkien’s work for the month of September. Hopefully, for those of you who are already fans of Tolkien’s world and look forward to Amazon’s upcoming series based upon Middle Earth, this will open you up to new avenues of discovery.

So, for today’s post, I’m going to introduce perhaps one of his least known works, The Story of Kullervo. It’s a small volume, edited by Verlyn Flieger, and published in 2015.  The story itself is based upon the Kalevala which is a Finnish cycle of mythology and provided Tolkien for much of his inspiration for what would later become The Children of Hurin. The introduction to Kullervo has some very important and pertinent background information on Kalevala and it’s general influence upon Europe and the academic world when it was discovered and published. Let’s just say that Kalevala had the effect on the ideas of myth and legend that discovery and usage of the Rosetta Stone had on Egyptology. 

If all you have read of Tolkien is The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, then Kullervo will be a major gear shift. It resembles more closely what would likely happen should Greek mythology and German mythology have a child together. That being said, Kullervo will read more like an assignment in English class, than a fantasy novel. The language used is more flowery—like an epic poem—much like some of the chapters in The Return of the King. So, fair warning, this is not 20th century English being used. However, there are notes aplenty and it’s worth the extra effort if only to get a glimpse of the world of Middle Earth which was to come afterwards. Because make no mistake, Kullervo is very much where Middle Earth begins in some respects. 

Tolkien’s fascination with Finnish language and myth is well known to scholars and super-fans alike. Reading Kullervo is much like reading some of The Silmarillion name-wise. There are also several elements of Kullervo which later appear in The Silmarillion.  In the first place, the magical hound Musti as Tolkien’s inspiration for Huan, the hound who helps Luthien find Beren. Musti is also a skin changer, much like Beorn from The Hobbit and can appear in bear form. Where he differs from Huan is that while Huan can only speak three times before his death, there is no such structure on Musti. However, the power of three comes into play still, for Musti gives Kullervo three hairs from his coat which will each provide magical assistance. Another similarity is that Kullervo is set to hard labor in service of his uncle Untamo. The same uncle who killed his father Kalervo at the start of the tale. Yes, Kalervo is the father Kullervo. It confused me a bit too, if I’m honest.

I won’t reveal the plot—that will be for you to discover for yourself, but I would draw your attention to three points: 

  • Kullervo has the beginnings of Tolkien’s style of blending poetry with prose. The poetry doesn’t come until Kullervo is full grown and, like those of you who have read Lord of the Rings, it doesn’t necessarily seem to fit. However, I would highly suggest you spend a little time with it because it reveals things about the characters you would not otherwise see. There is a particular lament Kullervo makes at one point which echoes both Paradise Lost and Frankenstein.
  • Kullervo is, at heart, a tale of revenge. Like Hamlet, As You Like It, and The Tempest, the events of The Story of Kullervo are set in motion when one brother supplants another. This is the driving force behind Kullervo’s ultimate end. Unlike Shakespeare’s plays, however, there is no redemption in anything. Kullervo takes his revenge, but he ends up killing everything he even passingly loved in addition to those he detested. This is revenge in its purest, most unredeemed and unadulterated form.  His ending is very much like a Greek play—death without purpose. It’s completely and wholly different from the rest of Tolkien’s work even if you can see echoes of Kullervo elsewhere.  
  • Kullervo and its parallels in the rest of Tolkien’s work force us to rethink how we view fantasy in general. For instance, while Turin Turumbar is cursed directly by Melkor in The Children of Hurin, Kullervo suffers no such magical invective even though the story opens with the insistence that the world in which he lives is magical. However, the events of the story are driven largely by Kullervo’s own trauma responses. Tolkien takes pains to explain just how Kullervo’s childhood circumstances shape the person he is and how it affected him. I think this is a point which we would do well to consider. How does Kullervo deal with his problems? How does Turin? To what extent are their problems their own fault? I think when we look at the issues surrounding childhood trauma, adulthood trauma responses, and modern psychology, Tolkien’s fantasy suddenly takes on a much more important light than mere “escapism.” How can the relationship between what Kullervo and Turin did and what was done to them help us in the real world? These are questions which we can consider more freely in some cases on a literary level than can be considered in a clinical environment. It might mean very little on a scientific level, but it may help on an emotional one. Having been through a phase of recognizing at long last my own trauma responses, I can appreciate Kullervo’s and Turin’s struggles a little better. 

I hope this is enough to at least whet your appetite and make you pick up a copy. If you do, please comment on the post and tell me what you think!

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