The Story of Kullervo by J. R. R. Tolkien

The Story of Kullervo


Goodreads: The Story of Kullervo
Series: None
Age Category: Adult
Source: Gift
Published: 2016


Kullervo, the son of Kalervo, grows up in service to his uncle Untamo, who has killed his father and kidnapped his mother and siblings.  Kullervo vows revenge, but a curse lies upon Kullervo and tragedy awaits.

Star Divider


As with much of Tolkien’s recently and posthumously published work, the editor Verlyn Flieger presents a short (unfinished) story by Tolkien, then struggles to bulk up the rest of the volume. In this case, readers get notes on the story, two essays by Tolkien on the source material (the Kalevala), and an explanation on how this work ties into Middle-earth (Kullervo is the obvious forerunner of Túrin Turambar). The volume attempts to straddle a line between being accessible to the general public and being of interest to Tolkien scholars. With such little material, however, The Story of Kullervo really does seem destined to appeal mostly to those doing research on the Professor.

The trouble with The Story of Kullervo is not only that it remains unfinished, but also that it frankly is not very good. Tolkien seems to have begun the work sometime in his college days, and it shows. Tolkien’s prose lacks the finesse of his later years and instead reads as clunkily ornate. The ways in which he changes the original tale to make it more coherent and to bring out themes that will reoccur in his later works are interesting. But the actual telling of it is a little painful.

Flieger then turns to a speech/essay Tolkien read on the Kalevala–and gives it to readers twice. The second version is a somewhat expanded one, but it is, in essence, the same thing. I imagine many readers skipping over the second attempt, since there is not much new to learn here; the expansions mainly seem to be Tolkien attempting to clarify his point. What his point is, broadly speaking, is apparently that he likes the Kalevala and others should, too. However, I think readers unfamiliar with the Kalevala (such as myself) will find the references somewhat meaningless. I sighed a little when he started listing all the named spirits he could think of as a way to give his listeners the “air” or “feeling” of the Kalevala . What I got is that the air is obscure and wearisome.

Flieger then moves into an explanation of how Tolkien’s take on Kullervo ties into his later story The Children of Húrin–a story which I greatly enjoy and highly recommend. What I recall of Flieger’s essay, however, is a lot of summarizing of The Children of Húrin and reiterating of thematic similarities between it and Kullervo–similarities which should be obvious to anyone who has read both and probably do not need a lot of exposition. But, again, Flieger was clearly struggling to fill the volume with content; points raised at the end were already expounded upon in Flieger’s introduction.

Flieger begins by expressing gratitude at the opportunity for Tolkien’s The Story of Kullervo to receive its own volume and reach a wider audience. Honestly, however, I’m not convinced something so short needed its own volume, nor am I convinced that the general public would want to read this. Having the work in an anthology or a scholarly journal accessible to Tolkien scholars would probably be sufficient. There simply is not enough content here for an entire book, and I think at some point fans are going to tire of Tolkien’s publishers trying to get money from them for every note Tolkien ever scribbled on a piece of paper.

Read Briana’s review of The Story of Kullervo.

3 Stars

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