Origin Stories: The Darker Side of J.R.R. Tolkien

April 5, 2016 | 9 books mentioned 4 min read

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The Story of Kullervo, the first known prose work by J.R.R. Tolkien, is to be published this week in the United States, offering fans of Middle Earth a chance to read what may be one of the earliest sources for Tolkien’s quintessential literary fantasy realm.

coverThe story is a retelling of the tragedy of Kullervo from The Kalevala, a Finnish saga compiling oral folklore, which was first published in 1835. The world of The Kalevala proved to be an immense influence on Tolkien’s writings, as did the circumstances of its publication, which reclaimed a national mythology for Finland; Tolkien later expressed an aspiration to do the same for England. As well as Tolkien’s story (which is unfinished, with the conclusion rendered only in a brisk outline), this volume includes an introduction, notes, and concluding essay by editor Verlyn Flieger, as well as two manuscript versions of a lecture Tolkien delivered on the subject of The Kalevala.

coverThe publisher’s claim that this represents a “world first publication of a previously unknown work” is disingenuous, given that almost all of these materials have appeared previously: the story and lectures in the annual academic journal Tolkien Studies in 2010, and the concluding essay in Flieger’s own Green Suns and Faërie: Essays on J.R.R. Tolkien in 2012. Misleading marketing is nothing new in publishing, but while this is not a deception approaching the scale of, for example, Go Set a Watchman — mostly because there was never really any doubt that this would be only of interest to academics and committed Tolkien fans — it still leaves a bitter taste.

covercovercoverFortunately, the target audience will find plenty to interest it in The Story of Kullervo, perhaps most significantly the title character, who clearly serves as the inspiration for Túrin Turambar, one of the most important characters in the First Age of Middle Earth. Túrin appears in the posthumously published The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, and most fully in The Children of Húrin in 2007. The “hapless Kullervo” directly parallels Túrin in a number of respects — both lose their fathers at an early age, unwittingly commit incest with their estranged sisters, and kill themselves by falling upon their own swords. The story offers early glimpses of numerous other Middle Earth tropes. For example, this story marks Tolkien’s earliest use of verse and song within a prose narrative, a stylistic element that pointed to his love of Germanic and Nordic sagas and would become a defining feature of his best-known works, The Hobbit and The Lord of Rings.

covercoverLikewise, some names are reminiscent of those that would become significant in Tolkien’s legendarium, with Wanwe and Ilu evolving into Manwë, King of the Valar, and Ilúvatar, the omnipotent Creator, respectively. Fans of The Hobbit might also notice a potential precursor in Kullervo’s journey down a river in a barrel, and more devoted Tolkienites might see an amalgam of Galadriel and the Blue Wizards in the mysterious figure of the “Blue-robed Lady of the Forest.”

Although this will likely be the chief source of interest for readers, it would be unfortunate to summarize The Story of Kullervo solely in relation to Tolkien’s later work. The story itself is an enjoyable and creative reworking of the Kullervo myth, and serves as great introduction for those unfamiliar with Finnish folklore. As one of Tolkien’s earliest writings (he was still an undergraduate when he wrote it) there is clearly still plenty of room for stylistic development, and his confusing habit of changing the names of characters without explanation will undoubtedly alienate some readers.

However, for those willing to stay with it, The Story of Kullervo presents a captivating story. It also reveals a much darker side to Tolkien; he evidently takes relish in the many moments of violence, manipulating the rash Kullervo (whose name Tolkien tells us means “wrath”) towards his tragic fate.

The most significant problem, however, is that the story breaks off after less than 40 pages, meaning that it takes up only around one-fifth of the volume to which it gives its title. One hesitates to use the word “filler,” but the book leaves the distinct impression that there is not quite enough material here to justify publication in its own volume. For instance, Tolkien’s two draft lecture manuscripts are almost identical in places, yet both are published in full with their own separate sets of notes. Likewise, although Flieger’s essay is insightful, presented alongside her introduction and extensive notes, it is virtually rendered redundant, repeating facts and background information that (in some cases) have already been cited twice before.

Aside from the lectures, it is disappointing not to see any other writings by Tolkien on The Kalevala included in this volume. At least one unpublished poem, “The New Lemminkäinen,” a parody of W.F. Kirby’s translation of The Kalevala written by Tolkien in 1911, is known to exist, and might have bulked up the page count while also providing a rare insight into Tolkien’s sense of humor. Whether this text was made available to Flieger or not remains unknown, but it would certainly not have been out of place here, and would have provided a little more justification for this volume’s existence.

Flieger herself seems to express a sense of uneasiness regarding the necessity of this publication in her introduction, ultimately concluding that the story deserves a wider audience. However, it is hard to see this book, which is decidedly academic in approach, being of much interest to anyone who is not already at least somewhat versed in Tolkien scholarship.

But perhaps this is the volume’s ulterior purpose, or at least its unintended consequence: to address that division between academics and casual readers. Like that of Harper Lee’s, the value of Tolkien’s name ensures that thousands of fans will buy this book; if that results in them being introduced to the writings that influenced him so heavily and are so little read these days outside of academic circles, that is surely a good thing. It will undoubtedly bring greater attention to The Kalevala, and Tolkien — always more comfortable in the role of academic than bestselling writer — would probably have approved.

is a freelance writer and heritage fundraiser, with degrees in English from Durham University (UK) and Northwestern University. He has lived in Saudi Arabia, England, the United States, and Scotland, where he currently works at Abbotsford, the historic home of Sir Walter Scott.

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