Here’s a short review of Tolkien’s The Story of Kullervo that I wrote for the Mail On Sunday when the book came out in September 2015. I reproduce it here, with permission, as the book becomes available in the USA, where I’m currently based as Fellow in Humanistic Studies at the Beverly Rogers, Carol C. Harter Black Mountain Institute, UNLV, Nevada. I’ve restored my original phrasing and made one factual correction. The newspaper headline was ‘Tolkien before he took up The Hobbit’.
The Story of Kullervo by J R R Tolkien, edited by Verlyn Flieger (US: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; UK: HarperCollins)
‘I am so glad I am coming back to see you it is such a long time since we came away.’ So J R R Tolkien, aged four, wrote from England in 1896 to his father back in southern Africa. Poignantly, the letter was never posted, because his father died of rheumatic fever the very next day. Tolkien went on to lose his mother at 12.
Small wonder, then, that in his first attempt at a long story – the Story of Kullervo, written at 22 – Tolkien wrote of a hapless orphan seemingly cursed by fate. It was 1914, and the First World War meshed with his own creative ferment, bringing a turbulent darkness to plot and character.
The titular hero is born the slave of his uncle, a sorcerer who has killed Kullervo’s father. The boy is ugly, clumsy, rash and too strong for his own good, and his only affection is for his ‘wild, lone-faring’ sister Wanōna. Yet his sufferings and doggedness win our sympathy. And so, when tragic circumstance reunites brother and sister in the most disastrous way, we are drawn into the knot of tragedy.
Tolkien took the story from the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic, which he found strange, unruly, and invigoratingly unlike the overfamiliar Greek, Norse and Celtic mythologies.
However, 1914 was the Big Bang for Tolkien’s imagination, and in The Story of Kullervo you can just about sense Middle-earth waiting to take shape just months later. It’s there in the northernness, the rivers and blue woods; in the glorious acts of defiance against tyranny; in the mix of high enchantment and epic with down-to-earth comedy.
The Story of Kullervo is frustratingly unfinished, like so much else by its author (about three quarters of whose books have therefore been published posthumously). But editor Verlyn Flieger gives us Tolkien’s projected finale, plus much else to illuminate the work. And anyone who wants to know what Tolkien eventually did with the tale of the doom-laden siblings can go on to read his mature Middle-earth masterpiece The Children of Húrin.
Those who enjoy Tolkien will treasure this excursion into the imagination of a young man who defied his own tragic circumstance – the early loss of parents and the deaths of friends in the Great War – to leave an indelible mark on modern culture.