The Story of KullervoJ. R. R. Tolkien
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Published by HarperCollinsPublishers 2015
All texts and materials by J.R.R. Tolkien © The Tolkien Trust 2010, 2015
Introductions, Notes and Commentary © Verlyn Flieger 2010, 2015
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Source ISBN: 9780008131364
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LIST OF PLATES
The Story of Kullervo
List of Names
Draft Plot Synopses
Notes and Commentary
Introduction to the Essays
On ‘The Kalevala’ or Land of Heroes
Notes and Commentary
Notes and Commentary
Tolkien, Kalevala, and ‘The Story of Kullervo’ by Verlyn Flieger
WORKS BY J.R.R. TOLKIEN
ABOUT THE PUBLISHER
LIST OF PLATES
The Land of Pohja by J.R.R. Tolkien
1.Manuscript title page written in Christopher Tolkien’s hand.
2.First folio of the manuscript.
3.Draft list of character names.
4.Discontinuous notes and rough plot synopsis.
5.Further rough plot synopses.
6.Manuscript title page of the essay, ‘On “The Kalevala”’, written in J.R.R. Tolkien’s hand.
The Land of Pohja by J.R.R. Tolkien
Kullervo son of Kalervo is, perhaps, the least ingratiating of Tolkien’s heroes: uncouth, moody, bad-tempered and vengeful, as well as physically unattractive. Yet those traits add realism to his character, making him perversely appealing in spite of, or perhaps because of, them. I welcome the chance to introduce this complex character to a wider readership than heretofore. I am also grateful for the opportunity to refine my first transcription of the manuscript, restore inadvertent omissions, emend conjectural readings, and correct typos that found their way into print. The present text is, I hope, an improved representation of what Tolkien intended.
Since the story’s initial appearance, further work has been done on its role in the development of Tolkien’s early proto-language, Qenya. John Garth and Andrew Higgins have explored the names of both people and places in the surviving drafts and related them to his language invention, John in his article ‘The road from adaptation to invention’ (Tolkien Studies Vol. XI, pp. 1–44), and Andrew in Chapter Two of his ground-breaking PhD dissertation on Tolkien’s early languages, ‘The Genesis of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Mythology’ (Cardiff Metropolitan University, 2015). Their work adds to our knowledge of Tolkien’s early efforts, and enriches our understanding of his legendarium as a whole.
The materials here published, J.R.R. Tolkien’s unfinished early work The Story of Kullervo and the two drafts of his Oxford University talk on its source ‘On “The Kalevala”’, first appeared in Tolkien Studies Volume VII in 2010, and I am grateful for the permission of the Tolkien Estate to reprint them here. My Notes and Comments are reprinted with the permission of West Virginia University Press. My essay, ‘Tolkien, Kalevala, and “The Story of Kullervo”’, is reprinted with the permission of Kent State University Press.
Thanks for the present volume go to several people, without whom it would never have come to be. First of all to Cathleen Blackburn, to whom I first proposed that The Story of Kullervo needed to reach a larger audience than that of a scholarly journal. I am grateful to Cathleen for ushering the project through the permissions process of the Tolkien Estate and its publisher, HarperCollins. I am grateful to both the Estate and HarperCollins for agreeing with me that re-publication as a stand-alone was what Tolkien’s Kullervo merited. Thanks also to Chris Smith, Editorial Director at HarperCollins in charge of matters Tolkienian, for his help, advice, and encouragement in bringing Tolkien’s The Story of Kullervo to the wider audience it deserves.
The Story of Kullervo needs to be looked at from several angles if we are to appreciate fully its place in J.R.R. Tolkien’s body of work. It is not only Tolkien’s earliest short story, but also his earliest attempt to write tragedy, as well as his earliest prose venture into myth-making, and is thus a general precursor to his entire fictional canon. In a narrower focus it is a seminal source for what has come to be called his ‘mythology for England’, the ‘Silmarillion’. His retelling of the saga of hapless Kullervo is the raw material from which he developed one of his most powerful stories, that of the Children of Húrin. More specifically still, the character of Kullervo was the germ of Tolkien’s mythology’s most – some would say its only – tragic hero, Túrin Turambar.
It has long been known from Tolkien’s letters that his discovery as a schoolboy of Kalevala or ‘Land of Heroes’, a then recently-published collection of the songs or runos of unlettered peasants in Finland’s rural countryside, had a powerful impact on his imagination and was one of the earliest influences on his invented legendarium. In his 1951 letter describing his mythology to the publisher Milton Waldman Tolkien voiced the concern he had always had for the mythological ‘poverty’ of his own country. It was lacking in his eyes, ‘stories of its own’ comparable to the myths of other countries. There was, he wrote, ‘Greek, and Celtic, and Romance, Germanic, Scandinavian’, and (singled out for special mention) ‘Finnish,’ which he said, ‘greatly affected’ him (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, p. 144, hereafter Letters). Affect him it most certainly did, his engagement with it nearly ruining his Honour Moderations examinations of 1913, as he confessed to his son Christopher in 1944 (Letters, p. 87), and ‘set[ting] the rocket off in story’, as he wrote to W.H. Auden in 1955 (Letters, pp. 214–15).
At the time Tolkien was working on his story its source, the Finnish Kalevala, was a latecomer to the existing corpus of world mythologies. Unlike the myths of longer literary provenance such as the Greek and Roman, or the Celtic or Germanic, the songs of Kalevala were gathered and published only in the mid-19th century by a professional physician and amateur folklorist, Elias Lönnrot. So different in tone were these songs from the rest of the European myth corpus that they brought about a re-evaluation of the meaning of such terms as epic and myth.* Difference and re-evaluation notwithstanding, the publication of Kalevala had a profound effect on t
he Finns, who had lived under foreign rule for centuries – as part of Sweden from the 13th century to 1809, and from then to 1917 as a sub-set of Russia to which large parts of Finnish territory were ceded by Sweden. The discovery of an indigenous Finnish mythology, coming as it did at a time when myth was becoming associated with nationalism, gave the Finns a sense of cultural independence and a national identity, and made Lönnrot a national hero. Kalevala energized a burgeoning Finnish nationalism and was influential in Finland’s declaration of independence from Russia in 1917. It seems more than possible that Kalevala’s impact on the Finns as ‘a mythology for Finland’ might have made as deep an impression on Tolkien as the songs themselves, and played a major part in his expressed desire to create his so-called ‘mythology for England’, though what he actually described was a mythology that he could ‘dedicate’ to England (Letters, p. 144). The fact that he would go on to absorb his Kullervo into the character of his own mythology’s Túrin Turambar is evidence of Kalevala’s continuing influence on his creativity.
Tolkien had first read Kalevala in the 1907 English translation of W.F. Kirby while a student at King Edward’s School in Birmingham in 1911. He thought Kirby’s translation unsatisfactory, but found the material itself to be like ‘an amazing wine’ (Letters, p. 214). Both his story and the accompanying two drafts of his college talk, ‘On “The Kalevala”’, give evidence of Tolkien’s enthusiastic desire to communicate the taste of this new wine, its fresh and pagan flavour and the ‘delicious exaggerations’ of what were to him ‘wild ... uncivilized and primitive tales’. These uncivilized and primitive tales so captured his imagination that when he went up to Oxford in the fall of 1911, he borrowed C.N.E. Eliot’s Finnish Grammar from the Exeter College Library in an attempt to teach himself enough Finnish to read the original. He was largely unsuccessful, and ruefully confessed he had been ‘repulsed with heavy losses’.
Tolkien was particularly taken by the character he called ‘Kullervo the hapless’ (Letters, p. 214), Kalevala’s closest approximation of a tragic hero. So taken, indeed, was he that in his final year as an Oxford undergraduate he wrote to his fiancée Edith Bratt, some time in October of 1914, that he was ‘trying to turn one of the stories – which is really a very great story and most tragic – into a short story ... with chunks of poetry in between’ (Letters, p. 7). This was ‘The Story of Kullervo’, the bulk of which was produced, as nearly as can be ascertained, some time during the years 1912–14 (ibid., 214) and almost certainly before his war service intervened and he was sent to France in 1916. The dating is problematic. Tolkien himself placed it as early as 1912; scholars Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull prefer 1914; and John Garth sets it at late 1914. The manuscript title page (Plate 1) carries a date in parentheses ‘(1916)’ in Christopher Tolkien’s hand, but as this is written on the verso of an appreciation on the occasion of Tolkien’s honorary Doctorate from the National University of Ireland in 1954, the 1916 date is retrospective by almost forty years. The 1916 date is further called into question by a notation written below it in pencil: ‘HC [Humphrey Carpenter] says 1914.’ This comment would have been made during or after the time when Carpenter was at work on his biography of Tolkien, published in 1977.
Any work’s time of composition is often difficult to determine with precision, since most creative activity develops over an extended period from first idea to final version and can be started, stopped, revised and re-revised along the way. Without more manuscript evidence than we now possess, it is impossible to pinpoint the time of Tolkien’s work on ‘Kullervo’ from inspiration to cessation any more narrowly than during the years 1912–1916. What is fairly certain is that he did not begin work on the story before he read Kalevala in 1911, and may not have done further work on it after his posting to France in June of 1916. From Tolkien’s comment in the letter to Edith, it seems to have been the story’s tragic qualities as much as its mythic qualities that ‘set the rocket off in story’, and so powerfully attracted him that he felt the need to re-tell it.
Aside from its palpable influence on the story of Túrin Turambar, however, The Story of Kullervo is notable also for the ways in which it prefigures the narrative styles of Tolkien’s future corpus. It presages without precisely fitting a number of the genres or categories or forms – short story, tragedy, myth-retelling, verse, prose – in which he later wrote. It is at once a short story, a tragedy, a myth, a blend of prose and poetry, yet – hardly surprising in so early a work – all of these in embryo, none fully realized. Thus in all these areas it stands a little to one side of the rest of the canon. As a short story it invites comparison with his later short stories, Roverandom, Leaf By Niggle, Farmer Giles of Ham, and Smith of Wootton Major; as a myth re-telling it belongs with his Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún and The Fall of Arthur; in its mix of prose and poetry it recalls a similar mixture in Tolkien’s masterwork, The Lord of the Rings. Stylistically, too, there is ground for comparison, for the ‘chunks of poetry’ not infrequently segue into a rhythmic prose that evokes the poetry-prose mix of the speech of Tom Bombadil.
The comparisons end there, however, for in other aspects The Story of Kullervo has little in common with most of the above works. Only The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún conveys the pagan atmosphere that is the essence of Kullervo, and The Fall of Arthur its sense of ineluctable doom. Roverandom, although it has, as recently pointed out, distinct similarities to the mythic Irish imramma or voyage stories,* was in its genesis and essentially remains a tale for children. Leaf By Niggle, although it is set in vaguely modern times and in a place that, while never identified, is pretty clearly Tolkien’s own England, is a parable about the journey of the soul, and by far the most allegorical of all Tolkien’s works. Farmer Giles of Ham is a playfully satiric pseudo-folktale with a number of scholarly inside jokes and topical references to Tolkien’s Oxford. Smith of Wootton Major is pure fairy tale, the most artistically consistent of all his shorter works. In contrast to all of these, The Story of Kullervo – emphatically not for children, neither playful nor satiric, not allegorical, and with little of the faërie quality Tolkien found essential for fairy stories – is relentlessly dark, a foreboding and tragic tale of blood feud, murder, child abuse, revenge, incest and suicide, so different in tone and content from his other short fiction as to be almost a separate category.
As a tragedy, The Story of Kullervo conforms in large measure to the Aristotelian specifics for tragedy: catastrophe, or change of fortune; peripeteia, or reversal, in which a character inadvertently produces an effect opposite to what is intended; and anagnoresis, or recognition, in which a character moves from ignorance to self-knowledge. The classic example is Oedipus, whose drama Sophocles situated within quasi-historical time and place – Thebes in the 4th century BC. Tolkien’s fictive Middle-earth examples are Túrin Turambar, who is closely modelled on Kullervo, and his least likely tragic hero Frodo Baggins, whose journey and emotional trajectory from Bag End to Mount Doom take him through all of Aristotle’s norms set within the larger context of the history of Middle-earth, as do those of Túrin. In contrast, The Story of Kullervo is largely ahistorical, creating its own self-contained world whose only time-period is ‘when magic was yet new.’
As Tolkien’s earliest effort to adapt an existing myth to his own purpose, The Story of Kullervo belongs with his two other, more mature such efforts, both conjecturally dated to the 1920s–30s. These are The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, his verse retelling of the Völsung story from the Icelandic Poetic Edda, and The Fall of Arthur, his synthesis and recasting into modern English alliterative verse of two Middle English Arthurian poems. Like his Arthur and Sigurd, Tolkien’s Kullervo is the latest version of a mythic figure who has had many iterations. Aspects of Kullervo can be traced back to the early medieval Irish Amlodhi, to the Scandinavian Amlethus of Saxo Grammaticus’s 12th-century Gesta Danorum, and to Shakespeare’s more modern Renaissance Prince Hamlet. The sequence culminates in Kalevala’s Kullervo, to which Tolkien is most
directly indebted. And yet Tolkien’s story does not quite fit with his later mythic adaptations either. First, both Kalevala and Tolkien’s Kullervo are considerably less well-known than are Sigurd and Arthur. The Story of Kullervo will, for many readers who are acquainted with Sigurd and Arthur, be their first introduction to this unlikely hero. Thus Tolkien’s version carries no baggage and is likely to be met with no preconceptions. Few, if any, of his readers will recognize Shakespeare’s Prince Hamlet in Tolkien’s Kullervo, though sharp eyes may see in Kullervo’s ruthless and unscrupulous uncle Untamo the seed of Hamlet’s ruthless and unscrupulous uncle, Claudius.
In terms of narrative form, Tolkien’s ‘Kullervo’ falls somewhere between the short stories and the long poems in that it is cast in a mixture of prose and verse, interpolating long passages of poetry into a stylized prose narrative. Like his Sigurd and Gudrún it is a love story of doom with no reprieve for its human players, and like his Fall of Arthur it is a story of the intermixture of fate and human decision as the relentless determinants of human life. Also, like The Fall of Arthur but unlike Sigurd and Gudrún, it is unfinished, breaking off before the climactic final scenes, which remain only sketched in jotted outline and notes. Its unfinished state is also sadly typical of much of Tolkien’s work; more of his ‘Silmarillion’ stories remained works in progress at the time of his death than were ever brought to completion in his lifetime. Aside from this negative qualification, The Story of Kullervo would deserve a place in the continuum of Tolkien’s art for all of the above-cited reasons.
But the greatest importance of The Story of Kullervo, as noted above, is as the preliminary to one of the foundation narratives of his legendarium, The Children of Húrin, its central character being the clear precursor of that story’s protagonist, Túrin Turambar. Tolkien also cited other models for Túrin, such as the Icelandic Edda from which he borrowed Túrin’s dragon-slaying episode, and Sophocles’s Oedipus, who is (as defined above), like Túrin, a tragic hero in search of his own identity. Nevertheless, it is no exaggeration to say that without Kalevala there would be no Story of Kullervo, and without The Story of Kullervo there would be no Túrin. Certainly without the story of Túrin Tolkien’s invented mythology would lack much of its tragic power, as well as its most compelling narrative trajectory outside The Lord of the Rings. We can also recognize in ‘Kullervo’, though more distantly, a number of repeating motifs that run through Tolkien’s fiction: the fatherless child, the supernatural helper, the charged relationship of uncle and nephew, and the cherished heirloom or talisman. Although these motifs are translated into new narrative circumstances and sometimes turned in quite different directions, they nevertheless form a continuum that stretches from The Story of Kullervo, his earliest serious fiction, to Smith of Wootton Major, the last of his stories published in his lifetime.