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"The Story of Kullervo" and Essays on Kalevala

From: Tolkien Studies
Volume 7, 2010
pp. 211-278 | 10.1353/tks.0.0073

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

"The Story of Kullervo" and Essays on Kalevala

For help in preparing the story and essays for publication thanks go to Catherine Parker, Carl Hostetter, Petri Tikka, and Rob Wakeman.

It has long been known from Tolkien's own comments in his letters that that the Finnish mythology Kalevala had a powerful effect on his imagination and his legendarium. Just how powerful is strikingly apparent in "The Story of Kullervo" and the two drafts of "On the Kalevala," all three here published for the first time. Both the story and the essay provide substantial evidence of Tolkien's early enthusiasm for and desire to communicate the unfettered exuberance, the unspoiled pagan quality, and what he called the "delicious exaggerations" of what were to him "wild … uncivilized and primitive tales." At the time Tolkien was writing, Elias Lönnrot's compilation of Finnish folk-ballads was a relatively recent addition to the world's mythological literature. Tolkien first discovered the Kalevala through Kirby's English translation in 1911, when he was at King Edward's School in Birmingham. When he went up to Oxford in the fall of that year, he checked out a Finnish grammar from the Exeter College Library hoping to read the Kalevala in the original, which hope was largely frustrated (see essay "On the Kalevala," section I, paragraph 4).

While working on his degree at Oxford in October of 1914 he wrote to his future wife (then fiancée) Edith Bratt that he was "trying to turn one of the stories [of the Kalevala]—which is really a very great story and most tragic—into a short story somewhat on the lines of Morris' romances with chunks of poetry in between" (Letters 7). Although he never finished it, Tolkien later gave this story credit as being "the original germ of the Silmarillion" (Letters 87), since it became transformed into the tale of Túrin Turambar, the epic, tragic hero of Tolkien's own mythology. "The Story of Kullervo" presents Tolkien's treatment of a figure who has had many incarnations ranging from the medieval Icelandic Amlodhi to the Danish Amlethus of Saxo Grammaticus's Gesta Danorum to Shakespeare's moody, erratic, vengeful Renaissance Prince Hamlet, and culminating in the Finnish Kullervo to whom Tolkien is most indebted.

The narrative trajectory of Tolkien's story follows Runos 31-36 in the Kalevala. These tell of a quarrel between brothers which leaves one dead, the other the murderous guardian of the dead brother's newborn son [End Page 211] Kullervo. The boy grows up to exact revenge for his family's destruction but is himself destroyed by his discovery of his unwitting incest with a sister he did not recognize. Tolkien's story follows its source closely; its main departure is in the matter of names. He began by following the Kalevala nomenclature, but subsequently changed to his own invented names or nicknames for all but the major characters, Kalervo, Kullervo, and Untamo; and even for these he supplied a variety of nicknames. His text is not always consistent, however, and he occasionally reverts to, or forgets to change, an earlier discarded name. His use of diacritical marks over the vowel—chiefly macrons but also occasionally breves—is also somewhat random. In regularizing his usage, I have made the present transcript more consistent in this regard than is the actual text. Tolkien's most notable change is from "Ilmarinen," the name of the smith in Kalevala, to "Āsemo" (see the entry for Āsemo the smith in the Notes and Commentary for a longer discussion on the etymology of the name).

"The Story of Kullervo" exists in a single manuscript, Bodleian Library MS Tolkien B 64/6. This is a legible but rough draft, with many crossings-out, marginal and above-line additions, corrections, and emendations. The text is written in pencil on both sides of 13 numbered bifold foolscap folios. The main narrative breaks off abruptly halfway down the recto of folio 13, at a point about three quarters through the story. It is followed on the same page by notes and outlines for the remainder, which fill the rest of the...