Reading time: 8 mins


Last autumn Verlyn Flieger, Professor Emerita of English at the University of Maryland, gave a lecture in J.R.R. Tolkien’s alma mater on The Story of Kullervo, his earliest attempt at prose fiction, written around 1914-15 when he was an undergraduate at Exeter College. Working from the original handwritten manuscript held in the Bodleian Library, she edited the unfinished short story in 2010, and Harper Collins published it in August 2015. It is a testament to Tolkien’s literary genius that a hundred years after he wrote this story, scholars and students are discussing his work in the very College where he studied as an undergraduate. He began writing the story when he was distracted from his studies by the discovery of Finnish mythology in the form of Kalevala, and wrote to his fiancée Edith that he was attempting “to turn one of the stories [of Kalevala]…into a short story somewhat on the lines of Morris’ romances with chunks of poetry in between”. This initial attempt at story telling set the wheels in motion for a lifetime’s interest in mythology, legend and sub creation, and although at first reading the tale might seem profoundly out of character, there are seeds in this precocious work which germinate throughout his corpus.

I started to read the book with some trepidation, worried that the bleakness of the tragedy would affect the regard in which I held Tolkien as a writer. In her introduction, Flieger writes “The Story of Kullervo…is relentlessly dark, a foreboding and tragic tale of blood feud, murder, child abuse, revenge, incest and suicide.” She is not exaggerating.At first reading the tale might seem profoundly out of characterIn summary, the short story, only 36 pages in length, can be summarised as follows: Kullervo’s father is murdered by his brother Untamo who appropriates his widow and four children. Kullervo, who is remarkable for his physical strength, is abused by his uncle and escapes murder three times, by drowning, burning and hanging, thanks to the help of the magical hound Musti. The only person he is close to is his twin sister Wanona. Once Untamo realises he cannot make use of Kullervo as a slave, he sells him to the smith Asemo. He is mistreated by Asemo’s wife, whom he subsequently has torn to pieces by wild beasts. After leaving Asemo’s household, he decides to take revenge on his uncle and kill him, but on his journey home he meets and seduces/rapes a beautiful girl who is later revealed to be his sister. Aghast at their incest, she throws herself over a cliff. Kullervo kills Untamo and then kills himself.

Although it is difficult to pinpoint the exact period when the young Tolkien was writing Kullervo, we know that his university years were an unsettling time in his life. The First World War was breaking out and many of his contemporaries at Exeter were going to the Front, never to return. He had endured a three year enforced separation from his beloved Edith imposed by his guardian. He has written of this period: “For very nearly three years I did not see or write to my lover. It was extremely hard, especially at first. The effects were not wholly good: I fell back into folly and slackness and misspent a good deal of my first year at college.” While at Oxford, he was undergoing a period of spiritual desolation and was no longer attending regular Mass. And of course what must have affected him more than anything else was the loss of his father at the age of four and his mother at the age of twelve. In the original manuscript of Kullervo are the lines “I was small and lost my mother father/ I was young (weak) and lost my mother” which are doubly poignant for their autobiographical reality. This goes some way to explain the darkness in The Story of Kullervo and the isolation of its troubled, twisted anti-hero.

Tolkien’s version is a more in-depth rendering of the tragedy that forms the dark centre of the Kalevala. He first read this compilation of Finnish epic folklore in the 1907 English translation of W.F. Kirby, describing the material as “an amazing wine”. As he wrote to W.H. Auden in 1955, it “set the rocket off in story”. He lamented the lack of proper English mythology and his ambition was to create a mythology for England, which he eventually did with his legendarium. In his essay On Fairy Stories, written in 1939, Tolkien talks about the goal of sub creation, where the author creates a secondary world, based on our own, with all the mythology and language that populate this imagined universe.

The Heysham sands: inspired by Finnish epic, Tolkien wanted to
write a mythology for England. Terran Brown/Flickr

The language used in this initial prose attempt is what gives colour and form to the legend. It’s a confusing read, with archaic turns of phrase and a bewildering number of name changes. Kullervo is also referred to as Honto (in the manuscript’s title), Kampo, Sakehonto, Saki and Kalervonpoika (poika being the Finnish patrynomic suffix). His father is Kalervo, Kalervoinen and Kampa. The evil uncle is Untamo, Untamoinen, Ulto, Unti, Ulko and Ulkho. His twin sister Wanona is also referred to as Oanora, Wanone and Kivutar, and the magical black hound Musti’s name is changed to Mauri half way through the story. Apart from this variety of names, there are also lengthy chunks of poetry, most notably the cattle chant sung by the wife of Asemo which bears no relevance to the plot. This is characteristic of Tolkien’s writing, particularly in Lord of the Rings, where figures like Tom Bombadil or Treebeard would break into song for no apparent reason. Already in his early prose there is ample proof of Tolkien’s prodigious imagination at work, and his fondness for the poetry that enriches his created universe. 

Flieger writes in her introduction, “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 realised.” She argues that The Story of Kullervocontains all the elements of his later work and is a clear preliminary to The Children of Húrin, with the character of Kullervo being the direct predecessor to the great tragic hero of Tolkien’s legendarium, Túrin Turambar. A number of motifs recur throughout Tolkien’s work which first appear in Kullervo: the orphan, the relationship between uncle and nephew, the supernatural helper, the cherished heirloom.

The anti-hero’s character is the most developed of the story, whereas all the other characters are one-dimensional. From the start, he seems to be under a curse. Unlike the handsome Túrin, he is ugly and repellent, both physically and in personality: “Sari was not fair in his face but swart and ill-favoured and his stature assorted not with We know that his university years were an unsettling point in his lifehis breadth.” Wanona resists his advances with the words “Little does thy look consort with maidens.” He is cantankerous, resentful, his “heart…black with bitterness”. Despite the torture and abuse he suffers, it is very difficult to empathise with him. When he is about to be exiled from Untamo’s kingdom, his older brother and sister make a point of saying how much they won’t miss him, which prompts his mother to say that she will weep for him. His rejoinder is biting, callous and lacking in any filial sympathy:

“Thou wilt weep not and if thou dost, then weep: weep till the house is flooded, weep until the paths are swimming and the byre a marsh, for I reck not and shall be far hence.”

It is his status as a pariah and outsider that is particularly striking about this character. He is rejected by all his relatives except for his mother and his twin (although she is initially repulsed by him when they meet again), and is abused horrifically by his uncle. He is taunted by Asemo and his wife. He himself rejects any human attachments apart from Wanona, although “not seldom was he short with her” and soon forgets her once he is sold to Asemo. He is filled with self-pity and hatred, which drives him to exact revenge on the shrewish wife of his master Asemo for breaking his most precious possession, the knife Sikki that belonged to his father Kalervo. He has her torn to pieces by bears and wolves in the form of cattle, deaf to her pleas for mercy. He ignores the advice of the Blue-robed Lady of the Forest who tells him to avoid the wooded mountain, and there sets eyes on the beautiful Wanona, his forgotten twin sister. In a scene reminiscent of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, he becomes angry and pursues her when she rejects his advances and eventually seduces or rapes her (the text leaves this open to interpretation).

One might think that this character is unique in Tolkien’s corpus. But, apart from his direct relation to Túrin, he has other lateral descendants. Like Kullervo, Frodo is an orphan, adopted by his uncle, sent on a long journey, unable to complete the task which he has been set and incapable of settling back into normal life when he returns home. He falls short of the heroic standard by failing in his task, claiming the ring as his own when he reaches his destination of Mount Doom. More directly, Gollum is eaten up with hatred and bitterness. He is an outsider, rejected by his own kind, vengeful, with a grudge against humanity, full of malice. Like Kullervo’s prized possession of his knife Sikki, the only thing Gollum values is the ring, his “precious”.

Even the profound darkness of The Story of Kullervo is not unique to this early work of Tolkien. The Children of Húrin ends in tragedy with the suicide of Nienor, wife of Túrin Tarambar, who like Wanona throws herself off a cliff after learning that she and Túrin are siblings. Túrin then takes his own life with his sword Gurthang. The Lord of the Ringsis no children’s story but a complex tale of the struggle between good and evil, the burden of sin and the destruction brought about by greed and power. The Hobbitevolves into a tale of acquisitiveness and politics that culminates in the Battle of the Five Armies, with Bilbo stealing the Arkenstone and earning his title of burglar and petty thief.

In style, language, sub creation and character development, I would agree with Flieger that the newly published Story of Kullervo is of huge importance as the germ of Tolkien’s corpus. However I do not think that the pessimism of the story points to a deep darkness within the writer himself. Over his lifetime the tone of his books seemed to shift: at the time of writing Lord of the Rings, Tolkien is no longer a lonely orphaned undergraduate struggling with doubt, but a happily married man in middle age with a strong faith and a good circle of male friends. The suffering of the heroes in his later works is redemptive, joyful and satisfying. It is worth noting that, whereas Kullervo is utterly friendless, Tolkien places a huge emphasis on friendship in his later works: for instance the camaraderie of the dwarves in The Hobbit, the company in The Fellowship of the Ring, the friendships between Frodo and Sam, Merry and Pippin, Legolas and Gimli. It is this spirit of fellowship, where friends are united in a common purpose, which ultimately allows them to overcome a seemingly invincible adversary. It is the optimism and strength of friendship that make Tolkien’s later works so uplifting and—despite their mythical nature—so very real.

Emily Watson is the editor of Quadrapheme, an online literary, culture and politics magazine. Her aticle is reproduced here with permission.


Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is a New Zealand journalist with a special interest in family issues. She began her working life as a secondary school teacher but always fancied the life of the scribe. Too late, she realised that the latter is even more work than teaching Shakespeare to 15-year-olds and the pay is generally less. Being a reluctant geek, she has never quite got over the surprise of finding herself the deputy editor of an online magazine -- a pleasant sensation for the most part. She once wrote a book -- the history of New Zealand’s own anti-porn movement in its heyday -- for which she got mixed reviews and no awards. She lives in the country’s largest city, Auckland, which is three hours by plane from Sydney -- the hub of MercatorNet -- and too far for comfort from anywhere else of importance. Still, it is a very nice vantage point from which to meddle in the affairs of the world.