In 2003, after a long-running poll, the BBC announced that readers considered The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien’s three-volume fantasy tale, the greatest British novel of all time—a result wonderful to report, probably accurate about contemporary readers’ taste, and entirely absurd. Anyone who doesn’t love Tolkien isn’t much of a reader. But, then, neither is anyone who thinks The Lord of the Rings the greatest novel ever written.
In an art form so wide-ranging that it includes everything from the works of Jane Austen to the books of Fyodor Dostoyevsky—from David Copperfield to Naked Lunch, Madame Bovary to The Stranger—Tolkien has to rank somewhere, and maybe somewhere toward the front of the class. I certainly thought so. I found The Lord of the Rings in a three-volume box set at a church book sale when I was 11, and it dominated my imagination for years afterward. But even at that age, I think I knew that Tolkien was merely great, and that to call him the greatest English novelist would be to have a pretty truncated notion of what the novel as an art form can accomplish.
Recent Stories in Culture
Glancing at The Story of Kullervo, the latest release of the author’s unpublished works, I get the sense that the peak of Tolkien appreciation has passed. Maybe it was Peter Jackson’s movies (The Lord of the Rings from 2001 to 2003 and The Hobbit from 2012 to 2014) that gave a sense of overload to the stories’ presentation. Or maybe it was somewhere in the midst of The History of Middle-Earth, the 13 book-length collections of unpublished material issued by Tolkien’s son Christopher from 1983 to 1996, that it all began to seem too much—following, as those books did, on 12 prior posthumous books by the author.
Regardless, with The Story of Kullervo, we are now 12 volumes beyond The History of Middle-Earth—making a total of 37 Tolkien books published since the author’s death in 1973. His translations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Pearl poem (1975), together with the Old English Exodus Text (1981), were well worth seeing into print, as were his ruminations on Beowulf, collected as The Monsters and the Critics in 1983. Yes, too, to The Father Christmas Letters, a set of drawings and stories for children published in 1976, and the deep background to Middle Earth in the unpublished stories of the 1977 Silmarillion.
But by the time we reached the 1998 dog story Roverandom and the scraps collected in the 2002 Tolkien Miscellany, we could begin to understand why the living Tolkien declined to publish every word he ever wrote. The dead Tolkien has been considerably less selective, and we seem to be at the point where his laundry lists and pipe doodles are all that remain to be published as forgotten works by the master.
The Story of Kullervo is a kind of loose translation and adaptation of part of the Kalevala, the national epic of Finland. First published in 1835 as a collection of old Finnish poetic folk tales, the Kalevala may be the single greatest force behind the independence of Finland and its identity as a nation. The book’s influence reaches everywhere from Longfellow’s 1855 Song of Hiawatha to a 1999 Uncle Scrooge comic book from Disney called The Quest for Kalevala.
It’s not surprising, really, that the book’s influence would reach to a student of languages as serious as J.R.R. Tolkien. In letters and interviews, Tolkien regularly named the Kalevala as one of the ur-texts behind the rich mythology of Middle Earth he built for The Lord of the Rings. Kullervo’s story is echoed in Tolkien’s sad tale of Túrin Turambar in The Silmarillion, and the figure of Väinämöinen helps in understanding the odd, almost inexplicable appearances of the character Tom Bombadil in The Lord of the Rings. The first of his invented languages, Elvish, is often said to bear some resemblance to Finnish grammar and word formation.
Tolkien’s interest in the Kalevala began as an undergraduate in 1913. He had just read a nineteenth-century English translation, and—instead of studying for his Classics degree—he began to try to learn enough Finnish that he could read the original text. "I made a wild assault on the stronghold of the original language and was repulsed," he would later explain, "with heavy losses."
But he persisted enough to get the basics, the first non-Indo-European language studied by this master of linguistics, and it changed him: "Trees will group differently on the horizon, the birds will make unfamiliar music; the inhabitants will talk a wild and at first unintelligible lingo," he wrote. "This is how it was for me when I first read the Kalevala—that is, crossed the gulf between the Indo-European-speaking peoples of Europe into this smaller realm of those who cling in queer corners to the forgotten tongues and memories of an elder day."
Along the way, the 21-year-old undergraduate attempted to translate and adapt the portions of the Kalevala that tell of Kullervo, the mythical boy who wrecks everything he touches. Kullervo is … unlike is the word, I suppose. He’s unlike characters even in the stranger of old European traditional stories, from the Icelandic Sagas to the Grimm brothers’ fairytales. He’s even unlike the figure Tolkien built from him: Túrin Turambar, the human hero taken in by elves in the Silmarillion, was handsome and dynamic, even though prone to failure and tragedy. Kullervo is ugly instead. Crazy in mind and destructive in purpose.
Brought up by the murderer of his father, Kullervo is unwanted—and yet, even as he destroys things around him, he dodges every attempt to kill him. So his master sells him as a slave, where he’s mistreated, naturally. Until, that is, he lures the wife of his master into being eaten by wolves. Breaking free, he finds himself attracted to a girl, so he kidnaps her and, as she grows content with her fate, they live together fairly happily. Until, that is, they learn that Kullervo is actually her brother, and she drowns herself.
The 21-year-old undergraduate, teaching himself Finnish, modified the story in a number of ways. In Tolkien’s telling, Kullervo has a magical dog who accompanies him and speaks the truths that the boy cannot quite grasp. Tolkien thickened the character of Kullervo’s mother and added "Weeping," a twin sister who never quite overcomes the family’s loss of her brother.
The result is incomplete but interesting, in its way, for those who want an understanding of the techniques Tolkien used to move from his readings in old languages to the mythologies of Middle Earth. But the text will not stand on its own, the way The Silmarillion and some of the stories in The History of Middle-Earth do. The prose is overwrought, as is often the case even with talented undergraduates, and he had not yet discovered the William Morris-inflected voice that he would use to good effect in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Without the good will of knowing it’s by J.R.R. Tolkien, no one would find The Story of Kullervo readable.
At least the notes by editor Verlyn Flieger are solid and informative—although that points to the only real purpose of The Story of Kullervo: the history of an author. Lost in learning Finnish (and pursuing the love of his life, his future wife, Edith Bratt), he scraped only a passing score on his exams in 1913. That’s what convinced him to shift from a Classics degree to a specialization in English Language and Literature. Which is what trained him in the roots of English. Which is what prompted him to begin building a new mythology out of the ancient English sources. Which is what would produce both his scholarly Middle English Vocabulary in 1922 and The Hobbit in 1937. Which is what led us to be interested enough in J.R.R. Tolkien that his publishers can try to drag us through now 37 volumes of posthumous material.
Enough is enough, don’t you think?