The Story of Kullervo
J.R.R. Tolkien
edited by
Verlyn Flieger

J. R. R. Tolkien

Verlyn Flieger
This page:

The Kalevala
by J.R.R. Tolkien

Tolkien, Kalevala, and ’The Story of Kullervo’
by Verlyn Flieger



index pages:

This book, The Story of Kullervo, combines draft works by Tolkien and explanatory contributions by the editor, Verlyn Flieger.

Tolkien’s drafts include

Flieger has furnished introductory material, separate Notes and Commentary to each of the three items by Tolkien, an additional introduction to his essays, and an essay of her own tracing the development of the Kullervo story from The Kalevala, through Tolkien’s draft adaptation, to its influence on the story of The Children of Húrin.

The excerpts I have collected are from the second version of Tolkien’s essay, and from the one by Flieger.

The Kalevala

Copyright © The Tolkien Trust 2010, 2015

[...] if the heroes of the Kalevala do behave with a singular lack of dignity and even decency, and with a readiness for tears and dirty dealing, that is part of their especial attraction! After all they are not really more undignified – and are much more easy to get on with – than is a medieval lover who takes to his bed to lament the cruelty of his lady in that she will not have pity on him, condemning him to a melting death; but who is struck with the novelty of the idea when his kindly adviser points out that the poor lady is as yet uninformed in any way of his attachment. The lovers of Kalevala are forward and take a deal of rebuffing.
It is to all that body of strange myth, of queer troglodyte underworld of story, of wild jugglings with the sun and moon and the origins of the earth and the shapes of Man, that in Homer (for instance) has lightly been pruned away till only a few incongruous traces of its former presence are left – it is to this that most of the Kalevala may be compared and not to the large grandeur of the epic theme, nor to its conscious humanity. Or again it is to the weird tales, the outrageous ghosts, and the sorceries and by-tracks of Northern imagination that crop out at times into the usually intensely clear upper air of the Sagas that the Land of Heroes can most often be likened, not to the haughty dignity and courage, the nobility of mind and of body of which the great Sagas tell. Yet the queer and strange, the unrestrained, the grotesque is not only interesting it is valuable: it is one of the eternal and permanent interests and attractions of men. Nor is it always necessary to purge it all out in order to attain to the sublime. You can have your gargoyles on your noble cathedral; but northern Europe has lost much through too often trying to build Greek temples.

In the Kalevala there is often no attempt at even the limited plausibility of the fairy-tale, no cunning concealment of the impossible – only the child’s delight in saying that he has cut down a million trees, or that he will knock down some such august personage as his father, if indeed he has not already slain twenty policemen. All this is not intended to take you in, nor even to cast the brief spell of the story-teller’s illusion over you. Its delight depends on the dawning perception of the limits of ordinary human possibility and at the same time of the limitless power of movement and of creation of the human fancy and imagination. Latent in it no doubt is the heroism of the human battles with overmastering fate, and courage undaunted by unconquerable odds – but you do not listen to it on that account, you either like it or despise it as an effort of fresh unsophisticated fancy. [...] In the Land of Heroes a man may kill a gigantic elk in one line and find it more poetic to call it a she-bear in the next. To elaborate this is perhaps unnecessary; but it might be made the occasion of an attempt to say just what I find the atmosphere of the Kalevala to be – my finding you can correct for yourselves from your own knowledge, or from the extracts that I could wish to read to you until your patience was exhausted, and you felt the appropriateness of the last lines of the Kalevala:

‘Een the waterfall when flowing
Yields no endless stream of water;
Nor does an accomplished singer
Sing till all his knowledge fail him.’

Now as to what is known of the origin of these poems I know little and will not try to tell much more tha[n] I know.

If you are not of the temper, or think you are not, for getting on with these divine and heroic personages, I assure you, as I did before, that they behave most charmingly: they all obey the great rule of the game in the Kalevala, which is to tell at least three lies before imparting accurate information, however trivial. It seems to have become a formula or polite behaviour, for no one in the Kalevala is believed until his fourth statement (which he modestly prefaces with ‘all the truth I now will tell you, though at first I lied a little’.) So much for the religion (if you can call it such) and the imaginary background.

The real scenery of the poems, the place of most of the action is Suomi, the Marshland – Finland as we call it – which the Finns themselves often name the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes. Short of going there, I imagine one could scarcely be made to see the land more vividly than by reading the Kalevala – the land of a century ago or more, at any rate, if not a land ravaged by modern progress.



text checked (see note) July 2022

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Tolkien, Kalevala, and ‘The Story of Kullervo’

Copyright © Verlyn Flieger 2010, 2015

One of the problem points in the Kalevala story is that Kullervo has two families and becomes an orphan twice. His first family is destroyed by Untamo in the raid that captures Kullervo’s mother. The narrative is clear at this early point in the story that this is a near-complete massacre, leaving the newborn boy with no home, no father, and no loving relatives besides his mother, who like him is a slave and of little help or support. It is thus confusing to most readers when much later in the story a second family in a different household turns up, before the incest but after Kullervo kills the smith’s wife. He is at that point told, to his and the reader’s surprise, that his family is alive. [...]

According to Domenico Comparetti, one of the earliest scholars to write on Kalevala, the two-family mix-up is the result of Lönnrot’s combining into one sequence several songs originally independent of one another. Comparetti pointed out that, ‘Kullervo’s finding his family at home after they have been killed by Untamo, is a contradiction that betrays the joining together of several runes’ (Comparetti, p. 148), runes not even from the same localities, and with differing variants (ibid., p. 145).

The hapless orphan, the unknown sister, the heirloom knife, the broken family and its psychological results, the forbidden love between lonely young people, the despair and self-destruction on the point of a sword, all transfer into ‘The Tale of the Children of Húrin’, not direct from Kalevala but filtered through The Story of Kullervo. We can now see where these elements came from, and how they got to be what they are. Most telling, paradoxically because perhaps least necessary, is the move from Musti to Huan – a figure almost unchanged save for his name. It seems clear that Tolkien found Musti simply too good to waste, and recycled him from the unfinished early story to the later and more fully realized fairytale context of the romance of Beren and Lúthien.

The Story of Kullervo was Tolkien’s earliest attempt at retelling – and in the process ‘reorganizing’ – an already-existing tale. As such, it occupies an important place in his canon. Furthermore, it is a significant step on the winding road from imitation to invention, a trial piece by the orphan boy, university undergraduate, returning soldier who loved Kalevala, resonated with Kullervo, and felt the lack of ‘something of the same sort that belonged to the English’.

text checked (see note) July 2022

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