Kullervo son of Kalervo is perhaps the darkest and most tragic of all J.R.R. Tolkien’s characters. “Hapless Kullervo,” as Tolkien called him, is a luckless orphan boy with supernatural powers and a tragic destiny.
Brought up in the homestead of the dark magician Untamo, who killed his father, kidnapped his mother, and tried three times to kill him when he was still a boy, Kullervo is alone save for the love of his twin sister, Wanōna, and the magical powers of the black dog Musti, who guards him. When Kullervo is sold into slavery, he swears revenge on the magician, but he will learn that even at the point of vengeance there is no escape from the cruelest of fates.
–from the back cover of The Story of Kullervo
Tolkien himself said that The Story of Kulllervo was “the germ of my attempt to write legends of my own,” and was “a major matter in the legends of the First Age.” Tolkien’s Kullervo is the clear ancestor of Túrin Turambar, the tragic incestuous hero of The Children of Hurin. Published with the author’s drafts, notes, and lecture essays on its source work, the Kalevala, The Story of Kullervo is a foundation stone in the structure of Tolkien’s invented world.
Anyone who knows me knows how much I love Tolkien. And my latest read when it comes to the works of J.R.R. Tolkien is The Story of Kullervo; it’s the story that lies between the source material of the Kalevala and the end product that is Túrin’s tale in The Children of Húrin. Personally, I love these posthumous publications that show the development of Tolkien’s stories; they’re fascinating, and it’s interesting to see how these tales developed over time.
Anyway, today I bring you my review of The Story of Kullervo. Of course, this is an incredibly dark story, just like the tale of Túrin Turambar. But I assume that if you’re interested enough to read this, you likely have some familiarity with Tolkien’s lesser-known work, including The Children of Húrin. So, be aware that the same warnings that apply to that story apply to this one. Kullervo’s tale is a dark one, so this definitely isn’t a lighthearted read.
Now, without any further delay, let’s get into the review.
I’ll be honest; this review won’t be too long. About half, give or take some, of this book is composed of commentary and analysis; so, obviously, most of the thoughts I have, have already been said in that commentary. Plus, although I love Tolkien and have read the Kalevala, I can’t claim to be an expert on either. So, I really just recommend reading this book!
So, I think I’ll just give you some slightly organized thoughts of mine on this book. It won’t be anything too insightful or interesting, but I repeat; just read the book! If you’re a Tolkien fan, you won’t regret it.
First of all, I didn’t give The Story of Kullervo five stars. Basically, I just liked it a little less than other similar books; for example, I definitely enjoyed Beren and Lúthien more than this one. In that, we saw more of the development of the story itself. In The Story of Kullervo, equal attention is paid to Tolkien’s lectures and the editor’s commentary.
Don’t get me wrong; I loved both those parts, in addition to the story itself! But still, I feel like they’re three separate things that, combined into this book, aren’t quite as enjoyable as other Tolkien books. So, minus half a star! (But only half a star.)
The next point I want to make is this: I liked how this book highlighted the way in which Tolkien adapted many parts of his work from myths and legends, in a more “readable” form compared to more academic works like the ones referenced in this book. Obviously, Tolkien took Kullervo and eventually ended up with Túrin. But there are other adaptations and borrowings in his work. The Story of Kullervo mentions the connection between Bilbo stealing the cup from Smaug and Beowulf; my personal favorite, though, is the borrowing of the Burning of the Ships from Celtic mythology.
I definitely recommend this book to fans of Tolkien; I’m sure you’ll enjoy it as much as I did. And fans of mythology, in general, will also enjoy this, if only for the lecture portion of the book. However, I didn’t give this one a full five stars since I liked it less than other similar Tolkien books. Still, it is a great read, and I enjoyed seeing the bridge between the Kalevala and The Children of Húrin.
I hoped you liked my review for The Story of Kullervo. I know it wasn’t my best review, by far, but hopefully, some of what I mentioned was of interest to you! Again, I really just recommend reading the book; you won’t regret it.
And, as always, if you do, let me know your thoughts on it!
Buy on Amazon
The Kalevala on archive.org (Note: This is not the translation read and referenced by Tolkien. Just an FYI!)