Fans in Europe were able to buy The Story of Kullervo last year; the good news is, today the wait is over at last for fans in the US!
Tolkien himself said of this previously unknown work of fantasy that it was “the germ of my attempt to write legends of my own,” and was “a major matter in the legends of the First Age.” Publishers Houghton Mifflin Harcourt tell us:
‘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, Wanona, 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.
Tolkien’s Kullervo was the ancestor of Túrin Turambar, tragic hero of The Silmarillion. Published here for the first time 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.’
Not only is this book finally available to American fans – HMH are also giving away five copies! If you live in the US, simply click here to enter to win!
To whet your appetite for this exciting new publication, here’s a conversation shared with us by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, with Kullervo’s editor, Verlyn Flieger:
Where has The Story of Kullervo been hiding? How did the manuscript come to light?
The manuscript has not been hiding, but neither has it been easily accessible. It is housed with other manuscripts, books, and artwork in the Bodleian Library’s Tolkien archive in Oxford, UK.Access to it is restricted and contingent on permission from the Tolkien Estate. I got the Estate’s permission to read the manuscript in 2008, when I was working on an article about Tolkien and Kalevala. My first look made it clear that this was an important sample of Tolkien’s early work, his first real try at creating a fictive world, and also a foundation piece in the creation of his Silmarillion mythology.
How did Tolkien change the source material from Kalevala to make his own story?
He kept the framework—the killing of Kullervo’s father by his uncle Untamo and Kullervo’s captivity. But he tightened the story, giving Kullervo one family with two sets of siblings instead of Kalevala’s clumsy patchwork of two separate stories about two different families. This enabled him to have Kullervo meet an unrecognized twin sister rather than a completely unknown sibling for the crucial incest that drives the ending, thus deepening the tragedy, making it more personal. He turned what, in Kalevala, was a rape and a one-night stand into a rough wooing and a love idyll—again making the incest more poignant. He gave Kullervo one memento of his dead father, the knife Sikki, the destruction of which sends Kullervo on a rampage of revenge.
What is the relationship between The Story of Kullervo and the rest of the Tolkien canon?
It’s clearly one of the foundation stones of Tolkien’s Silmarillion mythology. It is his earliest attempt at mythmaking, his earliest effort to create what he called a Secondary World, and his first serious try at integrating a world and its language. Kullervo is the prototype for Túrin Turambar, Tolkien’s epic, tragic hero.
“The Story of Kullervo” is unfinished. How much of it do we have? And why did Tolkien abandon it?
It’s difficult to estimate, but I’d say we have about two-thirds to three-quarters. We have all of Kullervo’s early life, his slavery and escape, his fateful meeting with an unrecognized sister and their consequent incest and her suicide. The narrative breaks off at the point where Kullervo, seeing her suicide, begins to suspect who she is. Tolkien’s outline notes fill in the subsequent events, Kullervo’s return to kill his uncle, Untamo, his subsequent dream visit to the land of the dead, where his mother reveals the girl he raped to be his sister, and his final act of suicide by his own sword. But these are in synopsis only and lack the poetic drive of the full narration. We cannot say that Tolkien “abandoned” the story; we know that he stopped writing, but not why he did so. It’s quite possible that he meant to get back to it, but simply got too busy with his own Silmarillion mythology.
How is Kullervo similar to/different from Tolkien’s other, better-known characters?
He is much darker than the characters we associate with Tolkien, like Bilbo or Frodo or Gandalf or even Gollum, who has his lighter moments. Kullervo is brooding, angry, vengeful, ugly, resentful, violent. He thinks the world hates him and he hates it back. Tolkien gives him almost no redeeming qualities, yet this very quality makes the reader feel sympathy for him. In the crucial events of his life, Kullervo is most like Tolkien’s Túrin Turambar. Both lose a father, are separated from their mother, are fostered in a strange home, and are driven to escape into the wild. Both are separated from a sister whom they later meet with disastrous consequences that end in the death of both of them. Both are quick-tempered, impulsive, looking for trouble and finding it. Yet here too there are differences. Túrin is handsome, attractive, easy to love in spite of himself, while Kullervo is crooked, ill-favored, with more than a hint of the supernatural. He can use magic, he has super-human strength, he can commune with wild animals.
What was it about the story of Kullervo in Kalevala that attracted Tolkien?
Something in the extreme events and over-the-top emotions, the headlong plunge into tragedy with no redemption, spoke to him deeply. Tolkien has a dark side—you can see it in the Silmarillion mythology with its endless war, and in The Lord of the Rings, where he puts Frodo through such torture and takes away everything he holds dear. When Tolkien wrote The Story of Kullervo, he was a very young man, twenty-two or thereabouts—an age when the world is in primary colors, no shades or modulations. Like Kullervo he had lost his father, and later his mother, he had no home, he was separated from the girl he loved, and he was facing an uncertain future. That’s enough for anyone to cope with, and one way of coping with trouble is to turn it into art. He called it a “very great story,” and it’s quite probable that he knew its connection, through early medieval Scandinavian versions, with the story that became Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
[Click here to enter to WIN The Story of Kullervo] (Sorry, US residents only)