A Philologist’s Tale: J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Story of Kullervo

(Image: HarperCollins)

(Image: HarperCollins)

If you know what either ‘fantasy’ or ‘philology’ means, you’ve heard of J.R.R. Tolkien. With the third Hobbit film a thankfully fading memory, he disappeared from the news for a while. But in recent weeks, he’s been back. This is because a new work by him, The Story of Kullervo, is being made widely available for the first time (it was previously only available in an academic journal).

Tolkien bio. For those who need reminding. 

He was born 1892 in Bloemfontein, in what would later become South Africa. His father died when he was four and his mother when he was twelve. Before she died she converted to Catholicism, her family disowned her and Tolkien came to see her as something of a martyr. Tolkien grew up in worse poverty than most major twentieth-century authors, literally walking four miles to school for want of the tram fare. Raised by a guardian, he fell in love with another orphan, Edith Bratt, but was forbidden from seeing her. When he turned 21 he promptly hopped on a train and proposed to her. He was educated at King Edward’s grammar school in Birmingham and studied Classics and then English at Exeter College Oxford. He served in the First World War, including the Battle of the Somme, and started writing a body of myths and legends which he would work on for the rest of his life, ‘the Silmarillion’. After working for the Oxford English Dictionary and teaching at the University of Leeds, he returned to Oxford and became a professor of Anglo-Saxon in 1925. He published The Hobbit in 1937 and The Lord of the Rings in 1954-5. The huge commercial success of The Lord of the Rings in paperback in the 1960s inadvertently created the fantasy genre as we know it today. His life’s work, The Silmarillion, was only published posthumously in 1977.

Origins of The Story of Kullervo

Kalevala title pages

(Image: Wikimedia Commons and Archive.org)

In 1911 Tolkien read W.F. Kirby’s translation of the Kalevala, a collection of folksongs gathered and edited by a Finnish doctor, Elias Lönnrot, in the 1830s when Finland was still ruled by the Russian Empire. It was an incredibly important work of cultural nationalism (think Dubhghlas de hÍde but more) and Kalevala Day is still celebrated in Finland on 28th February, the date it was first published.

(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Eager to read it in the original, and in the process of inventing his own languages, Tolkien checked a Finnish grammar out of his college library and attempted with limited success to teach himself Finnish. In October 1914 he sent a letter to his then fiancé Edith, telling her he was trying to turn one of the stories from the Kalevala – which he called ‘a very great story, and most tragic’ – into a short story along the lines of William Morris’ romances, including both prose and poetry. He also gave a talk on the Kalevala to Oxford student societies in November 1914 and February 1915 where he praised the Kalevala for preserving myths and folklore that had been lost in the literatures of other European nations. In a revised version of the talk he prepared a few years later, he said ‘I would that we had more of it left – something of the same sort that belonged to the English’.

Tolkien was grieved that England didn’t have a native mythology or folklore comparable to its neighbours (King Arthur was a mixture of Welsh and French stories) and eventually set himself the task of becoming something like an English Lönnrot; if England didn’t have stories then he would invent them. In 1914 he came across a line in the Old English poem Crist by Cynewulf: ‘Eala Earendel engla beorhtast/ Ofer middangeard monnum sended’ ‘Hail Earendel, brightest of angels, over Middle-earth send unto men.’ Tolkien wanted to know who this Earendel was; he could tell from the scraps of linguistic and literary evidence that he was some sort of messenger, a mariner and associated with the heavens. So, he started writing his own stories to fill the gaps. Names and lost stories were probably the two things that most fired Tolkien’s imagination. At the same time as he was writing The Story of Kullervo, Tolkien composed a poem ‘The Voyage of Earendel the Evening Star’ which could be seen as the beginning of his personal mythology. In 1916-17 he started putting together what he called The Book of Lost Tales, the first version of The Silmarillion, and it contained a radical reworking of the Kullervo story, Turambar and the Foalókë.

We’ve known about The Story of Kullervo since Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien in 1977 but it was only published for the first time, edited by Prof. Verlyn Flieger, in the journal Tolkien Studies in 2010. It is now available to a large audience for the first time. The book contains: The Story of Kullervo, two drafts of Tolkien’s paper on the Kalevala, reproductions of Tolkien’s artwork and manuscript pages, as well as notes and commentary by Prof. Flieger.

The Story

(Short version)

“It’s about a poor orphan boy whose father is killed by his uncle, who is mistreated by everybody he comes in contact with, who finally and by mistake commits incest with a girl he doesn’t know is his sister and, after she kills herself, he follows suit and kills himself.” – Verlyn Flieger

(Long version)

The story begins with three brothers: one becomes a merchant and we never hear of him again, the second becomes a hero called Kallervo, the third becomes Untamo, an evil sorcerer.

Kallervo marries, has two children, and his unnamed wife is expecting twins.

Untamo, who covets his brother’s lands, leads a surprise attack, kills Kallervo and enslaves his family.

Kallervo’s unnamed wife gives birth to a boy who is very strong and a girl who is very beautiful. She names them Kullervo, ‘Wrath’, and Wānōna ‘Weeping’.

Uncared for by Untamo, the children grow up wild and untamed.

They learn their family history from their mother and Kullervo receives his father’s magic knife as an heirloom. Musti, their father’s hound, who is also magical, teaches them about ancient magic and warns them Untamo will try to kill them.

Untamo tries three times to kill Kullervo: first by drowning, then by burning, finally by hanging. With the help of Musti’s magic, Kullervo survives each time.

Untamo works Kullervo like a slave and Kullervo becomes resentful towards everyone except his twin sister. He spoils every task he’s given: hacks down trees, builds fences without gates, and threshes the rye harvest to dust.

Untamo sells him as a slave to the smith Āsemo. Kullervo parts with his family with great bitterness, telling his mother she can weep until the house is flooded for all he cares.

The smith makes Kullervo his wife’s servant. She treats him badly, putting a stone in his bread. He breaks his father’s knife on the stone and is enraged. He kills her cattle, transforms bears and wolves so they resemble the cattle and gives them to her to milk. She’s torn apart and, dying, curses him.

Kullervo escapes and decides to kill the source of his troubles, Untamo.

He is given directions but strays from his path and meets a young woman. They don’t recognize each other, but she gets a bad feeling. This is the curse. He seduces her but when she learns about his family history she commits suicide by throwing herself off a waterfall.

Distraught and furious, Kullervo sets off to kill Untamo and the manuscript breaks off unfinished….

[Tolkien’s notes tell us Kullervo would have gotten to Untamo’s lands, killed everyone and burned the place to the ground. Accused by his mother’s ghost of killing his family, Kullervo asks his sword to kill him. The sword says it will do so gladly.]


This story is important for seeing Tolkien at work on his first work of prose fiction. It shows him finding his voice and experimenting with mixing prose and poetry. It also gave him the basic plot and characters for a story he would rework several times over the rest of his life, the story of Túrin Turambar. One interesting thing the story proves  is that he can write an unsympathetic but engaging protagonist.

Although Tolkien didn’t like biographical criticism, it is interesting to read The Story of Kullervo, with its family strife and doomed romance, in the context of Tolkien’s own youth. In 1911 when he first read the Kalevala he was an orphan and forcibly separated from the woman he loved. There’s a line from Kirby’s translation of the Kalevala, ‘I was small and lost my father, I was weak and lost my mother’; Tolkien wrote it into the Story of Kullervo and then crossed it out.

It’s also an important snapshot of Tolkien learning how to go from imitation to original invention. He didn’t just reproduce the story from the Kalevala; he changed names, made the plot more consistent, and made the revelation of the incest much more dramatic. He’d later change the story considerably into that of Túrin Turambar but the core of the narrative survived throughout many, many retellings.

We can see the beginning of Tolkien’s love for the Finnish language. Finnish hugely affected his invented languages, with his language Qenya (later Quenya) based on the sounds of Finnish. Many of the personal and place names in his mythology are modelled on Finnish: Manwë, Yavanna, Valimar, Tol Eressëa. Finnish is unrelated to most of the language of Europe, and this strangeness greatly appealed to Tolkien, as did it’s soft v. He told his friend W.H. Auden that discovering Finnish was like ‘discovering a complete wine-cellar filled with bottles of an amazing wine of a kind and flavour never tastes before. It quite intoxicated me’. He said Finnish was what ‘set the rocket off’ when it came to his writing.

Kullervo and The Lord of the Rings

So did The Story of Kullervo have any influence on Tolkien’s most famous work, The Lord of the Rings? Well, there are a few things in LOTR that may go back to the Kalevala via Kullervo. One is the sense that everything – plants, rocks, even a tool or a weapon – has its own personality. This interest in non-human personalities and subjectivities is one of the things that make Tolkien an important precursor to contemporary environmentalist writing. Another influence of the Kalevala may be the character Tom Bombadil. His ability to work magic by singing is reminiscent of the singing duels in the Kalevala, such as between the magician/god Väinämöinen and the hero/rogue Lemminkäinen. A major influence may be the Sampo, a magical object that could be anything, possibly a magic mill, but which causes endless strife by being compellingly desirable. One last thing may the sense of magic fading from the world; The Lord of the Rings is very much a book about the end of an age. The Story of Kullervo is explicitly set in a time “when magic was yet new” and the Kalevala ends with Väinämöinen sailing away from Finland.

Then the aged Väinämöinen

Went upon his journey singing,

Sailing in his boat of copper,

In his vessel made of copper,

Sailed away to loftier regions,

To the land beneath the heavens.

There he rested with his vessel,

Rested weary, with his vessel,

But his kantele he left us,

Left his charming harp in Suomi,

For his people’s lasting pleasure,

Mighty songs for Suomi’s children. (L. 501-12)


Tolkien is often known for cute short people, a clear distinction between good and evil, and happy endings. This story is very different. It contains fratricide, child abuse, incest, and suicide. Tolkien isn’t known for tragedy; in fact he invented a word ‘eucatastrophe’ for one kind of story he liked, when everything seems terrible and then suddenly comes right. But Tolkien was interested in dyscatastrophe as well.

(Lemminkäisen äiti 'Lemminkäinen's mother' by Akseli Gallen-Kallela. Wikimedia Commons)

(Lemminkäisen äiti ‘Lemminkäinen’s mother’ by Akseli Gallen-Kallela. Wikimedia Commons)

In recent years a lot of attention has gone to the fantasy genre’s dark side – with writers like George R.R. Martin, Mark Lawrence and Joe Abercrombie sometimes grouped as a sub-genre called ‘grimdark’ fantasy. This was in part a reaction to bad imitations of Tolkien which were very clean cut and safe. The Story of Kullervo reinforces the fact that Tolkien could write incredibly dark and tragic stories (something readers of The Silmarillion would already know). He started his writing career writing stories about tragic heroes killing their friends, refugees fleeing the destruction of their cities, and romances with bittersweet endings.

A newcomer to Tolkien could read this as a good story, though I suspect they may be put off by its unfinished ending, and the amount of poetry. It will be extra rewarding, however, for people who know Tolkien’s mythology and can see the first versions of several of his characters and stories. For anyone with an interest in Tolkien, fantasy, folklore, cultural nationalism, adaptation, tragedy, it’ll be a very interesting read.


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