Monday, 26 June 2017

The Story of Kullervo - J.R.R. Tolkien

'For the paths led ever deeper
Deeper deeper into darkness
Deeper deeper into sorrow
Into woe and into horror.'

The Story of Kullervo is, in his own words, J.R.R Tolkien's first wandering into writing an epic. It was written when he was a 22-year old Oxford undergraduate. Makes one wonder, what am I doing with my life, right? And although it was written in 1915, it was forgotten for a hundred years and only came out in book form in 2015. It was also his first time writing prose instead of what he had been doing prior to this – poetry.

The reason this is so interesting from a Finn's point of view is that it's based on a story from our national epic, Kalevala. While Tolkien's knowledge on it is obviously and sadly vastly superior to mine, I don't think anyone has managed to escape primary education without being somewhat familiar with it. The stories that I believe are most well known from it are the stories of Aino, and indeed Kullervo. Both are quite tragic and depressing. The stories themselves are compiled by Elias Lönnrot in between 1828 and 1835 from Finnish (pagan) myths. 

Tolkien didn't approve of the English translation of Kalevala, however. He tried to read it in Finnish and took out a dictionary from the library - and failed miserably. A receipt still exists from the library giving him a fine for not returning that dictionary in time, by the way. So we're doing okay, too. I could tell you a lot of stuff about Kalevala and its inception and its poetic metre, for it's very exciting and interesting and there's a lot to talk about, but back to Kullervo.

Kullervo is hauled as Tolkien's most tragic hero - the book sleeve knows to tell me this. And the story is certainly a tragedy, though I won't talk about that in detail in case you'd like to go into it and be surprised. It's a tragedy written in prose mixed with poetry, imitating the runos of Kalevala. The Story of Kullervo is only 40 or so pages of this book, followed by fairly helpful notes from the editor and an essay by Tolkien on Kalevala itself.

The writing here is good, but it's not what I expect to be Tolkien's best (I'm not familiar with Middle-Earth at all and that's just awful; I'm actually only attempting to fix that this year), and it's a very rough work. It's clearly a labour of love though, and the passion for the source material is evident in the (un-)finished book.

Sadly, it's difficult to give this a higher rating than a 4/5. I liked unconditionally what I got, but it doesn't change the fact that The Story of Kullervo was never finished. I don't mean to say that it's merely unpolished (which it is), but that the ending, the latter part of the story, cuts off and is written as a synopsis. 'This is what would happen next if I wrote it.' I want you to read this book as well, if only because it made me want to pick up Kalevala again for the first time since I was rid of it in school, but I can't fully recommend something that you're almost bound to be a little disappointed with.

There's definitely something deeply compelling about Kalevala. I don't know if you knew this, but I love the Donald Duck comics. Out of those, Don Rosa, who may well be one of three best-known artists, has written The Quest for Kalevala among his other Donald Duck works. Seriously. I definitely recommend reading that if you're interested, he drew a beautiful, realistic version of Helsinki and very cool Iku-Turso and stuff. (I really want you to read it but if you can't be bothered to right now, just look at that amazing Iku-Turso art here!!!) His other works are really cool too. ...Why am I rambling about Kalevala again?

I'll convince/let Daniel read this library copy when he's visiting so he can tell you his more Tolkien-infused and less Kalevala-centered thoughts!

For the Helmet 2017 reading challenge I put this in category 9: A book inspired by some work of art!

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