Suicide and incest may not be the first things that come to mind when you hear the name J.R.R. Tolkien, but they’re integral parts of his early work, The Story of Kullervo, a retelling of the tragic Finnish song.
Perhaps what’s most striking about the story is that it doesn’t seem to fit at all with the Tolkien we know from his most famous books, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Both are fantasies with elements of darkness and danger, but The Hobbit is still a children’s book and even The Lord of the Rings, at its scariest, fundamentally remains an adventure story that appeals to all ages. He wrote many, many more books, of course, like The Silmarillion, a compendium of stories about gods and legendary figures with a tone that often has a biblical ring to it.
Despite the vast differences between the child-friendly tale of The Hobbit and the grandeur of The Silmarillion, however, they are all part of his Middle-Earth mythology…or corpus, or legendarium, or whatever you want to call it.
Kullervo, on the other hand, doesn’t have anything to do with Middle-Earth, and thus seems to stand apart, a bizarre outlier in an otherwise homogenous body of work.
But the surprising and illuminating truth is that Kullervo does fit perfectly with the rest of Tolkien’s work and allows for a deeper appreciation of his Middle-Earth stories. That’s because Kullervo is just one of a handful of works published in the past few years that reveals the extant of Tolkien’s interest in world mythology. Furthermore, by examining these “outliers,” we can discover the origins of his greatest creations.
As I said, Kullervo is based on a Finnish song (or “runos”), which you can find in the Kalevala. Now, you could call the Kalevala Finland’s equivalent of Greece’s Iliad and Odyssey, India’s Mahabarata and Ramayana, or Iceland’s sagas in the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda – in other words, Finland’s national myth. But that wouldn’t be quite accurate, because the Kalevala isn’t a single narrative or even a compilation of interconnected tales. Rather, it is a collection of various songs that Finnish physician/botanist/linguist/poet Elias Lönnrot cobbled together from folklore, mythology, and oral literature. The most macabre and tragic song of them all is about a young boy named Kullervo.
What begins as a straightforward revenge tale about a boy avenging his father by killing his uncle (Hamlet comes to mind, though it’s a fairly common trope) takes an unexpected turn at the end. Even before this twist, however, Kullervo doesn’t always portray its titular hero in the best light. He may resemble Hercules in terms of strength, but in appearance he’s fearsome and disturbing. At the end of his journey, far from a victorious warrior, we find a ferocious man whose life, from beginning to end, has been defined above all by violence.
It’s a haunting tale that leaves the reader not quite sure what to feel. It’s also quite short, as Tolkien never managed to finish it (to be fair, his work was interrupted by World War I). Still, the edition published by Harper Collins contains everything he did leave behind, along with insightful essays that attempt to explain why the young Tolkien was so fascinated by Finnish mythology in particular. So much so, in fact, that he bought a book titled Finnish Grammar in an effort to learn the language so he could read the runos in the original.
Tolkien’s Kullervo is not the only time he ventured into “real” mythologies and legends. There’s also his Breton song-inspired The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun, another short, tragic tale, as well as The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, which is taken from the Germanic sagas of the Volsungs. And there’s obviously his translation of Beowulf, a text Tolkien thought and wrote about extensively.
These intriguing stories highlight an often overlooked but central part of Tolkien’s work. But if that’s not enough for you, consider that a main character of his novel The Children of Hurin is strikingly similar to Kullervo. This proves that far from a passing interest of his youth, Tolkien’s engagement with Finnish and other mythologies remained a constant throughout his life, and the hidden foundation of the stories we think we know so well.
So go read them. Now.