The Story of Kullervo and the origins of Tolkien’s legendarium

A newly-published book by the young J.R.R. Tolkien gives insight into what he was—and wasn’t—trying to create in his later masterpieces.

Looking back on his time in World War I—something he hated to discuss—J.R.R. Tolkien revealed that he had written some of the first parts of his massive legendarium under less-than-ideal circumstances. He had conceived The Silmarillion in grimy canteens, at lectures in cold fogs, in huts full of blasphemy and smut, or by candlelight in bell-tents, even some down in dugouts under shell fire” (Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 78).

Just exactly when Tolkien began his legendarium remains a source of constant debate among Tolkien scholars. Clyde Kilby, Verlyn Flieger, Tom Shippey, and Carl Hostetter are some of the best among many who have searched for the elusive beginning.

Whatever its beginnings, we do know that Tolkien’s legendarium has yet to be fully published. When the great mythmaker died in 1973, he left his literary estate to his son, Christopher, also an Oxford don, a war veteran (and hero), and profound man of letters. Four years later, Christopher heroically published the long-awaited Silmarillion, a beautiful story of Creation and the first and second ages of the world of Middle-earth. I state “heroically,” as the interest surrounding The Silmarillion had taken on a life of its own, and many Tolkien fans were expecting a prequel to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings written in the same style as these four volumes. What they got was a deep and abiding book of angular tales, punctuated political philosophy, and a Platonic rewriting of Genesis. If The Lord of the Rings is romantically voluptuous, The Silmarillion is profoundly wise. 

Three years later, in 1980, Christopher published Unfinished Tales, and then 12 volumes of the history of Middle-earth. Once these were completed, the seemingly tireless son continued by publishing various books that Tolkien had written but never published on mythology and specific historical myths, such as the legends of King Arthur, the Volsunga saga, and Beowulf. Each of these new books published over the past decade reveals not only Tolkien’s astonishing intellect and command over his beloved subjects, but also just how imaginative the Oxford professor was. As Tolkien had studied the great Anglo-Saxon and Northern epics, learning their languages as well as their spirits, he continued to see them each as an inspiration and a part of his own mythology.

Two points should be made here. First, Christopher Tolkien is a man of immense piety. Now aged 91, he has dedicated his last four decades to continuing the work that his father had begun but proved incapable of finishing. While this speaks volumes about Christopher’s integrity and goodness, it also reveals just how deep and profound the father’s vision was for his legendarium. It has now taken the adult lives of two men to reach its current point, at which probably 90 percent of the legendarium has seen publication. Some still remains unpublished, undoubtedly. Some of that which remains unpublished pertains to the larger mythology and some of it is deeply personal, such as Tolkien’s “The Ulsterior Motive,” a critique of C.S. Lewis’ Protestantism.

Second, unlike the grand mythmakers of the 19th century, such as Germany’s Richard Wagner and Finland’s Elias Lonnrot, who sought to mythologize a particular people as noble, Tolkien, as a serious Catholic, chose eventually to write a myth for all peoples by incorporating the best mythical elements of a variety of traditions and cultures and peoples.

In an age of competing terrors, ideologies, and fundamentalisms, this matters. It’s no accident that The Lord of the Rings has been translated into a myriad of languages and that it has captured the hearts of women, men, and children, across the world and in nearly every place and culture. The mythologies of Wagner and Lonnrot, by contrast, speak to only a dedicated few.

And yet, in Tolkien’s young adulthood, he wanted to create a mythology for England, just as Lonnrot had done for Finland. Indeed, it was Tolkien’s reading of Lonnrot’s masterpiece, the Finnish Kalevala, sometime around 1913 that inspired him to begin his mythology for the English. Though the following is long and probably the most often quoted part of Tolkien’s letters, it’s worth reposting here in detail:

Also—and here I hope I shall not sound absurd—I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own (bound up with its tongue and soil), not of the quality that I sought, and found (as an ingredient) in legends of other lands. There was Greek, and Celtic, and Romance, Germanic, Scandinavian, and Finnish (which greatly affected me); but nothing English, save impoverished chap-book stuff. … Do not laugh! But once upon a time (my crest has long since fallen) I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story—the larger founded on the lesser in contact with the earth, the lesser drawing splendour from the vast backcloths—which I could dedicate simply to: to England; to my country. It should possess the tone and quality that I desired, somewhat cool and clear, be redolent of our “air” (the clime and soil of the North West, meaning Britain and the hither parts of Europe: not Italy or the Aegean, still less the East), and, while possessing (if I could achieve it) the fair elusive beauty that some call Celtic (though it is rarely found in genuine ancient Celtic things), it should be “high,” purged of the gross, and fit for the more adult mind of a land long now steeped in poetry. I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama. Absurd. (Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 144-145)

No matter how absurd, this is essentially what Tolkien did. Yet, the English soil only served one part of the mythology, albeit a vital one. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings each began and ended in England, but it took all good peoples of Middle-earth to save the world from the horrors of Sauron.

The latest Tolkien book, The Story of the Kullervo, available now in England and in April in North America, was Tolkien’s first significant attempt at writing deep mythology. Inspired rather dramatically by his reading of Lonnrot’s Finnish Kalevala, Tolkien in the first third of his 20s—not yet a soldier, not yet married, and still a university student at Oxford—took the sorry and tragic figure of Kullervo and rewrote him, though without heroicizing him too much. Tolkien had first read an English translation of the Kalevala in 1911, and, while the story had intrigued him, it wasn’t until he began studying Finnish two years later that he realized just how important the Kalevala was, a near perfect mixture of language and story, a way to express the deepest longings of a people and of a culture. In her expert introduction, Verlyn Flieger (herself brilliant, but certainly no fan of the Catholic examinations of Tolkien by such writers as Joseph Pearce, Richard Purtill, and yours truly) notes that Tolkien became so obsessed with Finnish as a language in 1913 that he nearly destroyed his student career at Oxford. As Tolkien admitted in his personal letters:

But the beginning of the legendarium, of which the Trilogy is part (the conclusion), was in an attempt to reorganize some of the Kalevala, especially the tale of Kullervo the hapless, into a form of my own. That began, as I say, in the Honour Mods period; nearly disastrously as I came very near having my exhibition taken off me if not being sent down. (Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 214)

What we find in Flieger’s edited version of Tolkien’s The Story of Kullervo, then, is a long and important introduction by Flieger and the incomplete story of Kullervo as Tolkien attempted to write it while a student at Oxford. As with almost all of Tolkien’s legendarium writings, his Kullervo is prose written in high mythological language, interspersed with profound insights on the tragedy of human life, with snippets (sometimes quite long) of song and poetry intermixed. The story of Kullvero only accounts for about 35 pages of the entire book; Tolkien’s commentary, drafts, and notes make up the rest. Throughout all of it, Flieger provides much-needed editorial notes and explanations, the reasoning for certain editorial decisions, and a rather masterful bibliographical list of materials. 

The publisher has also nicely included several plates of Tolkien’s original work, and, very importantly, has employed Tolkien’s own artwork on the cover. Though rarely recognized even by many Tolkien fans, the mythmaker was also an exceptional artist, especially with water colors. He could never get the human form right, but he had the perfect eye for mythic landscapes and an uncannily gorgeous understanding of color. The cover painting of The Story of Kullervo is taken from his December 27, 1914 painting “The Land of Pohja.” Pohja was once a town in southern Finland, now incorporated into a much larger metropolitan body.

The opening to The Story of Kullervo reveals much about the tone of the entire story.

In the days {of magic long ago} {when magic was yet new} a swan nurtured her brood of cygnets by the banks of a smooth river in the reed marshland of Sutse. One day as she was sailing among the sedge-fenced pools with her train of younglings following, an eagle swooped from heaven and flying high bore off one of her children to Telea: on the second day a mighty hawk robbed her of yet another and bore it to Kemenume. Now that nursling that was brought to Kemenume waxed and became a trader and cometh not into this sad tale: but that one whom the hawk brought to Telea he is whom men named Kalervō: while a third of the nurslings that remained behind men speak oft of him and name him Untamō the Evil, and a fell sorcerer and man of power did he became. (5)

All 35 pages of the tale follow this style.

In additional to the two points listed at the beginning of this review—1) that Christopher is vital to the entire mythology; and 2) that the mythology is Catholic as opposed to particular or nationalist—two other points must be made after devouring this latest published work of J.R.R. Tolkien. 

First, while the story is not that gripping and Tolkien was clearly young and unpracticed as he wrote it, his study of Finnish helped prompt him to write his first major language for the mythology, Qenya. In his outstanding work on the legendarium, Hostetter has edited Tolkien’s first dictionary of Qenya, and it is truly revealing. As early as 1915, Tolkien had included words in Qenya for evangelists, holy, the First Person of the Trinity, the Second Person, the Third Person, etc. (J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Qenya Lexicon,” Parma Eldalamberon, 12 ed. by Carl Hostetter).

Second, as pathetic as Kullevro is as a hero and, frankly, as a person, he directly inspired one of Tolkien’s best and most interesting characters, Túrin Turambar. As tragic as Kullevro, Túrin is also noble and virtuous. Tellingly, the Elven Queen Melian gives to Turin the gift of lembas (the Eucharist). Never had an Elf bestowed upon a human such a gift, and this, of course, foreshadows Galadriel’s gift of the same to the Fellowship of the Ring.

So, is this new book—published over a century after it was written—the beginning of Tolkien’s legendarium? Possibly. The matter, however, will almost certainly continue to be a point of debate and contention among Tolkien scholars. This much is certain, however—Tolkien showed deep promise, intellect, and imagination as a university student, and the coming World War would do nothing but accelerate this, though it would do so with immense tragedy.

(This piece is dedicated to the unending commitment of Carl Hostetter to promote the best of everything Tolkienian.)


J.R.R. Tolkien, The Story of Kullvero, ed. by Verlyn Flieger (London, ENG: HarperCollins, 2015; Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 2016).  Xxiii + 168pp.

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About Bradley J. Birzer 14 Articles
Bradley J. Birzer is Russell Amos Kirk Chair in American Studies and Professor of History, Hillsdale College and author of several books, including noted biographies of J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Christopher Dawson, and Russell Kirk. His latest book is Beyond Tenebrae: Christian Humanism in the Twilight of the West (Angelico Press, 2019).