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Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Review: The Story of Kullervo by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Story of Kullervo  
J.R.R. Tolkien
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
J. R. R. Tolkien needs no introduction. Scholars respect his knowledge of the early European texts like Beowulf. Every year, new readers join the legions of Lord of the Rings fans to be stunned and enthralled by his world-building.

This brings us to The Story of Kullervo, a text based on the Finnish epic, Kalevala. Apparently, Tolkien worked on translating/reinterpreting this when he should have been studying for his classes around 1914, a tale which has a certain charm. The Hobbit was said to be written in 1920, but not published until 1936. The Lord of the Rings came out nearly twenty years later. Presumably, Tolkien took time to polish his novels for publication.

Here's the opening from The Hobbit:

"In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort."

Tolkien captures a taste of what hobbits are and are not, in one morsel of a paragraph. The following is a later work, The Two Towers--not as charming but equally evocative and more tense:

"Even as he gazed his quick ears caught sounds in the woodlands below, on the west side of the River. He stiffened. There were cries, and among them, to his horror, he could distinguish the harsh voices of Orcs. Then suddenly with a deep-throated call a great horn blew, and the blasts of it smote the hills and echoed in the hollows, rising in a mighty shout above the roaring of the falls."

Contrast those with this passage from The Story of Kullervo:

"And the wife of Kalervoinen sitting nigh to the window of the homestead descried a scurry arising of the smoke army in the distance and she spake to Kalervo saying, 'Husband, lo, an ill reek ariseth yonder: come hither to me.' "

This is not the same writer. While some passages gurgle as a pleasant stream, others clog like a shower drain full of dog hair. In other words, The Story of Kullervo is juvenilia. Crucial in his formation as a writer? Yes. Formative in his unprecedented world-building? Absolutely. But not a work that Tolkien took time to smooth out the wrinkles.

If you are a fan of The Silmarillion, this book is unmissable. If you are a Tolkien critic or aficionado of early European legends, curious to read how Tolkien has twisted the original, do buy it. Otherwise, sling up your hammock, and prop open the old favorites, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

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