This is J.R.R. Tolkien‘s first prose work and his earliest attempt to write tragedy. The story, a retelling of the tale of Kullervo from the Finnish Kalevala, is 40 pages long, primarily prose but with some sections in verse. It pretty much stands alone, so you don’t need to have read The Kalevala to understand it. The rest of the book consists of commentary from Verlyn Flieger and Tolkien’s essay on The Kalevala. (For some reason, an earlier version and a final version of the essay are included; there’s quite a bit of overlap and I’m not sure why Flieger included the earlier version.) The essay is interesting, and I’d like to come back to it when I’ve read The Kalevala.
The dark magician Untamo, Kullervo’s uncle on his father’s side, killed Kullervo’s father and captured his mother. She gave birth Kullervo and his twin sister Wanona. (Wanona’s name, which means “weeping,” is Tolkien’s invention; she has no name in the Kalevala). Making him the dark haired one of the two was also Tolkien’s invention, since in the Kalevala they are both described with fair hair.
Untamo later sold Kullervo into slavery in the household of Asemo the Smith. Kullervo escaped from and took revenge on his new captors and on Untamo, with the help of bears and wolves, his friends. Then he sets out to find Untamo’s halls. Along the way he meets Wanona, but he doesn’t remember her…
It’s relentlessly dark, and yet it has an emotional distance in the narration that I don’t find in the story of Turin Turambar, especially the longest version in The Children of Húrin. (If anything, The Children of Húrin has more bright spots, but it also has moments that are far more distressing than anything in Kullervo’s story.)
Some bits from Tolkien’s essay:
“One repeatedly hears the ‘Land of Heroes’ [the Kalevala] described as the Finnish National Epic: as if it was of the nature of the universe that every nation, besides a national bank, and government, should before qualifying for membership of the League, show lawful possession also of a National Epic, hallmark of respectability, evidence indeed of national existence. But Finland does not possess one. The Kalevala certainly is not one. It is a mass of conceivably epic material (I can conceive of the epic that would grow from it with difficulty, I must confess); but — and I think this is the main point — it would lose all that is its greatest delight, if it were ever one unhappy day to be epically handled. The mere stories, bare events, alone could remain; all that undergrowth, all that rich profusion and luxuriance, which clothe them would have to be stripped away.”
“… it is to the quaint tales, the outrageous ghosts, the sorceries and by-tracks of Northern imagination that crop out here and there in the usually intensely clear upper air of the Sagas that the ‘Land of Heroes’ can most often be likened, not to the haughty dignity and courage, the nobility of mind and of body of which the great Sagas tell.
Yet the queer and the strange, the unrestrained, the grotesque is not only interesting, it is valuable: it is one of the eternal and permanent interests and attractions of men…”