As an undergraduate student, Tolkien wrote The Story of Kullervo, inspired by the tales in Finnish Kalevala. This story was to further inspire the story of The Children of Húrin and the character of the dog Huan in the stories of Beren and Luthien.
A swan nursed a brood of cygnets. Two of these were born away by an eagle to Telea and Kemenume respectively. One does not feature any more in the story. The other in Telea was named Kalervo. A third brother remained, named Untamo the Evil. Untamo and Kalervo grew to be men. Kalervo had taken a wife and together they had both a son and daughter. Untamo wanted the lands of Kalervo and made intrusion, leading to bitterness and war between the brothers. Kalervo’s wife was pregnant when Untamo and his men ruled war on their land and murdered Kalervo. Kalervo’s wife and children were taken as thralls to Untamo’s halls Untola. While in bondage she gave birth to twins: Kullervo and Wanona. Both of them grew quickly and were each other’s close companions. They were not as close to their older siblings.
Kalervo’s previous companion, a black dog names Musti, sought and and befriended Kullervo and Wanona in the woods. To Kullervo he gave three hairs, that were magical. Three times Untamo tried to have Kullervo killed, but Musti’s magic hair saved him. Kullervo bore a gift he recieved from his mother, a knife/blade named Sikki, which had belonged to his father. Untamo was bewildered and afraid of the magic that protected Kullervo. The boy grew taller and stronger. He also grew more wild and violent, not having any compassion between anyone but with his twin sister. Untamo sent Kullervo to the forest to chop a clearing. Kullervo used the axe wildly, spoiling the trees. He set Kullervo to other tasks, none of which he did to Untamo’s pleasure, which further angered Untamo.
To the dismay of Kullervo’s mother and Wanona, Untamo sold Kullervo to Asemo the Smith who lived far away. Kullervo was sad and bitter at the parting of his family, but Musti followed him on a distance. Asemo thougth Kullervo to be useless to him, so he set the thrall to be a servant of his wife, the fair daughter of Koi. He did not please her either and she grew to dislike Kullervo very much. Years later she came up with a plan to ruin Kullervo, for she did not like the way he spoke. She baked a piece of flint into a bread and gave it to him when asking him to go herd her flock of cattle. Once out in the woods, Kullervo went to eat the bread, but he did not ate it all in a bite like his mistress thought him to do. He had attempted to slice in open with his knife Sikki, which hit the flint, and Sikki’s point snapped. Kullervo gave into wrath and tears by this.
Kullervo plotted a revenge and called upon the bears and wolves, which were his friends. Using some magic he shapeshifted the bears and wolves into cattle and led these home instead of his owner’s herd. He told the animals to wait until the smith’s wife came to milk them, and then they should seize and bite her. When they come to that, the wife bid Kullervo mercy, but Kullervo did not head and she then cursed him with her last words. At this Kullervo went his way, away from the farm before the smith would take notice of what had happened.
While wandering in the forest, Kullervo has thoughts about his existence, and decides that he will slay Untamo. But he did not know the way to Untamo’s halls. He meets a woman of the forest who gives him directions. Kullervo wanders on and meet a fair young woman. He wants to be her companion, but she shrunk away from him. She comments that she would rather not make company with an ungainly figure such as him. He gets into a terrible mood. He cursed her family and said he would kill them, then caught her and carried her into the woods. She didn’t resist him for long and he treated her lovingly. They had been living together for a while when she asks him about his family, realising he is her brother. He asks her about her family, and she gives him a similar response, although he does not realise what it entails. She takes off and ends her life by the waterfalls.
Following this, Kullervo who is grieving and raging, goes to Untola and lays waste to everything. He also slays Untamo. Kullervo’s mother’s ghost make an apperence, telling him that he has also slain his older siblings and herself, and that it was his sister that he had a relationship with in the forest. He returns to the glade with the waterfall where Wanona took her life, and he asks his sword if it will kill him. The swords does not mind, having slayed many innocent lives at the hands of Kullervo. So Kullerv
o ends his life upon his own sword.
Characters to note
- Kalervo – The father of Kullervo.
- Untamo – Brother of Kalervo.
- Wife of Kalervo – The wife of Kalervo is unnames. She is mother to Kullervo and
- Kullervo – The main character. His name means “Wrath”.
- Wanona – Twin sister of Kullervo. Her name means “Weeping”.
- Older siblings – Kullervo and Wanona has one older brother and one older sister.
- Musti – Talking and magic dog, companion to Kullervo and Wanona.
- Asemo – A Smith who got Kullervo as a slave from Untamo.
- “Daughter of Koi” – The wife of Asemo. Kullervo became the servant of Asemo’s wife who treated Kullervo badly.
- Ilu – God of Heaven (compare with Tolkien’s god Illúvatar).
To me, this has been one of the most difficult things by Tolkien I have read so far. Mainly, this is because of the high amount of different names for individual characters. Also, I lacked a substantial pre-knowledge of the Kalevala stories. However, it is impressive to read the commentaries, notes, and essays. The fact that Tolkien was in his early twenties, an undergrad, gives the reading experience a bit of perspective on his life as well! It is far to easy to always imagine Tolkien being his creative best as an already grown up professor. The read have first and foremost given me a deeper understanding of Tolkien’s relation to European mythology and language at a quite early age. Finally, I just wanted to note that this book was edited by Verlyn Flieger.
Have you read this story? Please comment and tell us what you think of Tolkien’s take on the Kullervo story!