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Book review: Tolkien's previously unpublished 'Story of Kullervo' is a diamond in the rough

Posted May 9

"THE STORY OF KULLERVO," by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Verlyn Flieger, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25, 168 pages (f)

According to editor Verlyn Flieger, "The Story of Kullervo" is not only J.R.R. Tolkien's "earliest short story, but also his earliest attempt to write tragedy, as well as his earliest prose venture into myth-making, and is thus a general precursor to his entire fictional canon."

Many know the fictional canon that would follow, including "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit." Flieger, who is a specialist in comparative mythology with a concentration in Tolkien's work, wanted to introduce Tolkien fans to "The Story of Kullervo," a story Tolkien himself called his "germ of an attempt to write legends of my own."

In "The Story of Kullervo," the main character, Kullervo, is separated from his family at birth and raised by his uncle, Untamo, a dark magician who murdered his father and attempted to kill Kullervo three times shortly after. Kullervo vows to avenge his family but is only supported by his twin sister, Wanona, and his magical black dog, Musti. Tolkien referred to Kullervo as "Hapless Kullervo" as he seems to always be chasing his goal while fate has other plans for him.

"The Story of Kullervo" is a tragic short story, a retelling of a myth, told in a blend of verse and prose. Tolkien described it in his notes as "a very great story and most tragic … with chunks of poetry in between."

Flieger wrote the introduction, in which she explains the background and history of the story as well as details the transferring of the original Tolkien manuscript into print form. Pictures of the original manuscript are included in the book.

After the 40-page short story is a list of names, Tolkien's notes on the draft and plot synopsis, and Flieger's notes and commentary on the manuscript.

Flieger then introduces the essay Tolkien wrote on the Finnish tale "Kalevala." "The Story of Kullervo" is Tolkien's reimagining of part of the tale, and the book includes two different draft forms of Tolkien's essay with editor's notes and commentary to follow. Flieger ends the book with a chapter titled "Tolkien, 'Kalevala,' and 'The Story of Kullervo,'" which includes her expert knowledge on the importance of this story to Tolkien and to literature.

"The Story of Kullervo" contains no foul language, no sexual content and a few implied scenes of murder or attempted murder.

Tara Creel is a Logan-native-turned-California-girl and mother of four boys. Her email is taracreel@gmail.com, and she blogs at taracreelbooks.wordpress.com.

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