British Fiction Focus

The Story of The Story of Kullervo

If, on the back of The Children of Hurin, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, The Fall of Arthur and last year’s Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, you thought the well of variously unfinished fragments of fiction by the grandfather of fantasy was in danger of running dry, think again!

Later this month, HarperCollins plan to publish J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Story of Kullervo, “the powerful story of a doomed young man who is sold into slavery and who swears revenge on the magician who killed his father.”

Brought up in the homestead of the dark magician Untamo, who killed his father, kidnapped his mother, and who tries three times to kill him when still a boy, Kullervo is alone save for the love of his twin sister, Wanona, and guarded by the magical powers of the black dog, Musti. When Kullervo is sold into slavery he swears revenge on the magician, but he will learn that even at the point of vengeance there is no escape from the cruellest of fates.

“A luckless orphan boy with supernatural powers and a tragic destiny […] Kullervo son of Kalervo is perhaps the darkest and most tragic of all J.R.R. Tolkien’s characters,” reads the press release announcing The Story of Kullervo’s impending publication. Furthermore, it’s said to stand as a foundation stone of sorts “in the structure of Tolkien’s invented world,” in that Kullervo is “the clear ancestor of Túrin Turambar, [the] tragic incestuous hero of The Silmarillion.”

In fact, as Polygon’s Susana Polo puts it:

The story of Túrin Turambar, a prideful and ill-fated hero, was Tolkien’s way of incorporating Kullervo into his world directly. Both stories involve a hero adopted into a house where they are unjustly bullied and eventually wreck a bloody death on their tormentor, not to mention the hero unknowingly seducing his own sister and the whole thing wrapping itself up with suicide.

Which I guess goes some way to making the Tolkien estate’s dastardly plan to make a mint on everything ever written by its originator a little less egregious.

That said, The Story of Kullervo is one the aforementioned author’s very earliest efforts—what there is of it was written while Tolkien was at college a hundred years or so ago—so it’s not necessarily going to bear the hallmarks of a master’s craft. In addition, although it’s being pitched as “the world first publication of a previously unknown work of fantasy by J.R.R. Tolkien,” The Story of Kullervo was released previously: as part of in the 2010 volume of Tolkien Studies, an annual scholarly review out of West Virginia University Press which Verlyn Fleiger (who’ll be lending her expertise to this book, too) has been co-editing since day dot.

An academic curiosity, then, “published here for the first time with the author’s drafts, notes and lecture-essays on its source-work, the Kalevala”—a “verse epic of duelling Northern wizards and lovestruck youths, beer-drinkers and shape-changers” which Tolkien was “immensely attracted” to, according to his biographer John Garth—brought together under the auspices of what is an utterly lovely cover.

Story-of-Kullervo-by-JRR-Tolkien

Hard to believe as it may be, you’ll be able to read The Story of Kullervo in just a couple of weeks, if you’re keen: it’s out on August 27 in the UK, fully two months ahead of its publication in the States.

Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative ScotsmanStrange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.

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