Monday, August 22, 2016

Latest Tolkien title explores the roots of Middle-earth

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016 
This very brief review appeared on on May 14 this year. Since all Examiner content has been removed, I am re-posting here in an ongoing effort to save my writing for posterity. 

The Story of Kullervo

If you are a J.R.R. Tolkien fan looking for a new "Lord of the Rings," or even "The Silmarillion," "The Story of Kullervo" will probably disappoint you. But, if you have an interest in the origins of Tolkien's storytelling, and the underpinnings of his mythology of Middle-earth, "Kullervo" may be just what you are looking for.

Edited by one of the foremost authorities on Tolkien, Veryln Flieger, the book includes Tolkien's re-crafting of the story from the Finnish Kalevala, which roughly translates to "Land of Heroes." The Kalevala was an anthology of Finnish folk songs complied by Elias Lönnrot in the mid-nineteenth century. It was a source of national pride, and is credited as helping to inspire Finland's declaration of independence from Russia in 1917. [pp.x-xi] Tolkien would eventually use the character Kullervo as the inspiration for Túrin Turambar, who appears in "The Silmarillion" and the posthumously published novel "The Children of Húrin." The earlier iteration based on the Finnish story was penned by Tolkien before World War I, while a student at Oxford. It was written mostly in prose, but includes several poems. Although never finished, it does include a plot synopsis at the end, indicating how he wanted to finish it.

Flieger's edition does not stop with reproducing the retelling (a "reorganizing" is what Tolkien called it) of the story. She adds extensive notes, and includes two versions of an essay Tolkien delivered on the Kalevala, and her essay on Tolkien's Kullervo and its influence on his later mythology. Professor Flieger's excellent discussion ties everything together, and corrects much of the old impressions and inaccurate chronology about The Story.

Until this year, "The Story of Kullervo" was only available in a British version from HarperCollins, but is now available from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the United States. The story itself is certainly not as developed or captivating as his other works, but many Tolkien devotees will find this early attempt a welcome addition to their library.

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