Even legends have to get their start somewhere. Long before The Lord of the Rings became a worldwide phenomenon, JRR Tolkien started his fantasy career with a dark retelling of a Finnish poem called, “The Story of Kullervo.” This unfinished story, written in 1915 when Tolkien was only 23 years old, was published for the first time internationally on October 13.
The Story of Kullervo (Harper Collins, August 27) is significantly darker than Tolkien’s later work. It focuses on the “Hapless” Kullervo, an orphan with unexplained powers. He grows up in the home of an evil magician who killed his father, kidnaps his mother, and tries to kill Kullervo three separate times. When he’s eventually sold into slavery, Kullervo vows revenge. But before he can deliver, he ends up committing unknowing incest with his twin sister, Wanona. Upon finding out the truth, Wanona kills herself. Tolkien never finished the rest of the story, though his outlined notes show that Kullervo would later kill himself as well—creating a tragic tale with little redemption for his characters.
Perhaps this darkness is what drew Tolkien to the Finnish poem in the first place. According to Stephen W. Potts, a literature professor at the University of California at San Diego, “[Tolkien] discovered [“The Story of Kullvero”] about the time he entered Oxford and it fascinated him because it was new compared to the Greco-Roman, Germanic, and Celtic tales that he would have grown up with in the UK.” That fascination clearly became a steppingstone for Tolkien, who wrote that this story was “the germ of my attempt to write legends of my own.”
Themes from The Story of Kullervo pop up in Tolkien’s later work, most notably in the Middle Earth stories of Túrin Turambar, son of Húrin. Túrin also commits incest with his sister and eventually kills himself. But according to Potts, the parallels run deeper than having similar plot points. “Like Túrin, Kullervo would come to represent for Tolkien the pre-Christian hero, one plagued by poor self-control, despair, and often the curse of an outside force,” says Potts. “Kullervo, like Turin and others of pagan tradition, exists in a world without grace.”
This push and pull between pagan and Christian heroes is something that Tolkien returns to again and again, perhaps most clearly in the dynamic between Boromir and Aragon in Lord of the Rings. “Boromir views himself as a hero and thus suffers from overweening pride,” Potts says. “He gives in to the temptation to take the Ring, but eventually repents and redeems himself. [Contrast him with] Aragorn who doubts his own strength, but rises to the challenge by his adherence to ultimate principles.”
Like any emerging writer, Tolkien drew upon the world around him, but also sought to find inspiration in the new. According to Potts, “Kullervo induced him to explore a world that was different from his own, but to be true to it.” It’s that exploratory nature that would end up creating the world of Middle Earth, in terms of heroic characters, themes, form and even language. While researching The Story of Kullervo, “[Tolkien] became enchanted with the sound and look of the Finnish language,” Potts says, “which became a model for his Ur-Elvish language Quenya.”
It’s easy to look at a legend without thinking of their origins. Middle Earth has become so iconic that we tend to see it as a larger-than-life creation, something that exists outside of the artist who created it. But Tolkien, like all writers, had to start somewhere. With The Story of Kullervo, we see those roots being established, and the inspiration that would drive one of the greatest fantasy writers of all time.
And while it’s comforting to think of Tolkien’s origins, even those might be more unique than other authors. “Tolkien drew his inspiration from Europe’s age-old mythic traditions; his successors have often contented themselves with drawing inspiration from Tolkien,” says Potts. “That is why he continues to loom larger than them as the father of modern fantasy.”