This short story, one of Tolkien’s very early attempts at rewriting myths, includes a great deal of poetry, a tragic plot, and the delicious rich language that characterizes all of Tolkien’s works. Most of the book is commentary, essays, and notes about the story, its Finnish roots, and its influence on Tolkien’s later writing.
The story itself is only 47 pages long. It’s also unfinished, with the ending briefly described in an outline. I actually liked how raw the writing felt, and didn’t mind that the finale is missing, since Tolkien’s outline is descriptive enough to give a satisfactory ending to the bones of the story, even giving some details of possible dialogue at the end.
There is a lot of reference to the Finnish epic tales, “The Kalevala” or “Land of Heroes”, a collection of poetry and songs that Tolkien was inspired to rewrite in his own way. Kullervo is essentially a retelling of the Kalevala, with Tolkien adding to the story and changing it to fit his own narrative style.
Two of the chapters in this book are Tolkien’s thoughts on the Kalevala, how he was inspired by the work, and his analysis of the writing, the stories, the songs, and the bad translations into English. After reading so much of what Tolkien loved about the Kalevala, I fully expected there to be at least some excerpts of Kalevala in this book, but there weren’t. It made me feel like something was really missing from this edition. After talking about the Kalevala for more than half the book, you couldn’t include at least a portion of it? So much of what Tolkien said about the Kalevala went over my head, or was uninteresting, since I don’t have the opportunity to actually read it.
The best thing about this book is the beautifully vivid language that Tolkien uses, and the lovely rhythm of his prose and poetry alike! Well worth the read!