Fairie Tales & Folklore · Fiction · Magical Realism and Fantasy

Tolkien’s Take On An Oedipus Style Tragedy

tolkien painting
Photo credit Daniele Prati

The Story of Kullervo

Author: J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Verlyn Flieger
Published: Houton Mifflin Harcourt| April 05, 2016
Length: 194 pg

Buy: Amazon

It is a marvel that a tale spun simply as a writing exercise, and certainly left unfinished (the ending is a series of notes, and several sentences have alternative phrasing in the drafts), emerges nonetheless as an emotionally captivating, and deftly woven, if simple, fiction. But, what else would you expect from J.R.R. Tolkien? Tolkien’s previously unknown work, The Story of Kullervo, is quite short, roughly a third of this 194 page publication, but the rest of the pages are a mine of editor notes, images of Tolkien’s drafts, and two essays he wrote on the myth that inspired his creation—the Finnish Kalevala.kullervo

With such a scholarly setting, this book is excellent for those who have read the Silmarillion, and/or are interested in Tolkien’s process as a writer. The protagonist has been said to be the foundation for Middle Earth’s Túrin Turambar. Even though my only experience with Tolkien is through the Hobbit and Lord of The Rings, I was fascinated by Tolkien’s interest in, and handling of this Finnish myth. He takes on the full weight of the protagonist’s tragic life, without trying to justify or redeem the bad things that happen to him.

A boy is enslaved and loses his father, he then is mistreated throughout his growing years but manages to get himself out of scrapes through magic and his best friend of a dog. Eventually, his bitterness and ill manners (which we excuse somewhat in light of the life forced upon him) elicit a curse from his angry mistress. In consequence, he unwittingly sleeps with his sister, and murders his mother. Devastated, he kills himself. So many questions can be asked here about fate, responsibility, and personal nobility, and it’s easy to see connections to the Greek model for a tragedy, namely Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. The legend is certainly, well, tragic, but Tolkien performs an unparalleled job at creating a realm different than ours, and making us feel the weight of each individual life, even if that life is ignoble.

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