Tolkien and Kullervo

Tolkien and Kullervo February 9, 2016
Kullervo on Tolkien Bookshelf, Photograph by Henry Karlson
Kullervo on Tolkien Bookshelf, Photograph by Henry Karlson

It has long been known that the story of Kullervo from the Finnish legendarium, the Kalevala, played an important role in the early development of J. R. R. Tolkien’s own legendarium. The Kullervo cycle in the Kalevala served as a foundation for the tragic character of Túrin Turambar in The Silmarillion. There has been for some time a debate as to the kind of influence Kullervo had on Tolkien. It was not until recently that most Tolkien scholars got a chance to read Tolkien’s early attempt at writing with his own re-telling of the Kullervo story itself that most of the arguments have ended, showing that its structure and ideas, while adapted and transformed, clearly set the stage for the creation of Túrin.

But, for some, the story of Kullervo seemed to be a rather odd character for Tolkien to find so interesting, as John Garth explained:

It is a strange story to have captured the imagination of a fervent Roman Catholic: Kullervo unwittingly seduces his sister, who kills herself, and then he too commits suicide.[1]

Verlyn Flieger, in the commentary and notes to the published edition of what Tolkien had finished of The Story of Kullervo, explained that at the time of writing the story, Tolkien might not have been so fervent in his faith, and certainly, he did not find it strange nor his interest in the work in conflict with whatever faith he did hold:

Tolkien clearly did not find it strange (‘great’ and ‘tragic’ were his adjectives), and seems to have felt no conflict with his Catholicism, which at that point was apparently not very ‘fervent’ anyway. Carpenter cites Tolkien’s acknowledgment that his first terms at Oxford ‘had passed “with practically none or very little practice of religion”’ (Biography, p.58), and notes ‘his lapses of the previous year [1912]’ (ibid., p. 66).[2]

Both seem to think that an answer could lie in the circumstances Tolkien found himself in. He was, up to that point, living a tragic life of his own, having lost his parents and finding himself kept away from the love of his life, Edith.

While the extent of Tolkien’s “lapses” from his faith are hard for us to know without further reading and study of writings not generally available to the average Tolkien reader (such as more letters and his diary), whatever the case, I think Tolkien would have had as high an attraction and love for the story, even if he was as fervent a Catholic reading it as he was later in life.

That is, I think it comes from a mistaken understanding of both Tolkien and Catholicism to find such a fascination with Kullervo problematic. Heroic tales and legends have long been told and retold, and held in esteem, by Catholics, long before Tolkien. His beloved Beowulf is a great example of this, where we find the author, and the audience, being Catholic – and yet full of appreciation and respect for the pre-Christian worldview which is echoed throughout the tale. Tolkien saw it was a pre-Christian tale being adapted by a Christian writer, often inserting Christian themes which sometimes interrupted the tale to make its Christianization complete, such as when he discussed the relationship between Cain and Grendel:

Our poet’s answer in the first case he found in the book of Genesis. The misformed man-mocking monsters were descendants of Cain. And the reference to the ‘giants’ of old clinched the matter for him. The blending is clearly observable: he begins with northern words eotenas, ylfe (two classes of non-human but human-shaped creatures), and ends with the word gigantas borrowed from the Latin version of Scripture [Genesis VI.4]. [3]

Beowulf was not particular unique in doing this. Medieval literature often contained such a mix, though sometimes the writer would lean more Christian in style than found in Beowulf, and others more succinctly pre-Christian. And, we must remember, he had grown to love the fantastic literature of the nineteenth century, such as found in the writings of William Morris, which had a great influence on Tolkien, where the medieval mixture of the two traditions could and would be found again (with some other, significant sources of inspiration, such as the new social awareness that had developed in modern times, also found in such stories). In other words, Tolkien not only had been long accustomed to the kind of tales he found in the Kalevala, leading him to reproduce similar kinds of stories himself, but he had already seen that medieval Christians had no problems producing such tales of their own. While, it is true, that the Reformation and Counter-Reformation had brought about a worldview which became more critical of such pagan-Christian syntheses, Tolkien was not beholden to it, and so would have no reason to feel as if there were any conflict between his faith and the kinds of stories he loved to read and later write.

This is not to say that there was no sense of consolation Tolkien felt reading tragic tales with heroes who had experienced similar (but much worse) tragedy as himself, and finding such stories attractive, felt the need to write one out during a time of personal crisis. Good writers often put much of themselves in their writing. But to get into the internal psyche of Tolkien in such a manner is not needed for us to understand how and why he could pick up such stories, be fascinated by them, write them, and feel no conflict in doing so with his religious faith. His faith was able to embrace and take in the light of other faiths, to appreciate what they have to offer, and show how they can work with and complement the Christian faith.

And that is something we all need to be able to appreciate, not just as a way to understand Tolkien, but to help is in our own walk with God in general. He shows us that what might seem impossible if we rely upon a fundamentalist mindset is possible, and not because of lack of faith, but in and with it. For the Christian faith is incarnational. It takes the good wherever it is found, and embraces it, and shows how that good relates to other goods. Truth is truth no matter where it is found. And if we encounter something beautiful, something glorious, that we find ourselves spiritually attracted to it, the beauty shows that there is some goodness and truth there, that it would be dangerous to entirely dismiss and reject that which we find so attractive. Certainly we might need to work with the beauty, and find the kernel of truth and goodness shining forth in it, so that we can find the right way to embrace it, and that work is never easy, but that is different from a wholesale dismissal of the truth because of where the ray of truth is found. Thus, we find in Vatican Council II, the exhortation of Nostra Aetate to do just this:

The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men.[4]

Tolkien represented, in literary fashion, what this meant; he did not produce such a tradition but was only the heir and a great representative of it in the twentieth century. Certainly, any spiritual crisis he might have had could, therefore, have been helped by his love and embrace of such myths and legends as the Kalevala. We could possibly see an element of how he deepened his faith with his love for myths in his poem, Mythopoeia, as much as see how he helped his friend, C.S. Lewis come to the faith through a similar embrace of such great legends and myths. But even if he did not have such a crisis of faith himself, there should be no surprise or confusion that Tolkien the Medievalist, Tolkien the fan of the pre-Raphaelites and William Morris, would find such a legendarium as fascinating as he did.


[1] John Garth, Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle Earth (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003), 26.

[2] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Story of Kullervo. ed. Verlyn Flieger (London: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2015), 142.

[3] J.R.R. Tolkien, Beowulf. A Translation and Commentary. Together with Sellic Spell. ed. Christopher Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2014), 162.

[4] Nostra Aetate ¶2. Vatican Translation.

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