In 1911, J.R.R. Tolkien read The Kalevala, collected by Elias Lonnrot and translated by W.F. Kirby. Tolkien later crafted his own variant, condensing the plot and emphasizing the grimness of the narrative. Throughout both versions of Kullervo’s story, there is a sense of inevitability and doom which is highlighted in several scenes. A pivotal scene is Kullervo’s rape of his sister, which Tolkien made darker by enhancing details leading up to it, highlighting the narrative’s sense of inevitability, and ultimately creating a character who is more empathetic.
Examining the different rape scenes and events leading up to them is a multifaceted task. A striking difference in Tolkien’s version is that Kullvero and his sister were raised together. They were twins and “dear to one another from their first hours…” (Tolkien 7). This bond is absent in The Kalevala. Tolkien also gives the sister a name. In literature, names imbue power, agency, and identity. The fact that Wanona has a name at all, and that it means “weeping,” strongly foreshadows a future tragedy. While naming Wanona allowed her a voice, Tolkien later emphasizes Kullervo’s inevitable encounter with her, thus negating her ability to choose for herself. Tolkien was drawn to the bleakness of the story and may have given her a name to underscore the tale’s relentless sense of doom.
A further element relating to the later rape is the curse of Ilmarinen’s wife. In The Kalevala, Ilmarinen’s wife curses Kullervo with death out of revenge. She begs the god Ukko to use his best crossbow, take a bolt of copper, and “Shoot it quickly through the arm-pits,/ Shoot it that it split the shoulders./ Thus let Kalervo’s son perish,/ Shoot thou dead this wicked creature…” (Runo 33, lines 263-276). Ilmarinen’s wife is angry, afraid, and asks the gods to kill Kullervo for murdering her. There is no sense of prophecy in her words, but her formal tone suggests that her curse catalyzes Kullervo’s fated death. Although vague enough to allow for the possibility of fate or events of chance causing his death, later events support the argument that her curse was successful, rendering foreshadowing irrelevant.
In Kullervo, the curse foreshadows a coming tragedy. Tolkien writes,
Woe thou Sari Kampa’s offspring
Thou has trod the ways of thralldom
And the trackless waste of exile
But thy end shall be more awful
…a fate of woe [and] horror
Worse than anguish in Anuntu.
Men … shall shudder when they hear them
Thy fate and end of terror. (31-32)
Immediately obvious is the phrase “thy end shall be more awful,” which provides the prophesying that The Kalevala lacks. Kullervo has been a slave and an exile but his death will be worse than these things. Moreover, the idea that fate plays a role is highlighted by the repeated use of the term. The wife implies that Kullervo is destined for a bad death, though it is unclear whether her words are the catalyst to this or merely foreshadow it.
Both narratives feature the Blue Lady of the Forest. In The Kalevala, the Lady does not warn Kullervo away from entering the forest. On the contrary, she steers him directly toward it. “Through the forest must thou journey,/ By the river thou must travel,/ …/ Till you reach a wooded mountain,/ Then march on beneath the mountain,/ …/ By the riverside go further,/ Till three waterfalls rush foaming,/ When thou comest to a headland… (Runo 34, lines 143-154). Her instructions do not appear prophetic, but since Kullervo meets his sister in the very forest the Lady directs him to, it raises the possibility that she sends him there intentionally. Failing to build anticipation, The Kalevala moves the story forward without detail. Tolkien gives ample attention to the woods and the Lady’s instructions, building tension. She says:
Thou must follow the river’s path and … thou wilt find a wooded mountain. Fare not towards it lest ill find thee. March on under the shadow often bending to the left when thou comest to another river and when thou hast followed its banks soon thou wilt strike a fair spot and a great glade and over a great leap a triple waterfall foaming. … continue pushing up the river toward its source: and the ground will slope against thee and the wood darken … stumble across bleak waste and then soon wilt thou see the blue of woods of Untamo rising afar off: and mayhap these thou hast not yet quite forgotten. (Tolkien 35)
Unlike Kirby, Tolkien creates a deeply shadowed forest, fostering a sense of foreboding. His Lady also warns specifically not to go to the wooded mountain because some unnamed tragedy will occur there. In the most interesting departure from The Kalevala, Tolkien’s Kullervo willfully disobeys the Lady’s instructions and goes into the forest where, of course, he meets his sister. The final comment from the Lady becomes relevant at this point, for in telling Kullervo that maybe he hasn’t quite forgotten the blue woods of Untamo, she is implying that he is back in the woods of his childhood where he and Wanona played. Being in once-familiar surroundings could make him remember Wanona when he sees her. That he remembers neither the woods nor his sister, thus missing a chance to avoid the tragedy, is a masterful way Tolkien emphasizes its bleakness.
The narrative culminates with the rape of Wanona. In Kirby’s translation, Kullervo encounters three maidens, all of whom reject him, and drags the third one into his sledge. She resists, but Kullervo shows her the riches he has in his coffers and she changes her mind: “…To a bride the money changed her,/ … Then he sported with the maiden,/ Wearied out the tin-adorned one…” (Runo 35, lines 169-186). Kirby’s translation overwrites the wife’s initial refusal and replaces consent with materialism. This is a very misogynistic approach, for she appears indifferent that she will be raped as long as he is rich. She is merely a nameless object with no identity, her agency illusory, who has no objections until she realizes that Kullervo is her brother. There is also no mention of the curse of Ilmanen’s wife, and Kullervo met the maidens by chance (Runo 35, line 133), implying that fate is irrelevant and the curse has no bearing.
Tolkien’s Kullervo, while grimmer, brings far more detail and emotional depth to the tale. Rather than having three separate maidens reject Kullervo, the same maiden rejects him thrice. She’s uninterested in his wealth, unlike her Kalevala counterpart. Kullervo loses his temper and takes her not into his sledge but away into “the depths of the woods” (Tolkien 36), the forbidden place. Not only does Kullervo fail to avoid the tragedy here, he fulfills it. Tolkien writes, “Yet was she fair and he loving with her, and the curse of the wife of Ilmarinen upon them both, so that not long did she resist him and they abode together in the wild…” (37). Professor Verlyn Flieger suggests that Tolkien means for this to be a seduction rather than a rape (Flieger). She interprets this passage such that they reach an accord and share a legitimate relationship. However, she does not account for the fact that Wanona is “…adread and sped like a wild thing through the woods…” (36). This is mortal terror, not accord. Women often have to choose survival through acquiescence; however, acquiescence should not be confused for consent. Additionally, Tolkien writes that “the curse of the wife of Ilmarinen [was] upon them both” (37), indicating that the wife’s curse includes Wanona, linking her fate irrevocably to his.
The defining difference between the two texts lies not in the disparity in length, emphasis on darkness, or even the rape itself. It is Kullervo’s reaction and how he acts afterward. Kullervo responds with horror in The Kalevala, saying he had outraged his mother’s child, presumably referring to his sister; however, he could actually be talking about himself considering that he makes self-centered references to the difficulties in his life ten times in that same stanza (Runo 35, lines 271-286). Tolkien’s Kullervo tries and fails to stop Wanona from throwing herself into the river. He hears her “last wail” (38), a haunting image juxtaposed against the beauty of the setting. Kullervo sits beside the waterfall for several hours “as a lump of rock” (39). Tolkien paints a picture of a deeply grieving man who only later understands Wanona’s final words. Tolkien writes, “… foreboding gnawed at his heart for something in the maiden’s last speech …and her bitter ending wakened old knowledge in his heart …he felt he would burst for grief and sorrow and heavy fear. Then red anger came to him…” (39). At this point, Kullervo goes into a rage, far too late to prevent the tragedy the Lady had warned him about. Tolkien’s Kullervo is now a much more believable figure than Kirby’s. His emotions are complex: he is grief-stricken, he loves Wanona as a woman, yet he feels terrible guilt about loving her and her death. In both versions, Kullervo is an unsympathetic figure up to this point. Tolkien’s Kullervo, though, learns to grieve for others and have empathy. It is only then that he can find “the death he sought for” (40).
Although all events lead to Kullervo’s suicide, Tolkien’s emphasis on the rape and the relentless pain in the story build a character who is far more realistic than the one in The Kalevala. Kirby’s translation describes a historically rich narrative but it is lacking in emotional depth. Tolkien’s Kullervo, though frequently repugnant, is ultimately more believable because of the various emphases Tolkien makes. Focusing more on the inevitability of Kullervo’s tragedy, as well as crafting a situation which he could have avoided at multiple points, allows Tolkien to refine the character, explore the concept of fate, and deeply examine how details of a story can influence narrative.
Flieger, Verlyn. “Tolkien’s Kullervo.” Tolkien and Tradition class lecture archives, Signum University, http://signum.coursearchives.s3.amazonaws.com/LITC5301_Tolkien-and-Tradition/LITC5301_Session08.mp4
The Kalevala, the Land of Heroes. Compiled by Elias Lonnrot, translated by W.F. Kirby, Project Gutenberg, 2010.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Story of Kullervo. Edited by Verlyn Flieger, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016.