“I am just of middle station”: Tolkien’s “Kullervo”, Kirby’s “Kalevala”, and Editorial Responsibility

. . . no one can really write or make anything purely privately.
— J. R. R. Tolkien, in a letter to W. H. Auden, June 7th, 1955

Last night I stayed up late to finish reading Verlyn Flieger’s edition of some of J. R. R. Tolkien’s youthful undergraduate jottings published under the title The Story of Kullervo. I did so with growing annoyance if not anger as I became more and more convinced that the volume was a betrayal of Tolkien and his memory as well as being a betrayal of a key principal of scholarship.

This volume is yet another in the ever growing collection of Tolkien’s posthumous titles, a collection certainly destined to grow as long as there is a single Tolkien grocery list left unpublished (on paper stock of ever declining quality) between hard covers. This particular slim volume consists in part of two rough versions of an informal talk given by undergraduate Tolkien on the subject of the Finnish folkloric pastiche The Kalevala. These talks were delivered at a time when Tolkien, by his own admission, was unable to read Finnish, and are based on his reading of W. F. Kirby’s translation published in Everyman’s Library in 1907. As well, the volume contains Tolkien’s very rough, unfinished, first and only draught of The Story of Kullervo, a recasting of one of the stories in The Kalevala. The volume concludes with a brief essay by Flieger about The Story of Kullervo as the seed of much that came later in Tolkien’s elaborately imagined mythology. Everything in the volume has been previously published separately elsewhere.

Tolkien’s abandoned project of adapting the story of Kullervo is interesting enough to a Tolkien fancier, but the commentary provided by Flieger is thin and seems to have been largely “phoned in”. And the two versions of Tolkien’s talk are — unsurprisingly — repetitive and, as might be expected of an undergrad talk, pretty juvenile and shallow. Tolkien is obviously excited about this new thing he’s found, but he is, at this point in his career, not yet an expert on anything, let alone on the language and literature of Finland.

While the forty pages or so at the heart of the volume are interesting enough, I find what Flieger has done with this text, or rather, what she has not done, to be a bit of a disturbing misrepresentation of both Tolkien and of this text which he obviously never intended to be published.

The Story of Kullervo is a very rough initial draught of an almost immediately abandoned project to transform a long disjointed verse story from The Kalevala into a coherent story told in prose interspersed with characters’ speeches cast in verse. Tolkien’s process, which was interrupted by abandonment of the project, seems to have been to write the prose passages in order and to write the verse speeches when he could, but to lift passages directly from Kirby’s translation to use as placeholders until inspiration came to him to create original passages. A few of the verse passages are wholey Tolkien’s. Others are made up of Kirby’s lines unchanged, Kirby’s lines modified, and Kirby’s lines intermingled with Tolkien’s own lines. And some few passages are transcribed virtually unchanged from Kirby’s translation. But, apart from one mention of two crossed out lines as being “transferred unchanged from Kirby” (p. 143), Flieger makes no mention of the fact that a not insubstantial portion of this book with “Tolkien” in big letters on the cover is actually verse composed by W. F. Kirby.

Consider the following passages, only a few that might be examples, the first from early in Kullervo’s story:

Now a man in sooth I deem me
Though mine ages have seen few summers
And this springtime in the woodlands
Still is new to me and lovely.
Nobler am I now than erstwhile
And the strength of five within me
And the valour of my father.

Tolkien, The Story of Kullervo, p. 13

“Now I first a man can deem me,
When my hands the axe are wielding.
I am handsomer to gaze on,
Far more noble than aforetime,
Five men’s strength I feel within me
And I equal six in valour.”

Kirby, Kalevala, Runo 31, ll. 239-244

Here, early in the text, Tolkien has already done much to make the passage his own. But as the manuscript proceeds:

Let no sapling sprout here ever
Nor the blades of grass stand greening
While the mighty earth endureth
Or the golden moon is shining
And its rays come filtering fdimly
Through the boughs of Saki’s forest.
Now the seed to earth had fallen
And the young corn shooteth upward
And its tender leaf unfoldeth
Till the stalks do form upon it.
May it never come to earing
Nor its yellow head droop ripely
In this clearing in the forest
In the woods of Sakehonto.

The Story of Kullervo, p. 14

“Let no sapling here be growing,
Let no blade of grass be standing,
Never while the earth endureth,
Or the golden moon is shining,
Here in Kalervo’s son’s forest,
Here upon the good man’s clearing.
“If the seed on earth has fallen,
And the young corn should shoot upward,
If the sprout should be developed,
And the stalk should form upon it,
May it never come to earing,
Or the stalk-end be developed.”

Kirby, Runo 31, ll. 283-294

A little more of Kirby remains in Tolkien’s draught. And then:

Let them herd among the bushes
And the milch kine in the meadow:
These with wide horns to the aspens
These with curved horns to the birches
That they thus may fatten on them
And their flesh be sweet and goodly.
Out upon the open meadows
Out among the forest borders
Wandering in the birchen woodland
And the lofty growing aspens
Lowing now in silver copses
Roaming in the golden firwoods.
. . .
If my herdsman is an ill one
Make the willow then a neatherd
Let the alder watch the cattle
And the mountain ash protect them
Let the cherry lead them homeward
In the milktime in the even.
If the willow will not herd them
Nor the mountain ash protecdt them
And the alder will not watch them
Nor the cherry drive them homeward
Send thou then thy better servants,
Send the daughters of Ilwinti
To guard my kine from danger
And protect my horned cattle
For a many are thy maidens
At thy bidding in Manoine
And skilled to herd the white kine
On the blue meads of Ilwinti
Until Ukko comes to milk them
And gives drink to thirsty Keme.
Come thou maidens great and ancient
Mighty daughters of the Heaven . . .

The Story of Kullervo, pp. 21-23

“Send the cows among the bushes,
And the milkers in the meadow,
Those with wide horns to the aspens,
Those with curved horns to the birches,
That they thus may fatten on them,
And may load themselves with tallow,
There upon the open meadows,
And among the wide-spread borders,
From the lofty birchen forest,
And the lower growing aspens,
From among the golden fir-woods,
From among the silver woodlands.
. . .
“If my herdsman is a bad one,
Or the herd-girls should be timid,
Make the willow then a herdsman,
Let the alder watch the cattle,
Let the mountain-ash protect them,
And the cherry lead them homeward,
That the mistress need not seek them,
Nor need other folks be anxious.
“If the willow will not herd them,
Nor the mountain-ash protect them,
Nor the alder watch the cattle,
Nor the cherry lead them homeward,
Send thou then thy better servants,
Send the Daughters of Creation,
That they may protect my cattle,
And the whole herd may look after.
Very many are thy maidens,
Hundreds are beneath thy orders,
Dwelling underneath the heavens,
Noble Daughters of Creation.

Kirby, Runo 32, ll. 37-82

Here Tolkien weaving himself through Kirby. But finally, at the end of Tolkien’s manuscript, he hasn’t done anything much other than place Kirby’s verse onto his own page with only such changes as might arise from incomplete memorization, as a place holder for future work in the end never undertaken:

Nay my race is not a great one
Not a great one nor a small one:
I am just of middle station:
Kalervo’s unhappy offspring
Uncouth boy and ever foolish
Worthless child and good for nothing.
Nay but tell me of thy people
Of the brave race whence thou comest.
Maybe a Might race has born thee
Fairest child of mighty father.

The Story of Kullervo, p. 37

“No, my race is not a great one,
Not a great one, not a small one,
I am just of middle station,
Kalervo’s unhappy offspring,
Stupid boy, and very foolish,
Worthless child, and good for nothing.
Tell me now about your people,
And the brave race that you spring from,
Perhaps from mighty race descended,
Offspring of a mighty father.”

Kirby, Runo 35, ll. 199-208

I have no patience for misattribution. In the case of The Story of Kullervo as published, W. F. Kirby is denied due credit for his creation, and Tolkien is, through dereliction of editorial and scholarly duty, given undue creative credit for what is at times nothing more than transcribing someone else’s work. I do not in any way think that Tolkien can be accused of plagiarizing Kirby: Tolkien had no intention that his very rough working document would ever be published. Tolkien became, and probably already was as an undergraduate, enough of a scholar that he wouldn’t have dreamt of taking credit for another scholar’s work.

It is unfortunate that Flieger, and Harper Collins, the publisher of The Story of Kullervo, seem to have no such scruples about proper attribution.

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