Tolkien’s Finnish Adventure

In 1913, J. R. R. Tolkien was halfway through his Classics degree at Oxford University. In those days, a Classics degree was a passport to almost any career of his choice. But instead of studying Homer, he was trying to teach himself Finnish.

Why? love and the Kalevala.

His two obsessions at the time were his future wife, Edith Bratt, and the Kalevala, the national epic of Finland. This collection of poems, myths,  and hero-tales had been collected and published in the 19th century, but the poems themselves are far older. Its unique voice thoroughly captured the mind and heart of young Tolkien. “The almost indefinable sense of newness and strangeness … will either perturb you or delight you,” he wrote at the time. “Trees will group differently on the horizon, the birds will make unfamiliar music; the inhabitants will talk a wild and at first unintelligible lingo. … This is how it was for me when I first read the Kalevala —”

He tried to learn Finnish (“I made a wild assault on the stronghold of the original language and was repulsed … with heavy losses”), and then turned to translating and adapting a part of the Kalevala that attracted him particularly: the story of young Kullervo, the ill-fated boy who seems to destroy everything he touches.

The Story of Kullervo, edited by Verlyn Flieger, brings these first fruits of Tolkien’s fertile mind into the public eye at last.

Meanwhile, back in 1913, young Tolkien did manage to pass his Classics exams, but his marks were so low that he changed his degree from Classics to English Language and Literature — where he would remain for the rest of his life. Might we be living in a world without Hobbits if the 21-year-old Tolkien hadn’t been taken with the violent life of Kullervo and the greater, stranger world of the Kalevala?



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