To understand what we have here, readers need to know that this isn’t a newly discovered fantasy story by Tolkien. Rather, what we have is a thorough analysis, dissection, and discussion of an unfinished epic poem Tolkien wrote very early in his writing career. The tragedy, based upon a section of the Finnish epic The Kalevala, is only about 40 pages long. As such, this feels more Shakespeare than The Hobbit and certainly casual readers will be confounded by the dense wording and uncorrected changes (names change all the times, as do situations, since Kullervo was a draft). But the research and analysis are excellent and thoroughly explain quite a bit about early Tolkien. Because most of this book is a discussion, I would classify this as non fiction and scholarly rather than a novel.
Verlyn Flieger gives a very informative introduction about the poem itself, origins, why it appealed to Tolkien, and even a bit about the source material, the Kalevala. She also notes the areas in which this would be an inspiration for later works especially various characters throughout Tolkien’s books. After the introduction we are given the poem itself; it is short but written in the style of the source material (which can be quite tough to plow through at times). The story is a tragedy – a bit of Hamlet through the eyes of medieval Finland. After the poem, there are images of Tolkien’s actual written pages, a breakdown of nearly every line of the story, and a much-more in-depth and annotated discussion of the works.
The appeal of the Story of Kullervo would obviously be for writers, those interested in how Tolkien crafted stories, and those invested in Finnish culture. The Kalevala is not as well-known as its more famous cousins, Beowulf or the Odyssey, because it was translated/written down only within the last 120 years. Tolkien does take some liberties with his interpretation of that one small part of the Kalevala, though, and those deviations are often the most intriguing and enlightening.
Clearly, this isn’t a fun little “The Hobbit” type of read. But it is also a very interesting, thorough, an well researched analysis of early Tolkien. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.