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Tolkien's Works And The Finnish Legends by Formegil

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Chapter notes:
The purpose of this essay is NOT to claim that J.R.R. Tolkien copied all his ideas from Kalevala (the national epic of Finland) or other Finnish legends. I only intend to show possible influences and connections, especially since the professor could speak some Finnish and liked Kalevala. I admire greatly the way in which Tolkien managed to incorporate the legends and myths of many differing cultures in a magnificent universe, along with his own ideas. This is not a scientific research, all material that is not already established facts are my own deductions. My sources include Kalevala, Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales among others. All direct quotes from the books are my own translations of the Finnish editions, since I do not own English copies.
Chapter 1: Túrin and Kullervo

At first I will explore the similarities between Túrin Turambar and Kullervo, one of the heroes in Kalevala. This subject has been studied by better scholars than me, but I think there are a few things that have not been wholly covered. In my opinion there are also some connections between Tuor and Kullervo, which I describe in this chapter as well.

To begin with a small detail, it is interesting to study the names of the heroes and their fathers. Both names resemble closely those of the respective fathers; Túrin son of Húrin and Kullervo son of Kalervo. Likewise, Tuor son of Huor. I do not know if this is intentional, but the pattern is the same. There are differencies, however. The names of Kullervo and Kalervo are of unknown meaning, but that of Túrin has a root that means something like ”mastery” (Robert Foster: The Complete Guide to Middle-Earth). So, in any case Tolkien has not copied directly, since Kullervo almost surely does not mean anything like Túrin’s name. The Finnish translation of Túrin would begin ”herruus-” or ”herra”.

There are similarities in the characters’ childhoods, too. Kullervo is a strong and healthy child, breaking his cradle in the age of three days and learning to speak in three months. Túrin, likewise, is quite strong as a child, and ”learn[s] early to speak”. Both are rash and impulsive. Túrin is said to slowly forget a wrong, and Kullervo speaks as his first words:

If I grew faster tall,
grew strong in body,
I would avenge my father,
avenge the grief of my mother!

Both do not know how to use their strength, Túrin often spoils his handiwork with a sudden movement. Likewise, when Kullervo is ordered to make a fence, he does so with whole treetrunks instead of mere branches. He also inadvertently kills a baby, holding it too tightly.

The major difference between the two characters’ childhoods is that while Túrin is of noble birth on both sides of his family, Kullervo is a bastard of a slave woman and chieftain Kalervo. Also, Túrin has to flee Dor-lómin, but in Doriath he is treated like a prince. Kullervo’s father, instead, is killed in a feud between him and his brother Untamo (note 1). Kullervo is born into slavery and sold to smith Ilmarinen eventually. In this Tuor somewhat resembles him. He also is not brought up by his own parents but fostered by others, his father having died in battle, too. Tuor is also a slave for a while, eventually escaping like Kullervo. Only the methods of escape differ: Tuor kills his guards with an axe, Kullervo summons with magic the beasts of forest to kill the cattle and the evil wife of Ilmarinen. Like Tuor, Kullervo lives as an outlaw and a woodsman.

One motif which connects Túrin and Kullervo is revenge. Kullervo has his father to avenge, and Túrin hates Morgoth for the imprisoning of Húrin. Whereas Kullervo has only one wrong to right, Túrin has to take revenge on Glaurung and the Easterlings, too. The scene in Silmarillion and the Unfinished Tales where Túrin goes to Dor-lómin and kills Brodda and his household resembles the going to war of Kullervo. Both are driven by hopeless fury and achieve nothing but more bloodshed and grief.

Even the swords of Túrin and Kullervo are similar. Both have wondrous properties: Gurthang is meteoric steel and can cleave any mail, Kullervo’s unnamed sword is a gift of Ukko Ylijumala (who, incidentally was the god of thunder) (note 2):

”Oh Ukko Ylijumala!
Give me a sword,
a mighty blade,
which could slay my foes,
kill them by hundreds!”
He got the sword he wanted,
the best blade of all,
with it he slew all
of the people of Untamo.

Nothing more is said of the properties of Kullervo’s sword. Túrin’s slaying of Glaurung and the concept of a cursed sword are from the Germanic tales of Sigurd/Siegfried and from Beowulf.

The theme of incest is present in both stories. Both Túrin and Kullervo meet their sisters by chance, without knowing them or having ever met them before. Both Nienor and Kullervo’s unnamed sister are lost in the woods when this occurs. Tolkien has, however, instead of mere copying adapted and expanded the tale. For example, the sister of Kullervo is not charmed by a dragon or anybody else, but is only skiing in the forest. Besides, in Kalevala Kullervo seduces his sister immediately after their meeting, instead of marrying her after three years’ waiting. The family ties are also discovered faster in Kullervo’s case. Almost immediately after sleeping with her he asks of her family and realizes that she is his sister. The response of both sisters to hearing the truth is similar, however: both commit a suicide by leaping to a river from a cliff.

The death scenes of both heroes are strikingly similar. Both kill themselves in the place where their respective sisters committed suicide. Túrin is grieved by the knowledge of the evil of his deeds, like Kullervo. Both speak to their swords. Túrin asks Gurthang if it will drink his blood and slay him quickly. Gurthang answers that it will do it gladly, to forget the blood of Beleg and Brandir. The conversation of Kullervo and his sword is as follows:

Kullervo, son of Kalervo
drew the sharp sword [...]
He asked the will of the sword
if it wanted to
eat guilty flesh,
drink sinful blood.
The sword knew his mind,
understood his speech.
It answered with words:
”Why wouldn’t I eat gladly,
eat guilty flesh,
drink sinful blood?
I have also eaten innocent flesh,
I have drunk sinless blood.”

Both heroes kill themselves with their swords in the same fashion. Nothing is said about if Kullervo’s sword broke like Gurthang.

Summa summarum, Túrin is a clever mix of Sigurd/Siegfried, Beowulf and Kullervo and is one of the most tragic heroes of literature as such. The influence of the tale of Kalevala is more than obvious, but Tolkien managed to create a wonderful and not plagiarizing story out of the many different legends. And as we have seen, Kullervo may have influenced Tuor, too, although in a very minor way.
Chapter end notes:
Note 1: The poem in the Kalevala is quite unclear on this. On the other hand it is stated that Kalervo was killed by Untamo, but when Kullervo goes to war some twenty years after this, his father is described as a living person, even conversing with Kullervo. The name of Kalervo is not mentioned in this passage, however, so it could be a stepfather. Also, it is not clear if the sister of Kullervo had the same father as he.

Note 2: Ukko Ylijumala was the highest of gods in the Finnish mythology. As a master of wisdom, thunder and air he resembles Odin and Thor, and in Tolkien’s universe Manwë. The name of Ukko means ”Old Man” in English and Ylijumala is ”The High God”. A note on pronunciation of the Finnish words: It is roughly similar to Tolkien's instructions on how to pronounce Sindarin in LotR Appendix E(which in itself is an interesting comparison) with following exceptions: ä is the same sound as a in man and ö is a similar but more open sound as the u in disturb. Ng is always the same as in finger.