Journeys That Set Our Lives In Motion

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You do not need to be an admirer of the works of this author to appreciate the value of the story told in this book review (thanks to National Public Radio, USA):

In 1913, the 21-year-old Ronald Tolkien should have been studying for his exams. He was halfway through his Classics degree — the subject all the best students did at Oxford in those days. Getting admitted to Oxford on a scholarship was a great opportunity for young Ronald, an orphan who had always struggled to stay out of poverty. A Classics degree would have set him up for almost any career he chose. But he wasn’t studying. Instead, he was trying to teach himself Finnish.

Why would a brilliant student with so much at stake let himself go astray at such a crucial time? There were two reasons: love and the Kalevala.

Tolkien’s twin obsessions at the time were his future wife, Edith Bratt, and the Kalevala, the national epic of Finland. This collection of poems, myths, spells and hero-tales had been collected and published in the early 19th century, but the poems themselves are thought to be far older. Its unique voice, resembling no other European mythology, 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 — that is, crossed the gulf between the Indo-European-speaking peoples of Europe into this smaller realm of those who cling in queer corners to the forgotten tongues and memories of an elder day.”

After his attempt to learn Finnish (“I made a wild assault on the stronghold of the original language and was repulsed … with heavy losses”), Tolkien began to translate and adapt one 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.

Read the whole review here.

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