Kullervo: the tragedy of a hero and his quest for identity

(Since Tolkien’s The Story of Kullervo is out now, I thought I’d take a look back at the original story from Kalevala before I read Tolkien’s version.)

Kullervo’s grandfather Kalervo has had a series of disputes with his brother Untamo, and one day Untamo rides down on Kalervo’s village and lays waste to it. It is thought that everyone except Kullervo’s mother is killed. Kullervo is as yet unborn, and his mother welcomes the victors politely to her hall.

When Kullervo is born, his heritage and identity make him dangerous to Untamo’s tribe, and Untamo seeks to have him done away with. Failing this, Untamo tries to forestall his pursuit of revenge by offering him a home and employment with the victorious tribe. Kullervo, however, cannot lead an ordinary life. His impetuous temper and lonely recklessness disqualify him from most professions. So he gets sold to Ilmarinen, the blacksmith.

However, Ilmarinen’s wife bakes a stone into the bread she gives him, and when Kullervo tries to cut it his knife breaks. Kullervo is grief-stricken, for the knife is his only relic of his mother’s people, and he kills Ilmarinen’s wife in revenge. Then he wanders alone over the plains and woodlands, lamenting his ill-fated life, bereft of purpose or parental affection. He decides to journey to Untamo’s village to avenge the slaughter that left him an orphan.

And then he discovers that his father and mother are living, and makes his way to them, dreaming of finding a home and being welcomed by his family. But things aren’t quite as he expected. Though his family, especially his mother, welcome him kindly, he feels an outsider, who can’t do the things the others can do. His father points out to him frequently that he is no use to them, since he doesn’t know how to perform the tasks that are necessary to their welfare. Eventually, he sends him to pay a tribute for him in a distant land.

On his way home, Kullervo meets three beautiful maidens. The first two have no time for him, but he seduces the third. Then he discovers that she is actually his lost sister, who wandered away from home. When she finds this out, his sister flings herself into the falls nearby.

A devastated Kullervo makes his way home again, to tell the terrible tale. His mother is grief-stricken, but does not blame him; she asks him to forget it and live normally. Kullervo, however, is intent on flinging away the life that has become bitter to him—he will go to war on Untamo’s tribe, in revenge for the war of long ago. His mother tries to recall him to a sense of his duty to the family, but he cries wildly that it doesn’t matter what happens to them, and is determined to end his life in the fight.

There is more to this than a sense of guilt. Kullervo is in search of an identity and a purpose, something to belong to and die for. His life has been meaningless, a series of misfortunes and ill-judged actions—he wants his death to have the meaning his life lacked. He wants to belong to his family, but the life he’s lived has not fitted him to live with them and lead an ordinary life contributing to the family and carrying out his duty. It is simpler to make war on others on their behalf, easier to die for them than to live with them—if he dies, he has done something for them, and is therefore a part of the tribe. If he lives, he’s a stranger who has never belonged, who failed everything he attempted and brought shame and ruin on their daughter.

And so he seeks to die avenging a wrong of long ago, one that has ceased to matter to everyone else—to die for his tribe when they care little for him or his sacrifice. He would like to go out in a blaze of splendour, and wipe out the memory of his ill-fated life, unintended wrongs and failures and unfulfilled longings.

Before he leaves, he bids them farewell with respect and affection and asks each, just once, if they will mourn him when he’s dead. His father, brother and sister vow they will not, and he accepts this, resolving to think no more of them. His mother, however, says that she will.

Kullervo rides away to war. On his way, messengers catch up with him, and he learns that his father, brother, sister and finally his mother are dead. But he will not ride back, or turn aside from his design of war.

Against the odds, Kullervo is victorious, and lays waste to Untamo’s village. But when he comes home, there is no pleasure in the victory, for the family he fought to avenge is gone. And he is quite alone.

Then his mother’s voice speaks to him, telling him to seek out the company of the wood-nymphs, for she would not have him abandoned and lonely. Kullervo sets out to obey her, but then he passes the falls where his sister leaped to her death, and suddenly everything is too much for him. He unsheathes his sword, and asks it if it wishes to drink his life-blood. And his sword replies that it sees no reason why not. Kullervo leaps on his sword.

Kullervo suffered for wrongs that were not his own and for wrongs that he had not intended. He cast away what was dear to him, even as his own cast him away, heedless alike of what he offered them and what he yearned for.

Väinämöinen speaks, at the end, of the need to nurture your children and teach them discretion and wisdom. Kullervo’s life owed much of its tragedy to his loneliness and his feeling of abandonment, but also a great deal to the fact that he was ill-equipped to deal with the obligations society imposed on him.

Kullervo had learned of the passionate and the lofty, of honour and revenge, but he never learned to live an ordinary life with other people. This is a common theme in Kalevala, the fact that heroism can go only so far in daily life. Heroic deeds of valour are one thing, but the demands life makes on you are different—we notice this in the instances of Väinämöinen and Aino, Lemminkäinen and Kyllikki. Being brave and skilled in combat, while worthy of great respect, isn’t always enough to make you or other people happy—this capricious world requires you to understand and learn to live with other people, a far harder task. The life of a hero can be both magnificent and tragic.

(You can read Kalevala in English here, and the original Finnish here. A big thank you to Project Gutenberg!)