Wednesday, 16 February 2011

The Last Ringbearer

MetaFilter currently has an excellent thread worth visiting - The Last Ringbearer - which has a wealth of links concerning 'parallel novels': works that retell others from the viewpoint of a different character or perspective.

The particular focus of the thread, however, is Middle-earth according to Mordor ("A newly translated Russian novel retells Tolkien's 'The Lord of the Rings' from the perspective of the bad guys") - this Salon article by Laura Miller discusses Последний кольценосец (The Last Ringbearer) by Russian paleontologist Kirill Eskov. Working by the aphorism that "history is written by the victors", this is a counter-text to The Lord of the Rings that tells of the last days and aftermath of the War of the Ring from the viewpoint of the forces of Sauron. As Miller describes it:
... a well-written, energetic adventure yarn that offers an intriguing gloss on what some critics have described as the overly simplistic morality of Tolkien's masterpiece.

In Yeskov's retelling, the wizard Gandalf is a war-monger intent on crushing the scientific and technological initiative of Mordor and its southern allies because science "destroys the harmony of the world and dries up the souls of men!"
The protagonist of "The Last Ringbearer" is a field medic from Umbar (a southern land), who is ably assisted by an Orocuen -- that is, orc -- scout, who is not a demonic creature like the orcs in "The Lord of the Rings," but an ordinary man.
In Yeskov's scenario, "The Lord of the Rings" is a highly romanticized and mythologized version of the fall of Mordor, perhaps even outright propaganda; "The Last Ringbearer" is supposed to be the more complicated and less sentimental true story.
The Last Ringbearer is in tune with a number of criticisms of Tolkien's mythos mentioned in the MetaFilter thread that, much as I enjoyed the Lord of the Rings films, I don't find hard to disagree with. There's Michael Moorcock's 1989 essay Epic Pooh. And David Brin's J.R.R. Tolkien -- enemy of progress (Salon again, Dec 17th 2002), that attacks its pro-aristocratic Romanticism. And Fantasy and revolution, an interview in International Socialism in which fantasy author China Miéville says: "Tolkien's worldview was resolutely rural, petty bourgeois, conservative, anti-modernist, misanthropically Christian and anti-intellectual".

If you know Russian, an article by Kirill Eskov, How and why I wrote the apocryphal "Lord of the Rings", looks worth reading. Skimming via Google Translate: Eskov explains that he's not formally a writer, but a "graphomaniac" who writes for his own pleasure and that of friends. He mentions the long history of works that dissect and overturn fictional worlds, right back to Dio Chrysostom, whose rhetorical "Trojan speech" argued the Iliad to be pure PR, the siege of Troy a failure. He mentions the power to expose interesting facets of a work through the device of approaching a work from an ethical or aesthetic position radically different from that of its creator, citing examples including Andrzej Sapkowski (whose Złote popołudnie - Golden Afternoon - retells the story of Alice from the viewpoint of the Cheshire Cat), "Gloria Howard's take on Moby Dick from Ahab's wife's viewpoint" (I can find no reference to Gloria Howard - but the book has to be Sena Jeter Naslund's Ahab's Wife: Or, The Star-Gazer: A Novel), and Tom Stoppard's Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

However, a further aspect of Eskov's motivation was to examine Tolkien's Middle Earth as a real world, and as a geologist he spotted problems. Plate tectonics requires that Middle Earth, as a supercontinent, would have central highlands, which Tolkien doesn't describe. Evidently there must be more to Middle Earth, so Eskov posits other continents and archipelagoes.  He asks about practicalities of Middle Earth that have to exist. What's the monetary system? How can Rohan sustain itself solely by breeding horses? What do the inhabitants of Mordor eat, and why is their capital city in the middle of a desert? And if Middle Earth is treated as a real world, then characters such as Aragorn and Faramir are historical personages whose actions, just as with historical figures in our world, are open to very differing interpretations Finally, he tackles the tropes of fantasy itself.  Fantasy has very strict canonical rules: no moral relativism, but a black-and-white morality. He accepted this groundrule, but attempted to arrange good and evil more realistically, by individual person rather than by race (his elves are "not evil and not good - they are simply alien").

For the moment anyway, The Last Ringbearer is available in the English translation by Yisroel Markov, authorised by the author, as a free download. To circumvent the undoubtedly grey copyright situation - see the Guardian's Lord of the Rings reworking a hit with fans, but not Tolkien estate - it's being released on a non-commercial basis. I won't link to it, but you'll find links via Eskov's Wikipedia entry and the Salon article.

Eskov has, by the way, written another novel called The Gospel of Aphranius, which attempts to construct a demythologised account of the events of the Gospels (rather like Frank Yerby's Judas, My Brother).

Update: see The Last Ringbearer, posted in December 2012 after I read the ePUB version of the 2nd Edition.

- Ray


  1. Perhaps there is another side to the story of Evil, but I find it hard not to side with Gandalf on the evils of industrialization as Tolkien portrays them, particularly after giving my class yesterday the casualty statistics for the Great War in which Tolkien lost so many of his friends. Does Markov really believe that the trenches (upon which Mordor is modeled) were a good thing? Or simply misunderstood?

  2. Read the book and find out. You won't regret it.

    I hope Markov would also see his book as propaganda - history told by the losers in this case. There is something faintly disturbing about the point of view of the Mordor characters early on and especially on industrialisation. The interview with the Nazgul reads very much like the Grand Inquisitor episode from Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov. Like this it also ends with a sense that there is something very wrong with the pragmatism being displayed by the Inquisitor/Nazgul.

    This is a true book of ideas in the Russian tradition.

  3. Thanks; I had another project to finish, but am in mid-stream now. It's reminding me in some respects of Larry Niven's When The Magic Goes Away, that takes a story of the literal decline of magic as an allegory for the threshold of change from mythical world to hsitorical world.