I never thought I'd get to use this image again so soon!
This story's been making the rounds, as Ostatni Władca Pierścienia, Kirill Eskov's infamous 1999 alternate-universe Middle-earth novel, has been translated into English, and offered as a free download.
Now, those of you who've read my blog know I love alternate history, and equally love "evil Mirror Universes." I'd be happy if the next Star Trek series was set in the Mirror Universe (the original one, not the watered-down Deep Space Nine version). So the idea of Evil Gandalf and Good Sauron is one that appeals to me on something of a morbid level - as long as it's treated as a mirror universe, and not necessarily as "historical" revisionism. That said, I could go with a bit of that, too, if it was well-written and consistent. However, there are certain things which bother me about alternate history, and one is using it as an unfair or facile criticism of the original work. Thoughtful, insightful criticism I could deal with - even enjoy - but unfair criticism, I oppose.
So where does The Last Ringbearer fit in?
Take The Iron Dream, for example. Norman Spinrad is on record as stating The Lord of the Swastika (Mirror Universe Adolf Hitler's best-selling novel) was a lampooning of Heroic Fantasy, which he felt was inherently fascistic. Heroic Fantasy, of course, including The Lord of the Rings, where Tolkien's vehement anti-fascist leanings appear to have passed him by. I like some of Spinrad's other work ("The Doomsday Machine" is one of my favourite Trek episodes) but The Iron Dream was like an excitable puppy chewing on an old boot that believes it's a mighty wolf savaging its prey: it thinks very highly of its satirical bite and all the other puppies nod their approval sagely, but the adults just sit and shake their heads. "Oh, those pups and their naiveté."
You can't get a better cover for The Iron Dream than Adolf Hitler riding a futuristic motorcycle.
Now, full disclosure: I haven't read The Last Ringbearer. This post isn't going to be a direct review of it. However, it's going to function a bit like a "review review," in that I'm going to review what I know of the story via Laura Miller's review. I may well read the story in the future, but for now, I'm only going to comment on anything I'm in a position to comment, which is broad strokes and supposition based on second-hand information. Hey, it works for The Guardian, so it should work for me.
Here's a synopsis from Salon:
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!” He’s in cahoots with the elves, who aim to become “masters of the world,” and turn Middle-earth into a “bad copy” of their magical homeland across the sea. Barad-dur, also known as the Dark Tower and Sauron’s citadel, is, by contrast, described as “that amazing city of alchemists and poets, mechanics and astronomers, philosophers and physicians, the heart of the only civilization in Middle-earth to bet on rational knowledge and bravely pitch its barely adolescent technology against ancient magic.”
Oy... This is already getting my heckles up.
First of all is the "science vs magic" dynamic. Again, this is the sort of thing I love, but it's so easy for it to degenerate into a painfully blunt "science vs religion" "allegory," usually painting one side as completely in the right and the other as unreasonable dogmatic tyrants. Either Science is Good and
The way this is being described is equally worrisome to me, as it seems like it could be perceived as a criticism of Tolkien's alleged "anti-technology" standpoint. Such an argument I've seen is the one where Tolkien's a hopeless romantic, preferring the Middle Ages to modern times, viewing progress as inherently bad and nostalgia for the past as inherently good. However, this is a grave and preposterous simplification of Tolkien's true fear, that of technology actively causing the destruction of the environment.
And you know what? He was sort of right. The fume-belching towers of Isengard and Mordor are easily evocative of the overzealous industries which have resulted in massive damage to the environment. Ever since the pea-soupers of Victorian London, smog has affected cities to this day: Mexico City, Los Angeles, Beijing, Manila, and countless other cities have suffered outbreaks which have left hundreds dead from smoke inhalation, to say nothing of the environmental damage. To reduce Tolkien's fear of industry damaging the environment and the very soul of men to scurrilous anti-technological paranoia is to deny his portentous and uncanny vision of the future. Or the present, come to think of it.
So yeah, not off to a good start. Then there are just some weird head-scratchers: if the Elves were planning on becoming "masters of the world," aren't they a bit past that stage? What with them dying out and going back across the sea to their homeland? Then you have to wonder why the Hobbits, who have arguably the most advanced technology in the entire series, aren't the biggest villains or Mordor-sympathizers in the entire book: they had trains, fercryinoutloud!* Or maybe they are, who knows.
For the most part, though, "The Last Ringbearer" is 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.
OK, this might be dangerously close to Godwin's Law, but I feel it has to be brought up. There are some occasions in life where there are definite bad guys. I'm all for hearing one side out, but there are just some occasions where moral relativism becomes inadequate, and events, actions or individuals can only be described as evil. Sure, there are plenty of proxy wars, cold wars, squabbles over land, jurisdiction, trade tariffs or what have you, but just because you can't describe all wars as "good vs evil" doesn't mean you can describe all wars as being completely morally ambiguous.
After all, "from a certain point of view" the Galactic Empire are alright guys...
Yes, history is written by the victors, but that doesn't mean history is inherently untrustworthy, and such moral relativism strikes me as somewhat offensive to the memory of the real people who've died in those wars. Taking the idea that Mordor and Sauron were the victims of a massive cover-up is like saying the Mongols didn't actually sack and destroy countless cities and murdered millions in their conquests. Challenging historical preconceptions is one thing, even healthy and something I advocate, but not to this extent.
No, Mordor doesn't exist, so it's all right to say that maybe they weren't such bad guys after all. Nobody's getting hurt, nobody's having their reputations sullied, nobody's descendent are being attacked. However, if you think in the context of a fictional world, then The Last Ringbearer strikes me as being the fictional equivalent of Armenian Holocaust deniers. Riddle me this: if it transpires Mordor was indeed a bastion of science and progress, then how in Melkor's name has the "myth" of evil Mordor persisted? Surely there must be evidence of this strewn all over the place with such a large-scale campaign, not to mention the testimony of millions of survivors and veterans.
Because Gandalf refers to Mordor as the "Evil Empire" and is accused of crafting a "Final Solution to the Mordorian problem" by rival wizard Saruman
Wow, I had issues with raising the spectre of Godwin's Law, but it seems these guys had no problems doing exactly that in the most profound way I could imagine. Next thing you know, Gandalf will be quoting Mein Kampf and mangling the philosophy of Nietzche. Because, of course, if you're worried you can't make a character evil enough, just give them blunt and obvious Nazi connotations. Subtlety? Who he?
But the juxtaposition of the willfully feudal and backward "West," happy with "picking lice in its log 'castles'" while Mordor cultivates learning and embraces change, also recalls the clash between Europe in the early Middle Ages and the more sophisticated and learned Muslim empires to the east and south.
No. No, no, no, no, no. Don't do this. Don't do this, Ms Miller.
Yes, the Muslims of the alleged Dark Ages were advanced, and made many wonderful contributions to the world. But to say they were a single ray of light in a wilfully backward world of brutish Europeans is to deny the many scientific achievements made by Europeans at the time. And for what? To say the Muslims weren't so bad? What does demonising the Europeans have to do with acknowledging the great things which have issued from the Muslim world? Surely one can do both without demonising the other? Next you'll be saying that the Muslims were the innocent, blameless victims of Christian aggression during the Crusades!
Sauron passes a "universal literacy law," while the shield maiden Eowyn has been raised illiterate, "like most of Rohan's elite" -- good guys Tolkien based on his beloved Anglo-Saxons.
What's this about the Anglo-Saxons being illiterate? I dearly hope Ms Miller is not saying that the Anglo-Saxons were, indeed, incapable of reading, and that this was purely an invention of The Last Ringbearer in regards to the Rohirrim. If that's the case, then... literacy makes you inherently good, and illiteracy makes you bad? I thought this novel was about changing preconceptions of what's good and bad, not just adhering to stereotypes? Or is this yet another fish-in-a-barrel shot, where the Evil Rohirrim suppress freedom of knowledge and expression in contrast to the enlightened Good Mordorians?
Some of the supporting characters from "The Lord of the Rings" -- such as Faramir and Eowyn -- get more attention and and even a bit more respect in "The Last Ringbearer."
I'd love to see how this could possibly work, considering these were meant to be the bad guys in The Last Ringbearer. Is Eowyn striking out against The Man and becoming a shieldmaiden, rebelling against her patriarchal, misogynist society and myopic, stubborn father? Is Faramir a gutless drone forced into war by his heartless and cynical father? I notice that Aragorn is apparently a puppet of Arwen: are we to suppose that Arwen is the capable one, and that Aragorn is completely at her mercy and dominated by her? (Have I just stepped into Jackson's Lord of the Rings?)
(Still others, like the hobbits, don't even exist.)
... So the Hobbits, the single greatest counter-argument to the preposterous idea that the Good Guys of Middle-earth were anti-progress and the Bad Guys pro-progress, is just swept under the rug. Not even an attempt to justify or address the seeming contradiction in the "argument." How very convenient.
Some Tolkien fans have dismissed "The Last Ringbearer" as nothing more than fan fiction, although it certainly doesn't conform to the stereotype of fan fiction as fantasies of unlikely romantic pairings among "canonical" characters as imagined by teenage girls. What the novel most closely resembles is "Wind Done Gone" by Alice Randall, a retelling of Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind" from the perspective of a slave born on Scarlett O'Hara's plantation. "Wind Done Gone" was published in 2001, prompting a copyright infringement suit from Mitchell's estate. Randall, who is African-American, and her publisher mounted a defense resting in part on the argument that "Wind Done Gone" is a "parody," intended to highlight the retrograde racial attitudes and historical distortions in Mitchell's misty-eyed depiction of the Old South.
It should be said on behalf of "The Last Ringbearer" that it is superior to "Wind Done Gone" as both literature and entertainment. The two books do, however, have similar agendas. 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.
I see. Having not read Wind Gone Done I cannot comment: however, the idea that The Lord of the Rings is the equivalent of propaganda just exacerbates my concerns about the sheer practicality. The Lord of the Rings, as a document, exists. The Last Ringbearer is the "true story." So how on earth can anyone reconcile the idea of The Lord of the Rings even working as propaganda? If this is indeed the case, then The Lord of the Rings is a piece of flagrant pseudohistory more grotesque and preposterous than the Oceanian governments assertions, and historical fantasy that exceeds even the excesses of 300.
Let's try and think about it from a historical standpoint using a past war. Say, the conquests of Timur. Timur, of course, was the legendary warlord and master of a grand dynasty which wrought havoc and mayhem on the western world. Timur conquered much of Central and Western Asia in a series of bloody campaigns, the most infamous being his invasion of Persia. One such incident saw the city of Isfahan surrender: Timur responded by putting everyone in the entire city to death. He then had their heads piled into pyramids. There were fifteen hundred heads in each. He had twenty-eight of these pyramids erected.
The Last Ringbearer would, then, cast Timur not as a red-handed conqueror, but a man of vision, who introduced bold new social orders and fostered great centres of cultural learning, who was fighting against the evil oppressors of India and Persia. All the evidence of his atrocities - the records, the chronicles, the eyewitness accounts, the art, the graves - have apparently been wiped from existence, and nobody was aware of them.
Of course, the truth of the matter is that Timur was both. Samarcand was a wondrous citadel of education, culture and art, and Timur a generous patron. But that's the conundrum of evil: even the most despicable men in history have done things that can be admired, and one shouldn't confuse acknowledgement of those great deeds with acceptance or denial of their worse deeds. One can respect a conqueror raising a country ravaged by war, poverty and debt into an industrial juggernaut without excusing, forgiving or denying their contributions to some of the most harrowing horrors in the history of the world.
Can this be done with Sauron? I think one can respect the talent he shows in coercing the people of Middle-earth as subtly as he has, as well as the industriousness of his creations.
This, then, appears to be my problem with The Last Ringbearer: rather than professing to show that "every side has a story," it just switches the heroes and villains around. It's no less a black-and-white fantasy than what it perceives The Lord of the Rings to be in the first place. It had the opportunity to expand upon what Tolkien already did, but squandered it in a simple colour-negative treatment.
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.
This is the point where I truly gave up on The Last Ringbearer, because it falls victim to the very extremist mentality it seems to be accusing The Lord of the Rings of falling into. These orcs aren't really demonic creatures, they're just human beings! Oh, let us boo and hiss the spineless Elessar dynasty and the scoundrel Gandalf for casting their ancient foes as subhuman monsters! Let's forget the obvious question, that if this really was a work of propaganda fiction, why didn't the authors of the Red Book of Westmarch just characterise the Haradrim, Easterlings and Dunlendings as inhuman monsters: why change the orcs from monsters to humans in the first place? There was a perfect opportunity to present the idea of non-human orcs who might look scary and savage being more than fairytale monsters, and they decided against it. Hell, if I was doing a Mirror Universe LotR, that's exactly what I'd do.
But in Yeskov's eagerness to show LotR as propaganda, he eschews this potentially powerful idea, and instead makes the orcs the result of anti-Mordorian demonization. Which is, in my opinion, a letdown, stretches credulity, and ends up edging near Spinrad territory.
The inhuman nature of the orcs and Tolkien's depiction of Mordor's human allies as swarthy-skinned outsiders has prompted complaints that his book obscures the moral conundrums of warfare and dabbles in racial demonization.
As I stated above, sometimes there are bad guys in warfare. And, of course, I don't need to bring up the fact that Tolkien had zero stock in what he called the "wholly pernicious and unscientific race-doctrine," so any ideas that the orcs are meant to represent, say, Asians or Black People is the fault of the reader, not the author. And, of course, Miller forgets to mention the swarthy-skinned outsiders who allied with the good guys - the Pelargir, the people of Dol Amroth, and most pertinently the Druidain. I wonder what Yeskov makes of these peoples.
Ugly, misshapen, swarthy, bestial - and good guys who are instrumental in the War of the Ring.
"The Lord of the Rings" wouldn't be as popular as it is if the pastoral idyll of the Shire and the sureties of a virtuous, mystically ordained monarchy as embodied in Aragorn didn't speak to widespread longing for a simpler way of life. There's nothing wrong with enjoying such narratives -- we'd be obliged to jettison the entire Arthurian mythos and huge chunks of American popular culture if there were -- but it never hurts to remind ourselves that it's not just their magical motifs that makes them fantasies.
Le sigh. The Shire as a pastoral idyll? Well, even before it was ruthlessly destroyed in the Scouring of the Shire, it wasn't perfect. Most of the Hobbits were insular and parochial, blissfully unaware of how well-protected they were by the unseen Rangers defending their borders from roving bands of goblins. Bilbo, Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin were largely the exceptions to the rule. Yet when the chips were down, the Hobbits proved their quality: even in those times where they did not have the Rangers to defend them, they proved their worth in hardship. Witness the Fell Winter, and of course the Battles of Greenfields and Bywater. The Shire even sent a contingent of Hobbits to the battle which destroyed the power of Angmar.
As for the "virtuous, mystically ordained monarchy" - please. Aragorn showed his qualities by virtue of hard graft, not divine entitlement. He wandered far, learned much, experienced strife, lived. More than you could say for the pampered nobles of many historical kings. Aragorn's nobility, courage and abilities are born not merely of his ancestry, but in his experiences. And then again, if Tolkien truly lionized the monarchy, then what does one make of such disastrous rulers as Ar-Pharazon and Isildur, who very nearly destroy their kingdoms through their pride and folly?
Perhaps this insistence that The Lord of the Rings adheres to such a fairytale and blithely ignores the questions of good and evil is part of the problem. It's certainly shown as such in the film adaptations: where is the subtlety of Denethor, who was a good man truly caught in the throes of madness and indecision by knowing more of the big picture than he was capable of comprehending, recast as a Snidely Whiplash mixed with Walter Peck as the maniacal villain who exists purely to put the heroes in unnecessary danger and stop them from doing their job? (I know I go on and on about Denethor, but really, that's probably the thing I dislike most about the adaptations.)
I may read The Last Ringbearer, but given what I've read so far, it doesn't seem to be the paradigm-shifting piece it claims to be. All it does is cast the heroes and villains in reverse, doing the exact thing it accuses the original story of doing. Perhaps it isn't as simple as that: perhaps the story is more "shades of grey" than the reviews indicate, and that there are heroes and villains on both sides. Considering Tolkien himself knew this, perhaps Yeskov's novel is indeed the ultimate subversion: where Tolkien had good men fall from grace and evil men redeem themselves, perhaps a story where there are no Denethors, Gollums, Boromirs, Sarumans or other such moral grey areas would serve as an example of why Tolkien just isn't as black-and-white as people seem insistent on reiterating.
Or, perhaps there's a more brilliant motive: perhaps the shade of Sauron has whispered into the ear of Yeskov, presenting an alternate account of the War of the Ring. Beguiling Yeskov's scientifically-minded personality with lies of the Free People's anti-technological prejudice, misrepresenting the positions of Gandalf and the Elves as religious doctrine, and carefully omitting or dismissing those elements which might undermine his side of the story. Using the insidious persuasiveness which allowed him to destroy the island of Numenor without so much as a single orc, Sauron has convinced Yeskov that one of the few remaining documents of the War of the Ring was nothing more than a propaganda piece forged by the shady agents of Gandalf and Arwen.
From that point of view... that might actually be a damn good story.
EDIT: And because "how can you talk about a book you haven't read" criticism is a fair cop, yes, I have read The Last Ringbearer since writing this post. And... I can't think of anything to say other than what I've already said, and anything else was already covered by One Last Sketch. Michal's review is in fact far more valuable than mine, since he is in a position to comment on Eastern Europe's post-Tolkien traditions, and so can contextualise the writing of The Last Ringbearer in a way I simply couldn't. I guess the one thing which really stings about the book is nicely summed up by Michal thusly:
This is not moral nuance. Without characters such as Gollum, or events such as the temptation of Galadriel and Frodo’s utter failure at Mount Doom, the morality of The Last Ringbearer is actually far more simplistic than the morality of its source material.
And when the entire point of a satire is supposedly to imbue the subject with moral nuance, that's a bit of a failure.
*Yes, I'm well aware that most reasonable people view the infamous line from "A Long Expected Party" (...The dragon passed like an express train, turned a somersault, and burst over Bywater with a deafening explosion...) as a moment of Literary Agent Hypothesis, where one assumes that the translator from the original Red Book of Westmarch added it in to replace a Middle-earth simile that might be lost on readers, but come on, can't you imagine a delightful little Hobbit-train puffing about the Shire? Like one of those tiny ones that ferries children around gardens? While "The Little Train of the Caipira" plays?