Monday, March 7, 2011

Kirill Yeskov: The Last Ringbearer

Some things in the world you just know. Tigger's butt will always be made out of rubber and springs, Aurora will invariably find the one remaining sewing machine in the kingdom in the secret passage to the abandoned tower just before her sixteenth birthday, and Sauron will forever be remembered as the personification of True Evil among the inhabitants of Middle Earth.  But ah, the skeptic asks: can you ever really know?

Enter, stage left: Kirill Yeskov, world-renown arachnologist and paleontologist by day, author of "Lord of the Rings" fan-fiction by night. Back in 1999, he published "The Last Ringbearer," a revisionist history of Middle Earth. Dismissing Tolkien's fantasy epic as hagiography ("history is written by the victors," his epigram reminds us), Yeskov rewrites the saga and its aftermath from the perspective of Mordor. The battle between the inhuman armies of Mordor and the free peoples of the West becomes in his hands a contest of the Elvish masters of magic against the technological and industrial innovations of Mordor. The Elves fear that Mordorian tech would one day prove their undoing, and so manipulate the Luddite populations of Gondor and Rohan (along with the wizards' Council at Isengard, over the objections of Saruman the Wise) into armed conflict with Mordor.

It is here that the novel's classically Russian heritage becomes evident: Yeskov demonstrates an impressive grasp of military history, strategy, and geopolitics. It turns out that Mordor was not bent on world domination, but was at a strategic impasse that forced it into war. Mordor relied heavily on foreign imports of food and raw materials, which flowed through trade routes to the West, particularly through Gondor.  Raids on such caravans would quickly push Mordor to the brink of starvation and stagnation, and force it into war.  Strategically, however, a defensive war was impossible, for though its mountainous borders were impenetrable, Mordor could not survive under siege, lacking an internal supply of food. Moreover, located between the two contingents of its enemy (Rivendell and Lorien, home of the Elves, to the North, with the kingdoms of Gondor and Rohan to the West), it was almost ideally situated for an offensive strike.

All of this occurs within the first few pages of the novel.  With this new realization of Mordorian geopolitics, it is almost impossible not to sympathize with their plight, nor their ultimately catastrophic failure to secure the necessary leverage to ensure food delivery and bring about peace.

Early on in the novel, Yeskov forces us to re-examine the list of races.  In his world, there are Elves and men and wizards.  But the trolls are simply rustic mountain-dwelling men who specialize in masonry; orcs are no longer demonic-looking dwellers of darkness, but ordinary men living in the shadow of the Ash Mountains; and both dwarves and hobbits were legends invented for the pleasure of credulous Gondorian ears

Moreover, the original cast of characters are reimagined. Aragorn is a Machiavellian schemer who deals in Dark Magic to secure the allegiance of the dead soldiers of Dunharrow, and who wins his throne from the rightful heir Faramir by blackmail and an invented lineage -- though even he is far outmatched in scheming by his Elvish "handler" Arwen. In the character of Gandalf, the author's evidently Soviet sympathies come to the fore: for the Grey Wizard is an oddly villainous cross between Adolf Hitler (seeking a "Final Solution" to the Mordorian problem) and Ronald Reagan (describing Mordor as "an Evil Empire"). Only Faramir and Eowyn remain of the original cast with their nobility intact. As for the infamous Ring of Power, it was a legend invented by the Nazgul (ancient wizards, counterparts to the Council of Isengard but unafraid of technology and therefore sympathetic to Mordor) to distract the power-hungry Western kingdoms.

After a few chapters of ret-conning the final defeat of Mordor's forces (Sauron evidently met his heroic end fighting as an ordinary captain among his men at the Battle of the Black Gate), Yeskov presents his own main characters: a field medic from Umbar, a port-city south of Mordor, and an Orocuen scout.  These two principals propel the story to its conclusion, for to them is entrusted the last hope of Mordor: they must sever the connection between Middle Earth and the Ardan world of magic, and thereby drive out the Elves from their positions of dominance.

Revisionism and ret-conning aside, this is a fantastic work.  (After some consideration, I've decided I am quite pleased with that inadvertent pun, and will let it stand).  Yeskov's influences from classical Russian literature are demonstrable, especially in his Tolstoyan grasp of military strategy and politics. There is a fascinating spy v. spy interlude that verges on a danse macabre -- undertones of Liszt's "Totentanz" seem to periodically ring out in this high-stakes game of death.  There is tragedy, high comedy, hints of mythology, and even romance.  It must be said, however, that there are several scenes with sexual content that would make Tolkien blush.  I don't recall anything explicit being described, merely discussed, but it may be too much for some readers.

The epilogue is decidedly ingenious as well. Hearkening to a similar historian's conceit, the prologue to "The Princess Bride," the author claims to have received his account from the folktales passed down by the descendants of the original Orocuen scout.  He also derides the popular Gondorian media for its vulgar and politically correct depictions of the tale, and includes a delicious passing shot at film festival critics, who (fearing the labels of racist, sexist, homophobe) give the vulgar cinematic trash every award in the book.

Despite the sometimes clunky translation, occasional anachronisms, and rare but decidedly off-putting revelations of the author's Soviet sympathies, I found this work a fascinating counterpoint to Tolkien's original.  Tolkien's method, as a philologist, was to create a world and a mythology from languages.  Yeskov's is to create a world and a social reality from a geological and geopolitical climate. I am too unread in Tolkien's other works to know whether this tale is compatible with the rest of the official history of Middle Earth, but as far as I could tell it was grounded in as comprehensive and coherent a world as the original. I'm not at all sure that "The Last Ringbearer" would appeal to fans of Tolkien's work, but on the whole I would consider it one of the best works of 'fan fiction' I have ever read.

**Note: the Tolkien estate has thus far prevented publication of an English translation of the original Russian novel.  However, at the end of last year an English version did appear, and last month a full English translation was vetted and approved by the author.  It can be found, in full and for free, on the translator's blog at the following address:  Enjoy the read.**

1 comment:

  1. Good review. As a Tolkien fan I loved Yeskov's creative engagement with Middle-earth. It is worth noting that there is now a second edition of the translation with much smoother English: