15 July 2013

Review: The Last Ringbearer by Kirill Yeskov

Kindle eBook, n.pag.
Published 2011 (originally 1999)
Borrowed from the library
Read June 2013
The Last Ringbearer
by Kirill Yeskov
translated by Yisroel Markov

This Russian reworking attracted some Anglosphere attention when a free English translation was published on LiveJournal a few years ago; it seemed appropriate to follow-up to my finally reading all six books of The Lord of the Rings. Yeskov presents The Lords of the Rings as propaganda written by the victorious Gondorian forces after the war. Aragorn is a conniving manipulator backed by the Elves, while Mordor is a bastion of rationality in a sea of magic-users on the verge of completing the industrial revolution. Gandalf, feeling threatened, deposes Saruman and orchestrates the collapse of Gondor.

Yeskov's rewriting is quite fun; I enjoyed picking out the details of the "new universe" as the story went. Aragron is a pretty threatening villain, a stone-cold thug backed by zombies who killed Denethor to secure the Gondorian throne. Orcs are just human beings of a different ethnicity (Orocuen), as are trolls, and probably hobbits, though we never see any hobbits. The Nazgûl are good wizards who planted rumors of an all-powerful Ring to try to break up the alliance between Aragorn and the Elves. (One of my favorite jokes is about what a bad job the Nazgûl going after the Ring in the Shire did.) Aragorn is the one who killed the "Witch-King" (no one more than a commander of a Mordorian regiment), and spreads a rumor that he was killed by a woman to humiliate him even after death.

Quite properly, Faramir is the same in all universes. He's forced into ceding his kingship to Aragorn and given a little principality, but he soon unites with Éowyn, a discarded lover of Aragorn, and begins a resistance against Aragorn's people. He's completely badass, and the relationship between them is quite well done.

The book, though, does not actually focus on most of this; it's just background fodder for Yeskov's story. The real story is that of Haladin, a Mordorian physician, and Tzerlag, a Mordorian scout, as well as Tangorn, a Gondorian noble who realizes the Elves are up to no good. The first quarter of the novel sees them in the desert, trying to evade Elvish capture and get away. It's a well-done wartime thriller. Then it becomes a quest novel, as Haladin learns how to banish magic from Middle-earth, and thus save rationality, if not his country. In subsequent quarters, we follow Faramir's attempts to escape Aragorn's control, a mission by Tangorn to Umbar, and the infiltration of Lórien itself. The first two quarters are definitely the best, as the further it goes on, the more it feels like a generic espionage novel. I like Haladin, Tzerlag, and Tangorn a lot: as pretty ordinary guys caught up in terrible events, it's hard not to.

The book has its odd moments, though. It's hard to know when to blame them on Yeskov or his (volunteer!) English translator Markov, though. There's an attempt to make the dialogue more casual, but it sits poorly with the long, expository dialogue characters speak in. You can have Gandalf talk like a violent thug, or you can have him deliver long speeches on the necessity of the Fall of Mordor. I'm not convinced you can do both; it's an awkward mix of generic standards.

Also awkward is Yeskov's constant bringing in of real-world references, especially from World War II and the Cold War. Whether you think his novels are good or not, you have to admit Tolkien did an amazing job building a linguistically coherent world, whereas Yeskov's world feels cheap by comparison. At one point, Éomer even mentions the differences between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam!

Also, though it's shorter by far than The Lord of the Rings I suspect, it goes on too long. Though the espionage tricks are fun, Yeskov is clearly more interested in them than I am.

I was trying to puzzle through why an espionage novel. If one is to unpack the rhetorical underpinnings of high fantasy, one of them is typically moral absolutism, I think: good is Good and bad is Evil. In Tolkien's story, the enemy country is led not just by a guy who wants something for his country different than our heroes', but basically Satan. Yeskov doesn't really undercut this, though, so much as reverse it: we end up with Good and Evil, just reversed.

So why deconstruct The Lord of the Rings by turning it into an espionage novel? The key, I think, is that though espionage stories can feature Good and Evil (though perhaps not always), Good and Evil are distinguished by their ultimate aims-- not their methods. When it comes down to it, each side is no better than the other in terms of what they do: "in order to win you have to walk over corpses and wade through unthinkable much, again and again -- a vicious circle." Yeskov seems unable to push the moral absolutism of Tolkien so far as to say there is not Good and Evil, but he does get it to saying that Good is often not any better than Evil. There's a recurrent saying about the ends justifying the means: "Stated generally, the problem lacks a solution." I take this to mean that whether the ends justify the means depends on what ends and what means. The rhetoric of espionage fiction is that often Good's ends do not seem to justify Good's means... but you gotta do it anyway if you want to live.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this interesting review!

    Recently I saw this article in the online news magazine Salon about another Tolkien-based satirical piece that's also been posted online and is getting attention. Which to my surprise is rather good (the piece itself I mean, not so much the article). I thought it might be of interest to you. Made me laugh, anyway!

    http://www.salon.com/2014/11/28/gandalfs_room_was_a_mess_the_lord_of_the_rings_retold_from_the_perspective_of_rivendells_housekeeper/

    Here's the website where the Tolkien piece is actually posted:

    http://www.thelasthomelyhousekeeper.com/text.html

    Fred White

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