Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Last Ringbearer, by Kirill Yeskov

This week I'm reviewing a book which was originally published in Russian and has been translated (somewhat unofficially) into English. The Last Ringbearer is a re-telling of the fantasy classic The Lord of the Rings, operating off of the assumption that Tolkien's text is a white-washing, sanitized version of events told from a pro-West viewpoint. The Last Ringbearer seeks to tell the story from the point of view of Mordor and reveals that maybe Gandalf, Elrond, and Aragorn didn't have as pure intentions as we've been led to believe. For the fantasy reader who's grown tired of the monomyth format that so many fantasy stories have followed, as well as the unabashed Tolkien fan, this is definitely a worthwhile book to read, even if there are some struggles with it.

The general principle of The Last Ringbearer is that the War of the Ring was not an epic struggle between Good and Evil, but began as a normal series of diplomatic misunderstandings between countries, which is what more than a few wars have been fought over in the past. Mordor is depicted as going through the early stages of an Industrial Revolution, a pinnacle of scientific achievement and knowledge, while the lords of Rohan and Gondor sit in their little castles and listen to mythical tales of ages long past. However the elves and the wizards, led by Gandalf over the protests of Saruman, seek to strengthen magic's grip on the world, dooming it to medieval stasis, and launch a war of extermination against Mordor. As we know from the traditional narrative, Mordor loses, and a brutal occupation and extermination campaign begins to wipe out all the scientific knowledge and progress that Mordor has made.

Into this is thrust Haladdin, a brilliant physician who volunteered and became a Medic Second Class in Mordor's army during the war. More importantly Haladdin is a rare individual who is immune to magic which means one of the surviving nazgûl charges him with an all-important quest: to rid Middle Earth of magic forever. If Haladdin succeeds, then Mankind will rise with the aid of science and technology and become master of his own universe. But if he fails, then humanity will become the mere pets and playthings of the elves, who seek to make Middle Earth a perfect, immaculately maintained, and stagnant garden. So in some ways, The Last Ringbearer is a re-telling of The Lord of the Rings with an epic quest to save all of Middle Earth, but at the same time it brings something fresh and new to an existing universe and gives it depth as well.

As someone who's bothered to go through and read The Silmarillion, as well as some of Tolkien's appendices, I can tell that Yeskov is a dyed-in-the-wool Tolkien fan as well, which is necessary for a work that seeks to retell and expand upon the original source material. Yeskov makes use of locations and nations that are hardly mentioned in the main stories but Tolkien felt were necessary to "complete" his work. It definitely left me feeling that Yeskov could be trusted with this particular undertaking and he did not fail to disappoint. Granted, there were plenty of times where I felt like I was just reading someone's fan-fiction, but I feel like The Last Ringbearer is an example of how someone can put their own spin on an existing work, to the benefit of the fans.

I will admit that the writing kind of varies throughout the book. There are various awkwardly placed exposition-dumps which have little to no bearing on the story whatsoever. This includes an entire history of the slave trade in Harad and the eventual defeat of the slavers by the Harad emperor with a little help from Mordor advisors, while a Harad prisoner is being whipped in a Gondorian rock quarry. The prisoner soon dies afterwards and the entire expository tract doesn't move the story forwards at all so it probably could have been left out. (However, as one of those weird people that likes exposition I enjoyed reading that passage, but I can see how people wouldn't.) I also found myself wondering how much of it was the translation rather than the author's writing, but ultimately that's hard to tell.

There's even a spy thriller story set in the Middle Earth equivalent of medieval Venice which is related to the major plot, but almost could have been a story on its own. That was the part that dragged the most for me because it felt like the main plot had been put on hold. Although it seems almost fitting at the same time seeing as in The Two Towers and The Return of the King, Tolkien decided to divide the story into Aragorn, Gandalf, and company's plot arcs and Sam and Frodo's plot arcs, which only come back together at the very end of The Return of the King. And if we're being fair, Tolkien does go off on expository rants, page-long songs, and various other things that derail the plot. *cough Tom Bombadil cough* So if The Last Ringbearer isn't perfect, well I'm willing to say neither is The Lord of the Rings.

Overall it's a pretty good story and I enjoyed reading it. I especially liked getting to see a couple of my favorite characters, Faramir and Éowyn again. It was sort of like getting to see some old friends after a long time apart. And I think any Tolkien fan who's managed to trudge their way through the novels will greatly enjoy this work as well. In a way, it almost feels appropriate that The Lord of the Rings is the sanitized and white-washed version. Even the most ardent Tolkien fan will probably admit that Tolkien's take on Easterlings and Southrons contains more than just a smack of racism. And Tolkien is a product of his time, after all, when the British Empire encompassed a quarter of the globe and the superiority of the Nordic races was considered a matter of course. The Last Ringbearer serves as a slightly more politically correct and revisionist take on the same story, which I overall rather liked.

The real shame is that the book isn't available commercially in English. You can download it for free,  but the Tolkien estate has blocked any commercial publication of the book in English, and considering how long copyright lasts anymore there's a very good chance that The Last Ringbearer will never get an "official" English release. Because taking other people's ideas (or, okay, okay, downright stealing them) and putting your own twist on them is a fine and noble tradition going back hundreds of years. Heck, Tolkien himself stole elements from Norse mythology and Wagner's Ring cycle to create his own magnum opus. If you're looking for an Exhibit A on why we need to reform copyright law, The Last Ringbearer is it.

If you're a Tolkien fan, especially one who's read the books, and have found that they haven't aged as well since you've gotten older, then I'd definitely recommend The Last Ringbearer.

- Kalpar

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