(and Why I Love It)
Kirill Yeskov, The Last Ringbearer
A lot of people were aware of The Last Ringbearer over the last decade — without being able to read it. When my sister-in-law and her husband went to Russia a few years back, I asked them to get me a Russian copy — which I hoped to flog myself through with the assistance of a handy paperback lexicon, a reference grammar, and my half-remembered high-school Russian. I also asked for the even more mysterious Black Book of Arda.
My sister-in-law couldn’t find copies of either book, so I was spared linguistic failure on that intimidating front. And now The Last Ringbearer has been made available in English translation as a non-commercial digital download. I put it on my Kindle and read it right through.
By way of context, I should attest that I am both a Tolkien fan — the kind of person who learns at least a little Elvish — and an admirer of The Lord of the Rings and of the whole legendarium on literary grounds. I agree with Tom Shippey (and with hordes of actual readers) that Tolkien was the author of the last century, who somehow managed to infuse his great philological erudition into a work that actually commanded a wide audience. When I was in grad school, a popular image of James Joyce showed him in the act of composition, carefully weighing meanings, sounds, and words in a variety of impressive foreign languages. Wow!
But Joyce was a Berlitz instructor, not a philologist. Tolkien had more actual learning in his fingernail parings than Joyce ever had in his whole body. Tolkien was the real deal — and his vast knowledge had more to do with the success of The Lord of the Rings than most fans can begin to understand.
So it might be suspected that I would resent any attack on The Lord of the Rings. And The Last Ringbearer is indeed an attack on The Lord of the Rings. In its way, it’s a brutal attack, employing the simple and bone-crunching techniques of Mordorian hand-to-hand combat.
In truth, however, I expected to admire The Last Ringbearer and I admire it even more than I expected now that I’ve acquainted myself with its surprising contents.
Yeskov’s version of the era of the War of the Ring is remarkable first of all for its boldness. According to The Last Ringbearer, hobbits aren’t merely much different creatures than the ones portrayed in Tolkien: they don’t exist. They don’t even exist as a folkloric tradition. They’re something that Aragorn makes up on the battlefield at Pelennor, as a cruel joke on history. No hobbits, no Frodo, no Bilbo: the center of Tolkien’s fiction is a zero in Yeskov’s. This is re-imagination with a neutron bomb, not a word-processing program.
The Ring also is a joke — one played on the Lords of the West by the sophisticated Nazgul, and one that backfires badly. In Yeskov’s story, the One Ring is just a stage prop that gets out of hand.
Despite its boldness and lack of apparent respect for the Tolkienian canon, The Last Ringbearer is a lot less insulting to Tolkien than all the various imitators, from Terry Brooks to Christopher Paolini. Yeskov takes Tolkien seriously — and strikes where Tolkien is most vulnerable. Yeskov asks, first, whether there really could be rational creatures who were morally lost from the moment of birth — and, second, whether the machine really is as destructive as Tolkien thinks, or the tree as sacred.
Once, long ago, I gave an exam in which I asked students to name the fallacy in the following syllogism: “Orcs cannot be trusted. But Merry and Pippin trust Grishnakh to slit their throats. Therefore, Girshnakh is not an orc.” One clever student gave the correct answer — equivocation — but also added a paragraph objecting that orcs must trust one another, since they could not otherwise form armies and wage war.
And that’s the whole problem, isn’t it? Tolkien’s occasional glimpses of orc conversation and interaction are compelling representations of human nature at its worst. But orcs can’t really be like that all the time, can they? If they were, then orc society would collapse in one generation. Orkishness as Tolkien represents it is maladaptive to the point of being impossible.
Yeskov tries to see things from the orc’s point of view — and that has made all the difference. In fact, his most successful and engaging character is Sgt. Tzerlag of the Cirith Ungol Rangers. Tzerlag is an Orocuen — an orc — but he’s not the boundlessly corrupt and degraded monster of Tolkien’s imagination. Rather, he’s just a human being of peculiar ethnicity. The Orocuen are a desert race, short, strongly built, broad-faced and hook-nosed, given to the consumption of kumis rather than beer, and much inclined toward things mechanical. Sgt. Tzerlag reminds the reader of many a tough, true-hearted sergeant in fiction. But he reminds this reader in particular of Sam Gamgee. Tolkien once commented that Sam was the embodiment of English enlisted men he’d known when he served as an officer in World War I. Tzerlag embodies the same virtues — and it’s evident that Kirill Yeskov understands the correspondence.
So Yeskov humanizes the orcs and presents a more convincing picture of them and their motivations than Tolkien does. Of course, it’s possible to push this point too far. Tolkien’s masterwork, in a sense, is not intended to present a convincing image of the internal life of such creatures as orcs. Rather, the orcs — like the Elves — are there to illustrate one particular part of human nature. In The Lord of the Rings, the orcs are truncated humans, not actual fully-developed characters. Tolkien is working in an older literary tradition — not, as some have wrongly assumed, the Classical epic, but the medieval romance and specifically the interlace. Viewed in this context, the orcs succeed wonderfully: they do express something essential about human nature — and they markedly enhance the interest of the narrative.
The problem is that Tolkien presents his narrative in the form of a novel. It may ultimately be a mistake to interpret The Lord of the Rings in such a way — but the book itself does invite such an interpretation. And, by novelistic standards, Yeskov’s Orocuen is superior to Tolkien’s orc. Even a Tolkien fan has to give credit where credit is due: Yeskov’s scored a real triumph in Sgt. Tzerlag. The orc as humble hero is a success.
Related to this success is Yeskov’s attack on Tolkien’s exaltation of the agrarian over the industrial. Tolkien was, as many have noted, a tree-hugger — and one of the most memorable parts of the trilogy is his revision of Macbeth. In The Lord of the Rings, Shakespeare’s cheap stage trick becomes a riveting reality: the forest actually does go to war; the Ents march on Isengard. Before they do so, the leader of the Ents, Treebeard, describes his enemy Saruman as having a mind of wheels and gears — a machine mind. The line between living thing and machine could not be more clearly drawn — and Tolkien is without question siding with green and living things.
But Yeskov thinks that industrial society is, in the long run, better for most people — and the evidence tends to indicate that he’s right. In Yeskov’s version of the story, that’s exactly what the orcs and Mordor are: people who have taken the industrial road, people whom the Elves and the White Council, headed by Gandalf, are eager to stop because Mordor’s industrial civilization will ultimately overtake the older, agrarian civilization beloved of Elvendom. Unlike Tolkien, Yeskov is in love with progress. And, unlike a lot of people who love progress, Yeskov understands why progress, in human terms, is a beneficial thing. Only progress, in the material realm, allows for the construction of a city in the desert — an achievement like Barad-dur, “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.” The image of the tower, which even in Tolkien is reminiscent of Babel, is an encouraging image for Yeskov. He wants mankind to reach for the sky.
The Last Ringbearer is far from perfect. It’s not even as perfect as The Lord of the Rings — and Tolkien admitted many imperfections. Yeskov makes one error that seems truly blameworthy: he portrays Tolkien’s legendarium as the history of an alternate world, whereas in reality it is an alternate history of our own world. Hence, at the end of The Last Ringbearer, we find an historical epilogue set in an industrially-modern “Middle-Earth.” This is a real blunder and almost undermines the whole story. Moreover, it reveals that Yeskov doesn’t understand one whole facet of The Lord of the Rings — its etymological inspiration.
Another real fault is that, in the middle, the story bogs down in an almost unbearable episode of espionage. Voice of the Valar, Mordor and the Eye, was it hard to get through that! It wasn’t that Yeskov failed to capture Umbar as a significant locale for adventure in Middle-Earth — but that the involutions and convolutions of the spy story just couldn’t maintain interest, since the reader knew all along what the upshot would be.
Spy stories never work well in fantasy settings, anyhow. In a sense, it’s true, Yeskov is turning Tolkien’s fantasy setting into a science fiction setting. But spy motifs don’t work in science fiction, either. If one of the principal appeals of your story is the celebration of marvelous settings, if you are striving to appeal to the reader’s sense of wonder, then complex and dreary machinations on the part of cynical agents break the mood. It’s like trying to kiss the elf maiden while treating her cold sores.
Curiously, this unfortunate foray into the realm of otherworldly espionage is not peculiar to The Last Ringbearer. A similar excursion pops up in Gregory Maguire’s Wicked. I can’t explain this shared feature in any detail, but I don’t think it’s an accident. The Last Ringbearer and Wicked belong to the same genre — which I, perhaps a little too archly, like to call Satanic literature. It’s a genre that I truly love.
There actually is, of course, Satanic literature — literature centered around the worship of Satan. I may be interested in such stuff at times — as I am in abnormal psychology — but it’s not what I mean when I label The Last Ringbearer and Wicked “Satanic literature.” Rather, I mean that stories like Yeskov’s and Maguire’s reexamine the familiar from another point of view, so that the villains cursed and condemned out of hand — the orcs and the Wicked Witch of the West — are given their chance at justification, according to the lights of the authors. We learn that Elphaba (the Wicked Witch) and Tzerlag really do have something to say for themselves — as any sensible person would have expected. Yeskov’s and Maguire’s narratives are Satanic in the sense that the Fiend in Frankenstein perceives himself as Satanic: in reality, Victor is far more evil than the Fiend.
There is, naturally, a profound problem with such exercises in moral understanding: they may very well degenerate into moral indifference, or even moral negation. “A curse on those who call good evil and evil good!” Confusion on issues of right and wrong is not something that a society such as ours needs any more of.
However, the opposite temptation — the temptation to smugness — is usually more troubling. It’s just way too easy to imagine your enemies as utterly depraved and hopeless beings — like the orcs — and in the context of Tolkien’s world, at least, it seems unnecessary. A scene that didn’t make it to the theater version of the movie was the encounter with the Mouth of Sauron:
But it is told that he was a renegade, who came of the race of those that are named the Black Numenoreans; for they established their dwellings in Middle-Earth during the years of Sauron’s domination, and they worshipped him, being enamored of evil knowledge. And he entered the service of the Dark Tower when it first rose again, and because of his cunning he grew ever higher in the lord’s favour; and he learned great sorcery, and knew much of the mind of Sauron; and he was more cruel than any orc (LOTR, Kindle Edition, 19558-70).
The question is, if a living member of the human race can be “more cruel than any orc,” how can the orcs be seen as so utterly and irredeemably evil? The idea that there can be worse people than orcs arises elsewhere in Tolkien. But if there are worse people, then why are the orcs represented as beyond all hope of redemption? On this level, the existence of orcs doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and doesn’t fit in with what’s best in The Lord of the Rings. We are expected to pity Gollum — and indeed the pity shown to Gollum is what actually achieves the Quest. But the orcs too have been tortured by evil powers. Why shouldn’t we pity them?
It’s important to note here that, in earlier versions of the legendarium, the Dwarves were an evil race. The battle between Beren and the Dwarf Lord after the death of Thingol was as clearly a battle of good against evil as the battle of Gandalf against the Balrog. And this characterization of the Dwarves is firmly rooted in the folkloric and literary traditions from which Tolkien drew his concept of the Dwarves.
That’s why one of the most revelatory and uplifting moments in The Lord of the Rings is this one:
“Dark is the water of Kheled-Zaram, and cold are the springs of Kibil-Nala, and fair were the many-pillared halls of Khazad-dum in Elder Days before the fall of mighty kings beneath the stone.” She looked upon Gimli, who sat glowering and sad, and she smiled. And the Dwarf, hearing the names given in his own ancient tongue, looked up and met her eyes; and it seemed to him that he looked suddenly into the heart of an enemy and saw there love and understanding. Wonder came into his face, and then he smiled in answer (LOTR, Kindle Edition, 8203-9).
At some point in the lifelong development of the legendarium, Tolkien overcame the earlier, one-sided vision of the Dwarves — so that the noble-minded Elven Queen Galadriel could see and understand the depths of the Dwarf mind.
In bringing Sgt. Tzerlag to life, Yeskov has done the same for the orcs. It’s not really a contradiction of Tolkien’s legendarium — but a development and an enrichment.
That’s what Satanic literature can do — and that’s what I love about it.