If there is one story, ever (aside from maybe the Bible), that is morally unequivocal to the extreme, it is J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Not a tiny shade of doubt about who the bad and the good guys are in that narrative. No uncertainty, conflicting interpretations or complicated morals possible here. The elves and the hobbits are as upright and angelic as they get, while Sauron, the Lord of the evil hordes of the black land of Mordor, is a bad guy if there ever was one.
Salon has an interesting piece, though, on a recent Russian novel that turns this narrative around, and imagines the story from the point of view of Mordor. Entitled The Last Ringbearer, it depicts Mordor as a land of scientific rationality, technology and progress, and the peoples of the West as backwards, feudal and hostile. The illiterate hordes from the woods and plains with their ancient magic attack Barad-dur as the only civilization that wants to employ philosophy and science for the benefit of mankind. Pretty brilliant, if you ask me.
While the novel, written by paleontologist Kirill Yeskov, was published to acclaim in Russia in 1999, an English translation hasn’t come out until recently, out of fear of the Tolkien heirs, who are quick to go to court over copyrights. Now, however, a translation by one Yisroel Markov, in cooperation with the original author, is available as a free download. It actually seems to have been written very well, and at least morally a lot more interesting and less straightforward than the original Lord of the Rings.
As bad lots go, you can’t get much worse than the hordes of Mordor from J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings.” Led by an utterly evil disembodied entity who manifests himself as a gigantic, flaming, pitiless eye, and composed of loathsome orcs (or goblins), trolls and foreigners, Mordor’s armies are ultimately defeated and wiped out by the virtuous and noble elves, dwarfs, ents and human beings — aka the “free peoples” — of Middle-earth. No one sheds a tear over Mordor’s downfall, although the hobbit Sam Gamgee does spare a moment to wonder if a dead enemy soldier is truly evil or has simply been misguided or coerced into serving the dark lord Sauron.
Well, there’s two sides to every story, or to quote a less banal maxim, history is written by the winners. That’s the philosophy behind “The Last Ringbearer,” a novel set during and after the end of the War of the Ring (the climactic battle at the end of “The Lord of the Rings”) and told from the point of view of the losers. The novel was written by Kirill Yeskov, a Russian paleontologist, and published to acclaim in his homeland in 1999. Translations of the book have also appeared in other European nations, but fear of the vigilant and litigious Tolkien estate has heretofore prevented its publication in English.
The novel still has some rough edges — most notably, a confused switching back and forth between past and present tense in the early chapters — and some readers may be put off by Yeskov’s (classically Russian) habit of dropping info-dumps of military and political history into the narrative here and there. 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.
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.”
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, he obviously serves as an avatar for Russia’s 20th-century foes. 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. 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.