The War of the Ring is over. The West — men, elves, hobbits, all of the noble races — has won. Sauron is gone, and the might of Mordor has been destroyed. The good and rightful king has been enthroned, and Middle Earth will have peace and joy forever.
That’s what we’re supposed to believe, but what if it’s all a lie, or at least, not all there is to tell? The notion that “history is written by the victors” lies at the heart of the latest internet publishing sensation, K. J. Yeskov’s The Last Ringbearer.
Yeskov’s novel has recently become available in English in a free, online edition. The ploy of giving the novel away is intended to work around the Tolkien estate’s rabid protection of all things Hobbit. It seems to be working.
The Last Ringbearer is a curious piece of work. At least in this translation, it’s an often prosaic adventure story, reminiscent of the most ordinary work of Isaac Asimov, who was capable of rendering interesting ideas in pedestrian ways. As a re-envisioning of one of the persistent motifs of Tolkien’s trilogy, the clash between spirit and flesh, between the soul and the brain, Yeskov’s novel is rather one-dimensional.
Part of this is surely a difference of length, but that doesn’t account for everything. Yes, Tolkien laments the passing of the “Age of Heroes,” and he’s quite negative about the industrial age of his own time. Still, in his books the wizards and elves recognize that their time is passing. They save Middle Earth not for themselves, but for Men, who will go into the future alone. Yeskov’s vision is less complicated, less ambiguous. There are the good guys, and there are the bad guys. The bad guys win, but then they don’t. Yea for the good guys! It’s not really that simple, but it’s not that far from it.
Still, The Last Ringbearer has its own kind of appeal. I found that the more I approached it on its own terms, rather than constantly comparing it to Tolkien’s infinitely richer and more complex vision, there was enough there to justify the time and effort. Minor, yes, but not entirely uninteresting.
The Last Ringbearer starts at the end of the Ring trilogy. The survivors of Mordor, orcs — nothing like the drooling monsters of Tolkien — pirates, and wild men, are scattered throughout the former border lands of Rohan and Gondor. This is their story, their struggle to survive, and in particular the struggle, despite all that’s gone before, to save men from their victory.
Save them from their victory, because that victory is not theirs. The wizards of the White Council have conspired to deliver men to the elves, who seek the means to meld their magical realm permanently with the material world. Only one thing can stop them, and an unlikely coalition of orc, man, and troll act for the mathematician, Haladdin, in the same way that the Fellowship of the Ring acted for Frodo. In a nice touch, but one that’s sadly underdeveloped, the leader of the Nazgul, who are in Yeskov’s manifestation Mordor’s noble counterpoint to the white wizards, acts as Haladdin’s Gandalf. If Haladdin succeeds, despite Mordor’s destruction, the men of Middle Earth will be freed, unknowing and unwilling, from the tyranny of elvish magic.
In this version of the story, the men of the West are simple primitives, superstitious and easily controlled, while Mordor is a land of grace and learning. The parallels to medieval history are many and obvious. On one level, the West is Christian Europe; Mordor is the Islamic Middle East. (The equivalent to the Mongol threat is alluded to, but it’s always in the background.) The conquest of Mordor marks the end of a cultural and scientific golden age. With the destruction of the advanced civilization of Mordor, the West is left to wallow in its backward triumph for centuries to come, as a pale reflection of the world of the now departed elf lords.
The reconfiguring of our view of the antagonists in the Ring War begins early in the novel. Consider the book’s best chunk of writing, this description of Mordor from Chapter 2:
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 shining tower of the Barad-Dur citadel rose over the plains of Mordor almost as high as Orodruin like a monument to Man – free Man who had politely but firmly declined the guardianship of the Dwellers on High and started living by his own reason. It was a challenge to the bone-headed aggressive West, which was still picking lice in its log ‘castles’ to the monotonous chanting of scalds extolling the wonders of never-existing Númenor.
We learn that the Ring War has been an excuse, a pretext for the destruction of Mordor, whose continuing scientific and technological growth has made it an unacceptable threat to the elves’ power. In another generation or two, we learn, Mordor would have been too strong to control. Mordor must be made into the enemy, and the kingdoms of the West must be motivated to join the attack. Exaggerating the threat of the One Ring provides the needed impetus, and the West, led by the puppet Aragorn, who is the helpless love-slave of his icy elvish queen, triumphs.
But the elves, in their moment of glory, suddenly abandon the field of victory and sail off forever. In The Lord of the Rings, the noble elves, having accomplished their mission of aiding the West to defeat Mordor, graciously depart, knowing that the future belongs to men.
In The Last Ringbearer, the victorious elves still leave, but for quite a different reason. Their victory contains their defeat, and it is the achievement of snatching ultimate victory from the jaws of apparent destruction that occupies us during The Last Ringbearer. I won’t give away how this works out — “spoilers” are called that for good reason.
But it is worthwhile to mention here that the limited vision of Yeskov’s novel is quite sufficient to carry this story to the end. There was enough adventure and humour, and even some passable social satire, to keep me reading.
If you’re expecting great literature, you’ll be disappointed. If you want a readable tale with an interesting twist on a familiar story, you certainly could do worse than The Last Ringbearer.