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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.
That changed late last year when one Yisroel Markov posted his English translation of “The Last Ringbearer” as a free download. Less polished translations of brief passages from the book had been posted earlier on other sites, but Markov’s is the “official” version, produced with the cooperation and approval of Yeskov himself. Although the new translation’s status as a potential infringement of the Tolkien copyright remains ambiguous, it may be less vulnerable to legal action since no one is seeking to profit from it.
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.
The protagonist of “The Last Ringbearer” is a field medic from Umbar (a southern land), who is ably assisted by an Orocuen — that is, orc — scout, who is not a demonic creature like the orcs in “The Lord of the Rings,” but an ordinary man. They’re given the task of destroying a mirror in the elf stronghold of Lorien before the elves can further use it to infect Middle-earth with their alien magic. Meanwhile, the remnants of Mordor’s civilization fight a rear-guard guerrilla campaign to sustain the “green shoots of reason and progress,” in opposition to the “static” and “tidy” pseudo-paradise of Middle-earth under the elven regime.