Free Kirill Yeskov! LOTR fans deserve to see ‘The Last Ring-Bearer’ in English.
A retelling of The Lord of the Rings from the Mordor point of view is finally available in English, thanks to a translator who has posted a free version online “as a labor of love.” If you love LOTR –and even more if you don’t — you’ll want to take a look. But be quick.
Written by a Russian scientist and author named Kirill Yeskov, The Last Ring-Bearer was first published in 1999. Information about the book’s history is scarce on the Internet, and the story in the Guardian, where I learned of the affair, is uncharacteristically skimpy with details.
But apparently the novel is a huge success in Russia and has done well everywhere it has appeared. But no English-language publishing company has been willing to consider The Last Ring-Bearer, wary of the J.R.R. Tolkien estate and HarperCollins, Tolkien’s exclusive publisher.
David Brawn, “estates publisher” at HarperCollins, accuses Russia of operating outside international copyright, and implies Yeskov’s novel is nothing more than fan fiction:
“When you get something as popular as Tolkien, fans want to create new stories,” Brawn says. “Most are pretty amateurish. Tolkien himself isn’t around so it’s the estate’s view that it’s best to say no to everything. If you let one in, you’d open the floodgates.”
I’m all in favor of strict enforcement of copyright, but that’s simply not what’s happening with Yeskov’s book, as anyone reading even a few pages of Yisroel Markov’s very good English translation can see.
Based on the premise that history is written by the victors, The Last Ring-Bearer views The Lord of the Rings as heroic propaganda and seeks to re-imagine what really happened. Making no attempt to match Tolkein’s linguistic genius or epic storytelling, Yeskov presents a realistic narrative of politics, economics and personal maneuvering.
Mordor is a pluralistic society where men, orcs and trolls live in harmony. Gandalf, Aragorn and the elves, seeking to preserve feudal power against the promise of an emerging industrial society in Mordor, are the principle villains. Orcs and trolls are not inherently evil, but merely creatures like men, Hobbits or elves.
I read the first nine chapters, which quickly takes the story through the battle of Minas Tirith and the fall of Sauron, setting up the remainder of the novel to explore the Orcan resistance. Or at least that seems to be where the narrative is leading. Based on these 30 pages, Yeskov’s pastiche is sophisticated, smart, very well put together — and compulsively readable.
In a few strokes Yeskov converts familiar characters into utterly credible alternate versions of themselves. Aragorn and Eomer, for example, are personally brave and resourceful but also ruthless in pursuit of self-interest. In other words, far closer to the warlords of medieval history than the virtuous paragons of Tolkien.
Anyone who was ever the least bit troubled by how convenient it is for the orcs and other denizens of Mordor to be depraved by nature will find The Last Ring-Bearer fascinating. After all, if orcs and trolls are all bad, then it’s okay to slaughter them without compunction, right?
You can find a direct download of the entire 140,000-word novel here, although a more handsome and readable pdf version is available here. I suggest acting fast. The Society of Authors warns that non-commercial fan fiction is not exempt from copyright. “If the book’s available in English without a licence from the copyright owner, that’s copyright infringement,” says Mark Le Fanu, general secretary.
I wish someone would challenge the Tolkein estate, the way Alice Randall and Houghton Mifflin challenged the Margaret Mitchell estate in 2001 over her revisionist Gone with the Wind pastiche, The Wind Done Gone. Like The Last Ring-Bearer, Randall’s novel is a retelling of a familiar story from an alternate point of view — in this case, Scarlett O’Hara’s half-sister, the slave Cynara.
Mitchell’s estate sued, but the parties came to a settlement that allowed The Wind Done Gone to remain in print under the label “parody,” even though the novel is not intended to be funny, as we normally think of parody.
Of course, pastiche has a venerable and often valuable history, though usually built on books in the public domain. Consider Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys, which tells the Jane Eyre story from the point of view of Rochester’s first wife, explaining how she came to be the madwoman in the attic (hint: Rochester was a colonial exploiter and general bastard).
Just as Rhys brings elements of race and colonialism only hinted at in Charlotte Bronte’s original, so Yeskov lifts matters of race, politics and economics to the forefront of the LOTR story.
And it’s not as if more direct precedents don’t already exist. A comic parody, Bored of the Rings, has been around for 40 years. And McSweeney, Dave Eggers’ Internet magazine, raises many of the same issues as Yeskov in an imagined DVD commentary by Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn for Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of LOTR.
So I say, let’s lobby HarperCollins to bring out a hardcover version of Yeskov’s novel. Far from damaging the Tolkein brand, a pastiche of this quality can only enhance it. After all, how many readers do you think went back to Jane Eyre after reading Wide Sargasso Sea?