Kirill Yeskov explains what led him to write "The Last Ringbearer," his parallel version of Tolkien's classic
First, a few words about myself. I’m not a writer either in form (no literary memberships; royalties are a negligible share of my income) or in substance (writing fiction is not my only or even main occupation). I’m a senior researcher at the Paleontological Institute of the Academy of Sciences – the very place where [Russian paleontologist and science fiction author] Yefremov used to work; professionally I’m known as the author of almost a hundred works on the classification of Chelicerata and historical biogeography. In the last few years I have found it more interesting to deal with living children than with extinct arthropods – I teach electives in high school, summer and winter supplemental courses, etc. I wrote a couple of textbooks, got involved in creating a new natural history school curriculum; if I had to state a preference, it is precisely those activities that I consider my most important. I graduated from the Biology College of the Moscow University (a well-known nest of Voltairians) and have gained most of my life experience in expeditions through Siberia and Middle Asia; I’m an epicurean hedonist in my aspirations and a skeptical rationalist by conviction. Do you get the picture?
I’m saying this to explain that I wrote “The Last Ring-bearer” (like my previous novel, “The Gospel According to Afranius”) strictly for my own enjoyment and that of my friends; I can be termed a graphomaniac in that sense. A graphomaniac can be a good or a bad writer (there were some geniuses among them, like Griboedov and Lewis Carroll), but he never writes competitively – that is, to fit the tastes of a publisher or some average book-buying audience; he only writes for his own niche (whether it’s some group or Alice Liddell is irrelevant).
“The Last Ring-bearer” was written for a very specific audience, too – it’s just another “fairy tale for junior scientists” of which I am one. It is meant for skeptics and agnostics brought up on Hemingway and brothers Strugatzky, for whom Tolkien is only a charming, albeit slightly tedious, writer of children’s books. Those were the people who got the biggest kick out of the novel; theirs were the reviews that used the expression “sleepless night,” dear to any writer’s heart, most often.
On the other hand, I can somewhat understand the feelings of “professional” Tolkien fans who foolishly parted with their money to buy this… this… whatever. This is not unlike some teenager, besotted with pirate fiction, tricked by the “Corsair” title into buying a book by a certain G. G. Byron, and then inveighing on the net: “Total baloney – loads of stupid love stories and not one decent boarding! The name must be there to trick the readers, otherwise who’d buy this crap!” Guys, please understand that this was not written for you! If you do grab something not meant for you – which ought to be obvious after reading about three paragraphs, n’est-ce pas? – then don’t whine like an Arkansas bumpkin who got taken by “The Royal Nonesuch.”
However, the reaction of the upset Tolkien fans leads us to a really interesting problem regarding the propriety of utilizing derivative worlds created by one’s demiurge predecessors. (Whether our own world is all that primary – whether Richard the IIIrd was an evil traitorous hunchback or Alexander of Neva a chevalier sans peur et sans reproche – is another question that is well beyond the scope of this essay.) The founder of this literary tradition of playing with others’ masks and backdrops is one Dio Chrysostomos, a Greek who lived during in the Roman Empire; dissecting Homer’s text with the scalpel of irony, while strictly abiding by his “facts,” he had rather convincingly proved that the Greek Achaeans had suffered a resounding defeat at the hands of the Greek Trojans and went home empty-handed, and that the rest was all pure PR, to use a modern term.
There are two ways of dealing with the foundation world. First, one can mechanically expand it in time or space, making a sequel. A sequel is by definition secondary and competitive, and I know of no sequels that are a more or less notable as literature (serial novels are another matter). Moreover, an author can’t even write a decent sequel to his own text: I think we can agree that “Twenty Years After” vs. “The Three Musketeers” is like a woodcutter vs. a carpenter.
An apocryphal work – a different take on well-known events (whether from the real or an imaginary world is irrelevant: who are we to judge which is derivative?) — is totally different. Naturally, the world of an apocryphal work turns out differently, bearing at best the same relation to the initial world as that of d’Artagnan and milady Winter does to real France under Louis the XIII… or is it vice-versa? Actually, upon contemplation, what difference does it make? What’s important is that while the world of a sequel is a reproduction that adds absolutely nothing to the original, the worlds of the canonical and the apocryphal works can ideally make a “stereoscopic pair” that adds “depth” to the former. That is the field where all self-respecting authors have been playing ever since the aforementioned Dio, sometimes with quite decent results. (Interestingly, one can’t write a sequel to one’s own work, but one definitely can write a worthy apocrypha – take Stanislaw Lem’s “Local Session.”)
This immediately creates a moral contradiction that’s difficult to resolve. A view of any interest is only possible when one looks at a given world from an unusual ethical or aesthetical viewpoint, one that’s most removed from that of its creator. Thus did Mark Twain, an orthodox adept of liberte, egalite, fraternite, plunge his Yankee into the idealistic knightly world, proving convincingly that all those Galahads and Merlins lied often and bathed seldom; thus did Sapkovsky gaily turn Wonderland into black horror, brewed, for good measure, from a clinical psychoanalysis of the relationship between Professor Dodgson and little Alice Liddell; thus did feminist Gloria Howard prove, from the viewpoint of Captain Ahab’s wife, that the entire stupid hunt for the White Whale was but a game of a bunch of developmentally arrested guys, an apotheosis of male infantilism and lack of responsibility … The literary worth of the aforementioned works is beyond doubt, but whether it’s ethical to so treat the source texts by Melville, Carroll, and the Arthurian legends is not obvious.
Nor is this an idle question. For example, I’ve read Yankee at King Arthur’s Court prior to the legends themselves, and Mark Twain had forever poisoned my perception of this part of the global cultural heritage for me with his vitriol: “Now Sir Kay arose, and began to fire up on his history-mill with me for fuel. It was time for me to feel serious, and I did.” (And brothers Strugatzky made it even worse with their “comrade Merlin” and “fair sir Melnichenko…”) Honestly – cross my heart and hope to die – the last thing I want is to poison some teenager’s future experience of Tolkien. Looking for a place for “The Last Ring-bearer” in the long row of literary apocrypha, I dare place it next to my personal favorite “Rozenkrantz and Gildenstern Are Dead” (the movie, not the play). An exquisitely paradoxical post-modern game Tom Stoppard played against the Shakespearean backdrop is precisely the relationship with the source Text that I sought to accomplish. Whether I have succeeded is for readers to judge.
Now for the biggest question which I get asked constantly: “What was it about the world of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ that had so attracted you, enough to make you want to write in it?” Briefly, I was attracted by a logical challenge to come up with a consistent explanation for several obvious contradictions in the image of Middle Earth that the Professor painted, demonstrating thereby that those contradictions are not real. Paradoxically, it was precisely the widely known “the Professor was wrong” thesis (which, thanks to the publisher’s whim, graces the cover of the first edition of “The Last Ring-bearer”) that I sought to disprove.
“It appears to us that the chief motive and the main impulse of Tolkien’s myth-making was the joy of creating a vast and consistent imaginary world, well developed in space and time. It is this joy of creation that undergirds Tolkien’s ethical-religious concept of ‘co-creation,’ which likens the true Artist creating his own world to the Creator Himself. […] Apparently, this writer has created the most complete ‘personal’ mythology in the history of literature: an imaginary world with its own Book of Genesis, history, chronicles, geography, languages, etc. This painstakingly detailed imaginary universe has no close literary equivalent (emphasis mine).” (R.I. Kabakov, “Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and the Problem of Contemporary Literary Myth-making.”) In other words, the world the Professor had created turned out to be “real”; moreover, it is the only real one in the entire fantasy genre. Well, noblesse oblige .
It’s unlikely that anyone will devote any serious effort to analyzing the ecosystem of a barren desert populated by train-sized predatory worms that eat excavators and sweat psychedelics: fantasy is fantasy. Not so the Middle Earth; the developed perfection of Tolkien’s world quite impels one to conduct natural history studies of it, sometimes provocatively so. This invites another comparison, however strange at first blush, between Tolkien and Yefremov.
Perhaps you remember “The Hour of the Bull” – a sociological dissection of totalitarianism plus intriguing (albeit sometimes drawn-out) philosophical digressions on various topics. Besides all that, the book featured a very curious planet – with its axis of rotation in the orbital plane (making for no seasons), eight continents grouped in four-link chains in the middle latitudes of either hemisphere (the combination of ocean currents that arises under such conditions makes for a very warm and even climate, like that of Earth’s Mezozoic). And if we observe the existence of ancient giant trees (much like mallorns), then you can be sure that the absence of strong winds that would endanger such structures is implicit in the properties of atmospheric circulation in the planet’s trade wind belts in this type of climate. It’s noteworthy that Yefremov introduced all of those peculiarities of Tormans’s physical geography only for that “real feel;” they are totally irrelevant to the literary goal of the book. It’s just that Yefremov (a professional geologist who was awarded the USSR State Prize for his scientific, rather than literary, work) couldn’t help but do a good job on these details.
Tolkien was a practicing scientist, too, but a linguist rather than a natural scientist like Yefremov, so the foundation of professional knowledge he had used to erect Middle Earth was different. It is fairly obvious to me that the game the Oxford professor decided to play with nature began, in essence, with the creation of imaginary languages, with their own alphabets and grammar. Then he created the epic tales to match those languages, then the peoples who wrote those tales, and only then the steppes, mountains, and forests for those people to pasture their herds, build citadels, and battle the “Dark from the East.” This, precisely, was the sequence: “In the beginning was the Word” – Ainur’s music, pure and simple. Truly an excellent model of the Act of Creation!
However, Tolkien the philologist had obviously had a very weak interest in this last, non-living component of Middle Earth – its physical geography – and created it only because he had to, with predictable results. It is a well-known fact that the Professor had painstakingly verified, to the day, the lunar phases during his heroes’ long quest. I believe that, but the problem is that he had overlooked some much more significant elements of the local natural history background.
The Middle Earth has several built-in physical defects, and there’s no getting away from that. In his well-known essay “Must Fantasy Be Stupid?” Pereslegin provides a detailed classification of errors commonly committed by fantasy authors. He uses Tolkien’s work as an example of one of them, an “irreversible professional error”: “It occurs in a geologically unstable world. Tolkien, being a professor of English Literature, knew nothing of plate tectonics, while the topography of Beleriand and Eriador are highly important to the story; therefore, it seems impossible to fix the author’s mistake.”
(To explain: If a planet has a single continent – Middle Earth – it means that the convection currents in the planet’s mantle form a single cell, meaning that the entire “light” part of the continental crust has gathered over the point where the mantle material sinks toward the core, like foam gathers over the bathtub drain. (This had happened on Earth at least twice, in mid-Proterozoic and late Paleozoic, which is when two super-continents of Megagea and Pangea formed.) When subcontinents collide, they bunch up into folds (e.g., the Himalayas that arose at the collision of the Indian subcontinent with the Eurasian plate). This means that there ought to be a huge mountain plateau like Tibet smack in the center of Middle Earth; where is it?
Pay attention, now – strictly speaking, such errors are trifles. In Pereslegin’s litany of sins an “irreversible professional error” is classified under tolerable errors, being one of the minor ones. It’s obvious that one person can’t be equally proficient in linguistics and geology (I suspect that Yefremov had committed no fewer errors creating Tormansian languages than Tolkien had in Middle Earth tectonics). So we can pardon the Professor – the infraction he had committed was not particularly dangerous to society; “The Lord of the Rings” can go free. This will acknowledge it to be a regular fantasy text – I mean, a real good one, easily in the top five…
Do you like this option? Me neither. Because “The Lord of the Rings” is not a good, or even the best, fantasy text. It is sui generis, the only one of its kind; therefore, we will not settle for anything less than a full exoneration.
We will assume that Middle Earth is as real as our world, so if some of the details do not fit our concepts, it’s our problem. On the other hand, we will adhere scrupulously to the laws of nature. As Tolkien himself wrote, it’s easy to imagine a green sun, but “To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft.” Well, the sun has its usual color in Middle Earth (and probably belongs to G-2 spectral class), its surface gravity and geochemistry do not seem different from ours, and even the lunar month is 28 days. Therefore we have to approach the task wielding Occam’s Razor (as is customary to the European intellectual tradition): we will appeal to magic and suchlike only when out of all other options.
It turns out that all the seeming contradictions of Middle Earth’s natural history can be resolved with a single assumption: that Tolkien is describing only the northwestern part of the local landmass, rather than the whole thing. Actually, it’s not even an assumption: Tolkien’s map is obviously intentionally cut off in the south and the east; why should we assume that his world ends there? There’s enough room there for the hypothetical central plateau or even other continents and archipelagos.
If Middle Earth is as real as our world, it must be as infinitely varied. It must have a myriad of aspects that Tolkien had not covered as not worthy of his attention. For example, any mention of economics is as missing from his romantic world as sex was supposedly missing in the USSR – but how likely is one to find any such mundane matters in the knightly romances of our world? It seems quite justified to me to assume that the Middle Earth population, aside from battling the Dark Lord and his minions, also plowed, reaped, traded, robbed, etc. The heroic hobbits on their quest did not subsist only on herbs, rabbits, and Elvish breads – they also drank beer in taverns, and one has to pay for beer. (I mean, one doesn’t have to, really, but that would make for a criminal rather than a knightly novel.) Trick question: what coin did they use? Right – the Professor made no mention of that.
This question regarding Middle Earth currency (which I often used to stump Tolkien experts) has served as the departure point for a whole series of conclusions. Take Rohan, for example: What was its population’s occupation? “The best horses in Middle Earth” are all nice and fine, but horse-breeding can in no way be the mainstay of an economy. Or take the Dark Lord’s countless hordes: What did they eat in the desert of Mordor – jackrabbits? We’ve all read Lev Gumilev and have some idea about the logistics of expansion. In general, how can there be a capital city smack in the middle of a desert? That just doesn’t happen… but actually, it does happen! Cities in the desert – that’s the perished city civilizations of Sahelian Africa. Once the “Atlantic optimum” was over, Sahara began encroaching on the savannah, and that was the end of them. Actually, sorry – this isn’t LOTR any more, but rather “The Last Ring-bearer”!
And if the world of Middle Earth is real, then so are its people. If all those Aragorns and Faramirs are not “dramatis personae” but real people who figure in the epochal tales of the North-western peoples (which tales Professor Tolkien had then collected and adapted), then there can be a variety of opinions concerning their deeds. This is something we’re quite familiar with in our own world: in alternative opinions Richard the III comes out a most noble man who had paid for his nobleness with both his crown, his head, and posthumous reputation to boot, whereas Joanne of Arc turns out to have been a sadistic psychopath who belonged on the auto-da-fe pyre like few others… Plus Middle Earth surely has PR and info wars (how else?); perhaps it even has its own Professor Fomenko to claim, in all seriousness, that there was no Second Age, Angbad is nothing but Mordor, and Fingon, Isildur and Aragorn were the same person…
However, a diversity of opinions doesn’t mean that those opinions lack clarity; quite the contrary. I see fantasy as a genre with very strict rules (only the classical “closed” detective story has stricter ones). Among those rules (such as medieval space-time structure of the world and medieval structure of the spiritual world, meaning a conflict of Absolute Good with Absolute Evil) Pereslegin lists this one: “A consistent romantic ethic – a romantic attitude of the author, the characters, and the readers toward war, love, heroism, and death.” It follows inexorably that the characters have to be classified as “good guys” and “bad guys” – it is precisely this “black-white” contrast that makes fantasy so appealing to teenagers. In other words, the very canon of fantasy forbids moral relativism – sort of like having a classical tragedy in more than one place or having the detective be the murderer in a classic detective story.
Tolkien adheres to this rule perfectly, which is why for many readers, especially older ones, LOTR has forever remained a kind of an American action movie – a bunch of good guys goes to wipe out a bunch of bad guys, who are bad if only because they are on the other side. In reality it’s not quite so, and possibly not so at all, but this view is very common. So when it was time to set up the pieces in LRB, I have decided that although I have to have “black” and “white” (as per the canon), at least I would draw the boundary between them in a line somewhat more meandering than the Anduin – more like it usually lies in real life.
And another thing. The romantic tradition does not presuppose that every bad guy be a priori treated as a fiend from Hell, which is what Tolkien consistently practiced. Even if we kill each other at the walls of Dechaud, does it follow that Comte de Rochefort is any less noble than Athos? Not to mention that the Sheriff of Nottingham counts Richard at the Lee among his men, while there are future risaldars among the Afghan bandits of Kamal. Recall Kipling’s famous:
Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet, Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat; But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth, When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth!
Tolkien clearly prefers the first two lines, while I go for the last two, even though both are unadulterated 24K romanticism…
In conclusion, a few words about my personal take on the Professor. It is of a dual nature: I bow before Demiurge Tolkien who had created an amazing Universe, but am rather cool toward Tolkien the Storyteller, author of the tale of four Hobbits and their quest. In other words, to me the theatrical backdrop is way more majestic and interesting than the play itself. Terry Pratchett said it well: “Tolkien’s mountains have more personality than characters.” So I’ll bet that mine is far from the last Game that will be played in the Professor’s world. Rozenkrantz and Gildenstern Are Dead – long live “Rozenkrantz and Gildenstern!”
Kirill Yeskov is a Russian biologist, paleontologist and writer.
Yisroel Markov emigrated from the USSR to the United States in 1987. He works as a financial reporting accountant in Boston. He is the first person to translate Yeskov’s “The Last Ring-bearer” and this essay into English.
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