Middle Earth in Eastern Europe
The Last Ringbearer…is meant for sceptics and agnostics brought up on Hemingway and brothers Strugatzky, for whom Tolkien is only a charming, albeit slightly tedious, writer of children’s books. (Kirill Yeskov, “The Backstory of The Last Ringbearer”)
I will freely admit that I initially resisted plunging into Kirill Yeskov’s The Last Ringbearer (first published in Russia in 1999). Yisroel Markov’s clumsy English translation is not an easy read; though I should say that translating Slavic languages into English is a hair-tearing task. However, the modest success of The Last Ringbearer in Russia and Poland, as well as the recent article “Middle Earth According to Mordor” by Laura Miller, raise some interesting issues around the development of fantasy in Eastern Europe post-Communism and post-Tolkien—an obsession with “realpolitik” in fantasy fiction that Yeskov’s work represents quite well.
Poland has a long tradition of fantasy literature, more so than Russia—yet Tolkien still acts as a springboard in more recent fantasy. I find Slavic appropriations of Tolkien-style fantasy more common than those building on previous Slavic works. The result of English cultural dominance in the fantasy field, I guess, or literature in general: on my last trip to a bookstore in Poland I struggled to find a book not translated from English.
As the top text of the cover (pictured above) tells us, The Last Ringbearer is “a tale of Middle Earth from the eyes of the enemy.” It is also, I think, the ultimate expression of “Tolkien revisionist” fantasy in Eastern Europe; to the point where many see Yeskov’s novel as a viable alternative to The Lord of the Rings.
…the very canon of fantasy forbids moral relativism. […] 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. (“The Backstory of The Last Ringbearer”)
That, essentially, is The Last Ringbearer—an attempt to inject some “real life” into the text, to disenchant Tolkien’s world if not to deconstruct it.
The background, I think, is more than that. To understand the success of The Last Ringbearer, you need to understand the context of post-communist Eastern Europe. One aspect is a fetishist approach to economics, left over from Marxist theory. Another: the misrepresentation of the Eastern Bloc in the west.
We see both viewpoints projected onto The Lord of the Rings in some early Polish reviews, circa 1970, that reduced the novel to questions of economics and class struggle. Clearly The Lord of the Rings condemns technology and industrialization, and therefore the natural progress inherent in historical dialectical materialism. Clearly Tolkien lauds the bourgeois hobbits and the old aristocracy over the worker. Clearly Orcs are representations of the hard-working proletariat, reduced to sharp-toothed bogey men. And, in one review, perhaps on of the strangest claims, clearly Saruman creates a socialist revolution during “The Scouring of the Shire”, collectivizing and nationalizing the Shire’s resources to pave the road towards communism in Hobbiton. What The Lord of the Rings boils down to in these reviews, though unsaid, is a giant allegory: The Soviet Block = Mordor, The “Free Peoples”= America and the capitalist west.
Of course, Tolkien often denied his work was an allegory. But where there was allegory, there was applicability; particularly towards totalitarian rule. And the redistribution campaign by the ruffians in The Scouring of the Shire does sound awfully familiar to me.
We are talking about a set of countries that haven’t transitioned easily from Soviet-style socialist dictatorship to democratic capitalism. Once, there was little to buy, but everyone could buy what there was. Now, one can buy anything, but few have the money to do so. A strong undercurrent of pro-socialist sentiment runs deep in these countries, especially in rural areas. Also tie in memories of former power, when the United States considered these countries as a serious threat, compared to relative ineffectiveness today, and it’s not much of a surprise that Stalin was voted third greatest man in Russia in 2009, with Alexander Nevsky taking first (Guy Gavriel Kay, “The Greatest Russians of all Time”). Nevsky’s place, I suspect, might owe something to Eisenstein’s propaganda film on the matter–yes, the one commissioned by Stalin.
Western media vilified Russians and Slavs in general—this, too, has led to a backlash. Considering that I’ve heard some arguments supporting the starvation of millions of Russians as necessary to stop the spread of communism, and continued talk of the “evil empire”, the backlash is not exactly unwarranted. It’s much easier to say such things when you dehumanize the enemy. However (as you’d expect), many nationalists swing to the other extreme, painting an evil west and a benevolent Soviet government. These are the people who lionize Stalin.
You might ask what this has to do with the fantasy in Eastern Europe today. Actually, a great deal.
I will use a passage from The Last Ringbearer to illustrate my point:
This, then, was the yeast on which Barad-Dur rose six centuries ago, 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. It was a challenge to the East, buckling under the load of its own wisdom, where Ying and Yang have long ago consumed each other, producing only the refined static beauty of the Thirteen Stones Garden. And it was a
challenge to a certain someone else, for the ironic intellectuals of the Mordor Academy, unbeknownst to them, have come right up to the line beyond which the growth of their power promised to become both irreversible and uncontrollable. (7)
Now, replace “Barad-dur” with “Moscow” and “Mordor” with “the U.S.S.R.” and think carefully on the above passage, because Yeskov plays into a common discourse in Eastern Europe that many people in the west seem content to ignore. The Last Ringbearer shows a Marxist obsession with economics at every turn of the page, and the language used hearkens to Europe after the Second World War rather than a premodern setting. Soldiers consult field manuals and are organized in battalions, men talk of anti-Mordor coalitions, there are sanctions, naphta bombs, blitzkriegs—there’s even a stock market. Much of it is played for humour—I chuckled at Radagast’s completely time-inappropriate hippy ramblings, for instance—but the technical language jars so heavily with the supposed context that it is at times impossible to immerse yourself in the story. Satire delivered with a sledgehammer, as it were.
Language and Morality
I’ve seen Yeskov compared to Andrzej Sapkowski, but beyond similar forays into realpolitik, Sapkwoski’s style never reaches such confusing levels of modernity; the language, in the world of the Witcher, sounds right, and abandons modern idiom when weightier matters are at hand. Laura Miller claims “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”, but the “well-written” prose feels like a technical manual. The Polish translation renders Yeskov’s text in a flat socialist realist style that I find unappealing, and some cringe-worthy passages in the English translation are not entirely Markov’s fault. “Darling, you know I’ll do anything for you – even make love in the missionary position!” (147) says one character as if, well, that was an entirely normal thing to say.
This is heavy-handed farce, not much like the brothers Strugatsky or Hemmingway. I can only, really, call it a Marxist translation of The Lord of the Rings that denies the mythic dimension entirely and stirs in a great deal of jokes. But such is a function of satire, I suppose.
Yeskov’s claim of moral nuance is very hard to swallow, and I’m surprised Laura Miller was so easily roped in by it. The lines in The Last Ringbearer are clearly drawn. The heroes of Tolkien’s work, except Faramir and Eowyn, become almost cartoonish villains; the peoples of Mordor, while not perfect, represent a shining beacon of technology, rationalism and progress. When Saruman accuses Gandalf of crafting “the Final Solution to the Mordorian problem” (12)—and that phrase appears constantly afterwards–or Aragorn asks the ghoulish leader of his undead soldiers if it would kill a child for him (27) after ignominiously cheating his way through a duel with the Witch-King, or the convenient “accidents” happening to those resisting Aragorn and Gandalf’s agendas, there’s not much doubt in the readers mind who’s evil here. Particularly sinister are the elves, called forth by Gandalf, who essentially carry out a genocide in Mordor (the final solution rears its head again) and attempt to make Middle Earth a mirror of Valinor. The defeat of Mordor means “the green
shoots of reason and progress…will be weeded out throughout Middle Earth” (52). Alas the day.
I have to sonorously remind those critics that The Lord of the Rings is the historiography of the victors, who have a clear interest in presenting the vanquished in a certain way. Had genocide taken place back then (where did those peoples vanish if it hadn’t?), then it’s doubly important to convince everybody, including oneself, that those had been orcs and trolls rather than people. (269)
Weighty words indeed. This is not moral nuance. Without characters such as Gollum, or events such as the temptation of Galadriel and Frodo’s utter failure at Mount Doom, the morality of The Last Ringbearer is actually far more simplistic than the morality of its source material.
Why Middle Earth?
Fortunately, the narrative doesn’t completely focus on such role-swaps. The actual plot, which only kicks in after nearly thirty pages, involves Haladdin (Sal-Adin?), a field doctor, and a fellowship of sorts, on a quest to destroy the Mirror of Galadriel before the Elves come to control causality itself. If you can stand the rampant anachronism, this narrative thread is actually quite interesting. It also acts as yet another Russian-reversal: it mirrors, in intent, the hobbits’ quest in The Lord of the Rings. In fact, there are no hobbits in Yeskov’s Middle Earth. Neither are there orcs or trolls, in the beastly sense, only men (and the hints that elves are, all in all, only men).
Which leads to the question: Why Middle Earth?
As one Polish review states (my translation), “…it’s a decent espionage adventure, however, it might as well have taken place in any other world, for Middle Earth appears merely as window-dressing, a gimmick used to sell books” (Konrad Hilderbrant, Review). It would be easy enough to dismiss the Middle Earth elements of The Last Ringbearer. The characters are so vastly different to their counterparts that, if Yeskov had but changed the names, we would scarcely recognize them or the world in which The Last Ringbearer takes place.
Yet, do that, and what would we have left? A fairly standard spy thriller. It is in comparison to The Lord of the Rings and its relation to western media that The Last Ringbearer gains any meaning. Otherwise, Haladdin’s band would appear no different from Tolkien’s heroes really, the villains just as villainous as Sauron. Nothing would speak much to the current situation in Eastern Europe. The book would, in fact, appear pointless: yet another Tolkien clone dabbling in realpolitik, with the addition of anachronisms and jokes.
Yet this is what much fantasy in Eastern Europe has become in recent years: simple reactions to Tolkien or western fantasy that don’t stand on their own. Not to say that this is all Eastern European fantasy has to offer, I’ve mentioned Sapkowski and point to him again as a fine fantasist incorporating influences from both west and east, but the turn to realpolitik has become a detriment to fantasy in the region, for the most part. Where is this generation’s Stefan Grabinski, for instance? Or, in the realm of imaginative literature as a whole, someone with the calibre of Stanislaw Lem or the brothers Strugatsky?
Only time will tell, I suppose.
Yeah, the World is Text, thought Haladdin. Wouldn’t it be nice to someday read the paragraph describing how one day I will join two likeable professional killers – what else are they? – to hunt nine subhumans – why, how are those different from all the others? – and will conduct a profound discussion of poetry right before the battle, to control the taste of copper in my mouth and the disgusting feeling of cold fear at the pit of my stomach? Truly, the author of such a text has a great imagination and a great future. (33)