Rohan and Realpolitik

Many children are known to create imaginary friends. My likings ran more to less intimate, more grandiose flights of imagination: I made up imaginary worlds.

When I first started, in third and fourth grade, the creations were simple, bold and often borrowed. It was a world of good countries and bad countries (often with stupid names) in a fantasy-medieval setting; the good countries inevitably conquered the bad countries and grew, forcing me to expand the world to bring them new enemies to fight.

But as a solitary child, I didn’t discard my world after a year or two. I kept on retreating to it, drawing maps and inventing stories, for years and years – years in which my understanding of how the world worked grew immensely. At a certain point, instead of expanding the world ever onward into space and time, I went back and did a retcon.

Retreating to my earliest creations, I rewrote them in a more sophisticated manner. No longer had the good kingdom of Crac’an fight the evil Federation just because the Federation was evil; now the conflict was caused by territorial expansion of the Federation after bad harvests threatened famine unless it could occupy the fertile Crac’anian fields. Good countries fought wars against each other over trade disputes, and civil wars due to political disputes. I allowed the fantastic cities and castles I had built to fall into ruin or be destroyed. Good kingdoms got bad kings and did bad things.

I wouldn’t stand by any of that today, as someone who’s studied history, political science and economics for years. But it wasn’t horrid. I had turned a simple creation into something more realistic and complex.

That process is what sprang to mind yesterday when I read “The Last Ring-Bearer,” a highly unauthorized novel by the Russian scientist and author Kirill Eskov set in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth.

“The Lord of the Rings” was one of the staples of my childhood reading. I memorized the poem of the ring, and even created a new continent on my world, home to the countries of “Gondor,” “Rohan” and “Mordor.” (In my retcon, I gracefully refilled that space on the map with more original kingdoms.) The “Lord of the Rings” movies obsessed me in high school, and I still enjoy Tolkien’s stories and universe (and am eagerly awaiting the two-part film adaptation of “The Hobbit”).

But Middle Earth is a land of pure good and pure evil, of high heroics, debatable racism and nostalgic idealism. Which leaves it ripe ground for Eskov’s “Ring-Bearer”: a look at the War of the Ring from the perspective of Mordor.

As prose, the 270-page book leaves plenty to be desired. Whether it’s the amateur author or the amateur translation into English, some of the language is clunky, the transitions abrupt, the plot at times hard to follow. But as a fan of the Lord of the Rings (and I wouldn’t recommend the book to anyone who isn’t), it’s gleeful to watch Eskov turn Tolkien’s mythology on its head.

Rather than being bloodthirsty conquering brutes, the “orcs” in “Ring-Bearer” aren’t beasts at all but the short, desert-dwelling humans called “Orocuen.” Mordor isn’t an evil empire, it’s a sophisticated, technologically advanced nation with its share of faults but generally harmless. The elves aren’t the peaceful, goodly demigods of Tolkien’s mythos, but ruthless and eerily inhuman, bent on eradicating human civilization and returning the world to its natural state.

In many ways, the first sections of the book – which are more fictional history than story – are the most interesting. We get the “true story” of the War of the Ring, in which Aragorn being crowned king of Gondor is a ruthless coup rather than a joyous restoration, where the Rohirrim aren’t trying to save themselves from evil but are simply out for plunder, and where Aragorn kills the Mordorian commander outside Minas Tirith and gloats that history will report him killed by a woman and “some tiny little dwarf with hairy paws.”

Once that ends, the story turns rather curiously away from epic fantasy into a spy novel. Trying to find a way to destroy elven power, the heroes turn to cloak-and-dagger work, disguises, treachery and secret codes as they go up against multiple feuding spy agencies. It’s all in Middle Earth, but it’s sure not “The Lord of the Rings.”

Still, the plot is enjoyable enough. And Eskov rises above the temptation to simply flip the good guys and bad guys. Aragorn is a treacherous, manipulating tyrant who killed and exiled everyone standing between him and a throne – but he’s not a true villain, and in an epilogue a fictional modern-age Middle Earth historian notes that King Aragorn I’s rule was “one of the most magnificent in Middle Earth history.”

It’s at this point that I should poke holes in the metaphor I sketched earlier. While my revised world was superior in almost every way to the childish one it replaced, Tolkien’s world stands tall even in the face of Eskov’s dark parody. After all, while some aspects of “The Lord of the Rings” were simplistic or idealized, others most certainly were not. Tolkien’s areas of expertise were language and mythology, not economics and political science, and it’s in the mythic and literary elements that Middle Earth stands a giant. After all, there’s nothing wrong with a tale of good versus evil, even if it’s also fun to imagine things to be more complicated.

EDIT: I’ve had several people miss the download link buried about and ask me how to access “The Last Ring-Bearer.” It’s unfortunately not available in print, due to the fact that it’s an infringing work under western copyright law, but you can download it in PDF form here.