“The Last Ringbearer” is a book now making the rounds in English as a free PDF (to avoid litigious hobbits) after being in print in Russian and other languages since 1999.
The quick gloss that it’s “Lord of the Rings from Mordor’s perspective” is stupid and fortunately untrue. No rehash, the “Ringbearer” story begins where “LOTR” ends. And, although the author claims inspiration in the old saw that “history is written by the victors,” what’s he really working at here is the question of disparate legends – not historiography – propagated and passed down by two cultures. The conceit is that “LOTR” is Gondor’s legend, tweaked and embellished over generations to tell a heroic tale a la Beowulf. In answer, “Ringbearer” claims to be nothing more than a story based on the oral account of a soldier from the other side, liberally embellished by the author.
So, there are complications. Aragorn is no selfless hero, but a cold-blooded, paranoid schemer driven to power by his unrequited obsession with Liv Tyler. Theirs is a dynastic marriage and their court is at war with itself. Her haughty elves see humans as “worms” fit only for enslavement. The “orocuen” are fully human, “orc” being in fact a dehumanizing term fit for combat as in “kraut” “gook” and “hajji”. There is magic in this world, but also human reason, and they are at odds. Mordor’s burgeoning technology threatens the old magic of Gandalf and the elves, who draw Mordor into a war it would otherwise never wage. Some characters from the Gondorian side, such as Faramir and that horse-riding chick from the Led Zeppelin movie, find themselves distrustful of the elves despite their alliance, and the latter are portrayed as a malign force that has none of humanity’s best interests at heart. The ring of power? Best to let you find out about that one.
If one of Tolkien’s main preoccupations was human destruction of the environment, “Ringbearer” starts from the other side, looking at how geography and the environment dictate human development and competition among nations. So Mordor is a landlocked, desert country that benefits from its location along a transcontinental trade-route. Gondor goaded it into war by blocking the flow of goods –its lifeblood – at key mountain passes. The middle section of the book is set in a city at the terminus of the trade route. Umbar is renaissance Venice: a city of canals built in a sheltered lagoon, wealthy, globally cosmopolitan, charmingly corrupt, it buys its peace with protection money to whatever neighboring country is the most dangerous bidder. Its unique geography is essential to how the story plays out there, both on an immediate level and in how it has generated a cultural split between the urbane lagoon dwellers and the tribal denizens of the surrounding mountains. On a larger view, all of “Ringbearer” seems driven by the author’s inquisitiveness about what lies “beyond the map” Tolkien gave us. Ever wonder where all those swarthy folks with elephants came from in LOTR? This book gives a perspective in which there are places where no one cares what happened in LOTR.
The story itself broadly and comically mirrors Frodo’s quest: a small band of individuals must against all odds destroy a dangerous object in the fires of Mount Doom, to prevent humanity’s enslavement. But if Frodo’s journey is something of a desperation march up the field as time runs out, “Ringbearer” is a chess match. The protagonist is given a drop-dead date and told to puzzle out how he can do what must be done. Moves are made and traps are laid. The middle section, in Venetian Umbar, is by far the best: a competently choreographed cloak-and-dagger routine involving warring factions of bent cops, spies and assassins. Dames are bedded and bodies pile up, old school. It got so hard-boiled, I kept expecting the author to lose the plot and accidentally have a character pull out a Walther PPK. LOTR had plenty of allusions to espionage and skullduggery so it’s nice to read some. More fun than some elf and dwarf slapping cocks about their body counts, for my money.
If you’re sensing that this story has some reverberations from historical and contemporary events affecting Russia and Europe, you’ve been reading semi-closely. My main complaint is that too often the author comes right through the page and smacks you with them. That’s insulting. But this book is more about these reverberations than it is about LOTR, just as LOTR itself was more about our world than its own. Look, if you’re a slavering LOTR fan-boy who thinks its whole purpose is to give you a world of dreamy heroes and short people to get lost in, you’ll hate this book. But if you’re like me, if you had questions about the world of LOTR (such as where the swarthy guys with elephants came from) that the story itself did not deign to answer, you’ll find this a quick read and plenty thought-provoking. As any speculative fiction should be.
Two caveats: one, the translation is rocky. Verb tense shifts can get annoying. But clearly the author himself is no slouch, because it was still quite readable. Two, if you enjoy it at all, STOP BEFORE THE EPILOGUE, a sort of “Blues Brothers” ending credits number presented with all the cutting wit of an old Russian geologist. There is genuine humor within the story, but this man would bomb at the Improv.