Terence's Reviews > The Last Ringbearer

The Last Ringbearer by Kirill Yeskov
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Feb 22, 2011

did not like it
bookshelves: sf-fantasy, tolkieniana
Recommended to Terence by: Referred by Doug
Read from February 22 to March 03, 2011 , read count: 1

Saying that The Last Ringbearer is The Lord of the Rings told from Mordor’s point of view is not entirely accurate. True, the principal characters are an army medic and scout of Mordor and an erstwhile Ranger of Ithilien but all the action takes place after the War of the Ring. Middle Earth is recast as Europe during the Cold War, with Gondor and Mordor assuming the roles of the superpowers. The “magic” of Tolkien’s vision becomes window dressing, and the novel reads more like John Le Carré fanfic than Tolkien.

Essential plot: The War of the Ring erupts between Mordor (ruled by Sauron VIII) and Gondor (ruled by Denethor of the Anarion Dynasty*) primarily because Gondor wants to choke off Mordor’s trade routes and reduce it to vassalage. More fundamentally, the Elves and the Wizards are using Gondor to destroy the growing power of technology, which threatens to destroy the traditional balance of Nature and power in the world.** Eskov’s background as a scientist and enthusiasm for technology comes through clearly in his description of Barad-Dur:

“…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.” (Chapter 2)


The last survivor of the Order of the Nazgul tasks Haladdin and Tzerlag with destroying the Mirror of Galadriel and the palantiri, which will close off the world of the Elves (the Far West) and prevent them from enslaving Man and condemning the world to an eternal Dark Age. In order to destroy the Mirror, Haladdin and Tzerlag must acquire two palantiri, bring one into the presence of the Mirror, simultaneously throwing the other into the fires of Orodruin (Mt. Doom). The remainder of the novel is a confusing account of their efforts to fulfill the mission divided into four parts that focus on various aspects of the quest. Part I sets up the quest. Part II recounts Haladdin’s and Tzerlag’s efforts to acquire some Seeing Stones and introduces us to the Machiavellian politics of Gondor: Aragorn has spared Faramir’s life but he and Eowyn live under house arrest in Ithilien; Aragorn is trying to get out from under the Elves’ thumb (represented by Arwen, who is his nominal “wife” but whose presence in Minas Tirith is to ensure that Men don’t get out of control). Part III is – as far as I can tell – a largely pointless diversion to Umbar, where Tangorn (the Ithilien Ranger mentioned above) has to do something to advance the cause. I’m not sure why Tangorn has to be in Umbar or what the consequences of his actions are but this is the most Le Carresque section of the novel and the hardest to get through. Part IV moves to Dol Guldur and Lothlorien, and Haladdin’s ultimate success in destroying the Mirror.

There’s an Epilogue written in light of the utterly mundane world that results and has some amusing asides, e.g., Eomer becomes a religious fanatic of a heretical Harad sect and dies fighting in the South.

As a piece of literature, The Last Ringbearer fails at nearly every level. Stylistically, it’s all over the map. In some places, Eskov attempts to write in a lyrical style – emulating Tolkien? – but the results are not good. I reproduce my favorite of the many overwrought and unintentionally comic stabs at description:

“The shrimp were excellent. They sat on the tin plate like battle-ready triremes on the dim morning surface of the Barangar Bay: spiky rostrums in the tangle of rigging (feelers) threatening the enemy, oars (feet) hugging the body, just like they should in preparation for boarding.” (Chapter 36)


Even worse than having the author point out what concrete objects the metaphor is referring to is that this aside serves no point in the narrative.

Other times, Eskov writes in a colloquial, 21st-century idiom that jarringly plops this reader back into his easy chair before jerking him once again into Middle Earth. I can open the book at random and find numerous examples:

As when Aragorn kills the Commander-South (aka the Witch King of Angmar):

“‘Of course they won’t,’ laughed the Dunadan, ‘since they will be kneeling before the new King of Gondor! I beat you in an honest fight, one on one – so it shall be written in all the history books. As for you, they won’t even remember your name. I’ll make sure of that. Actually,’ he stopped in midstride, hunting for the stirrup, ‘we can make it even more interesting: let you be killed by a midget, some tiny little dwarf with hairy paws. Or by a broad… yes, that’s how we’ll do it.’” (Chapter 7)


Or in Umbar:

“The fat man shook and sweated, but remained silent. Having no time to spare – at any moment someone might start breaking down the door – Jacuzzi (sic) made his proposition short and to the point: ‘Ten seconds to think about it. Then I’ll start counting to five, breaking a finger at each count. On the count of six I’ll cut your throat with this razor. Look in my eyes – do I look like I’m joking?’

‘You’re from the Secret Service, right?’ the Senior Inspector mumbled mournfully, gray with terror. It was clear as day that he had not earned his stripes capturing criminals in the Kharmian Village slums.”
(Chapter 51)


Or this conversation between two Elves:

“‘Clofoel of the World! You’re under arrest for treason. Stand against the wall!’

They stood facing each other, the Mirror between them; the clofoel of Tranquility had his sword out – he was not about to give that snake any chances, she was mortally dangerous as it was.

‘Unclip the dagger from your belt…now the stiletto in your left sleeve…. Kick them away with your foot! Now, we’ll talk. The magic object that Star fool’s dancers can’t find is attached to the bottom of the “table,” right? One has to drop on all fours before the Mirror to see it – surely no one will think of that. It’s impossible to find it magically – the dancers are like a dog that has to find a perfumed handkerchief hidden in a sack of crushed pepper. An excellent idea, my compliments! By the way, what is it?’

‘A
palantir.

‘Whoa!’ He apparently never expected that. ‘Whose gift is it – the Enemy’s?’

‘No, Aragorn’s.’

‘What the hell are you talking about?’
(Chapter 66)


The attempt to create distinct and memorable characters also falls flat. The most successful effort (relatively) in that direction is Tangorn, who’s given some background and a love interest (a high-priced hetaira in Umbar). Haladdin, who you would expect to be the central character, practically disappears from the narrative after Part I, and only takes center stage again in Part IV when he orders a poor Troll off on a suicide mission and throws the palantir into Mt. Doom.

Eskov is equally ham handed at creating a sense of menace or moral evil in his bad guys. Case in point is an utterly gratuitous gang-rape and murder that establishes the villainous bona fides of Marandil, Gondor’s “chief of station” in Umbar. To Eskov’s credit, the whole vile episode happens off stage but it still reads … wrong!***

The biggest “sin” committed by Eskov, however, is that he misses the point of The Lord of the Rings and myth in general. I have read the translation of his blog post, where he laments at the “unreality” of Middle Earth’s geography and wanted to make it something that could have actually existed but that’s beside the point – and, in this case, reduces it to a novel of the Cold War. But that a limited view of what’s “real.” Myths don’t have to conform to the latest meteorological theories – if our Hero has to cross a blazing desert to find his Princess, then he rides from the Forest of Broceliande to the Sands of Araby in a couple of days. And myths aren’t meant to reflect the “real” world. As Ursula Le Guin writes in “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie”: “A fantasy is a journey. It is a journey into the subconscious mind, just as psychoanalysis is. Like psychoanalysis, it can be dangerous; and it will change you" (emphasis in the original). The Lord of the Rings addresses so many issues – the struggle between doing what’s right and resisting what’s wrong when you don’t know the correct path, the responsibilities of friendship, the promise of redemption, etc. – that when it is reduced to a spy thriller, it leaves a sour taste in your mouth.

I have no problem with de-mythologizing LotR (though I’m not sure what the point would be****) but if you’re going to reject the fantasy you have to reject all the fantasy, which Eskov does not do. He removes the magic he doesn’t need and keeps only what’s necessary to justify his storyline.

A retelling of the War of the Ring retains the mythic/fantastic elements of Middle Earth but would look at it from another’s POV or recast the myth into a different tradition. For example, an author could keep the essentially Christian Good/Evil ethic but tell it from an Orc’s point of view, or Gollum’s, or a Haradrim’s (as Sam himself asks in The Two Towers on seeing a dead Haradrim, “He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace...” (“Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit”). Tolkien toys with this in “Aldarion and Erendis” and in the fragment “Tal-Elmar.”

Another option would be to recast Middle Earth in terms of another tradition, e.g., Ancient Greece. The Greeks (pre-Socratic certainly) were largely uninterested in our conceptions of Good and Evil, theirs was a mythology of Heroes. The analogy can only be pushed so far but in this vision, Boromir would be an Achilles figure; Gandalf would be Odysseus, the trickster; and the Witch King would be Hector (?). Or, as in Antigone, we could represent the War as a conflict between two admirable but incompatible visions of the good life. Eskov fumbles with this in the theme of preserving a more natural, spiritual way of life vs. the science/modernism and rationalism of Mordor but his clear preference for the latter makes the former a caricature.

In the end, I can’t recommend The Last Ringbearer to anyone. It’s a failed experiment that misses Tolkien’s purpose in writing The Lord of the Rings, offering no deeper understanding of that purpose nor anything to replace it.

* This brings up a pedantic point but there are curious lapses in Eskov’s understanding of the original story. Anarion was the younger son of Elendil and his son was the first king of Gondor. The Stewards were descended from Húrin, the steward of Minardil, and thus of the House of Húrin.

Eskov also seems to believe that Middle Earth is an alternate Earth when it is, of course, our Earth. If our myths of Atlantis are a much distorted understanding of the Drowning of Numenor, then the First Age ended around 13,000 BC, Numenor fell around 10,000 BC and the War of the Ring was fought around 6,000 BC. And talk about realism – The drowning of Beleriand was obviously caused by rising sea levels when the last Ice Age ended.

** Cf., Ralph Bakshi’s “Wizards.”

*** Also to Eskov’s credit is that he does not make the mistake of writing sex scenes.

**** I’m reminded of a creative-writing class I took as an undergraduate. I wrote a couple of short stories as SF or Fantasy and the teacher (a grad student) asked the very appropriate question – Why? What is it about your story that requires a nonrealistic setting? (This was before I had done much reading in mythic/fantastic criticism, including Le Guin’s essay, so I didn’t have a good answer but I think now I would say that I wrote in a fantastic style because I liked the genre.) Le Guin makes a distinction in the “Elfland” essay between “daydreaming” (TLR) and “dreaming” (LotR); I was daydreaming not mythologizing.

This brings up yet another reason why I’m not taken with Joe Abercrombie’s work. There’re daydreams with mythical trappings that could just as easily take place in Renaissance Italy or a thoroughly modern 21st Century. In Steven Erikson’s work, by contrast (and to bring in an author whose style is very far from Tolkien’s), the myth is integral to the story. Many scenes in the Malazan Book of the Fallen could be characterized as “daydream” but he also steps between Mundania and Faerie when he passes from the gritty realism of assassins stalking the night or the comic banter of Tehol and Bugg to the Warrens or Kruppe’s dreams, where every word carries portentous weight. And if the journey of Tavore and the Bonehunters isn’t primal myth then I don’t know what is.

FINAL NOTE: I couldn’t figure out where to put this thought above but my GR Friend Tatiana in the comments below mentions that “Orc” is not so much a biological category as a category of behavior, which reminded me of one of the many scenes in Jackson’s film version that really bothered me: The scene where Aragorn cuts off the head of the Mouth of Sauron. My first reaction was exactly that – This is how an Orc would react, not a Man of the West, and certainly not the Heir of Isildur. In the book this scene is so much more subtle and brilliant and the Mouth is cowed without a single violent gesture.
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Reading Progress

03/01/2011 ""The shrimp were excellent. They sat on the tin plate like battle-ready triremes on the dim morning surface of the Barangar Bay." WTF!" 3 comments
05/27/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-26 of 26) (26 new)

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Terence A friend forwarded the link to the English translation.

Man, I love the internets...


Terence There must be something in the Russian vodka because I also came across this page on Wikipedia - The Silmarillion written from Morgoth's POV. Unfortunately, this one apparently remains untranslated.


message 3: by John (new)

John Sounds interesting, though it will have to queue up--when I finish the book I'm reading now, I'll head back to Erikson and THEN I can consider this. I too have been a fan of retellings. Sherri, I had the good fortune to teach Grendel for a number of years to high school juniors.


Terence I'm up to chapter 14. Most of the story apparently will be post War. I like the different perspective that Eskov gives us for Aragorn, Gandalf, et al., but I can't say I'm terribly impressed by the writing ability (though that may be the translator's fault).


Terence Elizabeth wrote: "So, not so good then?"

The books opens with, "Is there a sight more beautiful than a desert sunset, when the sun, as if ashamed of its whitish daytime fierceness, lavishes a bounty of unimaginably tender and pure colors on its guests?"

You be the judge.

But you'll have to wait for the full review like all the rest of them! ;-)


message 6: by [deleted user] (new)

Oh Russians! You cannot understand the glory of their metaphors!

I'm eagerly waiting for the review.


Terence In the normal course of events I would, indeed, have given up quite early but this is Tolkien-related so I was compelled.

There were some interesting ideas in here, and it gives me the opportunity to explore the purpose of "myth" and its relationship to "truth" so it wasn't a complete waste of my time.


message 8: by John (new)

John So while it's unfortunate that the retelling of the Silmarillion hasn't been translated from the Russian, it is unfortunate that this one was. Gotcha.

I look forward to a good savaging, though. It's bloodsport for the literary.


Terence John wrote: "So while it's unfortunate that the retelling of the Silmarillion hasn't been translated from the Russian, it is unfortunate that this one was. Gotcha.

I look forward to a good savaging, though. It..."


"Unfortunate" in the sense that (not knowing Russian) I can't read it and judge :-)

Though reading its synopsis on Wiki makes me think it'd be worse than TLR so maybe it's not so bad a thing afterall :-)


message 10: by John (new)

John I've thought before that I would like to teach an English elective called "Retellings," where we have a story we know told from different angles. I was teaching Grendel when I had this idea, and to it I quickly added Steven Brust's To Reign in Hell, paired with Paradise Lost. Of course, the syllabus quickly falters because, while there may be hundreds of re-tellings out there, most of them probably stink.

The idea to re-tell a story is easy to come up with--the execution, though, takes real talent.


Tatiana I read an article the author wrote (translated to English) in which he describes his reasons for writing the thing. It made me really like him and look forward to reading this. He said in essence that most fantasy is just fantasy, but Tolkien's universe is actually real so it deserves to be treated as such, or something like that. He's a geologist so he mentions the geology of Middle Earth and how for geological reasons it must be merely the northwestern portion of a larger continent, which I concur with totally. It's meant to be prehistorical Europe, I think, with Hobbiton and the Shire being located about where later day England stands.

Anyway, I completely agree that Middle Earth is a real place, and that their heroic tales must be somewhat idealized. That Gandalf or Aragorn were self-serving or traitorous, however, is certainly a viewpoint I don't hold. I think some people, notably Orocuins, tend to look at the world with a very cynical eye, and the idea that some people could simply be good people is not one they find realistic.

I understand that point of view but I don't agree with it. I think there are many, many levels of people who are various mixtures of good and not-so-good, but the ones who are not-so-good do believe that everyone is like themselves. If they believed in goodness, you see, they'd have to change themselves, and that's difficult and bothersome.

Tolkien in a letter to his son Christopher during WW2 when the latter was stationed at an RAF base in South Africa said "of course we all know in real wars there are Orcs fighting on both sides". I loved that. I think Orcs are a way of being, rather than a race. In fact, in the original, they're elves who've been twisted and harmed, and had their free agency dampened. So to me it seems very true to realize there are orcs in every society, including ours. But also, there are elves and wizards and hobbits and all the rest as well, when seen as metaphors for ways of being.


Terence Sherri wrote: "Terence, thank you so much for drinking the poison for me :) You're a brave, brave man :) I can now remove this from my shelf without a twinge."

That's me - always willing to give it my all for King and Country :-)


message 13: by [deleted user] (new)

Wow, incredibly well written and thoughtful review!


Terence Ceridwen wrote: "Wow, incredibly well written and thoughtful review!"

Tolkien and Star Trek - They're symbolic about a lot of what I think is important about books and culture so they'll always get a rise out of me.

Actually, there is a Star Trek reference that I wanted to use but couldn't fit it in: The scene in "Wrath of Khan" where Joachim is suggesting to Khan that as they have a starship and have escaped Ceti Alpha V, perhaps they really don't need to go after Kirk as well and Ricardo Montalban with the perfect intonation says, "He tasks me! And I shall have him!"

That's what I was feeling.

Ooooh, and there's the scene when Joachim is killed and Khan says, "I shall avenge you!" (again with the perfect delivery)


message 15: by Manny (last edited Mar 06, 2011 02:35PM) (new)

Manny Thank you so much. There is an parallel reality where I read this book, but now I don't need to enter it.

Some parts of your review reminded me painfully of Bored of the Rings. "Hairy toes!" she moaned. "I love hairy toes!"


Tatiana I want to give my thanks to Terence, as well, for putting his soul in my soul's stead, so to speak, and reading this book for me. Your analysis is so accurate and detailed (I bit the bullet and read it myself last night) that I won't even try to go into any depth about it, other than to say I completely agree that this isn't worth reading, and that the story isn't really worthy of the grandeur of the setting, and could easily have been set in any other fictional world like Dumas' France or indeed Le Carre's England.

But, for me there is a but, because I read the guy's article about why he wrote it first, and came to like him from that, I read it not as I read a book by a new author but something like the way I'd read fanfic written by a friend, with much, much lower expectations, in other words, and on that level I found it clever and funny. I interpreted the over-the-top metaphors as deliberate parodies of pot-boiler writing style, and cracked up about them. The juxtaposition of spy thriller style with Tolkien characters I found fairly entertaining for most of the book.

I did have a hard time keeping the characters straight mostly because their internal voices seemed identical to each other. The creepy attitude toward women is what I'm guessing bad potboilers display, since the main love interest is very clever and powerful, and not a dumb blonde type.

There was one theme with which I did resonate, and which made me feel some book like this wasn't out of place: namely Tolkien didn't like technology, or rather, he liked technology right up to what existed (I'm guessing) in rural England in the time of his youth: waterwheels, wheelbarrows, hand tools, umbrellas, and not at all anything that came later such as the internal combustion engine (for those of us without handy water-drops). He was quite against, say, the use of bombers in WW2, and thought the very idea was horrific, like the winged mounts of the Nazgul or something.

And that needs an answer, I think. All the baddies in Tolkien's books use engines, steam, higher technology, and the goodguys have magic, sweetly babbling brooks, and such for their weapons of defense. Our world here has definitely plumped for the higher tech vision, and I wouldn't have it any other way. So I liked that science, which is such a glorious pursuit, so much higher than magic which was its predecessor in power in our human minds, perhaps, I liked that it was cast as the good-guy.

As for the rest, well I spent one night at it and didn't count it wasted. I think this one was way better than, say, David Brin whose dreck I tried to wade through a while back; a terrible writer! But I can't actually recommend it to anyone else. As an amusement between friends I thought it was funny and clever. I did want to know what happened. But compared with real books by real writers, not so much. And now that's my review as well, so I'll copy this comment and put it there.


Terence Tatiana wrote: "I want to give my thanks to Terence, as well, for putting his soul in my soul's stead, so to speak, and reading this book for me. Your analysis is so accurate and detailed (I bit the bullet and re..."

I did spend some time agonizing over whether or not I was being fair in reviewing this novel with the same rigor as one might bring to a David Brin novel since Eskov is a happily employed scientist and teacher and not a professional writer (of fiction at least - though he has written other subversions of accepted tales). And I, too, have read his translated blog excerpts and would probably like him as a person. And I like Tatiana's point about the (possibly) parodic nature of the book - he is, after all, Russian and they like their subtle (and not so subtle) pokes at the system. In that light, I could appreciate the novel more (though it's still badly written) but then it wouldn't really be a retelling of LotR.

In the end, of course, Eskov chose to offer it to a wide readership (all praise to the Internet gods for the worldwide web :-) so I decided he was fair game; I'd certainly expect no less if I ever publish my "great American novel."

(Of course, this could be vindication that, despite protestations to the contrary, I'm an overly obsessive Tolkien-geek who should get out and see real people more often :-)


Tatiana Oh, I agree!


Terence What? That I'm an overly obsessive Tolkien-geek? :-)


Tatiana I agree that he's fair game. And that we're both overly obsessive Tolkien geeks. =)


message 21: by Anne Marie (new)

Anne Marie Gazzolo I lost interest in reading it when I heard there weren't going to be any hobbits. On a related note, I got Looking for the King as a birthday present and I am looking forward to reading that.

Happy St. Patrick's Day everyone!

Namarie, God bless, Anne Marie :)


message 22: by Aleksei (last edited Mar 21, 2011 10:11AM) (new)

Aleksei Kirillov That was amazing reading... and Eskov is really good Russian writer (but don't miss it - he is _Russian_ writer).
I read it in original - wonderful language. Your comment should be mostly about translation, not the book.


Tatiana Aleksei, you should translate it!

I wish I could read Russian novelists in the original Russian. Learning little by little from my son but he mostly teaches me words then says "No, don't repeat that!" Oh well, at least I'll understand if someone Russian ever curses me out. =)


message 24: by Aleksei (new)

Aleksei Kirillov Tatiana wrote: "Aleksei, you should translate it!

Sorry, but English isn't my native and for sure i will not do it better than Markov did.
That was a problem for this book: to get a good translation, you need a native speaker, who will re-write book on his language. But if book is unknown in English-speaking world, you have low chance that guy with native English one day will read it.
Bad loop, indeed. :)


Terence Aleksei wrote: "That was amazing reading... and Eskov is really good Russian writer (but don't miss it - he is _Russian_ writer).
I read it in original - wonderful language. Your comment should be mostly about tr..."


I agree that for a non-Russian-speaking reader the translation is going to make or break the experience, and a bad one can totally subvert what the author intended. If that's the case with Markov's translation then I suppose we can only hope a professional will tackle the subject soon.

But Eskov (as I understand it) approved this English version, which means that my points in the review are justified - bad translation or no.


message 26: by Andronikos (new)

Andronikos Komnenos I know I'm a tad late-coming to the party but...

I've always wanted to see what LOTR would look like from the supposed "bad guy's" perspective. What I don't understand is why Eskov had to completely flip the spectrum and make the Bad Guy's the Good Guys, rather than just write from the point of view of evil, so the reader UNDERSTANDS the evil rather than trying to ignore it. As for the Orcs fighting on both sides, Tolkien already portrays this, and though I find his reliance on characters that are so obviously evil or so obviously good (one can indeed be good for the sake of good and bad for the sake of bad but it doesn't normally stand out like, say, Wormtongue), rather nauseating. I've always been slightly partial to the idea of writing a "realistic" version of Tolkien, but I have to ask: why do it in his world? Tolkien imagined Middle Earth, so it should be his to write: if you want to write fan-fiction, go right ahead, but if you're truly looking to write "realistic" fantasy, where people act like human beings and not legendary figures, make up your own world, don't steal someone else's.

Anyway, that's my rant. Just had to get it out of the way or it would distract me all day. And yes, the books are better than the movie but still somewhat guilty of the exaggeration (that is part of their charm after all- they're a different kind of fantasy from the type people like today. I tend to prefer grittier, Martin-esque stuff but sometimes its nice to return to the traditional... unless it's the Wheel of Time, because in THAT case my suspension of disbelief starts to resemble a very large rock).


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