Supplement to the series Myths and Dragons
J.R.R. Tolkien compared his Lord of the Rings to history, as in the retelling of events. He is also known to have had a “cordial dislike” of analogy, as in the comparing of two things because of similar features. For example, Tolkien wasn’t writing about World War II Europe. Tolkien may have drawn inspiration from his own world and experiences. He was, however, trying to give an account of events in the fantastic world of his imagination, Middle-Earth.
A friend told me this week about a free ebook. More than ten years ago, a Russian palentologist by the name of Kirill Yeskov wrote a follow-up story to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings called The Last Ringbearer. Yeskov has, in a sense, called Tolkien on the consequences of using a word like history. History, being a retelling of events, is not always about accuracy or truth. It is, after all, written by the victors.
In Yeskov’s version, Gandalf is a war-monger. The elves wish to rule Middle-Earth and make it a copy of their distant homeland. Sauron and his followers are champions of rational progress, fostering a new technological boom. The orcs are not mal-figured, goblin-like demons but ordinary men in the military service of a different culture. Hobbits don’t take part in the story at all.
I haven’t read Yeskov’s The Last Ringbearer but I hope to get to the English version over the winter.
I have been trading books back and forth with my friend for a while. He tore through the recent Malazan books from Steven Erikson. Erikson has a background in anthropology and archaeology. I still haven’t read the last book of Erikson’s ten-book series, and I receive a lot of flack from my friend about that.
Erikson is challenging most of the old stereotypes in fantasy literature, such as mediaeval chivalry, elite noble rulers and rosy happy endings. There are no blatantly clear lines between good and evil for Erikson. No didactic writing here, so he says. My favourite quote from Erikson is some advice to writers these days:
If your theme survives the telling of the tale, then you effed up bad.”
Erikson’s writing does have its fair share of present-day tropes. There is a lot of intriguing turns of plot, constant games of power between characters, and the reader is often left wondering who to root for. Magic in Erikson’s world is a complex study. It rewards only the most disciplined of students. And it is not immune to innovation and technology. His storylines focus on the regular foot soldier and the catastrophic futility at the heart of war and domination. But his soldiers are still bound in strange ways to their duty.
Erikson, like Yeskov, is quite critical when it comes to Tolkien. In an interview once, Erikson stated that Tolkien made a massive mistake at the end of Lord of the Rings. If his message was about self-sacrifice, according to Erikson, he should have had Frodo step into the fire, destroying himself and the ring of power, letting the little hero be the one to topple the dominant will of Mordor.
I believe Erikson has misunderstood Tolkien. Tolkien was trapped in his own worldview. He was a devout Catholic and believed there was only one person that could measure up to the task of true self-sacrifice. Frodo could take up the journey and the hardships. Frodo, and his friend Sam, were children that had a thorough understanding of the importance of duty. But as gifted a writer as he was, Tolkien simply couldn’t let Frodo step into the fire. I’d be surprised to hear if he even considered it a possibility. It would have clashed entirely with his worldview.
Yeskov and Erikson have every right to question the old stories, I think. Although Tolkien did consider his work to be like history, he did understand it to be the work of imagination.History isn’t always the story of what really happened. History often comes closer to what we should think about what happened. This doesn’t mean the historian is always an authority. The historian is giving an opinion. It’s up to the reader or the listener to make any source an authority. Or to challenge it.
Earlier in this series I talked about how story isn’t so much a map of what is, but rather a map of what should be – not an account of reality but the author’s attempt to express how we should act. Tolkien’s work isn’t so much an account of reality, obviously, but instead what he thinks should be. It sounds like that’s exactly what Yeskov and Erikson are doing too.
Strangely, there might be something all three writers could possibly agree on – the story of the soldier.
Tolkien has a reputation for his descriptive writing. You can count the trees, and the types of trees, and the different shades of the leaves when his characters walk through the woods. However, Tolkien’s description of what orcs look like is actually quite limited. Like many of the words Tolkien introduced to English, the word itself seems to have come from some wordplay. The word is not always used for things like ‘demon’ or ‘goblin’ but instead for ‘soldier’. When orcs do talk in Lord of the Rings, they seem to be rough characters trying to figure out what to do in unknown situations, keeping their heads down when they can, and doing the dirty work of their supposed superiors.
Tolkien was a soldier in World War I and suffered from shell-shock.
Maybe the story of the soldier – what sacrifices and duties they bear or we put on these scapegoats – should be what we are looking at now. Can a culture survive if it destroys its children and treats them like expendable sacrifices? Isn’t that a signal of a society more intent on domination than leaving behind something sustainable or noble?
Yeskov and Erikson may be worth listening to. There may be something wrong with accepting the old tropes without question. Maybe it’s worth challenging leaders and authorities in order to prove if they are worthy of following. It might give us a clearer picture of what they themselves are willing to sacrifice.
What do you think?