Who Hijacked My Fantasy Genre?

Who Hijacked My Fantasy Genre?

Note: As I wrote this, I realized that there were some common threads between it and my post from some months ago, Who Hijacked My Sci-Fi? Feel free to check it out.

Little known fact from the intriguing folks at MentalFloss:

J.R.R. Tolkien’s sprawling Middle Earth series covers more than a dozen books, several of which were published after his death. Of all of his extant materials, however, one culture’s history is mostly ignored–that of the people of Mordor. True, they’re the bad guys, but shouldn’t they get a say?

That’s the premise behind Russian author Kirill Yeskov’s unauthorized sequel, The Last Ringbearer. While it’s not an official sequel, the book is actually fairly popular on its own merits. Yeskov presents Mordor as a highly advanced society based around science and technology. Not unlike Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, The Last Ringbearer argues that “history is written by the winners” and that Mordor was actually a victim of the primitive cultures of men who blindly followed the Luddite-esque Gandalf.

I can sum up my response in 3 words: no surprise here.

[Based on the summary provided by Mental Floss,] there are so many things wrong with the assumptions the author is making, but I want to focus on only one.

“Concealed within his fortress, the lord of Mordor sees all. His gaze pierces cloud, shadow, earth, and flesh … and illogical arguments.”

Leave it to a guy from the still largely secular former-USSR to write a novel reinterpreting Mordor as culturally and scientifically advanced. Why do I say that? Until Christianity came along, most world religions saw good and evil as a dualistic proposition, with either extreme an equal player in the world, each with its own existence and power. It was St. Augustine who did the most to counter this dangerous worldview after his own conversion from its most common form of his day, Manichaeanism. The Church’s view is that evil does not exist. Allow me to clarify: evil does not, in itself, exist. Sure, it exists as a perception, as a mental concept, and as an everyday observation in this vale of tears. Nevertheless, evil itself exists no more than cold does. Cold, as any scientist worth his salt will tell you, is a lack of heat. Evil is a lack of goodness. A lack of something is, by definition, not a something, and cannot exist.

It was that small tidbit of clarity that brought the world out of paganism. If good and evil are equals and opposites, there must be a principle behind each, and thus at least two gods, one good and one bad. If, however, only goodness really exists, then Christianity’s claim to the One, True God (and of human nature as fallen rather than as evil) makes a great deal of sense.

Paganism is on the rise in our times. The invention of pseudo-pagan religions, such as Wicca, and the devotion of an increasingly startling amount of Hollywood funding for movies about demons all go to show that. It’s no surprise, then, that people are missing the memo about the nature of evil. It’s no surprise when a guy from a very secular country wants to write about how Mordor had culture despite their lack of goodness. (It is, however, a surprise that our secular country didn’t think of it first.)

This is hardly the first offense coming from the world of literature and cinema. When I was young, I was a big fan of Superman, and after he died, I read the comics surrounding his possible new incarnations. Some of them were full of virtue. One was undeniably not. I remember the cover featuring the new, updated, “cool,” teenage superman, sporting an earring, a trendy haircut, and a gloved hand on the rear of a woman he’d just saved. Thinking back, though, that was to be expected. Superman’s strongly embedded sense of justice already took a dive in the movie Superman II, when he took Lois Lane to his bachelor pad, slept with her, and then erased her memory. More incidents include the troubling fact that he apparently sired a half-Kryptonian boy with Lois just before leaving earth in the precursor storyline to the most recent film. The Green Lantern movie, which I regret to admit I saw in theaters, featured an irresponsible test pilot, Hal Jordan, becoming an earth-saving hero. The recent Batman films, despite their many virtues, feature Bruce Wayne as a classic dualist: playboy by day, virtuous vigilante at night (if there can be such a thing as a virtuous vigilante). Are we as consumers of this dualistic culture really supposed to believe that the hero is full of virtue when he’s acting as a hero, but is actually, as an individual, a philandering, underachieving nincompoop?

(Interestingly, these are all based on the DC comic universe. At least Marvel’s morally flawed characters are honest, carrying those flaws over into their professional superhero lives.)

As for Mordor, are we supposed to believe they had a good culture because they were technologically advanced? No. Technology should build on nature, shouldn’t it? They replaced nature with machines (something Tolkien hated about the industrial age). In other words, they subtracted from the goodness of creation. Gandalf is called a Luddite for opposing them, when in reality, he’s a saint for wanting to restore the fullness of the good. We are, however, left with the impression by this author that the evil, nature-destroying culture of Mordor has a principle of its own.

It’s sort of ironic that, as western civilization comes to believe in dualism once more, the spiritual illness that results is not a dualistic evil in itself, but a lack of spiritual health and a lack of understanding about the nature of good and evil. The more the world tells, through Hollywood nonsense or unauthorized sequels spinning brilliant literary classics, that evil creates a culture of its own, the more dualistic it gets, the more I believe the opposite about evil. Evil is naught, and the only thing it does is bring the world – and the culture – to naught.


  1. Perhaps you can correct your reference to “this veil of tears”. It’s vale, as in valley. Otherwise, excellent job!.

  2. So … you’re reviewing a book based on a blurb written about it by someone else? Sorry, but you still need to read the book first before you can properly review it.

    Is it outrageous to think Mordor would have been a “highly advanced society”? Not at all; few things are more over-rated than “highly advanced” societies. Germany was certainly more “advanced” than Russia during World War II, as Chesterton pointed out before that war broke out. The Aztecs were unquestionably more “civilized” than the Cherokee; the latter never built stone pyramids or ritually sacrificed thousands at a time to demons.

    Then, of course, there is our own society, which has the technical know-how to clone humans but the “decency” to make sure any cloned humans are killed before they develop beyond a handful of cells….

    • Good point about Aztec/Cherokee contrast. It reminds me of a Girardian scholar who wrote that, unless healed by Christianity, culture serves to distract from the sacrificial/scapegoat mechanism.

      • That contrast was a paraphrase of The Everlasting Man by G.K. Chesterton.

        In any case it is clear enough that the painted and gilded civilization of tropical America systematically indulged in human sacrifice. It is by no means clear, so far as I know, that the Eskimos ever indulged in human sacrifice. They were not civilized enough. They were too closely imprisoned by the white winter and the endless dark. Chill penury repressed their noble rage and froze the genial current of the soul. It was in brighter days and broader daylight that the noble rage was found unmistakably raging. It was in richer and more instructed lands that the genial current flowed on the altars, to be drunk by great gods wearing goggling and grinning masks and called on in terror or torment by long cacophonous names that sound like laughter in hell.

        • Great! Thanks for pointing that out. Have a lot of GKC to brush up on… I wonder though if less civilization is always for want of opportunity or if it can correspond to lack of need for the aforementioned distraction… as in the case of the “little ones” perhaps? Anyway, the bottom line on the question of culture’s roots in violence is I guess felix culpa !

    • It wasn’t a review of the book. The book was merely a diving board for a broader issue in popular media.

      That said, I agree with your assessment. I read “advanced society” as a moral indicator, i.e., that the author argued Mordor was in the right. I didn’t mean to deconstruct their technological prowess, but the idea that technological advancement means moral advancement or that a morally bad group (the citizens of Mordor) could still somehow be the true heroes of the story.

      The discussion on Tolkien has been enlightening. :-) I’m no expert and don’t claim to be. I really just saw in the book’s description a common problem in many forms of literature and cinema today.

  3. I really enjoyed The Last Ringbearer and must disagree with your characterization of the story. If you wanted to criticize it for being deeply cynical, and a deeply cynical take on a lyrical and moving work that has inspired hopes and dreams in millions, that would be a fair criticism. If you wanted to criticize it for putting faith in man’s efforts rather than trusting to Providence and allowing God’s strength to be made full in our smallness and weakness, that would also be fair.

    Manichaean, however, it is not. If anything, the side of Gandalf, as portrayed in Last Ringbearer, are the Manichaeans. In the reselling, there aren’t any magical creatures other than the elves. The orcs and trolls are nothing other than human beings, made into monsters by the propaganda of the other side. Mordor managed to ruin its farmland through bad irrigation practices and so had to trade for food using the road through Ithilen. Gondor, at the instigation of the elves and Gandalf, cut that road, giving Mordor the choice of starving or going to war.

    At the risk of giving spoilers, Mordor does win, or maybe it would be better to say Gandalf and the Elves lose. In order to remove the Elven masters, magic must be destroyed. Magic is destroyed by magic and not by technology. So, your technology subtracts argument may be on to something but its complicated. Magic, which had many good properties (herbal remedies that could stop arterial bleeding, for example) was used to limit human progress in terms of science and technology. Magic was also used, and very cynically used, to limit human freedom by non-human actors, beings that are not God and do not appear to be acting for God, inasmuch as we can know them by their bad fruits. Technology, in this story, naturally evolved along with human society, was opposed by magic, and magic, with some small help, destroyed itself.

    And yet, much as I like both, I must side ultimately with Tolkien because there is spiritual uplift, because there is redemption. With the Last Ringbearer, there is only human progress and the opportunity for us as humans to cynically manipulate ourselves.

    • Naturally, as I was going off a description of the book, my reading is limited. Obviously, the article operates under the assumption that Mordor remains as depicted in the Lord of the Rings. To take those Sauron and his orcs and try to justify their evil actions as something with a positive principle would be misguided. To rewrite the story entirely, though, frankly makes it a different story entirely. That orcs are really humans, for instance, contradicts LOTR. So I suppose what I’m trying to say is: it’s not really so much of a sequel or even (to use comic book terms) in the same universe as LOTR. It just uses some of the same characters and plot details as LOTR. So yes, my assessment of the book is wrong, but not, in light of my assumption that it was a true sequel, my overall point.

      • Sounds like The Ringbearer author assumes that LOTR is a mythology that camouflages the innocence of the victim (inhabitants of Mordor) so that would-be pagan readers can feel good about their targetting. Such a conception would, however, overlook the fact that Tolkien tells of a metaphysical battle. LOTR could well be the tale of the battle within the soul of a single man. Hardly manichean.

    • What Tolkien understood – as did Lewis – about magic is that technology is a form of magic. Take a look at the inside of your computer sometime, or perhaps the next time you use a screen to summon sights and sounds from far away. It makes you wonder if all those esoteric lines and gibberish might have actually meant something (isn’t that how The Silver Chair started out?) when you consider what we can do today with a green board, etched in gold, with some silicon added in and an electrical current run across it.

      Technology builds on nature; so does magic. As one has sustainable technologies, one also has technology based on exploitation. One builds upon, nurtures, and perfects. The other leeches, corrupts, and discards.

      Similarly, one has grace from the sacraments (which is certainly supernatural in a sense, but also builds on the present nature – John Duns Scotus has interesting things to say about this), and the move of the will into itself for its own sake which grabs power through exploitation of others.

      Correspondingly, there are Christian spiritual exercises and devotions (like the recent Divine Mercy observance) and the opposed practices which elevate the I and encourage rebellion.

      The fact of the matter is that we live in a spiritually alive creation (I think this is what the blog post really gets at), and it really only comes alive if you can learn to adopt a Neo-Platonic ontology (which Tolkien and Lewis both had). Once one adopts a Neo-Platonic view of things, it becomes ludicrously easy to begin tying together different correspondences in the order of Being and act (well, with a little philosophy guided by revelation).

      Don’t believe for a minute that reality is what Pepsi is trying to sell you! ;)

  4. The devil exists. The devil is evil incarnate. Evil exists in the form of Satan and his minions.

    • Yes, the devil definitely exists. But the devil isn’t intrinsically evil. He is intrinsically good and has chosen evil instead. Evil doesn’t exist in itself. It is only a privation of existence.

      • I often describe evil as a sort of existential entropy, a loss of being. Where good is fruiful, evil is sterile and representws a lost potential, and tehrefore a dimunition of being in that person who embraces it.

      • Micah,

        I really hesitate calling evil nothing or even saying it does not exist.

        I think what you are trying to say, that others are missing, is that Evil does not and cannot exist apart from the Good. Evil, is parasitic. Like a parasite deprives its host of health, so it is with Evil as it deprives its host of Goodness.

        Tolkien was on to something about the nature of Evil when he created the Ring Wraiths. “Wraith” has similar etymology as “wreath”, for one example. To “wreath” something, or even to make a wreath, one has to twist. If you are making a wreath, eventually the branches turn back in over themselves and form a loop. Evil twisted and perverted the 9 good kings, and eventually they became wraiths. Evil is turned in upon itself.

        • As I made clear in the post, evil exists, but not in itself. It has no being. It is, instead, a lack or privation, specifically of goodness.

          I did say that evil does not exist, for rhetorical effect to make the point, and then immediately clarified that it does not exist in itself. Whatever existence a bad thing has is not its evil, but its good. Take, for instance, Protestantism. Protestantism is an evil. It is a lack of truth, a lack of Christianity. In contrast to the fullness of truth, it appears to be something, but in reality it is nothing, it is a privation. If a person asks me whether Protestantism has any goodness in it, I can rightly say, “none at all.” A Protestant might object, “but I believe in Christ, and that is true and good.” I would agree, then add, “but your belief in Christ is not a part of your Protestantism, it is a part of the remaining Christianity you have after Protestantism removes some of it.” Evil is a privation of good and a privation of being. In itself, it cannot exist. Yet it is true that there is a privation, and thus it is true that evil exists, though not in itself.

          I try to steer clear of using Wikipedia, but it’s late and I’m tired, so here.

          • The article is very heavily weighted on the “Evil does not exist” to the extent that the “in itself” is easily glossed over.

            Let me try to recap the section. First evil exists. Then it does exist but not in itself. Then evil is only a perception, an intellectual concept and observation (if this is all that evil is cant a person just get a new perception or make different observations or make a new concept?). Then again evil does not exist. I think you even say evil is nothing or not a something (I’m writing on my iPhone so I can’t see the original text.), which calling evil nothing could lead to all sorts of trouble.

      • Also, of course, the Devil is not incarnate.

  5. I know little of the films and less of the books but thank you for the idea that evil is non existant. I will ponder it and I like the ‘Truth and Charity’ theme. In two dimensions that can be perfectly balanced but in three it is only a theory.

  6. I like the analysis here. Now, can you write a third article entitled “Who Hijacked My Austen Novels?” :)

    • Rob, I’m afraid I stop at pretending not to be interested while my wife makes me watch BBC productions of Austen novels.

      • Micah, I can work on that one for you. :) Austen is all about virtue ethics…

  7. JRR Tolkien, like CS Lewis, was a believing Christian. Lewis was a firm Anglican, and Tolkien tried to pull him, unsuccessfully, into Conversion (crossing the Tiber) to the Catholic Church. In both cases, their novels reflect our theology. In the Narnia series, Aslan represents Jesus. In Tolkien’s work, Frodo is assigned the responsibility of destroying the One Ring, undergoes some suffering, and finishes his experience with something like a stigmata, and annual renewals of suffering.
    Granted in the initial book (Bilbo’s adventure), Tolkien borrows heavily from the Beowulf saga – a protagonist with 12 companions goes to fight a dragon! – but there are Christian allusions and thinking in the other books. Someone rewriting the Mordor portion should not change this.

  8. I have not (yet?) read The Last Ringbearer, so I may be quite ‘off target’, but when you note the MentalFloss folk say ‘The Last Ringbearer argues that “history is written by the winners”’ and Billy notes that in The Last Ringbearer Mordor wins, I wonder if it might not be an ironic presentation of the evil winner’s history-falsifying propagandistic self-presentation.

    What made me wonder this, is John Gardner’s Grendel, which is a retelling of Beowulf from Grendel’s point of view, where Grendel is (self-?)deceptively telling what happened, but where it is clear to the reader (who picks up on the irony) what an evil, deceitful character he is. (Potential reader warning: in letting Grendel reveal what a nasty character he is, Gardner includes some pretty nasty, vulgar stuff.)