The Last Ring-bearer: Reader’s Response, finale

I promised some commentary on Mordor, as presented in The Last Ring-bearer. Mordor is a strange place. Stranger, in some ways, in this book than in The Lord of the Rings. Here’s what’s strange about it: even as the ostensible victim of Gondorian/Wizard aggression, it doesn’t actually sound like all that great a place.

It cannot grow its own food because it screwed up its irrigation system. The narrator excuses this as an understandable mistake on their part. There is, after all, no way of knowing–the first time attempting such large-scale irrigation–that the method they chose is a good way of salinating one’s best farmland. Nevertheless, that’s what the Mordorians did. So now they have to trade for their food. It is a diplomatic report by a Gondorian spy pointing this out, and filed deep in the archives of Minis Tirith decades ago that gives Gandalf the idea of how to win the War of the Ring, that–indeed–gives him the impetus to begin the war in a Wizard’s Council where Saruman decides to go off on his own and attempt to arrange a separate peace between Mordor and Gondor (still ruled by the Stewards).

Anyway. Mordor. Salt flats, swamps, that big frikkin volcano, deserts, and cities of learning. Even these don’t sound like fun. They get things right, and are home to smarty-pants science types, but they sound dark, overcast, smoggy, industrial, and generally blah. And this is in the memory of people who liked it. Very little time is spent in Mordor. A lot of time–a whole lot of time–is spent in the great harbor town of Umbar. Umbar is a great long frikkin way away from Gondor, Mordor, and just about anywhere else you might want to be. And it’s a great harbor town. This town sounds pretty interesting, actually, and I wouldn’t mind reading some more stories set here. On the other hand, I might do just as well to read the Thieves’ World books, since I felt like that’s what I was doing, anyway.

So that’s most of the book: descriptions of places you wouldn’t want to be anyway, and a lot–a lot–of running around on the margins of Middle Earth. I didn’t understand why all that business was going on in Umbar. Then, about three-fourths the way through it I remembered that there was a palantir that needed to be placed in the kingdom of Lorien. Obviously, if you’re an agent of the recently-fallen Mordor, and you need to get object A really, really close to object B, the thing to do is take object A just about as far from object B as possible, then finagle a meeting with your enemy’s top spy by–well… It’s not so much a spoiler alert as an unwillingness on my part to reconstruct the whole thing in my head to type up. There’s the Elvish underground who is the goal of all the finagling. There’s the Umbar police force, the Umbar secret police, the Gondorian secret service, the Gondorian diplomatic corps, and the Elvish underground’s stooges, as well as the Umbarian black market, the Umbarian grey market, and the just run-of-the-mill Umbarian unsavorienss to be navigated. It actually made sense to me that the palantir had to be all sneakily taken to Lorien by tricking the Elves to do it themselves. That I was OK with.

What seems strange, though, is that to make sure the palantir was next to Galadriel’s mirror, was to, essentially, blackmail an Elf by kidnapping someone and arrainging to transmit the ransom demands at a certain time on a certain day, but only if the agents of Mordor could see the mirror through the palantir. So why all the running around in Umbar? I don’t know. Don’t try to rehash the plot to explain it to me, either. My point is if the agents of Mordor could both kidnap (or make it convincingly appear they could kidnap) an Elf, and they could get to the Elf to set up the second contact about the ransom, then there shouldn’t have been a need to run half-way around the world in order to trick the Elves into taking the palantir back to Lorien. They should have been able to say, “we got the kid, here’s a rock we’re gonna call you on in ten days, make sure it’s next to the mirror so we know you’re not on our tail, and we’ll tell you what’s what.”

In the previous post, I mentioned some strangeness about the relationship between the magical elements and the materialist elements of the world as presented in The Last Ring-bearer. I gave it a bit of a hard time with respect to having a Nazgul set the story of destroying the mirror in motion. At the end of the story, Saruman attempts to talk the person out of destroying the mirror with an extended lecture about how we don’t really know the exact nature of how magic relates to the material world, how the Nazgul was speculating (much as Saruman admitted he was speculating), and that what the guy was doing by destroying the mirror was a radical experiment. As it turns out, the guy’s palantir fell into the volcano and the mirror was destroyed, and… not much changed, really.

Which brings me to the end, where I repeat myself again and again. I like the attempt to ground a story in a realistic sort of geologic, medical, political world. I think it sort of misses the point of The Lord of the Rings to do it in Middle Earth, but there’s no need to write more Middle Earth material as if one is Tolkien. So Yeskov did something interesting in an interesting environment, and deserves praise for largely succeeding. Myself, the spycraft stuff–alas, the bulk of the text–isn’t all that interesting, though the character who went through it pretty much is. I would probably have found it more interesting if all that same stuff hadn’t happened with a Middle-earth/War of the Ring backdrop, since I kept waiting for what what going on in front of me to intersect with what I already knew about. Finally, and this is a complaint I’ve made with Niven and Asimov, so Yeskov is in good company, I don’t like it when the author gives a lecture disguised as a Socratic dialog. I feel like I’m listening to a couple of stoners discuss the relative merits of alternate spellings for animal names of household pets.

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