Rationalist Lord of the Rings fanfiction, newly translated from Russian

by Costanza1 min read14th Mar 201169 comments

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This may be old news to some people, especially the Russian speakers, but I didn't see an article about it here.

In 1999, Kirill Yeskov, a Russian paleontologist, wrote The Last Ringbearer, a 270-page take on Lord of the Rings from the point of view of a medic in Mordor's dying armies who is also a "skeptic and a rationalist."  In fact, Mordor represents the forces of reason in this retelling of the story.  As a Nazgúl (himself a former mathematician) explains, Mordor is "the little oasis of Reason in which your light-minded civilization had so comfortably nestled."  Barad-dur is "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."

The story has been newly translated and is available in free PDF form -- in English and the original Russian. There's a recent review from Salon as well.

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I finished reading it yesterday. As pointed out, it basically dismisses LOTR as a tissue of propaganda, misinformation, and Elven coverups (eg. the pirate fleet was actually a hired merchant fleet, whom the Elves bribed & threatened into silence, at which point rumors went into operation).

I'm not hugely fond of taking that kind of out - it bothers me that Eliezer takes as many liberties with the Harry Potter canon as he does, I really like the single-point-of-divergence style and regard multiple points as inefficient/inelegant.

But the story makes up for it as it morphs into a John le Carré spy novel culminating in an excellent double or triple cross.

Would I call it rationalist? Not especially, not more than your usual spy novel with its tradecraft and trickery.

No, it's not especially rationalist, even as the heroes' people wear that label. It's pretty much a spy thriller. Doesn't give the reader a fair chance to see the characters' clever rational moves ahead of time, so not "rationalist" advocacy except maybe very broadly.

I must say, I'm enjoying it a lot more than LOTR. Loved the movies, was nagged to read the books by loved one, made it all the way through (except the appendices), have no intention of ever doing so again.

Adam Cadre has an entertaining account on watching the LotR movies as someone who has neither read the books nor picked up the content via cultural osmosis.

And here was my response to his comments.

The movies were horrid distortions of the ethical center of the books. I hate how many people now think that the movies are even close to representing the books. In several ways the movies reverse the books: the focus on battles, the unscoured Shire, Eowyn's pursuit of glory in the battlefield, the mercy on Gollum being treated as stupidity -- the moviemakers utterly failed at representing almost every single moral point.

Heh. The films made a lot more sense to me in the extended DVD editions - as in, the plots are vaguely comprehensible with four hours each to use.

This is fairly easy to find but worth linking directly:

A statement by the author, detailing his opinion on Tolkien and his motivation for writing this

I mostly agree with this. In particular the point that Tolkien's majesty really is more about the Scenery than the plot or characters.

I disagree with pretty much everything on that article. In fact the author clearly shows his ignorance of Tolkien's works several times throughout the post, obviously never having read any of the accompanying material.

I'm not even sure he's read the Silmarillion (which is required reading for any discussion of Tolkien) -- the only reference from there (Angband), he mispells; and I doubt the guy would be saying that Tolkien adhered to the "black-white" contrast perfectly if he had even heard of Feanor or Turin Turambar. Frankly even Gollum alone ought have taught him better than that.

Let alone any of the History of Middle-earth volumnes (which is required reading for any serious discussion of Tolkien).

I'm not even sure he's read the Silmarillion (which is required reading for any discussion of Tolkien)

To be fair, if we're talking about what liberties we are allowed to take with LOTR, it's important to remember that the Silmarillion was never a finished work, at least not by J.R.R. On some topics that are important to this discussion -- the origin and nature of Orcs, for instance -- Tolkien revised himself repeatedly. "The question of Orc origin may have been one of the problems Tolkien tried to solve by completely changing the cosmology and prehistory of Arda....Tolkien died before he could complete this upheaval of the cosmology, however, so the Elf origin was adopted in the published version of The Silmarillion."

The text of LOTR suggests that every individual Orc was irredeemably evil. At least, there are no counterexamples, and there's no suggestion that the good guys ever took any Orcish prisoners. This view doesn't really fit with the general idea, expressed in Tolkien, that all creatures are originally good, and that evil can create nothing of itself.

Interesting point (and important if we consider the author as a Tolkein critic). But I'm not sure if evil Orcs is totally inconsistent with Tolkein. If they're Elves who have been perverted mentally and physically, then they could end up effectively evil. It's also worth noting that they still have some deep senses in which they are good-oriented in the Catholic sense that Tolkein works with. I think there's a line about them essentially needing proper food, and also something about how they hate their leaders and creators. There's a sense in which they know they're WRONG.

[-][anonymous]10y 2

Surely the Lord of the Rings is capable of standing on its own to someone who has not read any of the supplementary novels. Otherwise, you're accusing 90% of the readers of Tolkien of misreading him.

You could think of the Silmarillion as a world within which the Lord of the Rings can exist, and the Last Ringbearer as another one -- just as the real numbers can be constructed within multiple different set theories, and remain the same object.

Certainly LOTR is capable of standing on its own, same way that "Hamlet" is capable of standing on its own. But if you want to discuss Shakespeare seriously (the same way author discusses Tolkien as an author), then you better have read a few more of his works as well.

Instead of saying something to the point of "Shakespeare consistently only wrote tragedies about kings partaking in murderous plots" based just on your reading of Hamlet and Macbeth, while never having read "Midsummer Night's Dream" or "The Taming of the Shrew".

I agree that for Tolkein scholarship you have to read the Silmarillion and beyond, and that they present a much broader view of elves etc. But I didn't take that as the purpose of the fanfiction in this case.

As literature, it promises to be fun.

Its image with the general public is probably pretty bad though, since he made the bad guys the rationalists.

EDIT: Nope, I was wrong. Too bad to even finish.

Good story, thanks for the link! I think it's easier to appreciate it if you don't go into it expecting Tolkien fan fiction, because it isn't really - it doesn't so much deviate from canon, as simply refrain from using anything much of Lord of the Rings beyond names and geography. Basically think Tom Clancy in a homegrown low magic fantasy setting.

Do you mean the same relation to Tolkien canon Clancy has to reality, or something about the style/content/plotting similar to typical Clancy fare?

The latter - it's basically a military themed spy thriller with a gritty flavor, that while not strictly realistic, at least makes a fair attempt at verisimilitude.

While we're on a similar subject, TVTropes describes the "Black Company" series of fantasy novels as

"It's as if a typical fantasy epic is propaganda from the winning "good" side, and this is the reality?"

Would you say it is a correct description?

[-][anonymous]6y 0

I wish somebody would translate "Дневник некоего орка". It is not really a rational!fic, but more of a parody of traditional PhD programs, set in Angband during Silmarillion.

Some critique from a friend of mine:

"You have full permission to point out that in the Lord of the Rings, 'Rationality' is not exactly the hat of Mordor. That in fact, Mordor and Mordor alone builds temples, attempts to exert constant and destructive pressure on the natural environment, abuses its workers, fosters hatred and superstition, demands worshipful awe from the masses, and is, much more, a realm of 'magic' than the Elves - who are, on the whole, far more 'scientists' than the folk of Mordor ever were. And, in fact, that the ultimate scientists of Middle-Earth are Aule and Yavanna, both foes of Mordor."

Good grief.

That's not rationalist, that's revisionist. It's also ridiculous and playing really loose with the source material.

Are the two mutually exclusive for some reason?

HP:MoR suggests not.

HP: MoR isn't exactly a model to follow either. Even ignoring its "liberal" approach to the original canon, it's weak as a work of literature and really only serves as an Author Tract for Eliezer to advocate his views.

Know your audience. And the context.

This comment tends to discredit your first comment, since the typical reader of this thread probably takes it for granted that MoR is good and is wanting to know whether this story is good as MoR.

Analogy: suppose someone posted a link to a new philosophy-of-physics paper, and then you made a comment saying that the paper was terrible and full of flaws. But as the discussion continued, it emerged that the reason you didn't like it was because it assumed the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, which you assumed to be wrong. The reaction of the LW readership is going to be something like "oh, well, never mind you, then."

Critiquing something on the basis of unstated assumptions you know the audience doesn't share is disingenuous. This is true even if your criticism is correct.

This comment tends to discredit your first comment, since the typical reader of this thread probably takes it for granted that MoR is good and is wanting to know whether this story is good as MoR.

How well warranted is this assumption, i.e. that a typical reader takes the quality of MoR for granted? Readers of LW who don't like MoR probably don't comment on it.

How well warranted is this assumption, i.e. that a typical reader takes the quality of MoR for granted?

A typical reader of this post, mind you.

Readers of LW who don't like MoR will probably have a strong tendency not to be interested in "rationalist fanfiction" in general. If someone reads LW and is also willing to entertain a rewriting of a famous fantasy story such that the characters are made to be LW-style "rationalists", it seems highly unlikely that they're going to be turned off specifically by the idiosyncratic details of MoR.

Given this, I think the assumption is very well warranted. Of course, it's eminently falsifiable: if there are large numbers of people who love the idea of rationalist fanfiction but hate MoR specifically, let them speak up.

I think we're making too much of the concept of "rationalist fanfiction" altogether. A typical fan of MoR would presumably be interested in fiction delivering rationality-related ideas or emotional states; that might constitute (or at least overlap with) a genre, but it certainly doesn't imply derivative work. Neither is the bare fact of setting a work in another writer's world necessarily a genre label; about all you can reliably conclude from that is that the author wants to comment on the original's themes, or to explore implications the original author didn't. Fantasy stories are notoriously ripe with questionable implications, so we could expect the fanfic approach to produce some interesting-to-LW fruit, but it hardly seems like it should be promoted to a defining characteristic.

So, what does unify the set of stories we're talking about? Seems to me that it's their themes: empiricism, respect for the scientific method (as opposed to the trappings of science, Michael Crichton-style), and a belief in focused introspection. The use of an existing setting serves to play up the contrast between those themes and the assumptions of conventional genre literature, but it's not necessary, and the themes could work just as well without it.

Observation seems to bear this out; MoR shares a lot more, structurally and thematically, with The Cambrist and Lord Iron, or with Eliezer's earlier Sword of Good (both original works), than it does with, say, Harry Potter and the Nightmares of Futures Past. If we're actually looking at a nascent genre here, it's a subset of revisionist fantasy (other exemplars: Gaiman's Problem of Susan; Mieville's Bas-Lag books), not of fanfiction-as-genre -- although I'm pretty sure fanfic-as-genre is a lot smaller than it's usually given credit for, anyway.

(Granted, there might be a minority of potential readers who look at MoR or Luminosity's fanfiction.net address and immediately fixate on that as definitive, but that's not a rational response and I really doubt it's something we want to emphasize.)

[-][anonymous]7y 1

I think you are right on with:

So, what does unify the set of stories we're talking about? Seems to me that it's their themes: empiricism, respect for the scientific method (as opposed to the trappings of science, Michael Crichton-style), and a belief in focused introspection. The use of an existing setting serves to play up the contrast between those themes and the assumptions of conventional genre literature, but it's not necessary, and the themes could work just as well without it.

But a thing I think unifies much of it (given that my four closest friends are both rationalists and deveoping authors) is what I like to call "Teapot Smashing":

Teapot Smasing: Activity. Using what you know to get what you want, with expreme prejudice. Comes from the proverb "Any fictional system of physics can be broken like a teapot."

In most of Rationalist fiction, the recurring Ultimate Motivations of the characters is almost exclusively Anti-Deathism and Fun For Everyone. Thus many of the themes involve gaming estabilshed setting rules to enter a feedback loop leading to godhood.

The reason why Fanfic is popular here is that it spares you inventing your own universe to game.

Actually, that might point to a feature that is almost unique to fanfic: protagonists can't deploy the full range of strong munchkin tactics in an original universe without coming off like they've benefited from a deus ex machina, but they can do that in a preestablished universe. Some munchkinry is legal either way, but there are strict limits: you can almost always get away with social, economic, or introspective hacks, for example, because you didn't invent the rules for those. But you can't abuse laws of magic or xenobiology or exotic physics that you invented yourself without threatening suspension of disbelief.

I don't think that works well as a defining feature of rational!fic, though. Almost everything that Bella does in Luminosity would work just as well in a universe where she was, say, a were-badger; the specifics of the setting's inventions don't matter too much.

It's also not strictly limited to fanfiction as such: genre conventions can generate a sort of implied metaphysics that you can then abuse. The Sword of Good works that way, and some of the Discworld books dabble in it too.

[-][anonymous]7y 1

Spot on. Good observation.

I'm not terribly clear about what the assumption is, exactly, and I'm not sure everyone in the conversation has the same referent for it, so rather than say "yes" or "no" to an ill-defined question, let me articulate some related thoughts.

  • I like the idea of fanfiction where characters who in canon think and behave in muddleheaded ways and ignore what seem like fundamentally interesting aspects of their world instead think and behave clearly and attend to the interesting things.

  • If done well, rationalist fanfiction can be a great example of that, as rationality is a very useful tool for focusing one's attention on the things that matter. I like that sort of rationalist fanfiction quite a lot. (Which is not to say that I like anything that qualifies as rationalist fanfiction.)

  • MoR explores some marvelous ideas, it's clever, it has moments of genuine humor and genuine human feeling. The early chapters, in particular, really spoke to me; the later chapters less so. As fanfiction goes, it's probably in the top 10% of what I've read in my life, not that I'm a huge follower of the genre. But it has weaknesses that frequently bug me. As fiction goes, I would be fairly disappointed if I'd picked it up at a book store. I don't care too much about Americanisms vs. Britishisms, though.

  • I'm vaguely intrigued by the LOR variation -- it reminds me somewhat of the Sundering novels -- and might read it some day when I have more time to spare.

Dunno if any of that is relevant to your discussion. If not, feel free to ignore.

The other plus point for MoR is that J.K. Rowling is not that great at shaping sentences unsupervised. I only continued past HP book four so I could find out how it ended - books 5-7 serve mostly as cautionary examples as to why immunity to editors is not such a great idea in some cases. Possibly I am oversensitive to appalling sentence construction, but then again if I'm reading something it's my own responses I'm most interested in.

JRRT's sentence shaping is way better than JKR's and the English translation of this Russian fanfic is not too bad (allowing for grammatical hiccups) - different to JRRT, but not clearly better.

I am not interested in MoR not because of its idiosyncrasies, but because I have no interest in Harry Potter, have read none of it, and the characters are completely alien to me. I am neither a fan of Tolkien, but still find it more appealing, and at least I know one person who likes LotR and has poor opinion about HP. Also, sometimes I read posts whose topic isn't particularly interesting, because sometimes inspiring ideas appear in the discussion.

Generalising from one example I had impression that readers of this post may not all like MoR.

at least I know one person who likes LotR and has poor opinion about HP

I like HP and have a poor opinion about LotR, if you're interested in an opposite data point.

I've read it several times, tried my best to account to account for halo effect, and I still think HP:MoR is among the best things I've ever read. It may be that I simply need to read more good things. But it's pretty likely that I'd prefer good things that are more like HP:MoR, not less.

I do think it has flaws, both as literature and as a piece of propoganda (it's both, and that's fine).

If MoR is among the best things you've read, you need to widen your selection of literature.

I just said I'm open to that possibility. It'd be helpful if you provided examples of things I might read. Again, bearing in mind that my tastes in literature are clearly different from yours.

I would mention that I loved HP MOR and I read it before knowing who Eliezer was (in fact, I assumed from the HP MOR that he was a very precocious 18 year old or somesuch.

I would agree that in terms of literary style it's not the most crafted thing I've read, but it's very effective: the plot generally runs well and he creates very powerful and affecting scenes and images. Not just in a 'high rationality' sense either: I love the only reason why anyone will remember dentistry, for instance.

In terms of loyalty to canon etc. I love the alternative take in MOR. There's only one thing that really bugs me on that front, which is the use of American language throughout. Astonishing how much it rankles for Harry to say he's 'gotten' something.

In terms of loyalty to canon etc. I love the alternative take in MOR. There's only one thing that really bugs me on that front, which is the use of American language throughout. Astonishing how much it rankles for Harry to say he's 'gotten' something.

This is certainly bugging me also, and I'm an American. Given how many people have commented about this, I have to ask if it would take Eliezer that much effort to have a British friend skim through it before Eliezer posts them? The effort level doesn't seem to be that high.

(Incidentally, I have other objections also, I think Eliezer underestimates the amount in canon which the wizarding world is influenced by the enlightenment- there are mentions in canon of research of journals (beginning of book three for example).)

I think that might help. I honestly think that potential readers could find it seriously offputting, and Eliezer's obviously fine with editing previous posts so it could be made consistent too.

The odd thing is that I'm abnormally unconcerned by American accents in films of English stories etc: it's the written word that I find it so strange for. Possibly because a level of informality makes it more obvious.

I don't have the books to hand, but is research in journals necessarily enlightenment? You can see philosophical debate etc. going right back to scholastic philosophers and theologians, and if you throw in easier communication and production through magic then it wouldn't be surprising if correspodence or debate between magicians was in something we'd call a journal. The question is if there's meaningful peer review.

Regular journals are a very late phenomenon. They evolved from the proceedings of various societies. The use of journals is very much enlightenment or post-enlightenment culture. The Proceedings of the Royal Society doesn't start until 1800.Even then, initially that's published in large, irregular volumes. Many other journals considered very old are even younger. American Mathematical Monthly is published in the 1890s (although everything in North America was scientifically behind Europe until the 20th century. Thus, for example, geocentrism was taught as the standard cosmology in the first astronomy classes at Yale and that's already in the early 1700s.) . Regular scientific journals don't become common until the second half of the 19th century.

Prior to that, one has a large number of published books, and letters sent to groups of people, but nothing that resembles a regular journal like the one briefly described in the beginning of book three. The name "Transfiguration Today" sounds like either a regular journal, or a regular pop-magic (analogizing to pop-science) publication, both of which are very modern ideas.

The question is if there's meaningful peer review.

Actually, formal peer review is another modern innovation. Until the 20th century, publication decisions were made almost exclusively by editors, and if they had questions they would consult experts in the field. In other situations a slightly different system was used: for the various Royal Society publications, the main gatekeeping mechanism was needing sponsorship from a member of the Society. These two systems gradually morphed into the modern peer review system. We think of formal peer review as a major part of the scientific method but it is pretty late.

Yes, but...

The Proceedings of the Royal Society doesn't start until 1800.

I think that's a little misleading, since the Philosophical Transactions started in 1665.

Even then, initially that's published in large, irregular volumes.

The Philosophical Transactions had volume numbers that were quite regular, either annual or biannual, depending on the time period. The Society's website implies that they were printed as volumes, but they were quarterly.
The first 50 years of the Proceedings, before it got that name, had quite irregular volume numbers, but I would be hesitant to draw publishing conclusions from that.

I think that there's some survivorship bias, too. Wikipedia claims that there were 1000 journals in the 1700s, but they didn't survive. So enlightenment might be a better answer than post-enlightenment.

EDIT: the Royal Society's website contains issue numbers, but its organization implies that volumes were published at once.

Thanks! I didn't realize that there were that many or that the Philosophical Transactions was that regular. And I had no idea that there were that many early journals.

Hmmm... interesting info, thanks! To be honest, I'm not clear enough in what and when the enlightenment refers to. To me, it sounds like science journals are distinctly post-enlightenment for most sense of the term.

By most senses of the term yes. But there were things that functioned sort of like journals earlier. For example, Marin Mersenne in the early part of the 1600s functioned as a sort of clearing house for math. He corresponded with a large number of people and reported to different people what results others were up to. There were others who acted similarly. But, yes the idea of a regular journal is post-enlightenment. This if anything makes Eliezer's portrayal of wizarding culture more problematic, not less so.

Cheers for the info: will look that up. I suppose the question is whether there could realistically be a parallel evolution of something that from the HP references seems to us like a journal.

And Hermione eating cinnamon toast.

Being aware of the Western canon is pretty much the place to start for a serious discussion on best things ever in literature, even though you might end up preferring stuff that's quite different from it.

For a bit more contemporary stuff, I find Jeff VanderMeer's essential reading list intriguing. VanderMeer's own stuff is seriously awesome as well.

I will note that I was talking about "the best things I've read", as opposed to "the best things ever." With "best" being defined as "the things I'm most glad to have read."

I'm reading Moby Dick, and I've read a few "good classics," and I can understand why they have the respect they do, and I can learn some important things about writing from them, and they're still good centuries after the fact, so they clearly did something right.... but I really don't enjoy them at all.

I don't like having to "translate" an earlier/different version of the English language just to understand the story (though I understand why literature buffs feel enriched by it). And often the themes of the story have since become so ingrained in our culture that by the time I read the original version I feel let down.

I comprehend their majesty, but they aren't the works that particularly impact me.

HP:MoR happened to come at a time in my life when I was receptive to its message, and before I had really read anything that even attempted to be inspirational on the order that HP:MoR attempts to be inspirational. I don't know how much of my appreciation for the work has to do with the context I read it in. I'm specifically looking for other inspirational works so I can try and evaluate it properly against its peers/superiors.

Ignoring the propaganda side of it, it's still one of the most enjoyable works I've read. For the humor, and the depth of the characters, and the seriousness with which certain issues are tackles. Some people criticize the uneven-ness of the writing style, but I think the way it seesaws between hilariousness and solemnity is one of the best things about it. I also identified a lot of literary techniques that were well executed and rewarded deeper analysis.

I totally get that it's not for everyone though. Some of the characters are developed awkwardly in the beginning. One of my biggest issues with it is that Eliezer unnecessarily narrows his target audience by focusing/ignoring certain things (as well as by sounding preachy, even when Harry's actually supposed to be wrong).

Being aware of the Western canon is pretty much the place to start for a serious discussion on best things ever in literature, even though you might end up preferring stuff that's quite different from it.

I strongly disagree, actually. Works that're part of the Western canon aren't necessarily the best in the Western literary tradition, and they aren't necessarily read for their quality -- although many of them genuinely are very good. They're defined more by being influential, and reading them is more about gaining a better understanding of the context of literature: its history and the mechanics of its evolution. People like Shakespeare are to English literature what people like Aristotle are to Western philosophy: not the best by some set of quasi-objective standards, nor the most gratifying to taste, but the headwaters from which later traditions flow. There's a certain amount of survivorship bias involved, too; Sappho for example was arguably the best Classical Greek poet by her contemporaries' standards, and we can be almost sure of her influence, but so little of her stuff is left that she's not a major part of the canon.

There's an argument to be had over whether this is necessarily the best way to teach or learn about literature, of course, just as we could have the same argument over philosophy. But that's not really the point.

They're defined more by being influential, and reading them is more about gaining a better understanding of the context of literature: its history and the mechanics of its evolution.

I'm not disagreeing. The main point is that the literature canon is the most influential starting point for discussing literature that's considered really very good. Not that the books themselves would necessarily be the best ever.

And for the purposes of the original discussion, it's not even necessary to find the absolutely best literature ever, only examples of literature that can be considered significantly more skillfully put together than top of the line fanfiction. The Western canon probably manages this.

People like Shakespeare are to English literature what people like Aristotle are to Western philosophy: not the best by some set of quasi-objective standards, nor the most gratifying to taste, but the headwaters from which later traditions flow.

Is this actually the case? Philosophers seem to consider Aristotle really influential and quite outdated, while English lit. people who aren't decrying him as a dead white male patriarchal oppressor still seem to think Shakespeare was probably the greatest thing ever.

Is this actually the case? Philosophers seem to consider Aristotle really influential and quite outdated, while English lit. people who aren't decrying him as a dead white male patriarchal oppressor still seem to think Shakespeare was probably the greatest thing ever.

If you asked some modern philosophers to make a list of the greatest philosophers of all time, and then asked English lit professors to make a list of the greatest English writers of all time, the relative rankings of Aristotle and Shakespeare would likely be close to each other (though probably not identical). And I think the reason for this is that they're ranking -- and teaching, and recommending -- mainly along lines of influence rather than technical skill or correctness or enjoyment. The precise terms each are described in might be different, but in terms of their place in their fields I think the analogy's pretty close.

I do think that Shakespeare by most standards would look better than Aristotle relative to his counterparts today: literature was a more mature field in his time than philosophy was in Aristotle's. But I don't think he was the most technically skilled writer in English, not by a long shot, and I suspect most literary scholars (Shakespeare scholars excepted) would agree with me.

It isn't much like conventional literature-- the emotional effects vary too wildly. Still, it's got extremely funny sections and extremely touching sections in addition to some generally good propaganda.

I actually really like how varied the emotional effects are. I also like how distinct and believable each character's worldview and even writing style are.

Maybe you could clarify what you mean by ridiculous. I mean, we're talking about a world with magical corruption rings that make you live forever, evil races of dark people who are completely evil beyond hope, and Aryan poster children running on top of snow here.

It's ridiculous as in "worthy of ridicule".

In the canon Sauron is very clearly depicted as a sadist and Mordor as a kingdom which very deliberately loathes and destroys beauty.

You can simply choose to ignore all of that, so that Mordor is beautiful and free and happy , instead of sadistically destroying beauty, freedom, and happiness. And you can likewise choose to ignore the technical achievements of the Numenoreans and the Dwarves, the poetry and philosophy of the Elves, and so forth; the ways that every civilization in Middle Earth had beauty and music and philosophy EXCEPT Mordor. You can choose to deliberately reverse all that.

But then you're no longer doing anything that comments on Tolkien's actual work --- and to claim you do is ridiculous. i.e. worthy of ridicule.

So, as lucidfox said, this is ridiculous - not rationalist, but just revisionist.

In canon it's also clear that the story is from one side's point of view and is based heavily on Bilbo's and Frodo's own record of things. I have no doubt you could find numerous historical cases where exactly the same demonisation takes place. And, underneath, the 'good guys' can be pretty brutal too.

Having read the Penelopiad (events around the Iliad and Odyssey from Penelope's point of view) and other takes on classic stories, I'd have nothing against this on principle.

This. Assume that Lord of the Rings is a historical document of a real world you found. How seriously would you take any given one of the "facts" it describes?

Assume that Lord of the Rings is a historical document of a real world you found. How seriously would you take any given one of the "facts" it describes?

Have you taken 5 minutes to consider the issue, or are you just asking rhetorically?

Here's my answer. Lord of the Rings as a historical document describes some events you may consider dubious, but it is also a moral document that espouses certain specific values. Some of these values are:

  • mercy towards enemies (atleast against all enemies whose species have shown even a slight capacity for peaceful coexistence), both individuals (Saruman, Grima, Gollum) and collectively (the Dunlendings)

  • friendship and peaceful cooperation between cultures (e.g. dwarves and elves and hobbits and Men)

  • appreciation of beauty in diverse forms (nature, poetry, technical achievements)

  • non-intrusion in the lands of weaker peoples (at the end of the story it is made illegal for Men to enter the land of the Druedain without their permission, and something similar is mentioned for the Shire in the appendices).

  • rejection of human sacrifice and self-immolation in pride, but acceptance of death as part of a natural order.

  • war only as a grievous necessity: (the appreciation of warriors as higher in value than e.g. artists is described by characters as a sad phenomenon of their times.)

  • a love for humility, and a fear of power (or the concentration of power) - the rejection of the Ring.

So here's my evaluation of Lord of the Rings as a historical document: If it was created as an instrument of propaganda, it was created by a mostly pacifistic and both morally and artistically advanced (if slightly technophobic, and a bit fatalistic) people, that would have no motivation nor desire to invade other realms that did them no harm, nor would it have a necessity to discover villains where none existed.

Yep. Written by Bilbo and Frodo, who probably were pacifist etc. and as they were clearly tools of the Elves and the 'Wise' would think that they were lovely too.

Not to mention the idea of a species not having a capacity for co-existence is one we'd find suspicious in historical parallels. And don't forget totalitarianism and racial hierachies amongst humans.

Yep. Written by Bilbo and Frodo, who probably were pacifist etc. and as they were clearly tools of the Elves and the 'Wise' would think that they were lovely too.

You're arguing backwards from your preconceived conclusion, not forwards from the evidence.

Not to mention the idea of a species not having a capacity for co-existence is one we'd find suspicious in historical parallels.

That you find it suspicious is part of your map, not of the territory under discussion.

And don't forget totalitarianism and racial hierachies amongst humans.

Totalitarianism? If you mean Aragorn's kingship, his monarchy seems far from a totalitarian regime.

And I never argued the culture that created it was an anti-racist one. If you want to argue that the in-universe culture that created LOTR was a racist one, you'd certainly find much greater evidence for that than you'd find for it being a propagandist's tool against a supposedly peaceful and freedom-loving Mordor.

In fact Tolkien himself (outside the text) mentioned one such point: the idea that the Rohirrim were genetically connected to the Dunedain from way back was spoken by Faramir, but was "in reality" a piece of propaganda -- meant to assuage Dunedain racial pride for having given away such a large portion of their former lands. In "reality" the true racially-related-to-Gondor people were the "bad" Dunlendings, which had allied themselves with Saruman.

And you could imagine points where the Elves are e.g. portrayed better than they were, because the Queen was elvish, and so the King and his heirs needed a propaganda tool to make his people think better of elves.

The book is from a hobbits-eye-view. That's quite explicit. I'm not sure why bringing it up would be pushing for a preconceived conclusion, and I think it's more helpful than treating a text as the product of an undefined 'people', given it refers to events involving many different races and nations who are portrayed as significantly different from each other.

But to take back to the context of this, for a fanfic what's important is plausibility, and so rationalisation of a kind is actually fine: the point is whether you can tell a consistent story wherein Lord of the Rings is propaganda and this other account more accurate.

I'm not sure about your point on species. We don't know what Middle Earth is like, so we can only understand it by using our maps, albeit with less certainty and more care, surely?

You described LOTR as morally advanced, and for me that's got a severe tension with racism.

The book is from a hobbits-eye-view. That's quite explicit.

Yes, it's just that you used this fact selectively in order to dismiss the evidence of their testimony (by essentially claiming they didn't have the "right" perspective), you didn't try to see all it was evidence for. That's a failure of rationality.

If it's written by Hobbits, then they have a better perspective on how the stronger peoples described in the book (Elves, Gondor etc) treat other weaker peoples.

And if it's not written by Hobbits, but by Gondorians pretending to be hobbits, then that's evidence in favour of Gondorians sharing the moral values espoused by the book.

I'm not sure about your point on species.

I'm saying that if we're talking species, perhaps the first map you consider should be with species (e.g. how we treat sharks, or how we discuss baby-eaters and super-happies) instead of races.

You described LOTR as morally advanced, and for me that's got a severe tension with racism.

Racism has two parts, the descriptive parts (such and such people are cognitively inferior or superior, or biologically predisposed to such-and-such behaviour) and the normative parts (you shouldn't mingle with such-and-such-peoples, you should use them to your advantage instead).

If we're discussing the in-universe culture that wrote LOTR, it seems to have parts of the former, but not the latter. The latter is the immoral aspect of racism, the former is merely about lack of knowledge. E.g. it may claim that Frodo's adventurous side may have come from his Fallohide heritage, but it's not as if Frodo or the book ever argues in favour of oppressing non-Fallohides.

Or e..g Gondor for example had a civil war regarding a racial issue, described in the appendices -- one side didn't want a mixed-race king, the other side accepted him. The good side (according to the text) was the side that did accept the mixed-race king --- and yet the text doesn't necessarily argue that character is NOT found on the genes. Perhaps it is, perhaps it isn't. Perhaps the Northerners were genetically inferior in some ways compared to the Dunedain -- it just doesn't have anything to do with it being okay to disqualify someone for kingship because of it.

I didn't use to dismiss their testimony, I used it to object to you characterising the 'people' of the LOTR as if that meant the main characters who prosecute the war with Mordor. The writers of the LOTR are intended to be the Hobbits, who are explicitly peaceful etc. and who again explicitly don't really understand the councils of the Wise etc. but are drafted in very late in the day. As for understanding how weaker people are treated, the evidence in the book shows that the hobbits were ignored early on, drafted in for a couple of incredibly dangerous missions by people more powerful than them, and then the society was left to the attacks of Saruman while two of its members were taking horrendous dangers. Of course they're told that they've been being defended all along by Strider and co, but all they really know is that nothing has happened to them.

My map is for how we treat persons. The species in LOTR map to persons better than to non-persons.

While oppression isn't explicitly condoned, there's quite a lot of cases of 'swarthy' people, 'Easterners' etc. being bad. I don't think you can say that imposing negative stereotypes that certain races are untrustworthy etc. isn't part of the immoral part of racism. I agree there's less of your latter sort, but doesn't Gandalf talk about how the Numenorians have diminished themselves by mingling with lesser men?

While it's true that Tolkien did set out to create a fictional world, I think that treating LotR like a historical documentfrom that fictional world is counter to both Tolkien's intent, and the spirit of the work. Tolkien did not write LotR to describe "facts" from some world; rather, he set out to create a mythology for that world. Thus, when you read any ot Tolkien's works, don't think of them as literal descriptions of things that actually occured in some fictional world where elves and wizards exist. Rather, understand it like you would a folk tale or mythic poem: of great cultural significance to the people that it came from, but not a literal account of something that happened.

This is actually sort of my point.

But then you're no longer doing anything that comments on Tolkien's actual work

It looks like it's basically shifting the view of the original LotR into an in-universe text with some serious history-as-written-by-the-winners bias instead of objectively described stuff that really happens. Haven't read the book yet, but this seems like a pretty interesting approach to me. It's a fun twist on the generally very literal-minded way speculative fiction is read.