Guest post by Helen W.
I follow how fan fiction is perceived by nonfannnish society through a weekly survey of references to fan fiction in mainstream media (somewhat broadly and arbitrarily defined). The past few weeks, I’ve been seeing a number of references to fan fiction in the context of the discussion of a recent English translation of Russian scientist Kirill Yeskov’s The Last Ring-bearer (Последний кольценосец), a 140,000 word novel “set during and after the end of the War of the Ring (the climactic battle at the end of [J.R.R. Tolkien's] The Lord of the Rings) and told from the point of view of the losers“, according to Salon’s Laura Miller.
Though sold commercially in Russia, and in translation in several European languages, fear of the Tolkien estate has kept an English translation from being professionally published.
Several months ago, Yisroel Markov, who claims he spent “several lunch hours” on the project, produced a full translation of The Last Ring-bearer and, with the blessing of Yeskov, put a link to a download on his LiveJournal. And then the fun began.
I first became aware of The Last Ring-bearer via articles on Guardian.co.uk and Lovereading UK. Though the headlines of both articles imply the Tolkien estate is actively working against the dissemination of The Last Ring-bearer (“Free fan-fiction reworking of The Lord of the Rings infringes copyright”; and “Lord of the Rings reworking a hit with fans, but not Tolkien estate”), the estate’s response has actually been pretty muted. Quoting from the Guardian piece, David Brawn at HarperCollins, Tolkien’s exclusive publisher, said: “To my knowledge, none of us have ever been approached to publish this book.” Russia has operated outside copyright “for years”, Brawn added, though the situation is now changing. “Online there are lots of infringements which it is extremely difficult to do anything about,” he said. “When you get something as popular as Tolkien, fans want to create new stories. Most are pretty amateurish. Tolkien himself isn’t around so it’s the estate’s view that it’s best to say no to everything. If you let one in, you’d open the floodgates.”
( Compare this to recent press reports of the estate’s response to Steve Hilliard’s Mirkwood: A Novel about J.R.R. Tolkien. )
Mainstream attention to The Last Ring-bearer might have ended there if it hadn’t been for Salon’s Laura Miller, who published a lengthy piece on the novel on Feb. 15. Of particular interest to me was Miller’s closing: “Yeskov’s “parody” — for “The Last Ringbearer,” with its often sardonic twists on familiar Tolkien characters and events, comes a lot closer to being a parody than “Wind Done Gone” ever did — is just such a reminder. If it is fan fiction (and I’m not sure I’m in a position to pronounce on that), then it may be the most persuasive example yet of the artistic potential of the form.”
Miller’s piece caught the attention of, among others, The Atlantic’s Mark Bernstein, who wrote on his blog, “It’s a probe of the former Soviet Union and an examination of memory and of history, and if the rest of the book lives up to its opening chapters, much [of Miller's views on other subjects] may be forgiven.” A mention of Miller’s piece on Slashdot has garnered 581 comments. Showing an amazing lack of knowledge of fan fiction, a piece on Mumbai Mirror began, “Every story has two versions. However, for the longest time J R R Tolkien’s epic three-part novel Lord of the Rings was the only version of life on Middle Earth and the dark lord Sauron its main villain. However, a new book titled The Last Ringbearer looks at the War of the Ring (the climactic battle at the end of LOTR) from the perspective of the people of Mordor.”
And on The Moviefone Blog, Eric Larnick wrote, “How would you react if we told you a secret installment of ‘Lord of the Rings’ in some other-worldly language existed, circulating among a few intrepid literary archivists, building in rumor to the point of myth? Now what if we told you that that new ‘Lord of the Rings’ story has finally arrived Stateside — and that you can read it for free right now. Curious? […] [W]hen you’re done reading it, we can all begin speculating when the big-screen adaptation will finally happen (most likely the year 2350 when copyright law is abolished in the Great Disney Wars.)”
I’m still trying to figure out what this means, if anything, for fan fiction. Does a generally positive reaction to The Last Ring-bearer bleed over into respect for the thousands of fics published every day with no notice outside of fandom? I fear the opposite – that The Last Ring-bearer, alongside professionally-published works of highly derivative fiction (e.g. Wide Sargasso Sea, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead) provides opportunities for the offhand insult of fan fiction in general. (Incidentally, Salon has also published a translation by Markov of an excellent essay by Yeskov, written for a fanzine in 2000, about why he wrote The Last Ring-bearer.)
I also can’t help but wonder how the coverage of The Last Ring-bearer would be different if Yeskov was a woman, or had written the novel anonymously so that Yeskov’s career in science wouldn’t be a legitimizing factor. Or whether there’d be any mainstream notice at all (tens of thousands of Lord of the Rings stories on the internet suggest not).