Strange things are afoot in Middle-Earth

Paul Raven @ 23-02-2011

I imagine you’ve already heard about The Last Ringbearer, a retelling of Lord of the Rings from the Mordor side of the fence. I rather wish I had the spare time to read it, as the underlying concept is brilliant: it really speaks to our Zeitgeist of revisionism and polarised politics, and also addresses a lot of the major criticisms of Tolkien’s epic.

It also shines a light on intellectual property law. The fact that it’s available in English translation for free (meaning that writer Kirill Yeskov makes no money from it, but gains a whole load of profile and notoriety off the back of a book that has already done very well in Europe) means that, for now, the Tolkien estate isn’t gunning for a take-down. But would a take-down be justified? You could certainly argue that it’s a derivative work, but then so is the well-known (and frankly tedious) parody Bored Of The Rings; if the latter is protected by fair use, why shouldn’t the former be protected under the same terms? Is derision the only protected form of commentary on cultural artefacts? (If so, that might explain the general tone of, y’know, the entire internet… ;) )

The lack of warning salvos from the Tolkien estate suggests that they don’t think The Last Ringbearer is a battle worth fighting, because they’re happily taking aim at other works related to Tolkien and his output. Texas author Stephen Hilliard is looking to publish a novel that features Tolkien as a character, and is pitching it as a work that combines historical fiction and literary criticism; the Tolkien estate has issued a cease-and-desist on the grounds that it has “a property right to commercially exploit the name and likeness of J.R.R. Tolkien”. [via SlashDot] I’d have thought they’d just angle for a cut of the profits, but apparently they just want Mirkwood squashed completely. I can’t decide whether that’s less disappointing or more so… or what this means for my long-considered series of short stories about a simulated reincarnation of Hunter S Thompson solving crimes in a posthuman future*. I’m certain, however, that the Streisand Effect may end up biting the Tolkien estate on the backside.

All of which reminds me of my amusement yesterday when I saw “Harlan Ellison®” in a press release. If you’ve got enough reputation and clout (plus the money and/or patience to wrangle lawyers), you can protect your name and work to the utmost; whether or not it’ll make the majority of the world think you’re being a pompous dick is another matter entirely.

[ * See that? That's my prior art claim, right there; if anyone gets to do it, it's me. ME! ]

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8 Responses to “Strange things are afoot in Middle-Earth”

  1. Darren Turpin says:

    I remember Adam Roberts ran smack-bang into the Tolkien estate a few years ago with a novella called ‘Rings’. It was set in Middle Earth something like a thousand years after the Ring Wars and was about a historian (possibly a hobbit-historian) who was looking into whether or not the Ring Wars were actual historical events, or just myth & legend. Something like that, anyhow. Whatever the plot, the Tolkien estate said “NO!” otherwise it would have been one of the very first PS Publishing novellas.

  2. Nancy Jane Moore says:

    I think you could argue that The Last Ringbearer is parody or satire, in a way, though our laws are a little tricky on that score. It’s probably a harder case to make if the book isn’t funny. I tend to think that works of art that have entered the popular consciousness, as The Lord of the Rings has certainly done, should be fair game for this sort of thing, especially when the new work is something that can be read as “in dialogue” with the original. However, if you raise this idea around other writers, I recommend wearing something flameproof.

    I note that the author of the novel The Wind Done Gone — which tells the story of Gone With the Wind from the slaves’ pov, won a similar dispute with the heirs of Margaret Mitchell.

  3. Athena Andreadis says:

    I also think the Tolkien estate knows that if they make noises about suppressing the work the Russians will tell them to jump in the nearest lake, unlike the Americans. And given the existence of tie-ins (aka sanctioned fanfic), it’s unclear to me why the fuss — the Tolkien descendants have milked JRR for all he was worth and then some, by publication of all these half-formed posthumous writings — as did the Herbert heirs.

  4. ConfidentlyDubious says:

    It’s worth mentioning Peter Watts’ “The Things” as a brilliant example of another (well-known) story retold from the opposite side…

  5. Athena Andreadis says:

    The Watts story is indeed an example of a story retold from the other side, but it’s also flabby, murky and repetitive. Like much of fanfic, if you didn’t know and like the original premise, you had no reason to read and/or like it.

  6. Sarah Ennals says:

    IIRC, though, The Wind Done Gone had to be published as “parody” even though it was serious re-imagining, in order to get around the Mitchell estate; if Last Ringbearer does the same, we may see a future division between actual parody and technical parody.

  7. Pat says:

    I understand – although I have yet to read that Michael Redpath’s new novel – Where the Shadows Lie includes J.R.R. Tolkien as a character http://www.michaelridpath.com/where-the-shadows-lie.html

  8. David says:

    “the Tolkien descendants have milked JRR for all he was worth and then some, by publication of all these half-formed posthumous writings — as did the Herbert heirs.”

    To be fair, Brian Herbert had already established himself as an SF author in his own right before the publication of the new Dune volumes – still doesn’t excuse how big a pile of crud they are though…

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