Wednesday, 6 February 2013

History of the victors - Richard III & Tolkien reimagined

History is written by the victors. (Or, as the African proverb more vividly has it, until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.) This is a commonly-enough expressed idea - history is not objective, it is a narrative constructed after the events described by a chronicler who often has a particular perspective. Sometimes that perspective is explicitly to favour a particular point of view - the official state histories of various regimes are one example, but there are many others - but it may also be implicit in the author's worldview.

Two days before I'm writing this post, a body found underneath a car-park in Leicester was been demonstrated, beyond all reasonable doubt, to be that of Richard III, killed in 1485. Richard has been the subject of black propaganda ever since his death, and the finding of his body has led to a little flurry of reconsideration of whether he was as bad as Shakespeare presented him. (None of it that I've seen has been as witty or pithy as the Horrible Histories version.) Of course, this is down to politics and perspective. Richard's death led to a shift in dynasties and ended a bloody feud between aristocratic factions, the War of the Roses.

I've just finished reading a novel which addresses these issues very clearly. The Last Ringbearer by Kirill Yeskov is a sort-of-sequel to The Lord of the Rings, but from a very different perspective of that which Tolkien presents. It suggests that Mordor was a nascent industrial civilization destroyed by a group of magic-users afraid of its power; that orcs and trolls aren't that bad at all; that the Nazg├╗l were an order of wizards rather than the undead monsters portrayed by Tolkien; and so on. The novel is entertaining, and manages (just) to be high enough quality to be said to be a sequel by another author, in the way that has been done by many respected authors, rather than more derivative 'fan fiction'.

Yeskov is a Russian palaeontologist, whose motivation for writing the book was initially scientific: he wanted to explore and explain certain geological failings in Tolkien's account of Middle Earth, and that led him to look at the climate and natural history of Mordor, which led him to think about the story further. Of course there's more: he's also rewritten the Christian gospels from a different perspective, so he is clearly open to other perspectives on telling history. And, speculatively, it's possible to consider whether as a Russian his motivation has to do with redeeming the negative tales told about an eastern power (Mordor) by a western author (Tolkien) - there's not much evidence of that, but it's an intriguing thought.

The novel is a good vehicle for asking ourselves, though, what is meant by a history of a particular time or set of events, and what is behind the history we are given. It reinforces (and I think Yeskov's doing this explicitly) a view that there is no such thing as a complete or objective history, only a partial one. And of course the same is true of any historical accounts, including those of Richard III.

The question "what is the information content of history?" is a curious one. Is there more information in a historical account which challenges the prevailing orthodoxy, in the way that Kirill Yeskov does fictionally, than in one which reinforces it? Does the idea that Richard III wasn't so bad after all contain more information than the standard narrative? My colleague David Chapman has blogged about the finding of Richard III's body in terms of information and its to identity, noting the number of different kinds of information involved, and the interesting question it raises about who we treat as important, how we identify (in David's words) "lives that matter, and lives that don't". I think the informational questions around Richard III, as about Yeskov's version of Middle Earth, are also to be found in what we mean when we say that a historical narrative has a certain information content.

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