A question that often comes up in the various fantasy forums I frequent is, ‘What is the anti-Lord of the Rings?’ This is an odd query because it implies there’s automatically an antithesis the most famous fantasy trilogy of all time. What does the questioner mean by ‘anti-Lord of the Rings’ anyway? For the most part, they’re talking about something that is just as epic and grandiose but is darker and morally ambiguous. However, the question stuck with me and I started to ask myself, “Is there any series which well and truly inverts the majority of themes and values of Professor Tolkien’s work?”
I believe that series to be Joe Abercrombie‘s The First Law trilogy.
It should be noted Joe Abercrombie has expressed nothing but love for J.R.R. Tolkien on his own blog. He also rejects that he was trying to rewrite the novels.
We’re on sides, now? No one told me about sides. What are the sides? Of what? And on which side am I? I love Tolkien, after all. I’d like to be on his side. Grew up with The Hobbit. Read The Lord of the Rings every year. I’m a great admirer of his. Without Tolkien there’d be no fantasy as we know it, and certainly no First Law. When it comes to an epic tale with moral clarity set in a supremely realized fantasy world, he pretty much knocked it out of the park. But that means there’s not much point in my writing it again, is there? Forgive me for saying so, but it feels as if folk have been writing Lord of the Rings again for a while now, and I think we could probably, you know, stop. 
I believe the two series bear some striking similarities and yet go in different directions which are fun to note. Beware reader, spoilers for both series lie ahead.
The books contain some superficial similarities on the surface in their central plotlines:
An evil supernatural threat from the East has gathered an infinite army of soldiers and monsters beneath its banner and intends to invade the Western European-themed lands. From the North, a second, lesser-threat has also gathered a force of barbarians and monsters to invade the West. An ancient wizard gathers a ragtag bunch of misfits together, related to a mystical artifact, and sends them on a journey to a distant land. One of these individuals will emerge as the last heir of a dynasty to unite the land. The Northern threat will be defeated and, in the darkest hour, an army of barbarians will arrive to rescue the Western lands before the mystical artifact plays a key role in annihilating the Eastern threat.
Anyone who has read both series knows every single one of these similarities has a stark difference on closer examination. The similarities, however, highlight the differences.
Take the central conflict between the Prophet Khalul and the wizard Bayaz, which lies at the root of the wars between the Union and Gurkish in Abercrombie’s The First Law. The Blade Itself paints Bayaz as a lovable trickster mentor who helps rescue Logen Ninefingers from death and helps our heroes in various ways. The Gurkish and their Prophet are, by contrast, portrayed as nebulous and threatening. The Gurkish employ the mysterious Eaters-cannibal wizards who make a number of attempts on Bayaz’s life. These views are challenged somewhat in Before They Are Hanged, but only by Last Argument of Kings do we discover Bayaz is every bit as bad as Khalul, if not for worse. Indeed, the only reason the Prophet is pushing for war against the Union is in hopes of getting revenge for a long-ago slight by Bayaz.
Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings with Sauron and his minions representing an archetypal incarnation of evil that the heroes must rally against. The nations of “good” in the elves, dwarves, Rohan, and Gondor may be flawed, but they are better in every way than the enslavement that awaits those who submit to Sauron. Abercrombie subverts expectations with the Gurkish by revealing, after they finally conquer the city of Dagoska in Before They Are Hanged, that they do not behave in the nightmarish manner which everyone assumed they would:
It seems the Gurkish were let in by a prior arrangement. Treason, of course, but at a time like that… – hardly surprising. The Union forces were massacred, such as they were, but many of the mercenaries were merely enslaved, and the natives, by and large, were spared.’ Gurkish mercy, who could have thought it? Miracles do happen, then. 
This is hardly much mercy but since the books had given us an impression of a monstrous horde, it is surprising to see Glokta impressed by the people who tortured him. It also gives credence to the belief that a peace agreement forged earlier would have been honored, such as that offered by Ambassador Tulkis:
‘We are leaders. War is what happens when we fail. Or are pushed into failure by the rash and the foolish. Victory is better than defeat, but… – not by much. Therefore, the Emperor offers peace, in the hope that this may be a permanent end to the hostilities between our great nations. We have no true interest in crossing the seas to make war, and you have no true interest in toeholds on the Kantic continent. So we offer peace.’ 
Similarly, Sauron and his forces represent an existential threat to the West, which cannot exist in peace with the heroes because Mordor’s immortal ruler wants to rule all of Middle-earth. Yet, here, the conflict between the Union and Gurkish cannot only be resolved peacefully but doesn’t end with the war. Like most struggles between real-life nations, the Gurkish defeat in Last Argument of Kings just means the two nations must continue to coexist.
Peace in Tolkien is a consequence of victory and results in lasting change while the end of the wars in The First Law Trilogy merely results in extensive loss of lives. For a series which is considered much darker than The Lord of the Rings, The First Law trilogy has a much stronger anti-war slant and serves as a direct contrast.
Another place where the two series go in direct opposites is in respect to their magical artifacts: the One Ring and the Seed. Both are magical enhancers that have the potential to provide their users with immense mystical power. The biggest difference between the two series regarding the objects is both the Seed and the One Ring have the potential to bring great destruction, but whereas Gandalf wishes the Ring to be destroyed, Bayaz wants to use the Seed to destroy his enemies. Additionally, both the Seed and the One Ring have the power to tempt individuals, as we see when demons offer Ferro great power and Boromir attacks Frodo.
However, the Seed’s primary corruption is done through simple greed and ambition. People want the power of the Seed without magical compulsion. The mass murder of Gurkish troops (and Union soldiers via collateral damage) is done by Bayaz purely of his own accord. The effects of the Seed are described as akin to a nuclear weapon being used, a comparison which Tolkien rejected as a comparison for the One Ring but Abercrombie invokes in describing its aftereffects:
West was scarcely recognizable. His hair had fallen out in ugly patches. His face was shrunken, had a yellow tinge about it. His uniform hung slack from his bony shoulders, stained around the collar. He shuffled into the room, bent over in an old man’s stoop, leaning heavily on a stick. He looked like nothing so much as a walking corpse. 
Perhaps the greatest difference between the quest to destroy the One Ring and the quest to recover the Seed is the former is successful and the latter is a waste of time. The Seed is not at the end of their journey, across vast wastelands and after many adventures. It has been in the House of the Maker, a location Bayaz had access to from the beginning, hidden in plain sight. If The Lord of the Rings is the signature fantasy road trip story, then The First Law has more in common with the Grizwald family vacation. The black humor of the pointlessness of it all is summarized by Jezal:
“I gave up my chance to fight for my country,’ murmured Jezal, indignation starting to flicker up in his chest, ‘and I slogged hundreds of miles across the wasteland, and I was beaten, and broken, and left scarred… for nothing?” 
Abercombie takes the great heroic quest through horrific circumstances, weird locations, and past monstrous creatures before turning it into a farce. The Fellowship of the Ring‘s journey in The Lord of the Rings has deep and important meaning, bringing our heroes closer to their goal. In The First Law trilogy, the journey is merely a distraction from the larger political and economic realities which ultimately decide the fate of the war.
Jezal Luthar is, himself, something of an anti-Tolkien character. The spoiled, vapid, sexist, classist, and cowardly nobleman is about as far from Tolkien’s conception of a warrior noble as you can get. Yet, it is Jezal Luthar who is revealed to be the ‘lost’ bastard heir of the Union’s reigning dynasty.
Much like Aragon, Jezal does his best to rally the forces of the Union against the Gurkish. Ultimately, Jezal’s attempt to be a warrior king proves disastrously ill advised and nearly gets him killed. Unlike Aragorn, who leads his armies from the front, Jezal’s leadership threatens to destroy the symbol of resistance against the Gurkish. As Bayaz says:
‘It is easy to find men to lead charges.’ The Magus pronounced each word with exaggerated care, as though addressing a simpleton. ‘Finding men to lead nations is considerably more difficult. 
Even Jezal’s kingship is built on nothing more than a pack of lies. According to Bayaz, he is no blood relation to the late king and is just one of many potential kings that the wizard had raised like a demented gardener. Jezal is the child of a whore and was chosen to become king merely because he looked the part and had become famous due to his professional dueling career, which Bayaz himself rigged. Jezal becomes nothing more than a puppet to Bayaz, one very similar to the kind that Denethor believed Aragorn to be to Gandalf.
‘With the left hand thou wouldst use me for a little while as a shield against Mordor, and with the right bring up this Ranger of the North to supplant me. But I say to thee, Gandalf Mithrandir, I will not be thy tool! I am Steward of the House of Anárion. I will not step down to be the dotard chamberlain of an upstart. Even were his claim proved to me, still he comes but of the line of Isildur. I will not bow to such a one, last of a ragged house long bereft of lordship and dignity.’ 
Also unlike Aragorn, Jezal also does not get to marry his true love but instead is trapped in a loveless marriage with a woman who despises him. Indeed, whereas Tolkien romanticized the warrior nobility of old, Abercrombie seems to take a delight in treating them as vain, stupid, spoiled incompetents.
There is no ancient blood of Numenor marking the noble lines of kings. Instead, the closest thing we have is Ferro’s blood of demons, which is a double-edged sword providing both strength and psychosis. The greatest living soldier of the Union, Collem West, is a commoner who fought his way up through the ranks and, unlike Samwise Gamgee (who adored Master Frodo), lives in a mixed state of envy and distaste for his social betters. Whereas Gondor is a land living on the glories of past nobility and blood, the Union is a land sustained by new and strong commoners who deal with their nobility’s incompetence.
The conflicts between the races in the two worlds are also markedly different. Rather than present conflicts between supernatural races like elves, orcs, and dwarves like those in The Lord of the Rings, the majority of the conflict in The First Law is between humans. Monsters still exist, like the Flatheads and the Feared, but they have smaller roles than similar characters in Tolkien’s work. While racism and racial conflict exist, there is a diverse cast of nations and ethnicities throughout The First Law.
Similarly, the racial makeup of Tolkien’s nations tends toward the segregationist with Gondor, Rohan, hobbit, dwarf, and so on rarely mixing. Cosmopolitanism and trade are nearly absent in Tolkien’s work, (with the exception of Bree of all places), but form the basis of many subplots in The First Law. By contrast, the free flow of trade and interaction between every party forms the basis of not only their societies but also of how economics and warfare take place. Byaz is able to make war against his enemies not through loyalty or the allegiance of kings (Logen Nine-Fingers ruins his kingship before it really begins by assisting in a war which doesn’t involve his people) but through control of commerce.
‘It was money that bought victory in King Guslav’s half-baked Gurkish war,’ said Bayaz. ‘It was money that united the Open Council behind their bastard king. It was money that brought Duke Orso rushing to the defense of his daughter and tipped the balance in our favor. All my money.’ 
The difference that made the most lasting impression on me and inspired this essay, though, is the two series’ differing endings. In Return of the King, we get a rough explanation of where everyone ends up with the good rewarded and the evil vanquished. The Last Argument of Kings ends on an ambiguous note for everyone involved.
Logen Ninefingers, rather than be rewarded for his Theoden-like charge to rescue the Union, ends up dethroned and exiled. Jezal’s loveless marriage and puppet kingship remain. Collem West is left a sickly shell of his former self, in all likelihood soon to die of something akin to radiation sickness. Inquisitor Glokta becomes the most powerful man in the Union and, married to a woman he loves, but is unable to enjoy either. In a very real way, the stories of the characters do not end with the war but continue on in directions we cease to follow. There is no Happily Ever After or even Unhappily Ever After because there is no ever after.
Life goes on.
So, is The First Law the anti-Lord of the Rings? No, not really. There’s no such thing but it does invert a lot of Tolkien’s themes and ideas. There is no good or evil, there are heroes on both sides, class differences are a constant source of tension, the characters must live with their enemies after they’re defeated, and enough suspicion and hatred remains to justify any number of future wars. Despite this, I think The First Law draws a lot of influence from Tolkien’s work and in its contrasts to The Lord of the Rings pays homage to it more often than not.
I also strongly recommend both series.
- Before They Are Hanged [Kindle Cloud Reader], pages 513–514
- ibid [Kindle Cloud Reader], pages 517–518
- Last Argument of Kings [Kindle Cloud Reader], pages 585–586
- Before They Are Hanged [Kindle Cloud Reader], pages 603–604
- Last Argument of Kings [Kindle Cloud Reader], pages 413
- The Lord of the Rings Trilogy [Omnibus], page 513
- Last Argument of Kings [Kindle Cloud Reader], pages 522–523
Artwork in header: The First Law Trilogy, by Darya Kuznetsova.
Buy the First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie