Unused Audio Commentary By Howard Zinn And Noam Chomsky, Recorded For The Return Of the King (Platinum Series Extended Edition) DVD
(With special thanks to Dan Josefson, Rachel Meresman, and Alex Carp.)
BY JEFF ALEXANDER and TOM BISSELL
ZINN: As the familiar New Line Home Entertainment icon fades up here, I find it necessary, and dispiriting, to dwell on the fact that New Line predictably refused to include our commentary for The Fellowship of the Ring on a previous deluxe DVD edition.
CHOMSKY: Oh, yes. Of course. Hardly surprising, however.
ZINN: I don’t see how one could be surprised. We were far too …
ZINN: We’re beginning here in the distant past, with Déagol and Sméagol happily fishing.
CHOMSKY: Clearly Déagol and Sméagol existed in some sort of purely subsistence economy. Now what’s this?
ZINN: A massive sturgeon drags Déagol underwater, where he finds the supposed “one ring to rule them all and in the darkness bind them.”
CHOMSKY: “Them,” of course, a reference to the other so-called magical rings.
ZINN: Déagol is entranced by the little trinket he finds, the purported power of which will later be said by Gandalf to have horrible, corrupting power when, in fact, all it seems to do is turn people invisible.
CHOMSKY: If that. It has all the characteristics of a classic fetish object. It’s ludicrous to believe that this ring, or any ring, is indeed a “ring of power”—whatever that could mean—or that it, as an inanimate object, is “evil,” or, indeed, that the fate of Middle Earth depends upon its destruction. We are supposed to accept this because Gandalf has recounted a couple of legends of dubious legitimacy. As we will discuss, the truthfulness of these legends is highly suspect, bound as they are in a conspiracy to keep the indigenous beings of Middle Earth under Elvish thrall. Hobbits, a race hopelessly addicted to pipe-weed, are, from Gandalf’s perspective, the ideal example of a malleable native people. How fitting that they are selected as the “bearers” of this worthless bit of jewelry.
ZINN: Exactly. All Hobbits really do is abuse substances, sweep their porches, and march to the orders of their colonial overlords.
CHOMSKY: By the looks of it, these proto-Hobbits, Déagol and Sméagol, seem to enjoy modest pursuits such as fishing, laughing, wrestling.
ZINN: Choking, biting.
CHOMSKY: Which is an understandable reaction to the sudden appearance of excess wealth in a subsistence economy. The ring may not be magical, but it is made of gold.
ZINN: It’s true. One shiny trinket is tossed into these creatures’ lives and immediately you see the malodorous aftereffects of economic inequality, which is enacted here on a disturbingly intimate scale.
CHOMSKY: If the story ended here after Sméagol strangles Déagol, I think we’d have a really brilliant—almost Dreiserian—economic critique.
ZINN: As Sméagol’s degeneration into Gollum is shown, we should note that it is never really established that the ring is causing this collapse into baldness, tooth loss, and green skin.
CHOMSKY: Yes. There is a lacuna between Sméagol’s first spell of invisibility and the montage of him weeping on the rocks. What really happened between those moments? What unchronicled sufferings did Gollum undergo during the time before Bilbo Baggins arrived at the Misty Mountains, cheated him in a patently unfair riddle game, stole his ring, and left him utterly defenseless? What happened before he became an unwitting pawn in the Great Game of Middle Earth? We don’t know.
ZINN: Now we flash forward to Sam and Frodo, deeply embarked upon their journey toward Mount Doom. What do they do? They sleep an extraordinary amount, and when they’re not sleeping they stagger about with the glazed and dissipated stare of recovering addicts. Clearly they’re struggling with pipe-weed and mead withdrawal. Where exactly are they now?
CHOMSKY: Mordor, the “dark land.” Which you correctly pointed out before we began should be properly known as Orcistan.
ZINN: Naturally, seeing that it’s Men who trapped the Orcs within its borders and started referring to these lands as “Mordor.” Orcs, of course, used to live throughout Middle Earth, before they were corralled—in a heartbreaking Orcish “Trail of Tears”—into this inhospitable, seismically active land.
CHOMSKY: Note later the beautiful, fertile fields between Minas Tirith and the mountains that encircle Mordor. Neither Men nor Orcs cultivate them, and clearly the purpose of the garrison at Osgiliath is to keep Orcs away from valuable farmland.
ZINN: Remember: What do Orcs eat? “Maggoty old bread,” as one in the previous film put it. Now we see Gandalf and company arriving at Orthanc after the battle of Helm’s Deep, where they discover an Ent-caused ecological disaster.
CHOMSKY: And we have two Hobbits sitting on a wall enjoying some Longbottom leaf. I wish someone could explain to me the supposed charm of these inebriated little meddlers.
ZINN: Drinking ale, gossiping endlessly. Remember, these are the people whom Gandalf, again, has purportedly entrusted with the fate of Middle Earth. It’s just … laughable.
CHOMSKY: But who is more reliable than an addict? Gandalf has complete control over them. Look at this—the more they smoke, the more they praise him!
ZINN: Surrounding Gandalf is a ragtag group—the decimated Fellowship of the Ring, minus its only skeptical and intelligent member, Boromir.
CHOMSKY: He is missed. There isn’t a single intellectual to be seen in this story. They’ve completely absconded.
ZINN: What about Bilbo Baggins?
CHOMSKY: Bilbo Baggins is hiding away in Rivendell. He has turned his back on his responsibilities and contented himself with revisionist histories and precious books of Elvish poetry. Do you think an eyewitness to one of the great power struggles of the Third Age of Middle Earth—I’m talking about the Battle of the Five Armies described in Bilbo’s admittedly charming memoir, There and Back Again — do you think he really has no inkling of the power-struggle dynamics going on in Middle Earth? And does he write about this? No, he’d rather keep his box seats at the Elvish ballet than publicly question Elrond’s or Gandalf’s real role in Middle Earth.
ZINN: And here, in the first of the additional scenes added to the deluxe addition of the DVD, we see Saruman’s reappearance.
CHOMSKY: Saruman, like Gandalf, is a member of the race of wizards from over the sea, who are known as the Istari. It’s clear why this scene was deleted from the theatrical release: here we are privy to a meeting between the last two members of the Istari. Now what is the Istari? Tolkien is never explicit, but we know there were five and that they came from over the sea to “manage” affairs in Middle Earth, and that they are closely allied with the Elves, who are also from “over the sea.” We know the Elves import Middle Earth’s resources—be it mithril, or pipe-weed, or gems, or Ent-draught—via the port of the Grey Havens. So, for our purposes, “Istari” is another word for “colonial administrator.” Saruman was formerly the head administrator, but clearly his alliance with Sauron—a bold and progressive plan to reshape power in Middle Earth—proved traitorous to his colonial masters and, consequently, to their faithful and Machiavellian servant, Gandalf.
ZINN: But the Elves are indigenous to Middle Earth, too, yes? Don’t they have a claim on the land?
CHOMSKY: Ages ago, perhaps, but I think the Elves lost that claim when they fled Middle Earth to the Western Lands. Regardless, they have a homeland now. They even have immortality! But their bloated lifestyle can now only be maintained by empire. Do you honestly believe they are interested in fighting “evil”?
ZINN: They claim idealistic motives for this war, even as they leave their proxies to fight it.
CHOMSKY: So if not to fight the “evil” Sauron, why are the Elves in Middle Earth? To secure the aforementioned natural resources their society requires. But how can they be custodians of a land in which a sizable portion of its peoples—perhaps a majority—is deprived of the most basic Orcish rights?
ZINN: Like nonmaggoty bread, for instance.
CHOMSKY: Or pathways deprived of giant spiders. And what is Gandalf’s long-term solution to the crisis of the divided peoples of Middle Earth? To install a puppet king of questionable provenance while the Elves continue their slow withdrawal back to the West? Meanwhile, a couple of drunkard Hobbits stagger toward a volcano while carrying a worthless ring. Gandalf is venal, he is calculating, he is ruthless, but he is not stupid.
ZINN: So, in your interpretation, these wizards and Elves and other people from across the sea have stirred up the passions of Men and Orcs—and essentially driven apart what should have been natural allies.
CHOMSKY: The Istari have colonized Middle Earth in precisely this manner. And everything one sees in this story, every interaction that Gandalf has with a Man who is not Aragorn, is an effort to destabilize the region so that he can maintain control over it and its resources, with the Elves, until their puppet government can be installed and he and the Elves can make their escape to the West.
ZINN: Saruman is stabbed in the back by Grima Wormtongue and pushed to his death.
CHOMSKY: Did you notice how, before he died, Saruman openly questioned Aragorn’s claim to the throne? I couldn’t agree more—as far as I’m concerned, Gondor has a ruler, and has had a ruler for a long time, a ruler who represents the people of Gondor, a true nationalist and patriot. His name, of course, is Denethor.
ZINN: A popular leader, moreover, able to keep his people calm when Orcs are visibly massing only several hundred yards away.
CHOMSKY: Yes. There is no better sign of the loyalty he inspires than the fact that he is able to request a funeral pyre for a son who’s not even dead and be unquestioningly obeyed. This is not a Man about to be pushed around by Elves or Istari overseers.
ZINN: We’ll come to how callously he’s treated by this Elf-Istari coalition.
CHOMSKY: Since Theoden’s brainwashing in The Two Towers, he’s the only figure not susceptible to the Istari.
ZINN: It’s clear that anything but all-out war would not serve Gandalf’s purpose at this point. He’s claiming great sadness at the prospect of marching off to war, but throughout the film, we see him encourage it, abet it, allow it, champion it, and, finally, prosecute it.
CHOMSKY: And if you disagree with his plan, you’ll get bonked on the head by his staff.
ZINN: Or find an arrow from one of Gandalf’s mercenaries sticking out of your rib cage, like poor Grima here.
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