Chomsky: One of the problems with the perspective offered by the Man-Elf coalition is that you have to try so hard to get at the truth of the conflict, at what is really going on; it’s so obscured by their propaganda and relentless militarism. I mean, here we have swords being distributed to the Hobbits by Strider so they can protect themselves against these “evil creatures.” Now, in this case, it’s probably warranted, though the “evil creatures” are looking for the ring in their own individual self-interest. They’re behaving in a purely rational way.
Zinn: The Nazgul have been ordered to get the ring. So, that’s what they’re doing.
Chomsky: There are conflicts in rationality as well. Sometimes valid rationality is forced into conflict because of the structures of culture. But working through those cultural differences is where the peace lies. It doesn’t lie in destroying some magical ring. This takes me back to the media’s involvement in all this, and the way the media is being controlled by Gandalf, such as when he covers Saruman’s palantir in Orthanc. This is the stone that allows one to see, and thus communicate with, different cultures.
Zinn: Right. “What does the eye command, my lord?” This is what the Orcs ask Saruman. In other words, what does the palantir say? Clearly the Orcs know a lot more about the people of Rohan and Gondor than the people of Rohan and Gondor have ever cared to know about them. They’re curious beings.
Chomsky: Naturally, it’s in Rohan/Gondor’s interest to keep the Orcs obscured, to make everything as restricted and dehumanizing as possible. It’s always the first step toward genocide. And is this — is there anything less than genocide being advocated in this film?
Zinn: I don’t think so.
Chomsky: Is there any kind of idea that men should live in peace with the Orcs?
Zinn: Think of the scenes in the prologue with all the arrows hitting these thousands of Orcs. We’re supposed to think that this is a good thing.
Chomsky: I think this is a tragedy, this story. Because it’s about two cultures. And poor leadership. It’s a human tragedy, and an Orcish tragedy.
Zinn: A perfect example of what you’re talking about is right here, when Strider attacks the Black Riders, “saving” Frodo from them.
Chomsky: Think of it from the Black Riders’ perspective. No doubt they arrived at Weathertop thinking, “Can we ask a few questions? We’d like to talk to you.”
Zinn: Now from here we jump to Isengard, post-ecological atrocities. What I personally see here is… well, I see industrialization, I see a very cooperative workforce, I see a people who aren’t terrorized, a people attempting to make do with what they have.
Chomsky: Well, they’re making weapons, which is sad. I mean, it would be nice if they could make plowshares, but unfortunately this isn’t the time for plowshares in their culture. But they’re showing great ingenuity, and they’re showing cooperation, you’re right about that.
Zinn: Actually it shows the Orcs smithing a lot of pieces of metal. I don’t think it’s necessarily established that what they’re making is swords, is it? They could be farming implements of some sort. They’re definitely unusual-looking. But I have to ask you, what about the genetic engineering that goes on with the Uruk-hai?
Chomsky: It’s certainly a strange aspect of their culture, but why should we be so condemning? I mean, this is the way they reproduce. If it looks disgusting to us, well maybe we should readjust what we regard as disgusting. I mean, is that any more vile than pulling a baby out of a gaping, bloody hole?
Zinn: And we go back to the Hobbits. After Frodo’s been stabbed, Strider and Sam immediately journey out in search of another herb: kingsfoil, or athelas.
Chomsky: Aragorn is evidently into Research and Development as well.
Zinn: He certainly seems knowledgeable of “herbs” and “medicines.”
Chomsky: And notice the way Arwen Evenstar greets Strider: a knife to the throat. I think that’s a very telling, very interesting thing that happens over and over. Whenever “friendly” people encounter one another, they’re raising swords, looking fearful and distrustful.
Zinn: Now we witness the Black Riders finally together — all nine Riders — giving chase to Arwen and Frodo. When we see the Orcs destroy their environment, it is this big scandal. But Arwen is able to send a whole herd of watery horses down a river, no doubt a very delicate ecosystem, and probably completely demolish it, and no one says anything about that.
Chomsky: The Elves, of course, always say that they are the best custodians of nature. And there’s a curious type of nature-worship in their culture that allows them to claim, by every implication, “Trees are more important than people.” They don’t regard the Orcs as people. However, Orcs are thinking, sentient, conscious beings with a culture and a language. They feel pain. They express emotion. They are constantly evolving, trying to better themselves.
Zinn: But here the Elvish culture is revealed to be very elaborate, because, of course, they have better architecture. But I vastly prefer the real grittiness one finds in Mordor. Think of the suspiciously clean city of Rivendell. You don’t see any life going on there. No people at all. There’s hardly anyone in the streets. It should be said, though, that, on occasion, the Orcs have been known to eat one another.
Chomsky: That’s cannibalism, sure, but maybe it’s part of a sacred ritual with them. Maybe it’s an ancient part of their culture. Who are we to judge? Still, I have problems with it, I agree.
Zinn: So here we have another shot of Rivendell being beautiful because it happens to be located in the mountains, where the lighter people live. And we see here the two primary players moving the action forward: an Elf and a wizard. Elrond and Gandalf.
Chomsky: This is our first real glimpse into the power structure of Middle Earth. It’s basically two men who rule their people, deciding what will happen — not asking anyone what they think should happen. Gandalf, even more disturbingly, does not even rule a people but rather rules from his own personal whims and preferences.
Zinn: Isn’t it implied that he’s from Rohan?
Chomsky: Originally he’s from over the sea. He is some type of magic person, according to his own myth about himself. He doesn’t claim any land, instead acting as custodian of all of their lands. Of course, I think he’s a classic dictator, pulling the strings. Can you detect how outraged I am by this?
Zinn: Why do you suppose it is that the Elves don’t want the ring to stay in Rivendell? Isn’t this obvious proof that the ring is nothing but a device to be used against Mordor?
Chomsky: This is their justification for war. That’s why Boromir is so insightful when he says, basically, “Why don’t we use it? If this ring’s so great, who don’t we use the damn thing?”
Zinn: And what happens to Boromir? The Orcs are tricked into killing him. Thus silencing him.
Chomsky: I think this is an interesting scene — Aragorn in Rivendell looking upon the Isildur mural — because it shows how the militarization of their propaganda has fed their cultural behaviors and religious beliefs.
Zinn: Isildur’s broken sword, you mean?
Chomsky: The myth. I mean, look at this museum, this cult, all based around a broken sword. They’ve developed a religion so that people can be effectively marshaled into battle. And Aragorn is a part of that. He’s a king, performing a ceremony for people to continue this senseless belief in some kind of genetic superiority. It is rather like saying, “I have the signet ring of the house of the tsar,” or something. Now I can rule.
Zinn: Well, I think this scene shows us what kind of person Aragorn is — a loner, possibly a drug lord.
Chomsky: And then we get bathed in Aragorn-Arwen love lore. And it’s the most simplistic kind of propaganda. You’ve got this beautiful woman who represents the Party, represents the people of the Motherland, and you have the hero. Develop a little love affair between them.
Zinn: A love affair between the putative hero and the personified Motherland concept, you mean.
Chomsky: Right. The humans are all so entranced by the Elves’ completely mythological power. It’s a spell that has been cast upon them.
Zinn: I see the humans, embodied by Aragorn, as being indicative of a sort of middle-class longing.
Chomsky: It keeps them striving. If you’re a good enough man, you can be an Elf.
Zinn: An Elf. As if that’s the best thing to be.
Chomsky: Now, at the Council of Elrond, we have the Middle Earth equivalent of a television broadcast. It’s one guy sitting in a tall chair and talking at twenty other people. This is how information is spread in this culture. But, you know, it doesn’t have to be this way. Imagine that, right now, you have the people in Gondor with a palantir, the people in Rohan with a palantir, the people in the Woodland Realm with a palantir. And everyone could be standing around it, talking to one another, sharing a conference in which the people have an equal interest and stake in what decisions are made.
Zinn: Technology that Gandalf already knows is available. But do we see a single Orc?
Chomsky: Oh, of course not. Of course not. Because everyone here has a vested interest in keeping the Orcs down.
Zinn: Boromir is the only one honest enough to talk about what the real story is here.
Chomsky: Boromir’s an interesting case. His culture is threatened by the Orcs in a very real way. But he’s also seen that this occupation of Orc land is engendered by his people’s own aggressive policies. So he’s like an enlightened Israeli who looks at the situation and says, “If I were in their situation, I would be just like them.”
Zinn: Boromir here is talking about the eye, and how horrible Mordor is, which reveals the basic limitations of his cultural situation. Boromir embodies the prejudices of his culture, but I too think he’s an interestingly problematic figure. He’s really the only one who understands… my God. Look at this. Keep in mind that these are supposed to be Middle Earth’s enlightened people at this Council, and they’re all fighting, they all hate one another.
Chomsky: It’s just so complicated, the webs of relationships.
Zinn: Now Frodo, son of Drogo, agrees to take the ring to Mount Doom. Something tells me that no one in Mordor calls it Mount Doom.
Chomsky: And everyone baits Frodo into this. “You are our agent, going on a suicide mission. You have to do it for the Motherland.”
Zinn: So is Frodo the Mohammed Atta figure in this story?
Chomsky: He’s a fanatical true believer. And crazy. Obviously, totally insane.
Zinn: And listen to what Aragorn tells Frodo: “You have my sword.”
Chomsky: So militaristic.
Zinn: Notice that no one says, “You have my diplomatic skills.” I think the only real diplomat of Middle Earth is Gollum. He’s the only one who makes any meaningful, cross-cultural exchange with any of these people. Being a torture victim at the hand of the Orcs, and his attempted strangulation of the Hobbits.
Chomsky: I think of Gollum as more of a deluded madman, one more sinned against than sinned.
Zinn: There’s room for argument. And, yet again, here we see Bilbo ravaged from the effects of pipe-weed. It’s been flushed from his system in his idyll-cum-rehab in Rivendell. And what does he give Frodo? He gives him his sword, of course. Sting.
Chomsky: As if to say, “You know, when you’ve stabbed enough people in the back like I have, you’ll need this shirt of mithril.” Hobbits are bandits. They have this little veneer of nobility around them, but they are nothing more than demented little thieves.
Zinn: On the way to Moria, here, we should point out the fear that men and Elves have of the Dwarves’ culture. They refuse to enter the mines of Moria.
Chomsky: There is something very funny lingering around the edges of the whole Moria episode. Could it be that the Dwarves living there were starting to get different ideas about the Orcs? Were starting to talk to the Orcs, and establish some means of cross-cultural communication? Perhaps Gandalf and some of his Rohan friends went there only to find a bunch of Dwarves and Orcs talking, maybe forming an alliance or pact. And then Gandalf massacred all of them, and pretended as though there was some huge battle. This would explain why Gandalf can’t lead them back there. Genocide’s been committed. He hasn’t yet weaved a good enough story to explain away the evidence. He has to pretend that Moria is this scary place.
Zinn: So few kingdoms within Middle Earth are established with any vividness. This goes some way toward proving your point.
Chomsky: We’re encouraged to think that no one but the Fellowship’s active participants are important, but then we go into Moria, and we realize that this was once an incredible, deeply multicultural place. There were some Orcs who lived there, and who are still living there. So here we are, walking into Moria, the scene of what was possibly a great massacre at the hands of Gandalf. And of course, the Fellowship walks in and they see the hundreds of bodies. Don’t think for a moment that Boromir is not suspicious about all of this.
Zinn: Earlier, Boromir says, “We make for the Gap of Rohan.” If you’re correct, what he is really saying is, “Let’s back out. I need to talk to some people.”
Chomsky: “I need to tell them about what I have lately discovered.”
Zinn: Now, we see in Moria that the Dwarves had a fairly sophisticated mithril mine here. Wouldn’t you say the Dwarves are the Jew-like figures of Middle Earth?
Chomsky: They are former slaves. The comparison is apt.
Zinn: They’re good at doing things with their hands. This is something Tolkien is very adamant about. They’re useful, but they’re not very educated. Ah, and this is also where we first see Gollum. I stick to my view of Gollum as a rebel who transgresses boundaries. In many ways he is the heroic, empathetic conscience of this story. He’s the only one who cares about bridging the gaps between these many cultures.
Chomsky: You could be right. I think there’s possibly something very wise about Gollum. Obviously he’s well-traveled, he’s a hermit.
Zinn: I think his sexuality is questionable, and that’s why he’s viewed as this hateful, awful thing. Everyone always talks about killing him.
Chomsky: Gandalf of course likes to have as many ghosts around him as possible. He slyly encourages Frodo in this belief that Gollum is some kind of horrible, corrupt thing. He neglects to say, “You know, I tortured him just a couple of weeks ago.”
Chomsky: Notice that Gandalf doesn’t give anybody else the supposed Dwarf book to read. Gandalf could be passing it off as Balin’s last words. We don’t know what is actually recorded in it, though. Very cunning. It could be agreement drawn up between the Orcs and the Dwarves. It could quite easily be that.
Zinn: It would explain why he kept it out of Gimli’s hands.
Chomsky: Sure. “No, don’t worry. I’ll read it. Let me read this to you guys.”
Zinn: What I think this reveals is that the Dwarves have a very beautiful, elegant, poetic way about them.
Chomsky: Except Gandalf could be making it all up.
Zinn: That’s what I mean: this is much more of a Gandalfian, flowery language. It’s hard to imagine the Dwarves writing that way.
Chomsky: And now the terrible Orcs invade Balin’s tomb. Let’s be clear about a few things here. The Orcs are fighting a war of self-defense against the invading Fellowship. They basically busted in on the Orcs’ place here. It’s fairly clear that the Orcs are hiding there because if they go outside they have every reason to believe that they will be massacred by Gandalf.
Zinn: The Orcs certainly don’t seem to be very good fighters, do they? If they’re such a terrible, evil, warlike culture —
Chomsky: They can’t kill even one of these little Hobbits who just received their swords only a few days ago. One would think that if the Orcs were as bad as the corrupt Man-Elf coalition says, they would be a lot better at fighting. It lends credence to the farming hypothesis — that they were trying to scrabble out a meager existence in the land in Mordor.
Zinn: You can see too here that the way the Hobbits fight is highly indicative of their culture: They jump on a wounded foe and then stab him in the neck.
Chomsky: They’re very morally ambiguous characters. There’s a nasty complacency about Hobbits. One would think that they could, easily enough, find out about all of the things that happen in the world — all of the consequences of their pipe-weed-growing actions. And now Middle Earth’s power structure is revealing itself, and they’re a part of it. Still, they don’t question it. Worse yet, they revel in it.
Zinn: My question is how hard would the mithril have to be to able to stop the cave troll from piercing you with his spear? And where does this stuff come from? How would anybody find out about it? You’d think the creators would keep it as secret as possible.
Chomsky: Possibly mithril once served the same function in Middle Earth culture as pipe-weed does now. After all, you have to keep creating new industries.
Zinn: Of course. The culture of consumption is founded upon whatever the new thing happens to be. One day it’s mithril, the next day it’s pipe-weed. Perhaps tomorrow it will be kingsfoil?
Chomsky: Here again we have the Orcs running after the Fellowship. The Orcs, apparently, are going to slaughter them, and in my estimation they would be well within their rights to do so. But do they? No, they do not. They stop.
Zinn: They stop.
Chomsky: And then they run away because the Balrog comes out. Take note of the fact that the Orcs don’t appear to like the Balrog much themselves. They’re scared of it.
Zinn: I’m not sure what role the Balrog really plays in this.
Chomsky: I think it just happened to be there, guarding its own little part of the mine.
Zinn: And look at these Orcs! Supposedly so evil and vicious, and yet they don’t do anything. They even appear to talk it over amongst themselves.
Chomsky: Look at it from their perspective: They’ve been locked up in this cave. They’re frightened, they know they’re not good fighters. They’re just a bunch of farmers.
Zinn: As evidenced by their long, ungainly swords.
Chomsky: Perhaps they’ve been radicalized a bit. But I doubt they are true evil-doers.
Zinn: Again, I’m not sure what role the Balrog plays.
Chomsky: I, too, am uncertain on that point.
Zinn: Here, very significantly, we have the Bridge of Khazad-Dûm. You will notice that what is destroyed is a bridge — another potential connector.
Chomsky: On a symbolic level, that is a very good point.
Zinn: All the borders in this film are constantly being destroyed, or overrun, or eliminated, or sealed. It’s all about fear — fearing the other. Notice, too, that the Elf Legolas jumps across the ruined bridge first.
Chomsky: They’ll cross this bridge and the bridge will collapse, and they’ll never be able to communicate with the Balrog again, or with the Orcs inside. In fact, they’re sealing off the Orcs from ever escaping. They’re leaving the Orcs in the cave with this big Balrog. Now, again, surely, among these Moria Orcs were some Orc radicals — aggressive, angry, militant radicals. We shouldn’t understate that.
Zinn: Well, look how the Orcs grow up. What do you expect?
Chomsky: I mean, what other options have they?
Zinn: I dare say that, were I an Orc, I might possibly be one of those terrorist Orcs, shooting arrows at the Fellowship myself.
Chomsky: Here comes the Balrog. Notice Gandalf’s unilateral action. “Quick, get away, I have to fight this thing alone!”
Zinn: Once again you see a creature that’s on fire being demonized in this movie: the flaming eye, the flaming Balrog. As though being on fire is this terrible affliction to have.
Chomsky: As though they can help it if they’re on fire.
Zinn: After Gandalf falls, you get another view of the so-called terrorist Orcs. You know, the regrettable side of the Orcs does occasionally come out. The violence. It doesn’t help their cause when these distinct, individual Orcs take it upon themselves to lash out at the inequality of the system. But notice that even these violent Orcs don’t seem happy. They’re not pleased with themselves. It’s a violence borne of necessity.
Chomsky: Sure. They’re trapped in a cycle of violence.
Zinn: And now we come to Galadriel’s wood, Lothlorien. The film — inexcusably, in my view — leaves out a lot of the things that happen to Gimli in this sequence.
Chomsky: He’s forced to wear a blindfold. He is not allowed to see the Elves. This is the apartheid system the Fellowship serves.
Zinn: And even here the Elves hold, you know, arrows to his head. He’s completely brutalized. But of course Gimli falls in love with Galadriel, thus perpetuating the Dwarves’ self-hatred.
Chomsky: It’s somewhat similar to the method the Elves use to ensnare people like Aragorn — to affect their Elvish self-esteem. They want to be worshipped. It seems as though a peculiar kind of brainwashing occurs whenever anyone is exposed to Elf culture.
Zinn: I mean, look at how the Elves greet people — with arrows. Is that so different from the Orcs?
Chomsky: Right. And they’re supposed to be nature-worshippers. It’s sort of sickening and very bourgeois.
Zinn: And of course we should point out that Galadriel is wearing a ring throughout this entire scene. She has a ring — arguably the most powerful ring. Somehow she’s trusted to wield this power responsibly. This woman who reads people’s minds without asking them.
Chomsky: That’s true. She’s constantly invading other people’s thoughts. Though there is one thing you have to say for the Elves. Women’s rights. But of course, we learn here that even if you cede women these rights they become just as morally culpable as any man. And have you taken proper note of Galadriel’s farewell gesture, when the Fellowship sets its boats down the Silverlode? It is some sort of Sieg Heil gesture.
Zinn: It is vaguely reminiscent of the biomechanics of National Socialism. You’ll notice, too, how clearly the Man-Elf coalition controls all the modes of transportation in Middle Earth. We always see the Orcs running. But Legolas, Gimli, and Aragorn — I mean, sometimes they are riding horses. The Orcs have nothing like any of this. The Orcs certainly don’t canoe.
Chomsky: Well they don’t have these wide, beautiful rivers to canoe on. That’s part of the deprivation of their natural resources. And just as you say, here the Orcs are, running. A bunch of farmers, holding their clumsy weapons.
Zinn: The white hand of Saruman on the heads of the Uruk-hai. Of course, the hand in control is white. And good lord, these giant statues on the Anduin River. The Sentinels of Númenor. These huge, monolithic statues that have their hands thrust forever up. I think I can intuit what these sentinels are saying: “Stay away, Orcs.”
Chomsky: “Keep out of our land.”
Zinn: “Keep out of our land. Don’t come in.” It is little wonder that the Orcs are so warlike and angry.
Chomsky: And of course the sentinels are holding swords. More monolithic images of supposedly noble militarism.
Zinn: One suspects that Orc slaves probably build the things. I imagine there’s a lot of Orc labor that gets in through Gondor and Rohan. They want to get out of Mordor. There are simply not a lot of economic options for them there.
Chomsky: Picture, for a moment, the average Orc’s life. Hunted, hated, sometimes murdered. I think Jared Diamond would be an interesting person to write about the effects of environment and geography on all this.
Zinn: On the Orcs?
Chomsky: On Orcish culture as a whole. Of course, one of the interesting points in Diamond’s work is that you have hunter-gathering cultures, and you have farming cultures, developed societies. And these developed societies, these agricultural cultures, mobilize and create large armies, and hunter-gathering cultures are not actually very effective at mounting large armies.
Zinn: Right. Like the Orcs.
Chomsky: This simple bunch of farmers, hastily rallied together against these well-armed, well-equipped Elves and men.
Zinn: Here we see the Orcs facing Aragorn for the first time. It’s not very obvious what’s happening here. The Orcs appear rather skittish.
Chomsky: Well, some of these Orcs are charging. It is fairly easy to imagine what they are feeling. No doubt they have seen this ranger’s work before. Aragorn has so many names, it is all but certain that he has a few Orcish names as well. Orc-killer, perhaps. Orc-slayer. Madman. Look at all this casual slaughter.
Zinn: Clearly the Orcs have a hand in murdering Boromir, but Aragorn’s innocence is not established by a long shot. I think he maneuvered Boromir into that position. To get him out of the way. After all, Boromir had a very clear claim to Aragorn’s supposed kingship.
Chomsky: That is very possible.
Zinn: I have to ask, what does this story do for the powerful? For one, it makes them feel very good about the kind of things they’ve done to less powerful societies. The way they exploit them and the way they invent these phony pretexts to wage wars of aggression against less powerful people. The powerful need to tell themselves these stories.
Chomsky: And yet, as in all stories of this type, hidden within the story are the keys to unlocking the hidden modes of power.
Zinn: The thing is, though, that even when the dominant culture tells itself the story, the story cannot help but include those telltale signifiers of power that surrender the true nature of the story.
Chomsky: It is embedded, I would say, in the language of the story itself. No matter how often the storytellers try to obscure the truth, the truth will out. The truth will be betrayed through the way the story gets told.
Zinn: Thankfully, the literature of oppression can never last because the oppression is always so obvious. It’s always about the people who are suppressed, who keep getting more and more aware of how they’re suppressed. And once they’re aware of how suppressed they are, they can —
Chomsky: Right, they’re able to —
Zinn: We’ve got to get our conspiracy straight.
Chomsky: Not necessarily. Think of Lee Harvey Oswald.
Zinn: A patsy. A CIA agent.
Chomsky: A cold-blooded, ruthless killer.
Chomsky: He was a good shot. He was a bad shot.
Zinn: Right. Exactly.
Chomsky: But then, I don’t really believe in conspiracy theories about JFK.
Zinn: Neither do I.
Zinn: Isn’t that funny?