CHOMSKY: The film opens with Galadriel speaking. “The world has changed,” she tells us, “I can feel it in the water.” She’s actually stealing a line from the non-human Treebeard. He says this to Merry and Pippin in The Two Towers, the novel. Already we can see who is going to be privileged by this narrative and who is not.
ZINN: Of course. “The world has changed.” I would argue that the main thing one learns when one watches this film is that the world hasn’t changed. Not at all.
CHOMSKY: We should examine carefully what’s being established here in the prologue. For one, the point is clearly made that the “master ring,” the so-called “one ring to rule them all,” is actually a rather elaborate justification for preemptive war on Mordor.
ZINN: I think that’s correct. Tolkien makes no attempt to hide the fact that rings are wielded by every other ethnic enclave in Middle Earth. The Dwarves have seven rings, the Elves have three. The race of Man has nine rings, for God’s sake. There are at least 19 rings floating around out there in Middle Earth, and yet Sauron’s ring is supposedly so terrible that no one can be allowed to wield it. Why?
CHOMSKY: Notice too that the “war” being waged here is, evidently, in the land of Mordor itself — at the very base of Mount Doom. These terrible armies of Sauron, these dreadful demonized Orcs, have not proved very successful at conquering the neighboring realms — if that is even what Sauron was seeking to do. It seems fairly far-fetched.
ZINN: And observe the map device here — how the map is itself completely Gondor-centric. Rohan and Gondor are treated as though they are the literal center of Middle Earth. Obviously this is because they have men living there. What of places such as Anfalas and Forlindon or Near Harad? One never really hears anything about places like that. And this so-called map casually reveals other places — the Lost Realm, the Northern Waste (lost to whom? wasted how? I ask) — but tells us nothing about them. It is as though the people who live in these places are despicable, and unworthy of mention. Who is producing this tale? What is their agenda? What are their interests and how are those interests being served by this portrayal? Questions we need to ask repeatedly.
CHOMSKY: And here comes Bilbo Baggins. Now, this is, to my mind, where the story begins to reveal its deeper truths. In the books we learn that Saruman was spying on Gandalf for years. And he wondered why Gandalf was traveling so incessantly to the Shire. As Tolkien later establishes, the Shire’s surfeit of pipe-weed is one of the major reasons for Gandalf’s continued visits.
ZINN: You view the conflict as being primarily about pipe-weed, do you not?
CHOMSKY: Well, what we see here, in Hobbiton, farmers tilling crops. The thing to remember is that the crop they are tilling is, in fact, pipe-weed, an addictive drug transported and sold throughout Middle Earth for great profit.
ZINN: This is absolutely established in the books. Pipe-weed is something all the Hobbits abuse. Gandalf is smoking it constantly. You are correct when you point out that Middle Earth depends on pipe-weed in some crucial sense, but I think you may be overstating its importance. Clearly the war is not based only on the Shire’s pipe-weed. Rohan and Gondor’s unceasing hunger for war is a larger culprit, I would say.
CHOMSKY: But without the pipe-weed, Middle Earth would fall apart. Saruman is trying to break up Gandalf’s pipe-weed ring. He’s trying to divert it.
ZINN: Well, you know, it would be manifestly difficult to believe in magic rings unless everyone was high on pipe-weed. So it is in Gandalf’s interest to keep Middle Earth hooked.
CHOMSKY: How do you think these wizards build gigantic towers and mighty fortresses? Where do they get the money? Keep in mind that I do not especially regard anyone, Saruman included, as an agent for progressivism. But obviously the pipe-weed operation that exists is the dominant influence in Middle Earth. It’s not some ludicrous magical ring.
ZINN: You’ve mentioned in the past the various flavors of pipe-weed that Hobbits have cultivated: Gold Leaf, Old Toby, etc.
CHOMSKY: Nothing better illustrates the sophistication of the smuggling ring than the fact that there are different brand names associated with the pipe-weed. Ah, here we have Gandalf smoking a pipe in his wagon — the first of many clues that link us to the hidden undercurrents of power.
ZINN: Gandalf is deeply implicated. That’s true. And of course the ring lore begins with him. He’s the one who leaks this news of the supposed evil ring.
CHOMSKY: Now here, just before Bilbo’s eleventy-first birthday party, we can see some of the symptoms of addiction. We are supposed to attribute Bilbo’s tiredness, his sensation of feeling like too little butter spread out on a piece of bread, to this magical ring he supposedly has. It’s clear something else may be at work, here.
ZINN: And soon Gandalf is delighting the Hobbits with his magic. Sauron’s magic is somehow terrible but Gandalf’s, you’ll notice, is wonderful.
CHOMSKY: And note how Gandalf’s magic is based on gunpowder, on explosions.
CHOMSKY: And it is interesting, too, that Gandalf’s so-called magic is technological, and yet somehow technology seems to be what condemns Saruman’s enterprises, as well as those of the Orcs.
CHOMSKY: But we will address that later. Here we have Pippin and Merry stealing a bunch of fireworks and setting them off. This might be closer to the true heart of the Hobbits.
ZINN: You mean the Hobbits’ natural inclination?
CHOMSKY: I think the Hobbits are criminals, essentially.
ZINN: It also seems incredibly irresponsible for Gandalf to have a firework that powerful just sitting in the back of his wagon.
CHOMSKY: More of his smoke and mirrors, yes? Gandalf conjures the dragon Smaug to scare the people.
ZINN: One can always delight the little people with explosions.
CHOMSKY: As long as they’re blowing up somewhere else. Now we come to Bilbo’s disappearance. Again, we have to question the validity of the ring, and the magic powers attributed to it. Did Bilbo Baggins really disappear at his party, or is this some kind of mass hallucination attributable to a group of intoxicated Hobbits? When forced to consider so-called magic compared to the hallucinatory properties of a known narcotic, Occam’s Razor would indicate the latter as a far more plausible explanation.
ZINN: I also think it is a spectacular display of bad manners to disappear at your own birthday party. And here, for the first time, Gandalf speaks to Bilbo about magic rings. Still, it is never clearly established why this one ring is so powerful. Everything used to justify that belief is legendary.
CHOMSKY: Gandalf is clearly wondering if it’s time to invoke his plan for the supposed revelation concerning the secret magic ring. Why now? Well, I think it’s because the people in Mordor — the Orcs, I’m speaking of — are starting to obtain some power, are starting to ask a little bit more from Middle Earth than Middle Earth has ever seen fit to give to them. And I don’t think it’s unreasonable for them to expect something back from Middle Earth. Of course, if that happened, the entire economy would be disrupted.
ZINN: The pipe-weed-based economy.
CHOMSKY: And, as you pointed out earlier, the military-industrial-complex that exists in Gondor. This constant state of alertness. This constant state of fear. And here Gandalf reveals his true nature.
ZINN: Indeed. Gandalf darkens the room and yells at poor Bilbo for rightfully accusing him of trying to steal his ring. It is abundantly obvious that Gandalf wants to steal the ring. But if he is caught with the ring himself, his pretext will dissolve. He needs to throw as much plausible deniability into his scheme as possible, which is why, later, he has Frodo carry the ring for him.
CHOMSKY: Gandalf knows the ring is powerless. It’s interesting that he attaches so much importance to it and yet will not pick it up himself. This is because he knows that merely possessing the worthless ring will not help his cause. It’s important to keep others thinking that it can. If Gandalf held the ring, he might be asked to do something with it. But its magic is nonexistent.
ZINN: Well, power needs to have its proxies. That way the damage is always deniable. As long as the Hobbits have the ring, no one will ever question the plot Gandalf has hatched. So here is the big scary ring, and all that happens when Gandalf moves to touch it is that he sees a big flaming eye. And notice it is a… different kind of eye — not like our eye.
CHOMSKY: Almost a cat-like eye.
ZINN: It’s on fire. Somehow being an on-fire eye is this terrible thing in the minds of those in Middle Earth. I think this is a way of telling others in Middle Earth to be ashamed of their eyes. And of course you see the Orcs’ eyes are all messed up, too. They’re this terrible color. And what does Gandalf tell Frodo about the ring? “Keep it secret. Keep it safe.”
CHOMSKY: “Let’s leave the most powerful object in all of Middle Earth with a weak little Hobbit, a race known for its chattering and intoxication, and tell him to keep it a secret.”
ZINN: Right. And here we receive our first glimpse of the supposedly dreadful Mordor, which actually looks like a fairly functioning place.
CHOMSKY: This type of city is most likely the best the Orcs can do if all they have are cliffs to grow on. It’s very impressive, in that sense.
ZINN: Especially considering the economic sanctions no doubt faced by Mordor. They must be dreadful. We see now that the Black Riders have been released, and they’re going after Frodo. The Black Riders. Of course they’re black. Everything evil is always black. And later Gandalf the Grey becomes Gandalf the White. Have you noticed that?
CHOMSKY: The most simplistic color symbolism.
ZINN: And the writing on the ring, we learn here, is Orcish — the so-called “black speech.” Orcish is evidently some spoliation of the language spoken in Rohan. This is what Tolkien says.
CHOMSKY: From what I understand, Orcish is a patois that the Orcs developed during their enslavement by Rohan, before they rebelled and left.
ZINN: Well, supposedly the Orcs were first bred by “the dark power of the north in the elder days.” Tolkien says that “Orc” comes from the Mannish word tark, which means “man of Gondor.”
CHOMSKY: Shameless really.
ZINN: Gandalf mentions the evil stirring in Mordor. That’s all he has to say. “It’s evil.” He doesn’t elaborate on what’s going on in Mordor, what the people are going through. They’re evil because they’re there.
CHOMSKY: I think the fact that we never actually see the enemy is quite damning. Then again, Gandalf is the greatest storyteller of all. He weaves the tales that strand Middle Earth in this state of perpetual conflict.
ZINN: He is celebrated on one hand as a great statesman, a wise man, and viewed by the people who understand the role that he actually plays as a dangerous lunatic and a war criminal. And you will notice that Gandalf’s war pitch hits its highest note when the Black Riders arrive in Hobbiton. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
Chomsky: This is the Triumph of the Will.
ZINN: And now Frodo and Sam are joined by Merry and Pippin, as they finally escape the Shire. They’re being chased by the Black Riders. Again, if these Black Riders are so fearsome, and they can smell the ring so lividly, why don’t they ever seem able to find the Hobbits when they’re standing right next to them?
CHOMSKY: Well, they’re on horseback.
CHOMSKY: This episode in Bree should cause us to ask, too, how much Frodo knows about the conspiracy. He seems to be piecing it together a little bit. I think at first he’s an unwitting participant, fooled by Gandalf’s propaganda.
ZINN: I’m much more suspicious of Frodo than you are. I’ve always viewed him as one of the most malevolent actors in this drama, precisely because of how he abets people like Gandalf. He uses a fake name, Mr. Underhill, just as Gandalf goes by several names: Mithrandir, the Grey Pilgrim, the White Rider. Strider is also Aragorn, is also Estel, is also Elessar, is also Dunadan. He has all these identities.
CHOMSKY: We call those aliases today.
ZINN: But is Sauron ever anything but Sauron? Is Saruman ever anything but Saruman?
CHOMSKY: And now, with Frodo in the midst of a hallucinogenic, paranoid state, we meet Strider.
ZINN: Note that the first thing he starts talking about is the ring. “That is no trinket you carry.” A very telling irony, that. It is the kind of irony that Shakespeare would use. It is something Iago might say. And did you hear that? “Sauron the Deceiver.” That is what Strider, the ranger with multiple names, calls Sauron. A ranger. I believe today we call them serial killers.
CHOMSKY: Or drug smugglers.
ZINN: And notice how Strider characterizes the Black Riders. “Neither living nor dead.” Why, that’s a really useful enemy to have.
CHOMSKY: Yes. In this way you can never verify their existence, and yet they’re horribly terrifying. We should not overlook the fact that Middle Earth is in a cold war at this moment, locked in perpetual conflict. Strider’s rhetoric serves to keep fear alive.
ZINN: You’ve spoken to me before about Mordor’s lack of access to the mineral wealth that the Dwarves control.
CHOMSKY: If we’re going to get into the socio-economic reasons why certain structures develop in certain cultures… it’s mainly geographical. We have Orcs in Mordor — trapped, with no mineral resources — hemmed in by the Ash Mountains, where the “free peoples” of Middle Earth can put a city, like Osgiliath, and effectively keep the border closed.
ZINN: Don’t forget the Black Gate. The Black Gate, which, as Tolkien points out, was built by Gondor. And now we jump to the Orcs chopping down the trees in Isengard.
CHOMSKY: A terrible thing the Orcs do here, isn’t it? They destroy nature. But again, what have we seen, time and time again?
ZINN: The Orcs have no resources. They’re desperate.
CHOMSKY: Desperate people driven to do desperate things.
ZINN: Desperate to compete with the economic powerhouses of Rohan and Gondor.
CHOMSKY: Who really knows their motive? Maybe this is a means to an end. And while that might not be the best philosophy in the world, it makes the race of Man in no way superior. They’re going to great lengths to hold onto their power. Two cultures locked in conflict over power, with one culture clearly suffering a great deal. I think sharing power and resources would have been the wisest approach, but Rohan and Gondor have shown no interest in doing so. Sometimes, revolution must be —
ZINN: Mistakes are often —
CHOMSKY: Blood must be shed. I forget what Thomas Jefferson —
ZINN: He said that blood was the —
CHOMSKY: The blood of tyrants —
ZINN: The blood of tyrants —
CHOMSKY: — waters the tree of —
ZINN: — revolution.
CHOMSKY: — freedom. Or revolution. Something like that.
ZINN: I think that’s actually very, very close.