Type
Review
Category
Culture

The Middle of Middle Earth

On the flight to Auckland, I watched Snow White and the Huntsman, a film made more famous for its leading lady’s alleged affair with its director than its cinematic success. The lead was none other than Kirsten Stewart, famed star of the Twilight franchise, which caused Twihards to collectively wail, gnash their teeth and post their meltdowns on YouTube. The film itself is a kind of Tolkienesque adventure that owed as much to the imaginative universe of a roleplaying game as to the fairytale on which it was based.

Indeed, the film will always be undercut by the pervasive irony that Charlize Theron’s statuesque beauty as the evil queen – even as she ages – will forever outshine Kirsten Stewart’s pixie-ish prettiness. This is a matter of charisma and acting skill as much as a matter of stereotypical attractiveness. The former commands the screen with grace; like a true star, she inexorably draws the viewer’s eye. By contrast, Stewart’s rousing ‘William Wallace-style’ speech at the end of the second act seems to come from a teenager playing dress-ups. At no stage are we ever under any threat of believing the mirror when it answers the queen with, ‘There is one fairer than you.’

In other words, the film can’t live up to its own conservative ideology, an unexamined beauty myth that’s hard to stomach. But in its Tolkien-like aspects, it was appropriate enough a beginning for a visit to a land advertising itself as ‘Middle Earth’.

 

When we arrive, we pass under a carved Maori archway. We will see them periodically through the journey: more than a secret history; less than the county’s national culture.

But to a Melburnian, Maori culture seems ubiquitous compared to that brave but marginalised Aboriginal culture that survives in my hometown.

 

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey premiered on 27 November in Wellington. The association of New Zealand and Middle Earth is itself ironic, for Tolkien’s idyllic Hobbiton is the province of simple-minded folk. In the novels (but mercifully not the films), our heroes return from the war (read: Second World War), like classic conservatives to find – horror of horrors – the Labour Party (ahem, Saruman’s ‘sharers’) are in power. As anarchist fantasy writer Michael Moorcock has pointed out, in its anti-urban, anti-technological stance, The Lord of the Rings is ‘Epic Pooh’.

Moorcock explains, Tolkien ‘sees the petit bourgeoisie, the honest artisans and peasants, as the bulwark against Chaos. These people are always sentimentalised in such fiction because, traditionally, they are always the last to complain about any deficiencies in the social status quo.’ Ho continues:

It is Winnie-the-Pooh posing as an epic. If the Shire is a suburban garden, Sauron and his henchmen are that old bourgeois bugaboo, the Mob – mindless football supporters throwing their beer-bottles over the fence the worst aspects of modern urban society represented as the whole by a fearful, backward-yearning class for whom “good taste” is synonymous with “restraint” (pastel colours, murmured protest) and “civilized” behaviour means “conventional behaviour in all circumstances”. This is not to deny that courageous characters are found in The Lord of the Rings, or a willingness to fight Evil (never really defined), but somehow those courageous characters take on the aspect of retired colonels at last driven to write a letter to The Times and we are not sure – because Tolkien cannot really bring himself to get close to his proles and their satanic leaders – if Sauron and Co. are quite as evil as we’re told. After all, anyone who hates hobbits can’t be all bad.

Karangahape road is lined with cheap ‘convenience stores’ and porn shops. A strip-joint called Las Vegas Strip Club features a painted picture of a naked woman lounging on some unseen piece of furniture. ‘The Vegas Girl’, as she is named, seems to be caught mid-crawl, her buttocks jutting unnaturally in the air in a way that would immediately raise the hackles of my physio. But she is not glamorous, for the paint in which she is depicted is stripping from the wall.

This is not Hobbiton, apparently.

 

Hobbiton, it turns out, is in the region of Matamata and you can tour the film set for a hundred dollars or more.

I want to visit the set. I do work in film, after all, I tell myself. But the price is too steep. No number of stories about Elijah Wood falling down sinkholes or cracking jokes with hobbitish bonhomie will do it. Anyway, there is something vaguely dissatisfying about learning the behind-the scenes stories of a film. You can never watch it with a suspension of disbelief. Instead, you find yourself ruminating melancholically about the twenty-seven animals that allegedly died during the making of it.

That kind of thing just doesn’t happen in Hobbiton.

 

New Zealand has not ridden out the GFC with the same surety as Australia. They have sheep. We have mining. Auckland’s run-down quality is offset, though, with old houses of regal beauty. A half-day trip to the former island of Devonport confirms it. An old-timer called Ray drives us around in a minibus. His everyday commonsense recalls an earlier time and a gentle simplicity long lost from the great metropolises of the world. Indeed, he’s not so far from Frodo’s loyal companion Sam Gamgee: an unworldly type whose horizons seem to span as far as the piers over the bay in Auckland. His knowledge of Devonport is encyclopedic; one can imagine him staring with suspicion at the exotic ways of New Yorkers.

As she races down Queen St, a woman is crying. She has the look on her face of someone bereft with her lot. She doesn’t try to hide her tears; this suggests that they are an everyday occurrence.

Later, L says, ‘She looked like she’s had a rough life.’

 

In Rotorua, we watch Once Were Warriors, a film still as powerful today as when it was released. The receptionist who gives it to us emphasises, ‘It’s a film about domestic violence in any culture. Not just Maori culture.’ He’s keen to ensure we don’t interpret it as racist.

L says of the actor Temuera Morrison, who plays the charismatic and violent Jake, ‘I’ve seen him before in something.’

At first we think it might have been in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Maori played some of the orcs, in a kind of inverse Orientalism to that featured in Avatar.

But later I discover it was in the latest Star Wars movies. No wonder he was hard to remember.

When I return the DVD the following day, the receptionist repeats, ‘It’s a film about domestic violence in any culture, not just Maori culture.’

 

Wellington has renamed itself ‘The Middle of Middle Earth.’ Huge billboards and flapping flag-advertisements look down ominously over the city. A grand model of Gandalf dominates the facade of the cinema. The shops are already filled with merchandise from the film.

We meet D – G joins us slightly afterwards – for a drink at an unpretentious bar in Newtown.

D holds up three fingers. ‘I’m one of the three people in Wellington who don’t like The Hobbit.’

He explains that the film had been made against the background of a conflict between director Peter Jackson and the actors union (The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance), who claimed that actors might be employed on inferior non-union contracts.

An enraged Jackson had said of the Australian-based union: ‘I can’t see beyond the ugly spectre of an Australian bully-boy using what he perceives as his weak Kiwi cousins to gain a foothold in this country’s film industry. They want greater membership, since they get to increase their bank balance.’

There were claims the film would have to move offshore. There were pro-Hobbit rallies.

D objects to the fact that New Zealand is being advertised as Middle Earth. ‘If you want fantasy,’ he says, ‘there’s plenty of Maori myths which are fantastic! But no – we’re “Middle Earth!”’

 

When we fly out, Wellington airport’s baggage claim has been transformed into ‘Baggins Services’. The conveyor belt runs around a mock-image of Bag End, the home of Bilbo Baggins.

On the flight home, I watch Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, the third film in a series about a group of animals that have escaped from the New York Zoo. Thinking they were happiest back in the Zoo, they aim to return.

But by the time they arrive, they come to understand that in truth they were most alive when they lived out in the wider world, far away from the narrow confines in which they had always felt safe.

When they returned, they found that Hobbiton was always a myth.

Rjurik Davidson is an Associate Editor of Overland magazine. He is the author of The Library of Forgotten Books. His novel Unwrapped Sky will be published by Tor books in 2014 and his screenplay The Uncertainty Principle is currently in development with Lailaps films. He can also be found rjurik.com and @rjurikdavidson.

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Comments

  1. Moorcock’s ‘Epic Pooh’ essay is hilarious but looking back on it now his arguments do seem rather wanting. I don’t take issue with the LOTR’s values so much – impossible to get a clear moral message out of that book, in which most of the major plot points are confused anyway (there seems little reason for the war, for instance). It’s more that the book itself is boring.

    But there’s nothing wrong with the celebration of conventional behaviour and propriety, as far as I can see. Restraint and decency are virtues to be cherished and celebrated. Moorcock of course was an early enemy of these values – he tells a story somewhere about his mispent youth, in which he drunkenly demolishes the glass door of a London restaurant. He concludes that the butler at the restaurant who had to clean up his mess ‘was very apologetic’. A great anecdote, but the person who comes across best in that story is not Moorcock (likeable as he is).

  2. I’m loving the fact that the kiwis can wreak my childhood with the same panash as Hollywood.

    The ‘epic pooh’ line has been making me smile lately. Moorcock’s Runestaff books could be described as epic Cinderella, as fairy god knights appear at the direst moments to save the day.

  3. Tim: I think the thing about LOTR is that like all conservatism, it recognises that some things – the ‘decency’, ‘civilization’, ‘culture – which modern neo-liberal capitalism destroys. In one sense, Tolkien’s love of ‘forests’ could be read as environmentalist, and indeed there’s a strong sense of this in his work – it’s just that his solutions are all wrong.

    Jill: Yup, Devonport.

    Dylan: I never read the Runestaff books, and truth be told, Moorcock himself is responsible for a lot of crap (as I think he’d probably acknowledge).

  4. I won’t be going to see The Hobbit. Peter Jackson and Warner Bros got the NZ government falling over themselves to guarantee that actors were employed on non-union contracts, the threats to move offshore were shown to be empty as all the arrangements had been made to start shooting in NZ. Of course by then Warner Bros got what they wanted, the media had supported Jackson and created a big hate campaign against the MEAA and unions in general, and the govt made it clear that they were prepared to roll over at the slightest hint of corporate blackmail.
    By the way, if you’re coming to NZ again, let me know – I’m living in Auckland now.

  5. Yeah it’s a cheap shot, but Moorcock’s shot is pretty cheap too. One of the strengths of fairy tales is their malleability. We can project whatever we want onto them. I never saw the two Ss of LOTR as representing the mob, rather I saw press gangs and a world threatened by a fight between siblings. Subjects that would have been familiar to many that read the books when they came out. I know that arguing about the rightness and wrongness of any interpretation of a fairy tale can get a little silly but attempting that would have to wait.
    Toddle pip

  6. Sauron and Saruman as representatives of the Mob? Silliest thing I’ve ever heard. They’re clearly totalitarian dictators (from the East, no less). Yes, we’re not supposed to see LOTR as an allegory of WWII but it’s ‘applicable’ as Tolkein says and trust the tale and not the teller anyway.

    It’s simpleminded to just see LOTR values as conservative. If that were purely true the tale would not be so popular or enduring. Rjurik is right to pick up on the idea of environmentalism as something modern in the sensibility of LOTR (reminds me a bit of the feeling in Orwell’s Coming up for Air) but there’s something else.

    LOTR is the only great quest I can think of not to FIND something but to LOSE it. This makes it a uniquely modern tale; it turns on the renunciation of too great a power and thus is uniquely potent for Western modernity. It’s not an allegory of nuclear weapons but applicable to the Faustian quest that produced them.

  7. The films and the books are entirely different phenomena, really. Peter Jackson takes liberties that would have Tolkien spinning in his grave – he might have admired the visual design, but judging from his essays he would have loathed the Hollywoodising and trivialising of his characters with every fibre of his being. I especially resented what happened to Faramir, an egregious vamping up of the psychic static. I’ll still be at The Hobbit on Boxing Day, though.

    The thing that emotionally underpins TLOTR is Tolkien’s own experiences of mechanised warfare in the trenches of WW1. As he mentions in his preface, by the end of the war, all but one (?) of his friends was dead. And much of it was written during WW2 while his son was in Africa, which I suspect gives the sense of dread in The Two Towers real ballast. The environmental impulse isn’t a footnote, either. And Tolkien’s central moral point – that the greatest sin (and the greatest poverty) is to wish to possess, to turn people and the world into objects, instead of respecting their autonomy as themselves – always appealed to me. I can forgive him quite a lot for that, although I totally agree with Moorcock on many points (and, well, you know, women). The ideology is clear in all his work, but there are complexities: he’s not an out and out racist, although the imperial impetus of his books is undeniable – it’s just a question of the Good Empire vs the Bad Empire.

  8. But what about the ‘little England’ element, which seems to be part of what Moorcock’s getting at. That’s what really sets my teeth on edge about the whole idea of hobbits: the tweeness of them, the sense that they represent an idealisation of village life where everyone’s a shopkeeper.
    Obviously, there’s more than that to Tolkien. I mean, the fantasy genre that he kind of presides over as a founding father is so broad that you can find almost anything in it, and that is probably testament to the multiple ways he can be read.
    As a side note, during my brief obsession with Norwegian black metal, I discovered that the central people in Mayhem (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mayhem_(band) ) were heavily influenced by Tolkien — except that they obsessed over all the evil characters. Hence Varg called himself Count Grishnackh (after one of the orcs) and his post-Mayhem band (after he murdered Euronymous) was named Burzum, which apparently means ‘darkness’ in Tolkien’s ‘black speech’.
    So there’s something that came out of LOTR.

  9. I must vigorously challenge D’s suggestion that he’s one of only three people in Wellington who don’t care for The Hobbit. There really are an awful lot of us – we are legion.

  10. Little England is where I’m bang beside Moorcock. The Shire is essentially the same as Midsomer Murders, minus the murderous aristocracy (maybe that’s Saruman): idealised bourgeoise village life. But it’s charm is because the hobbits were basically invented to charm children (they love eating and toys and presents, eg). And they do.

    As an aside, I’ve long been intrigued that Tolkien essentially had the same idea as David Jones did in In Parenthesis and especially The Anathemata: to create an over-arching mythology for Britain. (Lots of myths in the British Isles, but none of them actually British, it being a recent thing – the closest would be King Arthur). Both came out of the trenches of WW1 and into modernity with that same idea. (And then there’s that mercifully brief flirtation that Jones had with Oswald Mosley’s fascism. Hmmm. I think Yeats’s odd fascistic moments also came out of this kind of mythological nationalism.) The one that powered into public consciousness was of course Tolkien’s fantasy, not Jones’s extraordinary artistic experiment – and then, as it turns into a behemoth of the cinema, it ends up symbolising the Colonies. I’m not sure what to make of it all, but it’s interesting, no?

    • Wow. Thanks for the tip-off, Alison! The 1st World War had wider – and stranger – effects on literature and the arts than we often realise I think. That brief description there reminds me also that C S Lewis wrote a long narrative during the 1st World War dealing with mythic themes. The common reaction between the two, perhaps, seems to have been a kind of subjective and romantic introspection – v. interesting!

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