10 Things You Learn on a Journey Through Middle Earth
Some editions of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings carry a preface from Peter Beagle that states “lovers of Middle Earth want to go there. I would myself, like a shot.” In spite of the fantasy world’s Nazgûl and Balrogs and questionable sanitation, many fans over the years – myself included – have felt the same way. Only recently has it become possible to live the dream, in a sense, by touring the filming locations of Peter Jackson’s colossal movie adaptations. When my wife and I made the pilgrimage to New Zealand’s North Island in 2012, just before the first Hobbit movie came out, I learned things about the Lord of the Rings movies that I might never have known otherwise. Here are ten tidbits I picked up on my journey through “Middle Earth.”
1. The tree on top of Bag End isn’t exactly real
On a working sheep farm outside the village of Matamata, a couple of hours south of Auckland, you can stroll past Bagshot Row and up the sloping path to the round, painted door where it all began. The exterior of Bag End is postcard-perfect (its interior is a studio creation), carved and decorated with a level of detail best appreciated in person. But the tree on top looks strange even from a distance. I visited Hobbiton in winter when other trees were bare and the grass was yellowing, but the tree standing above all was a deep, almost luminous green. It turns out the tree was originally in a different location, cut into pieces and transplanted to its current site, then spruced up with painted plastic leaves. It’s one of the only artificial-looking elements in an otherwise naturalistic cluster of Hobbit holes and gardens.
2. But Hobbiton’s Party Tree is all-natural
As our tour guide told it, the enormous shade tree was what first caught the eye of location scouts surveilling the area by helicopter. The tree is real, it’s enormous, it’s got an uncountable number of branches, and my wife and I danced a jig under its then-bare boughs.
3. The Green Dragon Inn is (re)open for business
In the films, Galadriel’s reflecting pool shows a possible future in which Orcs set the Shire ablaze. Although the movies spare the Hobbit homeland the scouring it suffers in the novels, the filming of this hypothetical event required the actual destruction of the Green Dragon and the nearby watermill. They had been rebuilt by the time I visited, and I could see them across the pond that separates them from central Hobbiton, but they were still some months away from opening to the public. Now they’re back in business and the Green Dragon is serving up pints (it comes in pints!) of the only brew for the brave and true.
4. The beer in the movies is real (sort of)
I was able to try the beer anyway, because it exists and it’s on sale in the gift shop. SobeRing Thought, it’s called: a non-alcoholic craft beer made specifically for use in the films. Jackson wanted the actors to feel that they were really drinking when the script called for drinking, and this beer does the trick. Even though it’s non-alcoholic, it tastes like a respectable, medium-bodied, golden-colored craft ale. I saved the bottle and it sits proudly on my bookshelf next to my Tolkien collection.
5. Rivendell was shot on location, but it’s more recognizable from publicity stills
In the films, Rivendell is mostly CGI buildings with a few real patios and gazebos for the actors to stand on. Yet there is some actual landscape in the establishing shots, taken in a forest not far from Wellington. I could barely detect a correspondence between the real trees in front of me and the movie screenshots the tour guide carried with her, but when she brought out pictures from Orlando Bloom’s full-costume photo shoot it all came into place. Legolas, bow drawn, is perched in front of a tree that you, too, can stand near. Still, the Rivendell site is less impressive as a filming site and more impressive as an easily-accessible slice of New Zealand’s lush rainforest.
6. Helm’s Deep is a noisy worksite
You would expect quarries to change contours over the course of ten years, but as of my visit it was still possible to imagine how an excavation site abutting a cliff outside of Wellington could play host to the biggest set-piece battle in The Two Towers. There is no Helm’s Deep set, but the concave rock wall into which the battlements were inserted is recognizable. We viewed it from a good distance away, which was for the best, because large digging machines were making an industrial din that Saruman himself would have been proud of.
7. You can have a Wizards’ Council
There is a scene in Fellowship of the Ring in which Gandalf and Saruman walk side by side across the soon-to-be-destroyed Isengard lawn. That lawn is a well-manicured public park near Wellington, and unlike the Rivendell site, it is very easy to match the real trees and landscape with the movie stills. I fulfilled my lifelong dream of being Gandalf when the tour guide produced two gnarled staves and took our picture as we recreated the wizards’ stroll.
8. One simply drives into Mordor
The roughly 8-hour drive from Auckland to Wellington takes you through livestock pastures, rainforests, and into a strange desert landscape. At that point, away on the right you see a snow-capped mountain, often veiled behind dense fog. It was only when we got to Wellington and asked about it that we learned its name – Mt. Ruapehu – and that it had been cast in the role of Mount Doom’s lower slopes. Ruapehu is an active volcano, just like its film counterpart.
9. The Anduin is part river, part subconscious trick
In the movie, the Anduin has two steep banks. In real life, the stretch of the Hutt River that played the Anduin has just one steep side; its other bank is flat, gravely, and just a few meters away from the highway. Its appearance in the film is the result of horizontally flipping certain shots, particularly the shots of Boromir (Sean Bean). As a result, Boromir appears to face a different direction from Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and the other characters. In addition to making the Anduin appear to be flanked by high ground on both sides, this plays into an old trick from stage and film: if an antagonist enters the scene from a different direction than the protagonists, the audience subconsciously detects that something is different, a little off, about them. At this stage of the film Boromir is losing his battle against the temptation of the Ring. Flipping the river not only makes it look cooler, it makes sense for the characters and the plot.
10. What Middle Earth is worth to you
To get from North America, my home continent, to New Zealand takes a serious commitment of time and money. We visited only the North Island because we combined the journey with a trip to Australia to visit friends. It was too brief a time in both countries, and quite costly, but worth every penny and more. Some of the filming sites are beautiful, some are pedestrian, but all of them made me feel like I was part of the story of these great movies. I knew as soon as I stepped into Hobbiton that I’d do it all over again, and someday I hope I will. There’s a whole other island of Middle Earth to explore.
How Flickcharters rank Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies:
- Flickchart ranking: 57
- Number of Flickchart users who have it at #1: 1643
- Flickchart ranking: 98
- Number of Flickchart users who have it at #1: 1173
- Flickchart ranking: 72
- Number of Flickchart users who have it at #1: 1907