by Betty Lowry
Special to the Chicago Tribune
“Frodo Lives!” cried the T-shirts of the `60s. In New Zealand they are betting $300 million he will live again. The Fellowship of the Ring – the first of three Lord of the Rings movies – will be released around the world on Dec. 19, a month after the premier of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Will the cult of The Rings rise in hot pursuit? Can today’s intrepid tourist follow the movie trail of Frodo and Company?
Suspend disbelief and circumnavigation. Visualize getting to Middle-earth by going straight through the globe to a land that is not so much Middle as literally Down Under. Since New Zealand seasons are reversed, those arriving from the Northern Hemisphere leave winter for summer or the other way around and gain or lose a day crossing the International Dateline. It’s exactly 12 hours different from Greenwich Meridian Time.
Winter-free beaches grow in the north; glaciers in the south. Steaming lakes and boiling mud indicate unseen but hideous depths. The 1,000-mile-long independent member of the British Commonwealth is only a tad larger than Britain itself and lies between the southwest Pacific Ocean and the Tasmanian Sea, 995 miles from Australia
As the rough crest of a drowned continent, the topography is nearly letter perfect to the alternate universe imagined by English philologist-author John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973).
Lord of the Rings is the saga of Frodo, the good little hobbit, who has inherited the gold Ring of Doom and must return it to the Crack of Doom before the evil Sauron, Dark Lord of Mordor, can seize it and thus have absolute power forever. The hobbits and companions (a.k.a. The Company) not only face loathsome enemies but must withstand the corruption of greed inherent in the ring itself.
Tolkien freely admitted The Shire was Warwickshire and Hobbiton was Sarehole, a hamlet on the outskirts of Birmingham where he lived four years as a child. The villagers he knew became his beloved hobbits. The millers appeared in his storybook Farmer Giles of Ham. The restored Sarehole Mill (Mill at Bywater in The Rings) is the site of Tolkien Day, celebrated in May with all the accouterments of a village fair plus dramatized readings by members of the Oxford-based Tolkien Society. Tolkien called Sarehole “the way England used to be.”
For the New Zealand shoot, New Line Cinema has re-created Hobbiton in Matamata, which isn’t far from Rotorua, the Maori land of fuming springs and aboriginal culture. In the Waitomo Caves one massive hole has always been called “The Lost World.”
Like the unknown world that waited for Frodo, New Zealand is a country of surprises and magnitude. Its Southern Alps cover a region larger than French, Austrian and Swiss Alps combined; Lake Hauroko plunges 1,515 feet; the Tasman glacier is 18 miles long; Nettlebed Cave descends 2,916 feet, and Frying Pan Lake is over 420 degrees fahrenheit at its deepest point, the largest hot water spring on earth. More to the philosophical point of Middle-earth, New Zealand is the first place of any size on the planet to see the dawn.
To “Ring around New Zealand” in pursuit of the film locations is to go from the middle of North Island to the tip of South Island. Many of the shoots were in ski areas sure to be deep in snow at the time of North American summer vacations.
However, a tour of the Wellington region can include the loci of the Outer Shire; Chetwood and Trollshaw Forests; Dunharrow Plateau and Encampment; the streets, gate and forest of Bree; Minas Girth; Ferry Lane, Helms Deep (site of Gandalf’s Charge); and the Black Gate of Mordor.
Near Queenstown, South Island, are the sites of the Exit Paths of the Dead; the West Road; Eregion Hills; Emyn Muil and Osgiliath hilltops; Misty Mountains; Ichilean Camp; the Summit of Amon Hen; the Pillars of Argonach and the Ford of Bruinen. Further south in the Ida Valley lie the Plains and Village of Rohan and the Eastemnet Gullies. More, of course. Filmmakers hop around a lot, and with all New Zealand as their studio, who can blame them?
In real world and time, things are not so neat. Frodo Baggins, a “stout little fellow with red cheeks” just past his 50th birthday in the book, is played by skinny 18-year-old Elijah Wood, who looks disturbingly adolescent even considering the special effects that reduced him in size to 3 feet. New Line Cinema is no down-home Kiwi production company either, but part of the same AOL-Time-Warner conglomerate responsible for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
Back in England, many of Tolkien’s homes are marked with the blue plaque of British cultural notables. Keeping up with the economic hardship of his widowed mother leads from one dismal Birmingham suburb to another. His mother died when he was 12, but his legal guardian, a Catholic priest, pushed him on to Oxford.
There, in a red stone house at 22 Northmoor Road, he told stories of Middle Earth to his four children and wrote most of The Hobbit in the attic late at night. As a don he rode his bicycle to class and liked talking to the trees in England’s oldest Botanical Garden.
Getting from The Hobbit to The Rings took 17 years, understandable if you consider Tolkien first invented the Elvish language then made up the tale to go with it. The word “hobbit,” he said, came before the creatures. “not the other way around.” Fans in the United States and Canada used to telephone him in the middle of the night because they had the time zones wrong, an error he said he understood.
Maori, New Zealand’s official second language, was one of the few uncommon languages Tolkien didn’t get around to. He started Latin and Greek at age 7; fell madly in love with Welsh (the inspiration for “Elvish”) when he was 12; and became conversant in Icelandic, Finnish, Old Norse plus Old and Middle English.
He wrote his fantasy series while Professor of Anglo Saxon at Oxford, and his idea of travel was going to Devon, a few hours’ drive away. In fact, after arriving in Britain from South Africa at age 2 he never traveled except for a boyhood holiday in Switzerland and the trenches of France in World War I.
Middle-earth’s dark and fearsome battles were nightmarish replays of his memories of the war that killed most of his friends and sent him to the hospital with trench fever. The impenetrable mountains that confronted his heroes were the Swiss Alps he climbed as a teenager.
New Zealanders are intense about climbing mountains, walking on moving glaciers, playing no-holds-barred rugby and sailing. They invented bungee jumping and zoom their jet boats down pencil-thin river gorges. Though a world away, literally, their country resonates with English attitude (never miss a cuppa) combined with a friendliness that is said to be downright Irish.
They also plan to hang onto the America’s Cup (which they defend in 2003) with the tenacity of a hobbit given a mission.