My long awaited journey into Middle Earth began today, coincidentally on my birthday.
Peter Jackson’s cinematic production of the Lord of the Rings placed on display several props, costumes, and set pieces used in their interpretation of Tolkien’s masterpiece, at the beautiful castle in the heart of Toronto, Casa Loma. This was to be the only North American appearance of the collection, and so being a resident I found myself to be incredibly lucky, and probably the envy of many Tolkien fans around the world.
After making an arrangement with several TORC members, including Elbren, Eilona, Jeria, and Enchantress, I set out to meet them there at 2:00 PM, for a 2:30 entry time. I got there in plenty of time, and the first sight that greeted me, besides the lovely mansion, was a long line of people all waiting to enter the exhibit. Now, we had tickets which we had purchased online, so all these people were waiting there hoping to get in on stand-by – without reservation. They were already announcing to the crowd that they were completely sold out for the day, so we felt very lucky to have planned things out. The interest in this exhibit is incredible! There are banners all along the street and huge ads everywhere. There is a billboard with an image of an orc over one major intersection in the city that never fails to give me chills. Apparently, all tickets for the exhibit are practically sold out, and they have extended the run. Anyone who tells me that this movie won’t succeed at the box office are deluding themselves. The public curiosity is off the scale. These movies will not only make a hefty profit for New Line, they will also break many box office records. Thousands of people lining up to look at movie props can only be the tip of the iceberg.
I got there with a Tolkien newbie friend and we saw Enchantress arriving at the very same moment, looking enchanting as usual! She had no ticket, but we were able to convince the staff to let her in because she was a part of our little group. So we waited for Elbren and her father. And we waited… but we never hooked up. There were so many people there we weren’t completely surprised. We found Eilona and Jeria and then we walked in.
There were three main areas for viewing… the stables, the attic, and a large room on the main floor. We started with the stables, because the line for the main floor room was way too long. To get to the stables at Casa Loma you need to take a tunnel that crosses the street. All along the tunnel walls they hung paintings and concept art by Alan Lee and John Howe. The incredible detail caused us to pause and probably spend more time with the art than we should have, but we all wanted to savour the moment. My newbie friend became very impressed with the whole thing, which began a fascinating transformation that I noticed in her. By the end of the day she was so hungry for Middle Earth that she was going to start reading the books as soon as she got home!
We passed through a couple of set pieces. The first, displayed with spooky lighting and moody music, was Barad-Dûr’s Torture Chamber. All I can say is that it looked real, to the point that you could actually smell the blood and hear the screams. The Gates of Moria were accomplished with lighting and the outline superimposed on the rock face. The rock looked real, but the effect struck me as surreal and unnatural. Perhaps this was because the setting was meant to be outdoor, and this was shown in a room underground.
At the end of the tunnel were a number of exhibits, including Lothlórien, the Caverns of Isengard, Rivendell, and the bedroom in Bree.
There were many display cases filled with what I can only describe as artefacts, not movie props. The whole exhibit had more of a museum quality to it, quite unlike the attractions that I have seen in movie studio lots for curious tourists. These were depicted as historically important, and all the efforts were aimed to label them for their characters, and not the actors who used them. For example, we saw the Lady Galadriel’s gown, not Cate Blanchett‘s costume. We saw Glamdring, not Ian Mckellan’s sword. There was so much to see and so many people there that it was hard to take it all in and not feel rushed. I wish I could have had the opportunity to scrutinize every single item, up close, and hold them in my hand to feel their weight and texture. Everything looked real, which I can not emphasize enough.
There’s one thing that struck me about all the displays. Anything that was elvish was so incredibly beautiful, ornate, exquisite, detailed, strange, and so full of craftsmanship that I was completely awe-struck. There were details so fine that they will never show up on film. Things had shapes and forms that were totally familiar and yet so alien at the same time, and all whose function was abundantly clear and practical. I noticed an elvish telescope, but which could not be called one by modern definitions, and yet which I immediately identified as one. I said to myself, “Of course, that’s a machine the elves used to look at stars.” Only long moments later did I actually associate the idea with the contemporary device we know as a telescope, but through function only. It was as if I was looking at the remnants of an ancient culture that was so advanced, but that the knowledge of which has vanished into a past buried and long forgotten. And it was at that very moment when I realized that the production had accomplished their goals, because they had fooled me into believing it, just as Professor Tolkien did when I read his book for the first time all those years ago.
Among the things that I saw in that particular room: all the weapons and armour of the Fellowship, except Bilbo’s mithril coat, unless I missed it; all of the major costumes, including the small scale hobbit costumes obviously worn by their diminutive doubles; one of the boats from Lothlórien; the Red Book; Boromir’s horn; and more, too many to list here. Displayed throughout were incredible stills from the movie, each one a masterpiece of beauty. They have captured the look of Middle Earth perfectly.
In another room they offered a glimpse of Isengard and Saruman’s devilry. I was treated to a minor spoiler: art of the top of Orthanc, which is different from what I imagined, but which fits in perfectly within Tolkien’s vision. Everything they showed that had anything to do with Saruman made me think of a “wizard” in the classical sense – well learned, powerful, consumed by a desire to seek knowledge. And I saw what I can only guess was an orc fetus in a large jar on a messy desk. I don’t think it was alive.
After a return trek to the main building we made our way to the attic, and joined the queue to see the Moria displays. We saw a sample of dwarvish runes carved in stone, but upon touching them we realized quickly the moviemaker’s art. It was not stone we touched. Although it felt like stone, knocking on it produced a hollow sound that revealed the lie. They had dwarvish weapons, armour, and a mummified skeleton that looked so real I felt I was looking at an anthropological exhibit.
Back on the main floor we lined up for the Gondor exhibits and Bag End. There were more incredible costumes, multitudes of banners, samples of strange Elvish armour from the Last Alliance, orc costumes, a huge standard of Mordor, and even furniture from the Council of Elrond.
By the time we got to Bag End the staff was rushing the crowd through all the displays, because Casa Loma was being prepared for a wedding reception, and we were all supposed to be gone. You could definitely tell that the employees were a little unaccustomed to the volume of visitors that the Lord of the Rings exhibit attracted. Casa Loma is a popular attraction in Toronto, but this was clearly overwhelming.
So we saw items from Bag End only briefly, but the general reaction was a palpable sense of “Awwww, that’s so cute!” Everything was on a smaller scale: the furniture, the household items, the pots and pans, and the everyday things that we would normally ignore as mundane were shown, with the typical and already unremarkable attention to detail that we had quickly grown accustomed to. But the most wonderful thing, the thing that we left to the end to see, was of course, the One Ring. There it was, sitting in a display case like all the other props with a little label on it, and at the end of a simple silver chain. It sat there and was the centre of all the attention. It was the reason the line was moving so slowly. It was why the Casa Loma staff was going crazy with whispered comments like, “it’s the Ring… they’re all taking forever to look at the Ring!” That little gold band that was so ordinary, and that capped our tour of Middle Earth.
After some more photos, and some regrets for not meeting up with Elbren, we all rode to the subway and departed. My friend enjoyed the experience and is fast becoming a Tolkien fan, right before my eyes. And I spent one of the best birthdays of my life. So what’s next? The best Christmas of my life, of course!
Bye for now!
Here are some of the photographs I took on my excursion to the official display of props, costumes, and sets from the new Lord of the Rings movie, at the Casa Loma Mansion in Toronto.