Saturday, June 6, 2015

In Which I Return From Middle Earth

Hello, dear readers!

So, I feel I owe you an explanation. For the last couple of months I haven't been posting much, and that's because for the last couple of months I've been travelling around the beautiful country of New Zealand "on assignment"--helping out some friends. I do this fairly regularly, and I've been to New Zealand a few times over the last years, but this was the first time I've really seen a lot of the country.

Now I've seen most of it, from Auckland to Invercargill. It was great fun, and well worth visiting! But there's one place I think my readers will be most interested to hear about...and so, before I return you to your regularly-scheduled book reviews, I am going to break all habit, and post a whole bunch of pictures.

Guess where I got to visit?

More under the cut...

Regular readers of this blog will know that as a card-carrying Tolkien purist I have a low opinion of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies generally. I don't think they're great, and mostly I find them pretty painful. A friend once remarked that the people working on the Lord of the Rings movies could be divided into two camps--those who actually cared and understood what Tolkien was trying to achieve, and those who didn't give a hoot. The former worked conscientiously on costumes, sets, effects, props, and soundtrack. The latter worked on the script...!

I still have a lot of respect for the set designers, though, so when I discovered that our journey from Hamilton to Tauranga, in the North Island, would take us into the Matamata vicinity where Hobbiton was built and filmed, I was rather keen to visit.

The Matamata area is just lovely: green rolling farmland with the blue Kaimai hills looming in the distance. As we drove up the narrow road to the Hobbiton tourist attraction, I thought it looked very Shirelike, even without hobbit holes and hobbits to complete the illusion. Arriving at the ticketing place, though, my spirits cooled a bit. It did look touristy, complete with overpriced gift shop and (tm) sprinkled everywhere.

The movie set itself was on a sheep farm further into the hills. A steady stream of green buses will take you out to the site. As we queued outside the gift shop, people chatted, texted, and fruitlessly attempted to appease fractious offspring.

Then a bus rolled to a stop before us, and a previous tour filed out. Each of them came almost skipping down the steps, wreathed in carefree and contented smiles, and thanking their guide in hushed voices. Watching them, I took a little more heart.

After a five-minute bus ride through farmland, we finally reached Hobbiton proper and the tour was ready to begin!

Hobbiton is situated in a little green dell in the hills, and the only access was through "Gandalf's cutting", where you see Frodo and Gandalf riding on the cart in the first film. Step through this, and you get your first view of Hobbiton...


And it's gorgeous.

Each hobbit-hole has its own specific character--there's a hobbit-bee-keeper hole, a hobbit-baker hole, a hobbit-fisherman hole. Each one is carefully crafted with every kind of detail--pottery and curtains inside the windows, washing hanging from washing-lines, bunches of herbs hung up to dry, a little waistcoat flung over the handle of a pitchfork, or a picnic lunch waiting to be eaten.

The holes are built on a number of different scales, as well, from little holes like this one, meant to look hobbit-sized compared to Big People...

  to 100%-scale holes like this one:

One highlight, of course, was Bag-End itself at the top of The Hill!

Alas, there were no interiors to see: the Bag End interior, with all other interiors, were filmed on a set in Wellington.

From Bag End we had good views of the surrounding countryside...

Which looks very Shiresque, doesn't it? say nothing of the Party Tree!

The gap in the hedge to the left of the Tree is where Bilbo vaults the fence at the beginning of the first Hobbit.
After a visit to the Party Ground, we headed down across The Water and past the Sandyman Mill to the Green Dragon Inn.

Here we were served a complimentary beverage--the choice is between hard cider, ginger beer, and a very fine dark stout--in adorable little pottery mugs. Nibbles and meals are also available (they're divine).

Actually, I think my favourite part of the whole thing was the Green Dragon Inn. Despite the fact that if you look closely, it's built of synthetic substances that only look astonishingly like wood and stone, it came with incredible character. I felt like I was sitting in all the inns that GK Chesterton ever wrote about.

Except much more hobbitish, of course.
And it was fun to see all the famous names in the guestbook.

Alas, world-famous fantasy author and book blogger Suzannah Rowntree is not in the guestbook--it was under glass!

Now, it isn't often that you walk into a place and find it simply awash in worldview. One doesn't often look around somewhere and think, "There's a very definite philosophy coming out here." One place with an unmistakeable worldview flavour to it is Port Arthur in Tasmania--a fascinating clash between old Christendom and Enlightenment philosophies. Another is the house of some friends in Tennessee, where a blockhouse for juvenile delinquents has been transformed into the cradle of a new Christendom.

Hobbiton, surprisingly enough, was another. Not much of a clash here: it was like stepping into one sheltered little valley where everything George Grant says in his Christendom lectures has come to life. This came out most powerfully in the sheer attention to artistic detail. I can give no higher praise than to say that I don't think much here would have raised Tolkien's hackles.

This is a see-saw on the Party Ground.
Everything was beautified with carvings of--for example--grain and grapes. Or fine hinges.

This kind of detail was everywhere you looked.

Inside the Green Dragon, there was even a Green Dragon!

And Lady Bibliophile will be chuffed to know that when hobbits sit down in the pub with a book...

...they sit down with Dickens!

By the time we headed back to our bus and returned to the waking world, I too felt deeply contented, as if my soul had had a good square meal of everything good and lovely. And from the looks of them, so did everyone else on our tour!


Claire B. said...

That's so neat!! I'd love to visit there someday! Thanks for sharing all the pictures! :)

Jamie W. said...

How very exciting! I'm glad you're back posting, and it sounds like your New Zealand trip was truly fascinating. Interesting to see the interaction between Tolkien's original literary artistry (perhaps some of the least profit-driven work ever produced) and the commercialized side of the film franchise. I much prefer books in any case, but there are times when I have to admit the exigencies of film actually patched some weaknesses in the original story; The Lord of the Rings is not one of them. (Cranford might be, although of course it also includes a couple of other Elizabeth Gaskell books.)
Beautiful photos, by the way!

Jamie W. said...

Also, one thing I wanted to share that I thought you would appreciate: I learned just recently that there is a Scottish folk song called "Huntingtower" -- the same as the Buchan novel. There is also a real place by that name, and I don't know whether the novel and the song are both named after the real place, or whether the place in the novel is named after the song, or what. But Buchan knew his Scottish music and was probably familiar with the song. And something about the song makes that seem quite appropriate: it's lovely and idyllic, but almost veers into tragedy, only for everything to turn out much better than it was before. (Listening to the song might make that clearer: So perhaps the song inspired the naming of Huntingtower in the novel.

Sorry for cluttering up your blog, but honestly I couldn't think of a better place than Vintage Novels to share this piece of John Buchan trivia. And proving that Buchan did indeed know his Scottish music, there are many more such connections -- e.g. the tune of "Ca' the Yowes" which Sandy whistles in Greenmantle [] or the bit of a Jacobite tune that Dickson McCunn starts singing after seeing off Prince John in Castle Gay, which is "Cam' Ye by Atholl" []. As a fan of both, I enjoy spotting the connections immensely. I should probably get my own blog or something.

Janie said...

I'm usually quite careful to avoid tourist attractions, but every now and then, I do find a place whose attractions can not be undermined by commercialism. This looks to be one of those places. Thanks for the sharing the photos...maybe I'll get a chance to visit in person someday.

Suzannah said...

Claire, yes, it was pretty neat :D.

Jamie, oh, thanks for the links! Those sound like fun songs. I'll have to check them out when our bandwidth allows!

Janie, I know what you mean--and Tolkien is someone who should never, never be cheapened. I wasn't feeling too good about it up at the gift shop/cafe site, but once you actually get to Hobbiton, it's glorious!

Lady Bibliophile said...

"Well, I'm back"--with the long promised comment! :)

What an enchanting time. I'm so glad you took a break from scheduled programming to post pictures of your visit (and seeing you in them was a real treat, too!) I loved the carvings around the doors and windows, the view of the Shire where Bilbo hopped the fence, and especially the Green Dragon (highly approve of Dickens). My favorite scenes in Fellowship were always in the Shire, and I'm glad after the Hobbit they decided to make the set permanent.

Definitely another location on my List of Things to See. How thrilling you got to go. :) <3

Suzannah said...

Schuyler, you would love it :).


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