Guess which real-world place is most like Mordor…

Last week a British meteorologist at the University of Bristol published a weather analysis of Middle Earth. Tres cool.

Here’s a link to the paper: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/news/2013/10013-english.pdf

According to the report, the weather in The Shire was much the same as that of Lincolnshire – which is pretty much what Tolkien was envisaging. It’s also like Belarus, but that may be coincidence. The place in New Zealand where the weather is closest to The Shire is north of Dunedin. Curiously – though the report didn’t mention it – there’s an area there called Middlemarch, which sounds suitably Tolkienish.

Not really Mordor - this is a photo I took of the open cast coal mine on the Stockton Plateau, near Westport in the South Island of New Zealand.

Not really Gorgoroth – this is a photo I took of the open cast coal mine on the Stockton Plateau, near Westport in the South Island of New Zealand.

When it comes to Mordor, the real-world place I immediately think of is the open cast coal mine on the Stockton Plateau, which I visited earlier this year. Tolkien’s explicit imagery was First World War trenches and Birmingham factories. But that isn’t where the British meteorologist found Mordor weather. Oh no. turns out the places most like Mordor, weather-wise, are New South Wales, western Texas and Los Angeles. (That said, Tolkien also made clear that the gloom around Mordor was made by Sauron.)

It was spring when I took this picture of a railway station in Soest, Netherlands.

Ok, so it wasn’t raining when I took this picture in Soest, Netherlands…but it was overcast.

What struck me about the report was how close Tolkien got to what we’d expect from a scientific perspective, if his land was real. There is a reason for this – Tolkien was basing his world on Europe. The Shire was approximately where Britain lies; Gondor and Mordor in North Italy. The weather he described followed, especially the constant rain around Trollshaws in The Hobbit, a place geographically congruent to Soest, Netherlands.

All of which is pretty neat. And it goes to show that there is often a lot more in the creations of fantasy writers than they perhaps imagine when they come up with the concept.

What do you think of Middle Earth weather?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: More writing tips, more science, more humour and more Tolkien stuff. Not that I’m a fan. Well, I am really.

Why I don’t fan-boy (much) over The Hobbit or Trek

The other week Peter Jackson met fans in Wellington for a sneak part-preview of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.  Even Smaug was there – well, the pet lizard, Hermes, they used for mo-cap sequences, anyway.

I am a huge enthusiast for Tolkien and Jackson. But I didn’t don my magic elven cloak (the one that renders you invisible against green grass, green sky, green rocks and green water) and go along. I don’t cosplay. I don’t go to conventions. I don’t have a book filled with autographs from the Guy In The Red Shirt or the set-sweeper for Star Trek: The Original Series, who’s made a living from convention fees ever since.

Partly it’s because I’ve been at the receiving end to some extent. As an author I get approached every so often by strangers. Setting aside the odd incident in which a would-be author thinks I’ve written one of ‘their’ books, sees red, and barrels over to take a pop at me – which has actually happened – most of these people are friendly, but I never quite know what to say. I just do stuff. It involves a lot of hard work and doesn’t make me special.

This was the best aisle of craft stalls. That's also because it was the only aisle...

Ordinary Kiwis at the Hobbit craft market, late 2012.

I think this is true of most writers. They are professionals whose job happens to be creating stuff –  who have normal lives and do their own supermarket shopping. Actually that’s true of the whole entertainment industry. A few years back She Who Must Be Obeyed and I lived a block or two from an actor who was known internationally. My wife knew his wife slightly, and we used to run into them in the local video store. They were totally normal, unassuming and nice people.

As far as I can tell, modern ‘fandom’ emerged in the 1920s on the sci-fi magazine boom. It took on life in the 1970s – largely fostered by Trek.  Back then it was seen as a symptom of maladjustment. ‘Trekkie’ became a perjorative, usually taken to mean socially inept nerds who couldn’t function in a normal world and relied on their obsession with somebody else’s fantasy to define their identities and social interactions.

I had to prone to take this picture. 'Get up,' She Who Must Be Obeyed insisted. 'People will think you're dead.'

I had to go prone to take this picture of Hobbit market stuff. ‘Get up,’ She Who Must Be Obeyed insisted. ‘People will think you’re dead.’

It’s likely, I think, that a proportion of fans then did fit that category. But not many. Certainly I don’t think that characterises fandom these days. It’s been mainstreamed, commercialised, and evolved into a way for people to express their enthusiasms. (That’s another reason I don’t go to conventions – they’re so crowded you can’t get in the door).

So why do fans become ‘fans’? I think it’s an indication of the power that stories and settings have to evoke emotion. It’s a way of sharing that experience with others who think the same way. It’s an endorsement of the ability of writers, movie-makers and actors to create emotional transfer and capture an audience.

Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: the final NaNo prompts for 2013, more writing tips, and more.

Write it now, part 30: Middle Earth on a plate?

I’ve mentioned before that the art of writing focuses on what to avoid – not what to add.

Take food, for which we need go no further than J R R Tolkien. This week, the Roxy– a wonderful art deco cinema, literally just down the road from Peter Jackson’s studios in Miramar, Wellington – got into Hobbit mode for the annual ‘Wellington on a plate’ food festival.

The Roxy cinema, Miramar, Wellington - restored to fabulous 1930s art deco condition by Peter Jackson. A photo I took in 2011.

The Roxy cinema, Miramar, Wellington – restored to fabulous 1930s art deco condition by Peter Jackson. A photo I took in 2011.

The cinema’s restaurant, Coco at the Roxy, is providing Lord Of The Rings themed meals – which is pretty cool idea. Though I don’t think I’d be a fan of their genuine sixteenth century starters such as ‘faggots’,  a legitimate sixteenth century delicacy made of offal with a delicate covering of stomach fat. Mind you, how would a sixteenth century peasant view the fast foods we gorge on? I bet they’d find them too sweet (including the savouries) and way too salty.

The Roxy menu was a modern interpretation. Which is fair enough, because with a few exceptions, Tolkien was a bit vague about food. And that was a good thing. Let me explain.

Although Tolkien portrayed Middle Earth tech as High Medieval (creating the default fantasy tech for the genre), Hobbit society was a deliberate take on 1890s Midlands village life. He did this consciously, one of the many elaborate jokes he wove into his mythos. Their food reflected it; in The Hobbit, Bilbo’s cuisine is specifically English middle class, including the afternoon tea cake selection.

Tolkien went wider with the other peoples – but not much. Dwarves ate Cram on the road. Apart from lembas, Elvish food was conceptually ‘higher taste’ and largely nonspecific. He described various meals, but roast meats, vegetables, mead, breads and other pre-industrial fare was implicit rather than explicit, most of the time.

All was duly lampooned by Messrs Beard and Kenney in Bored Of The Rings, whose Boggies were uncontrollable gluttons who ate anything they would wrist-wrestle down their well-muscled  throats (anything, that is that they weren’t stashing in their coin purses ‘for later’). When the Boggies got going on the road, eventually, their menus were laugh-out-loud funny.

As always, Tolkien got it right; he did not have to describe all the food in every detail – it was more powerful to omit descriptions. Instead, and with the elves particularly, he usually gave us the idea of the food – what it meant to those experiencing it.  By painting other aspects of the elves in full detail, he was able to provoke our imaginations into filling the food gap via skilful use of image and concept – not literal description.

A brilliant technique; but, of course, that’s Tolkien for you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: more writing tips, publishing news, general geekery and more. Watch this space.

Not so smug about Smaug

Warner Brothers released the first clips of Smaug the Dragon this week, six months ahead of The Hobbit, Part 2: Desolation of Smaug.

‘You are?’ the stranger asked politely. ‘Why, I am Bioquxqwehr, a Gchqetuzgchzghghughwy from the city of  Cigghguhqchchgh in the land of Aqghpowiqghghghpoewqgch.’ ‘A land,’ the stranger observed ‘where the commonest cause of death is choking on one’s own tongue?’ ‘Why yes,’ said Bioquxqwehr. ‘How in all the name of Pwqhexghxghxghchchghxiud did you guess that?’

‘I say, George old boy, off for a spot of dragon hunting, eh what?’ ‘I should jolly well think so.’ “By Jove, bit of a ripping wheeze, that!’

The creature is the whole rationale of The Hobbit and, I suppose, focus of the next two movies in the nine-hour epic adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s modest childrens’ tale.

We know what Smaug looked like because Tolkien carefully drew him – my copy of The Hobbit has the author’s own illustration on the cover, in fact. A classic dragon, a creature St. George would have been proud to defeat in single combat – and deliberately done that way by Tolkien, for good reason.

Does the dragon look like that in the movie? Noooo.

Sigh.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I’m a huge Peter Jackson fan. I’m a huge Tolkien fan. And the imagery we have in our heads as we read a story will always differ between people

But Tolkien was pretty specific about the look of his dragon

Question: should film-makers follow the author’s vision – or is it adding something to have a new look to Smaug? Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Sneaking a peek at a character from the second Hobbit movie

Today New Line Cinema revealed Tauriel, an elf warrior from Mirkwood, part of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit cast.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was - you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian'.

Me at the Hobbit Artisan Market in December 2012. Yes, I am a geeky fan, kind of.

It’s part of the build-up to the new movie, but the character never existed in any of Tolkien’s works, and  when I add that to the rather loose adaptation of the first movie, I can’t help thinking that the liberties apparently taken with Tolkien’s charming childrens’ tale have turned it into something else.

I do kind of wonder. But I’ve been a Jackson fan for years, and a Tolkien fan for even longer.So in the interests of helping a fellow Kiwi I thought I might provide a list of characters I’ve invented that never appeared in The Hobbit but who might – perhaps – be suitable for the movie version. I hope I’m not too late.

Tyhmä Nimi – legendary King of the Dwarfs and part-time truck driver known for making magic rings disappear, only to have them ‘reappear’ about 48 hours later.

Sierain Sormella – northern Elf who wields the legendary Sword of Cutting, named Kauttaviiva, known to the Dwarfs as Khlunk, also called ‘Erittäin terävä teräväkärkiset laite‘ on alternate Wednesdays.

Wendy – escaped from another kids’ book after being kidnapped in Hyde Park. (Actually, I didn’t invent this character.)

Glugg – large CGI-style Orc with a big nose. Has no obvious story function.

Kala Kalakauppias – an Elvish fisherman who could appear on the far left in Scene 3.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Remember Gandalf? He’s baaack….

Stars of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit have re-convened here in Wellington NZ for final pick-up shooting.

I took this just before the premier of the Hobbit movie in 2012.

I took this just before the premier of the Hobbit movie in 2012.

I’m undecided whether I’ll see the rest of the trilogy. I saw the first – and wasn’t impressed.

My gripes? The cast couldn’t be faulted. Wonderful, wonderful performers. But The Hobbit (novel) was a tightly constructed hero journey. Jackson’s first-part movie wasn’t. It rambled. It brought sub-plots and details that Tolkien never wrote.

It seemed to veer between epic serious – on a scale well above the novel – and Jackson-style visual slapstick, which didn’t bear much resemblance to Tolkien’s quietly intellectual jokes.

I am a huge Tolkien fan. And a huge Jackson fan. Movies don’t have to follow books – but they do have to work as a movie.

This time? Meh.

Have you seen The Hobbit – what are your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Being a Tolkien fan is all about the reading experience

It occurred to me the other day that I could probably be classified as a bit of a Tolkien fan. I’ve been soaking up Tolkien’s books ever since I was about 10.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was - you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian'.

I had to pose in the entrance of the 2012 Hobbit Artisan Market in Wellington …but that’s the limit of geek, for me.

I must have read The Lord Of The Rings a dozen times or more. The Hobbit as often. I have the maps, I saw the movies, and I went to the exhibition of movie props.

But I wouldn’t call myself a total Tolkien fan. I don’t dress up in the costumes – you know, green cloaks that render you invisible against green grass, green rocks, green water, green sky etc.

My copy of The Lord Of The Rings is from three different editions. Nor do I collect memorabilia, or go to Armageddon comic-con gatherings to ogle merchandise and be photographed beside the guy who swept the studio floor on alternate Sundays while they were shooting out-takes for The Return of the King.

It is a limited kind of enthusiasm; and I also view what Tolkien did in a literary sense with a suitably critical eye; he wasn’t perfect, and he wrote a lot of stuff the hard way.

So what is it, for me? Well, it’s the reading experience. Tolkien created a world that became real for the reader. He did it by description – if you open The Lord Of The Rings at virtually any page, you’ll find evocative descriptions of the settings – the sounds, the smells, the feel.

He did it by depth; his world was rich with its own mythology and history, rich with culture, with language, with peoples of all kinds, all of them carefully described.

Tussock and Echium - Patterson's Curse, in the top of Lindis Pass.

Not actually Rohan. Tussock and Echium – Patterson’s Curse, in the top of Lindis Pass.

He did it with scope; his themes struck chords with the very heart of western thinking, western mythology, and western culture; epic battles between good and evil, between right and wrong. Clear-cut, scarcely shaded in any greys.

And he did it by giving us heroes we could identify with – not Aragorn, who was the archetypal mythic  hero; but the hobbits, who were ordinary, everyday folk. Effectively, people like us – people who we could identify with and journey with, who became heroic.

A message of hope, swathed in all the things that speak to our sense of culture, right, wrong – and place.

That’s why I like Tolkien. Have you read his books? What draws you to them – for you, is it the reading experience, or something else?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: more writing tips, humour geekery and other stuff.

How Tolkien became part of my life. Is he part of yours?

Forty years after I first encountered the work of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, I am still on a wonderful journey of discovery in his world.

I had moment to think about it on the weekend when my wife and I passed through Miramar, Wellington and stopped at the ‘Weta Cave’. It’s a store run by Weta Workshop, who made the props for Peter Jackson’s adaptations of Tolkien’s work.  In typical Kiwi fashion it’s in an unprepossessing building of late 1930s austerity construction.

Weta Cave - unprepossessing ordinariness masking the home of something truly extraordinary.

Weta Cave – unprepossessing ordinariness masking the home of something truly extraordinary.

Most of the buildings in the area are like this. It’s the heart of Peter Jackson’s movie-making empire. You wouldn’t think so, to look at it. But that’s the magic of movies for you.

It's all in an ordinary industrial-style street.

It’s all in an ordinary industrial-style street. I don’t know if these warehouses, directly opposite Jackson’s post-production building, are part of the studio or not, though interesting drumming noises were coming out of them when I took this photo.

Though the Park Road Post Production building is pretty impressive.

I took this from the street.

I took this from the street.

The visit – coupled with last week’s viewing of The Hobbit movie - got me thinking. I wouldn’t call myself a ‘fan’. I approach Tolkien with a critical eye, I don’t consume every word.  Each volume in my copy of The Lord of The Rings is from a totally different paperback edition and I’ve never bothered to get any of the different illustrated, one-volume or ‘collectors’ versions issued since.

But I like his created world and his writing very much indeed, and have ever since I was eight or nine - about as long,  in fact, that I’ve been writing myself.

It was the Pauline Baynes map that captured me first. Her artwork  was evidently frowned upon by Tolkien himself. But it spoke of adventure, of exploration – of the unknown. I wanted to experience that magic – to live that world. I started imagining. A little later, I read The Hobbit. And I was hooked. I still have that copy of the book, the third edition paperback with Tolkien’s own ‘Death of Smaug’ sketch as cover art. It’s totally battered. I don’t know how often I’ve read it. Lots.

A year or two after that I read The Lord Of The Rings. And read it again. And again. And again. And many times again after that. I’ve read it only twice since I was a teenager – but I can still pretty much quote passages from it.

Check out the battering. Is my copy of 'The Hobbit' much-loved, or what?

Check out the wear and tear. Is my copy of ‘The Hobbit’ much-loved, or what?

Tolkien’s work spoke to me on many levels. He conveyed a sense of wonder on an epic scale, yet in terms that brought that wonder back to ‘ordinary’ through the hobbits. I could share their sense of discovery, of growth, as the world unfolded for them – and which they had to find the strength to handle.

Later, as I learned more about literature and writing, I came to realise just how much of the essence of the western mind Tolkien had put into his work. My enjoyment of his world became a journey of discovery - re-awakening a sense of wonder when I read his material.

I am still on that journey, and it is a wonderful journey indeed.

How about you? Are you a Tolkien enthusiast? What drew you to his work? And if he’s not your cup of tea – well, what doesn’t appeal? It’s all valid. I don’t like some of his material myself, actually – too inaccessible, too academic; or written in ways that don’t capture. As I say, I approach this with a critical eye – not adulating fandom. But what he imagined remains very much a part of my life.

What are your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

A small eternity watching ‘The Hobbit’: a personal view

On the weekend my wife and I went to see The Hobbit.

The Hobbit is one of my favourite books, Jackson is one of my favourite directors, and we live where it was made – there has been a buzz around Wellington for years. Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings – all three parts – was stunning. It was stunning as a story, stunning for Jackson’s deft handling of an epic canvas. Stunning for its effects.

Gollum in Wellington airport passenger terminal - a marvellous example of the model-maker's art.

Gollum in Wellington airport passenger terminal – a marvellous example of the model-maker’s art.

So we had plenty of build-up for this one. And in many ways it did not disappoint. The actors were superb. The effects were brilliant. The set dressing was astonishing. The attention to detail was incredible. I wasn’t worried that the movie bore only passing resemblance to the book, either. Movies are different media – they require different handling, especially this time. Jackson has taken Tolkien’s low-key story of a quest for treasure – explicitly, Bilbo’s hero journey – and turned it into a nine hour epic. That meant it had to be significantly deepened.

Weta's 10-metre high Gandalf above the Embassy theatre, Courtenay Place, Wellington.

Weta’s 10-metre high Gandalf above the Embassy theatre, Courtenay Place, Wellington.

There was just one small problem.  Nothing happened other than a relentless bang-bang-bang succession of chases and (literally) pit-falls.  The movie was about half over when my wife whispered in my ear. ‘Are we there yet?’ We weren’t. Eventually the end credits rolled. ‘Well,’ my wife said. ‘That was awful.’  I nodded. ‘Yes, that’s three hours of our lives we won’t get back.’

What happened? To me, the main problem was that it hadn’t been deepened enough – or properly structured. The existing Hobbit plot was stretched, thinly, across a three-hour movie-scape in which other material seemed to intrude, sometimes for no obvious reason. It opened with a loving, nostalgic reprise of The Fellowship of The Ring, which didn’t seem to do anything for the plot other than add fan-fic style ‘completeness’. It took over an hour for the story to actually get going, and then, as my wife put it, the thing felt at times like a succession of out-takes from The Fellowship of the Ring, slung into a bucket. I got the impression, at times, that I had been watching The Hobbit re-written as rather mediocre fan fiction.

That diorama from another angle.

That diorama from another angle.

Structure is everything with fiction – novels and movies alike. In the specific, to me the main over-arching plot, leading to the ‘big boss’ battle at the very end – was Azog’s quest for revenge. This was a new element, not envisaged by Tolkien. Unfortunately, Azog kept turning up to intensify danger or push chases along, without real build-up or tension – more melodrama than drama. But in any case, the whole thing needed a more epic plot to match the scale of movie, the scale of effects, and the scale of the settings; and Tolkien’s legendarium has many gigantic elements that could have been brought in – from the origin of dragons as corrupted Maiar and servants of Morgoth, to the full back-story of Sauron deceiving the elves into forging rings.

The other problem was tone. It came across to me as an awkward juxtaposition between Jackson-style slapstick – not much related to Tolkien’s gentle brand of intellectual humour – and deep, dark seriousness, which the plot elements didn’t quite match.

To me the strength of the 1937 Hobbit novel was tightness and the fact that the magic and wonder of Bilbo’s world unfolded for us as it did for Bilbo. Along the way we watched Bilbo grow as a person.  All was presented with Tolkien’s gentle humour and pitched for its reading audience, initially his children. Tolkien’s characters were also discomfited by ordinary problems, such as rain and storms, which we can all identify with. It led them into adventure with trolls and goblins. The ordinary became the extraordinary – but one we could share because we had been led gently into it. I got none of that feel with the movie.

I am a huge fan of Tolkien. I am a huge fan of my fellow Wellingtonian, Sir Peter Jackson. But this movie didn’t do it for me.  The Gollum riddle game, which was truly masterful, went some way towards redeeming the whole. But not far enough.

What did this movie do for you?

In post-scriptum, we found succour on YouTube:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JrKXH1CeXck

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up this week: Write It Now, Part 2; more on kindness; and picture inspirations from earthquake-hit Christchurch.

How J R R Tolkien changed the world

I never stop marvelling at how the mind and work of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien has flowed into everyday life around the western world. Even the lives of those who haven’t read his books or seen the Peter Jackson movie adaptations.

Probably Bert and Tom, I think. Two of the three 'life size' trolls. Cool.
Probably Bert and Tom, I think. Two of the three ‘life size’ trolls at The Hobbit premiere. Cool.

Take the word dwarf, for instance. In 1930, when Tolkien began writing The Hobbit, the plural was dwarfs. But Tolkien didn’t like it, and not just because the plural of ‘elf’ was ‘elves’. As a philologist and English scholar he knew that in Old English the word for dwarf was dweorh, pluralised as dwarrows. In old German it was twerg or dwergaz, and in Norse it was dvergr. ‘Dwarf’? Boring.

So Tolkien decided to make a more interesting plural of the English word – dwarves. He was the only one who did it. Just him. It wasn’t an easy one to get through his editors at Allen and Unwin, who kept correcting it back to ‘dwarfs’. But he managed it in the end.

And guess what – that’s how dwarf is pluralised now, always, right down to the point where my edition of Word 2010 doesn’t recognise it as a typo.

I even saw a title of a novel with the word spelt that way.

Technically it’s a neologism coined by Tolkien, but you wouldn’t think so at this juncture. And isn’t that just fantastic. This one spelling alone – now ‘correct’ and universal – shows the power writers have to work their ideas into wider society. The way writers can influence. The way imagination and creativity can spread from a single author’s ideas. And it’s all happened in the two generations since The Lord Of The Rings was published.

And that’s without considering the way his ideas have flowed into our lives in other ways – through music inspired by his motifs, through his influence on literature and fantasy writing, through the ubiquity of his work. Even, dare I say it, through the way the movies have been commercialised, opening up the vistas of Middle Earth to new generations and new audiences, mainstreaming the whole mythos in ways literature alone could not.

I am fairly sure Tolkien never intended it. People who truly change the world never do.

How has Tolkien influenced your world?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012