In the New York Times travel section, “New Zealand’s Hobbit Trail” recounts the unexpected surge of Middle-earth tourism that has flooded New Zealand since the Lord of the Rings movies hit the screen ten years ago. The quote that got my attention: “Movies — ephemeral, imaginary — have a way of sending fans in search of something real.” Made me think of all those Book of Mormon tours that take Mormons with some money to spend off to Central and South America in search of Nephite ruins.
What’s odd in reading the linked article is how easy it is for readers or viewers to make an emotional connection with the physical locations that were scenes for the movie that represented scenes from the book. People aren’t researching Middle-earth or investigating the historicity of Tolkien’s narratives — they’re just trying to build emotional bridges to a treasured narrative. Visiting the New Zealand sites obviously means something to them. It’s an experience.
That’s one way to put Book of Mormon tours in a better light. It’s just Mormons trying to build emotional bridges to a treasured narrative. Visiting Central American or South American sites obviously means something to them. Catholics can trek to Rome and Muslims to Mecca, but a visit to Temple Square doesn’t have that sort of impact when 90% of us live within a day’s drive. We’ve all been there, then crossed the street for burgers at the food court or went shopping at a nearby mall. Then there’s the week-long auto tour of LDS history sites back East, which has the advantage of offering views of authentic historical sites, but that trip (which I’m sure many readers have taken) is really just a family vacation. Trudging up hillsides to walk the ruins at Machu Picchu — now that’s an experience.
I spent a few days on New Zealand’s North Island several years before the movies were shot. It’s beautiful all on its own. There’s nothing wrong with tourists seeing stunning New Zealand panoramas while the words “Middle-earth” or “Rohan” go through their mind. I’m not sure that’s any different from tourists visiting impressive sites in Central and South America with the words “Nephite” or “Zarahemla” going through their mind. Canonized scripture has a way of sending readers in search of something real.