Looking for Middle-Earth

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.


Looking for Middle-Earth — 7 Comments

  1. Not unrelated, I think, to the early Saints looking around their lands and envisioning Eden, and the Zion of Enoch. Trying to live those ideals while viewing themselves as literally in the footsteps of those who accomplished them.

  2. Also, I find this to be fascinating, especially since I’ve been reading Tolkien lately, as well as some of the literature by his son about the development of his massive, beautiful, and complicated world. I found an interesting similarity to reading those works as commentary on the world of the Hobbit (explained to be ‘translated’ into a modern vernacular – and there are intense explanations for the anachronisms in language and presentation as it relates to the rest of Tolkien’s work), and reading Brant Gardner’s fantastic and enlightening commentary on the BoM.

  3. David, I had not thought of the similar scenario of early Saints in Missouri.

    Tolkien certainly set a new standard for what we would now call the “backstory” to his books. He invented not only the world but also the languages years before he wrote the tales that took place in that world. In literary criticism there’s a distinction between story and plot, with plot tracking the narrative but story representing an entire assembly of events that is implied by the narrative, without regard to how and in what order those events are recounted or alluded to or even simply ignored in the narrative itself. Obviously, that contrast applies primarily to fiction, not historical narrative.

  4. Quite interesting, Dave, and adds more to thinking about particularly “Mormon” readings of landscape—which extend well beyond the American West.

  5. Living in Colorado, I can say that a trip to Temple Square means a lot to me and my young family. We can’t afford to drive even the day’s drive more than once a year. And certainly, we want to make a Nauvoo trip eventually.

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