The Mythoecology of Middle-earth

by Peter Nowogrodzki

A report from the Shire, a landscape born of high fantasy, natural science, and geek tourism.

"The Mythoecology of Middle-earth" was commissioned by Triple Canopy as part of its New Media Reporting project area, supported in part by the Brown Foundation, Inc. of Houston.

Peter Jackson, director of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, speaks on creating film environments.
Éothain of Rohan: “Do we walk in legends or on the green earth in the daylight?”
Aragorn: “A man may do both. For not we but those who come after will make the legends of our time. The green earth, say you? That is a mighty matter of legend, though you tread it under the light of day!”
—J. R. R. Tolkien, The Two Towers: The Lord of the Rings, Part Two, 1954

Galadriel, Lady of Lórien: “The world is changed. I feel it in the water, I feel it in the earth, I smell it in the air. Much that once was is lost, for none now live who remember it.”
—Peter Jackson, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, 2001
SACKED IN THE WAR OF THE RING, reconstructed after the end of the Third Age and renamed New Row, sketched in archaic maps and nearly lost to memory, J. R. R. Tolkien’s storied Bagshot Row is traversable once again, among swaths of chicory and undulant sheep pastures on New Zealand’s North Island. The stony path meanders along the westward flank of Hobbiton Hill, where, beside a cluster of dwarf apple trees, a six-foot-tall wooden sign directs visitors: “Keep to paths—do not touch or walk above Hobbit Holes.”

Theresa, our tour guide, leads us past a dozen such holes burrowed into the earth (or “smials,” in Westron, the Common Speech of Middle-earth), whereupon our group arrives at the white plywood entrance to Bag End, Bilbo Baggins’s residence. I duck under the door’s arced molding and enter the berm. Beneath an earthen ceiling supported by two telephone poles, I find a dirt mattress and some dewy moss beds. Notably missing are the crackling fire and the welcoming whistle of a hot tea kettle; the only sign of life is a young ground fern poking up through the packed-soil floor.

Bilbo Baggins, as played by Ian Holmes, inside Bag End.
Peter Jackson inside a studio set of Bag End.
Bilbo Baggins, as drawn by J. R. R. Tolkien, inside Bag End.
For Tolkien, Bilbo’s home was neither “a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell,” nor “a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat”; rather, it was “a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.” Of course, Bag End is not just an idealized domestic space seeded within the Shire—itself a caricature of the snug hamlet. This hobbit hole is the birthplace of a complex cosmos, sketched by Bilbo Baggins in There and Back Again, the memoir of a quest for treasure that takes him and a band of dwarves deep into the Middle-earth legendarium. Tolkien folded There and Back Again into the Lord of the Rings trilogy, published in 1954 and 1955, to summarize the events of his 1937 novel, The Hobbit, which begins: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Which is all to say that the author’s fantasy world is, like biologist Ernst Haeckel’s 1879 rendering of Homo sapiens’s ancestry, a Tree of Life titled Pedigree of Man, a perceptual projection of reality.1
1 The Two Trees of Valinor, Telperion and Laurelin, provide light for all Middle-earth.

The tethering of this instantiation of the Shire to the nation of New Zealand now has its own myth, as told to me by a trebly voice transmitted through an intercom on a tour bus outside Matamata. The year, the driver recalls, is 1998, and Peter Jackson, fringe “splatstick” director of Meet the Feebles and Heavenly Creatures, is surveying the farmland south of Auckland from a helicopter. While flying over a sprawling hundred-year-old pine canopy, Jackson recognizes the spot where Bilbo delivers his 111th-birthday farewell address on September 22, 3001, of the Third Age: the famed Party Tree, where Westfarthing hobbits gather for parties and dinners, and where the trilogy begins. He directs the pilot to land nearby, on a 1,250-acre sheep farm owned by the Alexander family. “And the rest,” our driver tells us, “is history.”

Most of Middle-earth was once again dismantled, this time by Jackson and his crew, after the filming of the Lord of the Rings trilogy was finished in 2001. But Bagshot Row and its environs survived, and fans began to make pilgrimages. In 2002, Hobbiton Movie Set and Farm Tours was established to preserve the site; since then, more than two hundred thousand people have visited the Alexander’s sheep farm, ten miles outside the small town of Matamata, where, among miles of pens and paddocks, Tolkien’s myth has been physically impressed into the landscape, where the adaptation of the story continues to adapt itself.

Tourists with the Shire's Party Tree at Hobbiton Movie Set and Farm Tours, Matamata, New Zealand.
Tolkien photographed beside a European black pine at Oxford Botanic Gardens in 1973.
Willaim Blake's The Wood of the Self-Murderers: The Harpies and the Suicides, ca. 1824–27.
Ernst Haeckel's Pedigree of Man, published in The Evolution of Man, 1879.
Weta Studio's 3-D rendering of an Ent, Tolkien's walking, talking treelike creatures, 2002.

IN WELLINGTON, Jackson’s Weta Workshop built a world of custom special-effect models called “bigatures” (miniatures of notable size), which Weta Digital then brought to life with layers of CGI animation. The arresting production obscured reality, and in the darkness of the theater, The Lord of the Rings was rendered as fantasy. But reading Tolkien and visiting Hobbiton make it apparent how much his landscapes are built around a scientific impulse to pursue the limits of the known world until the unknown is revealed. In The Two Towers, the royal elf Galadriel tells Legolas, lone elf member of the ring-bearing fellowship, “If thou hearest the cry of the gull on the shore, thy heart shall rest in the forest no more.” Her prophecy echoes Wordsworth’s evocations of the transcendental powers of nature and the magnetic call of the wild.

In the century before Tolkien’s birth, the study of nature itself had become the subject of ardent imaginative exploration: The Age of Discovery’s there-and-back conquests uncovered troves of biological data, fodder for the Age of Wonder, in which “Romantic science” strived to imitate poetry—not just describing nature but transforming the world by fundamentally altering our perception of it. The discovery of foreign species, organized into phylogenetic relationships, yielded further imaginative grounds, reflected in the reports of the pioneers of evolutionary theory, among them Haeckel (who in 1866 coined the term ecology), Alfred Russel Wallace, and Charles Darwin. Schooled on the Romantics and decorated by royal societies, scientists returned from expeditions with tales of new lands populated by exotic beasts and birds, supernatural flora and fauna—an interweaving of fantasy and taxonomy. Wallace, at the beginning of The Malay Archipelago: The land of the orang-utan, and the bird of paradise. A narrative of travel, with sketches of man and nature, writes of “being (as far as I am aware) the only Englishman who has seen these wonderful birds in their native forests.” In the multivolume account of eight years of research around Singapore and Indonesia, he reports some 8,050 bird specimens, including a rare six-shafted bird of paradise. “On the back of the head is a broad recurved band of feathers, whose brilliancy is indescribable, resembling the sheen of emerald and topaz rather that any organic substance.”

Tolkien's handdrawn map of the Shire, published in The Fellowship of the Ring, 1954.

Tolkien, who wrote in the spirit of, and occupied the same haut monde as these scientists—he graduated from and was the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford (and for a time worked on etymologies for the OED)—rendered Bag End with empirical exactitude, furnishing it with detailed maps, meticulous histories, and complex genealogies. Middle-earth, the fantasy world sprung from the hobbit hole, is undergirded by ecology, populated particularly by bird life: Eagles, ravens, crows, and song birds—primeval variations and actual specimens alike—appear with metronomic regularity in The Lord of the Rings, both facilitating the development of the plot and mediating between the world of the novels and that of the reader. Roäc, a raven, describes himself to Bilbo in “ordinary language,” not “bird-speech”: “It is a hundred years and three and fifty since I came out of the egg, but I do not forget what my father told me.” A thrush is instrumental in the defeat of Smaug the dragon by Bilbo and the men of Laketown; Gwaihir the Windlord leads a convocation of giant eagles, an imagined apex species, to save members of the Fellowship at the Battle of Morannon, and, later, from the fires of Mount Doom. These birds, all derived from natural history, many with equivalents around Tolkien’s country home near Birmingham, England, take on a totemic quality for the protagonists. Even the powerful wizard Gandalf, when marooned as prisoner atop the black tower Orthanc, is saved by eagles.

The Shire under construction again in 2010.

Tolkien undertook to use his considerable powers of imagination to generate a full-fledged alternative reality, an epic fantasy. This invented place, amalgamated from Norse mythology and Darwinian logbook entries, was forecast in Tolkien’s 1931 poem “Mythopoesis.” It was addressed to his close friend and fellow Inklings Society member C. S. Lewis, for whom, according to Tolkien, “myths were lies and therefore worthless, even though ‘breathed through silver.’” Tolkien describes fantasy literature not as a departure from natural science or as mere “wish-fulfillment” (contrary to the nascent Freudian critiques), but as fertile territory for the combinations of image and reality that provide our experience of the world with shape and form:

You look at trees and label them just so,2
(for trees are “trees,” and growing is “to grow”);
you walk the earth and tread with solemn pace
one of the many minor globes of Space:
a star’s a star, some matter in a ball
compelled to courses mathematical
amid the regimented, cold, inane,
where destined atoms are each moment slain.

2 A reference, I believe, to Kipling’s Just So Stories for Little Children, a collection of pourquoi stories on the origins of certain animal morphology, published in 1902.
I wanted to read to them not from Field Guide to Birds of New Zealand but from Tolkien.

I TRAVELED TO NEW ZEALAND as the in-house ornithology lecturer on a three-hundred-foot cruiser called the MV Clipper Odyssey. The ship, operated by Noble Caledonia, travels the seas staffed with a team of naturalists whose duty is to provide passengers with a casual, on-demand education regarding coastal ecologies. Our voyage, which circumnavigated New Zealand’s two major islands, was an expedition cruise, an expensive subset of the industry that attracts customers who want to see and document unvarnished nature—rare botanicals, migratory cetaceans, pelagic birds, etc.—while enjoying private balconies, three-course dinners, mint-laden pillow cases, and hospital corners. The scenery was inspired: Honking sea lions swam around desolate craggy islands jutting out from the sea; inland, steep bedrock fjords arched skyward through the mist. On the fourteenth day of the trip, New Zealand’s highest peak, Mount Cook—named in honor of the English explorer James Cook—came into view, and guests and staff alike, dressed for dinner, rushed starboard to glimpse the pristine snow-capped summits levitating above the darkened sea. Inga, a sixty-year-old German guest with dyed-red hair, enthusiastically compared the panorama to a cruise she had taken to Svalbard, Norway. “You must see my auks,” she said with a heavy accent. She reached into her purse and extracted a envelope of pictures of the penguin-esque birds: auks on rocks, auks near tour guides, auks on ice floes. The range of auks is generally limited to the cooler waters above the fortieth parallel north, but with Inga they had migrated across the equator, a distance of more than six thousand kilometers. “I have the best auks,” she told me sternly, before returning her gaze to the mountaintops skating past us, then, satisfied, striding back to the dining hall.

Animated eagles lift Bilbo and the Dwarves in the Rankin/Bass production of The Hobbit, 1977.
A graphic representation of New Zealand's extinct Haast's eagle hunting the flightless moa bird.
Alfred Russel Wallace's drawing of a six-shafted bird of paradise, published in 1869.

I spent much of each day on the ship’s mahogany aft deck, binoculars trained on the swirling whitecaps, spotting seabirds and broadcasting their presence like a carnival caller: “Sooty shearwater!” “Buller’s mollymawk!” “Pintado petrel!” Guests responded with special enthusiasm to a gliding albatross, swarming to the gunwale with cameras drawn, but for the most part my exclamations were disregarded, and I enjoyed the calm of a few binoculared devotees patiently scanning the horizons for signs of avian life. In the afternoons, I presented lectures on such subjects as “Birds of the Sea” and “Migration Challenges” before an audience of emeritus economics professors and former oilmen. Some listened avidly as I babbled on about the aspect ratio of albatross wings; they excitedly recalled their most recent seabird sightings, asked me about flight aerodynamics, and sought clues for identifying distant birds. I got the sense that for them the promise of Noble Caledonia’s website—that I would “help you understand all that you see”—was not only irresistible but attainable, and that this ship might become, like Darwin’s Beagle, a vessel for the kind of experience that demystifies the natural world. I pushed them toward mastery of the foreign landscape but felt a compulsion to tell them that the world beyond the Clipper Odyssey’s hull might better be understood as a mutable product of fluctuating ecologies superimposed with their own prefab visions. I wanted to read to them not from Field Guide to Birds of New Zealand but from Tolkien.

One day, during a tea break in the day lounge, looking through porthole windows toward Stewart Island, I asked Lloyd Esler, a kiwi naturalist employed by Noble Caledonia, about The Lord of the Rings. Lloyd’s stringy white beard and flattened face gave him a wizardly mien, and his facial hair struck me as a tribute to Victorian-era naturalists. A biology teacher who spends his spare time leading southern New Zealand’s beach patrol, he was able to identify nearly all eighty-nine bird species we encountered without a field guide. “The Lord of the Rings is a botanist’s dream,” he told me. “The fussy botanist may wince a little at the odd mixture of introduced and native plants and the deciduous leaves scattered on the forest floor of the evergreen forest, but these are small matters.” His response took me by surprise. After all, New Zealand, an admixture of endemic and alien plant and animal life, including more than 150 fern species, is already a botanist’s dream. And because the islands were devoid of land mammals for millions of years, the country is also an ornithologist’s dream.3 But Lloyd’s view reflects Tolkien’s mythopoetics: Nature is rendered as an image, that image is written into myth, and from that protean landscape fantasy emerges—and, occasionally, becomes the stuff of ecology. “I wish Jackson had paused more often to allow the camera to zoom in on the alpine flora,” Lloyd said, referring to Gandalf and Pippen’s horseback ride into Gondor in The Return of the King. “They cross a bog full of aquatic plants; there are beech forests, tussock grassland, and even a forest in Wellington with regular rows of trimmed pines. I'm still puzzling over the classification of the Ents!”

3 Less so than it once was: Seven hundred years ago, birds dominated New Zealand, which lacked land mammals. They grew to epic proportions in just one million years. An apex species called Haast’s eagle lived among the dense epiphytic ferns, bromeliads, and mosses of South Island, its wingspan measuring nine feet, its weight exceeding thirty pounds—a soaring, swooping hunter heftier than a wild turkey. The eagle preyed on the flightless moa, a five-hundred-pound cousin of the ostrich and emu. But within three hundred years of Maori settlement the moa had been extinguished, and the Haast’s eagle soon followed.
English paleontologist Sir Richard Owen, in 1879, with a moa Dinornis robustus skeleton found in New Zealand.

IN THE LORD OF THE RINGS LOCATION Guidebook, Ian Brodie describes the 1855 dredging of Matamata by Josiah Firth, a Yorkshire Englishman “with a strong vision.” Firth planted paddocks and oak trees over the swampy marshlands south of Auckland; the landscape’s recent vintage does not escape Brodie, whose book, published in 2002 (and since revised and expanded), inaugurated Lord of the Rings tourism, providing detailed information about Jackson’s film sets and locations (including GPS coordinates). By mapping Middle-earth onto the New Zealand countryside, Brodie enabled fans to, for instance, raft the mythic River Anduin (actually the Kawarau River) to the location of a rock formation called the Pillars of the Kings (a model carved at Weta). Visitors to the forty sites listed in Brodie’s guide carry with them visions of Middle-earth, an imagined history unearthed (or re-earthed) by Jackson and his crews. Some of the tourists I saw camped out at Hobbiton’s visitor center, Shire’s Rest, are fluent in Elvish and can read Tengwar and Cirth, the elven scripts; there are bulletin boards with photos of travelers dressed as hobbits, elves, dwarves, orcs, and rangers.

The verisimilitude of Hobbiton satisfies the tourists in my group, mostly twenty-something backpackers—none in costume—such that a few reenact the Fellowship scene where the Shire’s youth, Frodo and Sam among them, dance around the Party Tree in celebration of Bilbo’s eleventy-first birthday. (No one seems to mind that we’re surrounded by white Romney sheep, whereas Jackson imported a more Tolkien-esque breed, the black-footed, black-faced Suffolk.) I ask the sheep farmer who had recently given us a shearing demonstration at a barn covered in gray corrugated siding called the Wool Shed—an unexpected tangent of the fifty-eight-dollar, hour-long tour, which I imagine is a concession to the Alexander family; otherwise I’m unsure how to reconcile this staged shaving of a female Romney and the discourse on ungulate mouth temperatures4 with the examination of hobbit habitats—whether he’s seen the Lord of the Rings movies.

“Not really my cup of tea, eh?” he replies. “I’ve watched the Hobbit part of it. I was on a plane coming back from the UK. But I’m more into farming and that sort of … real stuff.”

4 New Zealand has a legendary sheep-to-human ratio, or so say the tour-bus operators. The exact number fluctuates wildly according to the source, but I found the mean, derived from a sample of half a dozen drivers, to be 20:1.

PETER JACKSON, himself now a society member (New Zealand Order of Merit), grew up in a small town near Wellington, and as a teenager read The Lord of the Rings while on a train headed into the interior of North Island. “During the twelve-hour journey,” he recalls, “I’d lift my eyes from the book and look at the familiar landscape—which all of a sudden looked like Middle-earth.” Two decades later, while scouting locations, Jackson and his crew “would look at the landscape from an artistic point of view,” then ask themselves, “Does this feel like it came from the pages of Tolkien’s book?”

Hobbiton can no longer be thought of as anything but Tolkien-esque, and all its elements—whether endemic, imported by European settlers, or installed by Jackson—seem to conspire in the perfection of that image. There are the Radiata pine trees whose evergreen branches caught Jackson’s eye as he choppered above the Alexander farm; the fast-growing species with harvestable softwood was brought from Europe in 1859 and now makes up almost 90 percent of the country’s forest plantation. There are the kilometer-long cords of evergreen Barberry hedges purchased and transplanted from surrounding farms. There are the fake plum leaves sewn onto the apple trees at the Shire’s entrance. There is the twenty-six-ton oak tree felled by Jackson’s so-called Greens Department, trucked to the set in numbered pieces, reassembled with bolts, and foliated with wires and some 250,000 leaves imported from Taiwan.

Recording of a bellbird, known by its Maori name, Korimako.

The final cyborg tree is visible for only a few seconds in Jackson’s film, statuesque atop Bag End, a gratuitous emblem of the realization of the director’s fervent vision. On-screen, as in prose, Tolkien’s Shire appears as a coherent ecosystem, cradled by productive fields and populated by abundant orchards, caches of edible mushroom, and even the fishable Bywater Pool, ornamented with an authentic churning mill. The land at Hobbiton is changing still: Jackson’s crowning oak tree now sits in sun-scarred pieces behind a rotten wooden fence at the termination of Bagshot Row, a home for the welcome swallows that course through air above. In the pastures opposite Bag End, a leash of the chicken-like spur-winged plovers, invasive colonizers of open farmlands, cluck at one another as they forage for invertebrates. Black swans laze on the Bywater’s shore. Here the lineal connection to Wordsworth’s “wild secluded” Tintern Abbey is apparent. The Shire is a concentrated, organic product of natural history, human intervention, and imagination—not just a relic of the film set but a mythopoetic land narrative adapted from book to earth to film to earth again, all in a mere seventy years.

“NOWADAYS WHEN A PERSON lives somewhere, in a neighborhood, the place is not certified for him,” Walker Percy writes in The Moviegoer. “But if he sees a movie which shows his very neighborhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere.” What happens when the former subsumes the latter, when the Shire eclipses Matamata (if not through the alteration of landscapes then through the transformation of popular perceptions of the place), when swaths of North Island become Tolkien amusement parks?

In February, the Greens Department returned to Matamata, and Hobbiton was temporarily closed to tourists in preparation for the filming of Jackson’s The Hobbit, a two-part prequel to The Lord of the Rings. The Alexander family’s company, Ring Scenic Tours, has partnered with the director to create a new venture, Shire Tours. Jackson is reconstructing much of the dismantled Lord of the Rings set, but additions and reinforcements (hobbit holes now have to meet structural building codes) are intended to make the “bigger and better” Shire a permanent set. New Zealand prime minister John Key praised the enterprise, predicting that the filming of The Hobbit will “have ongoing and lucrative benefits for the New Zealand economy.”

Already, crews have begun turning the Aratiatia Rapids into Middle-earth’s Forest River, down which Bilbo and his dwarf companions float on wine barrels as the elves of Mirkwood give chase. The Greens Department has been granted permission to divert 235,000 gallons of water from lakes and streams around Hobbiton in order to irrigate the set, greening flora that would otherwise wither in the summer heat. Last fall, when a boycott by a local actors’ union threatened to impede filming, and Jackson threatened to move production elsewhere, thousands took to the streets of Wellington in protest, reciting Aragorn’s speech at the Black Gate (“A day may come when the courage of men fails, but it is not this day”) and hoisting banners declaring that “New Zealand is Middle-earth.”

"The world is changed." A tour group at Hobbiton in Matamata, NZ.

The allure of Middle-earth has not been universal: Two hundred kilometers south of Matamata, inside New Zealand’s oldest national park, lies an active stratovolcano called Mount Ngauruhoe—known to Lord of the Rings fans as Mount Doom. Ngauruhoe, which last erupted in 1977, is sacred to the Ngāti Tūwharetoa Maori. One of their myths tells of a priest named Ngātoro-i-rangi taking refuge from a blizzard on the mountainside and praying to his northern relatives for warmth; volcanoes across North Island erupt in response, their flames traveling south to save the priest. The Maori barred Jackson’s crew from Ngauruhoe’s slopes but permitted filming on neighboring Ruapehu’s igneous rock outcrops, with the caveat that Jackson digitally alter the footage lest the mountain’s mana (spiritual strength) be diminished.

Now the Maori are vowing to keep The Hobbit off their mountains (in part because a production crew left debris on the so-called Orc Road during the filming of The Lord of the Rings). But doing so will not prevent Ngauruhoe from being converted, for all intents and purposes, into a marker of a fictional world—this time the rocky terrain of the Misty Mountains rather than Mount Doom’s stark cone. As in The Lord of the Rings, Jackson may use a scale model of the 2,291-meter peak for studio shots and film on location at North Island’s Mount Taranaki, or the Southern Alps; regardless, he will reconfigure the landscape frame by frame. Tourist agencies and guides across New Zealand will, in turn, augment their “Tours of the Rings,” inviting you to climb Lonely Mountain even as you “walk under Mt. Doom and stroll through Orc Country,” where “you’ll wonder how such varied location material was so skillfully weaved together.”