By Ani Bundel

One of San Diego Comic-Con’s pleasures is the diversity of panels across the sheer width and breadth of fandoms. Most of the glamour (and the press) goes to Hall H and the bing time films and TV series that turn up. But there are just as many intellectual panels deep-diving into the minutiae of scholarly study of fantasy lore. Considering how difficult pulling off SDCC at Home’s first virtual-fest has been, one would not blame convention programmers for cutting back on such fare. But SDCC has remained true to its roots, with panels such as “Dispatches from Middle-earth.” It was an hour-long Tolkien-fest for those who love digging into the language and inspiration of the Lord of the Rings series.

Moderated by (TORn)’s Cathy Udovch, and led by TORn staffer Clifford Broadway, this panel’s honorary guest star was Tolkien biographer John Garth. Broadway introduced Garth as a “real Tolkien scholar,” as the author of Tolkien and the Great War and the recently released The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien: The Places that Inspired Middle-earth. Garth and Broadway, along with panelist Nicole Roberts and Abie Ekenezar had Garth discuss some of the discoveries he made of new places that inspired Tolkien. He also debunked a few theories as well along the way.

One of Garth’s points, which he returned to more than once, was how people sort of take for granted how England inspired Middle Earth. But Tolkien, who was born in Southern Africa, was impressed by the cool green world he moved to as a child, and that’s there’s a sense of wonder about his home that never left him. He also pointed out how rarely Tolkien traveled — for instance, most assume Ireland was a major inspiration, but the truth is it was only as myths and lore. Tolkien never set foot in Ireland until after Lord of the Rings was written.

As Broadway pointed out, the irony is that since Peter Jackson’s adaptations, most people now picture Middle Earth as a country that Tolkien never visited, and certainly never pictured — New Zealand. Not that Tolkien didn’t have mountain ranges in mind, some of which are so tall as to be geologically impossible. The entire panel agreed that once the Fellowship crosses the mountains into the lands of the cities of men and Mordor itself, the landscapes New Zealand has to offer are on point, especially in the volcanic regions. But for Hobbiton, mountains, even in the far background landscape, are all wrong.

Naturally, New Zealand brought the conversation to the new Lord of the Rings series, which, like nearly everything, found work ground to a halt due to the pandemic. The series is luckier than most. New Zealand has the disease under control more than most, but the determination to keep it that way means that bringing production crew and actors back is a slow process. 

Still, of all the shows to suffer the kinds of cost overrun delays that this show has had, it’s doubtful episodes will be cut, or stories will be altered to make deadlines. Amazon already sunk $250m into just getting the right to make two seasons in the first place. The panel agreed that of all production companies that could be shepherding this project, Amazon is the least likely to flinch at what it takes to do the material justice.

Amazon’s Lord of the Rings series is still expected to arrive in late 2021 or early 2022. John Garth’s The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien: The Places that Inspired Middle-earth is on bookshelves now.

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