Re-imagining New Zealand: Forty years of official biculturalism and assertive indigeneity have failed to suppress the colonisers' desire to refashion their new world in the image of the old. In this regard, "Middle Earth" has proved to be a much more comfortable cultural fit than "Aotearoa".
ONE HUNDRED PERCENT Middle Earth. That’s how the tourism industry has decided to promote New Zealand. Our national airline has even contributed one of its airliners, emblazoned nose to tail with images from The Hobbit movie, to elevate the promotional cause. This flying billboard will wow those attending the film’s “red carpet” premiere with a low-level fly-past.
Asked by a local journalist for his response to Air New Zealand’s generosity, an executive from the movie’s maker, Warner Bros, didn’t know whether to laugh out loud or titter. His consternation is understandable. Very few countries have been as willing to abase themselves quite so completely to the “soft-power” of Hollywood as we poor deluded Kiwis.
Having successfully persuaded New Zealand’s government to re-word its labour and immigration laws to industry specifications, increase its financial incentives and provide Warner Bros with millions of dollars’ worth of free publicity, the Hollywood moguls should be blushing with shame. More likely they’re kicking themselves for not demanding more.
And considering what we’ve been willing to do unasked – who could blame them! A friend of mine, returning from a trip to the United States, told me of his cringing embarrassment upon discovering that Air New Zealand’s passenger safety instructional video now doubles as a trailer for The Hobbit (complete with the Gollum character crawling up the aisle in search of his “Prescioussss” – presumably the nearest exit!)
Why are we doing this to ourselves? Why are we so quick to dismiss even the slightest criticism of the Middle Earth franchise? How has The Hobbit’s director, Sir Peter Jackson, acquired such a powerful grip upon the public’s imagination and affection, and thus upon the direction of Government policy? What has caused a little nation located in the South Pacific to expend so much time, energy and money transforming itself into a bucolic version of medieval England?
Perhaps, after nearly forty years of official decolonisation, Sir Peter’s masterful adaptation of Tolkien’s masterpieces has opened a long-locked door to the colonisers’ cultural storehouse. Most New Zealanders are, when all is said and done, English speakers and (as Maori have been telling us for nearly forty years) culture and language are inextricably linked.
Transported half way across the planet our ancestors lost little time in reshaping Aotearoa’s natural landscape with flora and fauna appropriate to their vocabulary. And alongside the oaks and elms, sheep and cattle they’d introduced, they also constructed churches, schools, town halls and railway stations designed to “age” their young colony. It’s why the centre of Christchurch used to, and the heart of Dunedin still does, look like it’s stood there for centuries.
Ageing The Colony: St Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Auckland: "A baroque tower in Symonds Street that appears to have stood there since 1730." (Photo by Chris Harris)
Two great waves of cultural change have laid much of this “Better Britain” flat. The first was the wave of brutal modernist architecture which reduced the neo-classical and Gothic buildings of our Victorian forebears to rubble. And as modernism flattened New Zealand’s constructed landscape, so the second great wave: officially sanctioned bi-culturalism and assertive indigeneity; deconstructed its fondest cultural assumptions and undermined its intellectual confidence.
This great laying to waste of the West’s best stories, which goes by the name of Post-Modernism, is described by the social theorist, Frederic Jameson, as “the cultural logic of late-capitalism”. It’s most devastating characteristic is its power to dissolve boundaries. High and popular culture mingle promiscuously in the post-modern societies of the 21st Century; as do past and present, fact and fiction, science and religion.
Sir Peter Jackson floats freely in this post-modern world – as his mischievous 1995 faux documentary, Forgotten Silver, made very clear. Who better, then, to overlay Tolkien’s Middle Earth upon a New Zealand landscape already transformed by the ecological imperialism of its Victorian colonisers? The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and now The Hobbit, may “only” be movies, but that has not prevented them from turning Mt Ngaurahoe into “Mt Doom” and Matamata into “Hobbiton”.
Tolkein’s writings may be fictional but they possess a cultural power that is very real. And thanks to the cinematographic skills of Sir Peter Jackson and the digital magic of Weta Workshops, Pakeha New Zealanders have been given reference points that owe nothing to their country’s indigenous culture. In our post-modern world, where reality has taken on an alarmingly subjective quality, “Middle Earth” is a much more comfortable fit than “Aotearoa”.
More comfortable, too, for dwellers in a “West” beset with economic, political, environmental and cultural challenges. A West in whose eyes New Zealand stands as a refuge every bit as wholesome and protected as “The Shire”. New Zealanders’ desire for cultural reassurance and comfort is thus reinforced by an international audience desperate to escape the daunting challenges of multiculturalism and austerity.
No, the tourism industry and Air New Zealand should have little difficulty in filling those airliners. Not while Middle Earth is so much more enjoyable than the real one.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 27th November 2012.