Knocking on Heaven's Door: A visit to the LOTR Exhibit

by Varda

Now I have to admit I don't like wax effigies. I went to Madame Tussauds once and thought the wax dummies looked like.....wax dummies. So I went to the exhibition of The Fellowship and Two Towers film artifacts currently running in London not all that keen on seeing Boromir in his funeral boat, even if it was good, I don't like dummies. I work with them all the time.

I suppose it was the atmosphere, it is not a fun fun interactive sort of exhibition. It is quite dark and there are scores of exhibits, from full dress costumes of Rangers, Elves of both eras, men of Gondor and Rohan and every breed of orc to Elrond's telescope. So it was like being in Middle Earth, but not as in the films, but in real life, you could walk around these figures, even touch some of them. The people of Middle Earth surrounded you. It was bizarre how powerful an effect it had on me.

So when I saw Boromir dead in the boat I thought it was a dead man. I mean, a real dead man. He looked as if he had only just closed his eyes, and might open them again at any moment, the lashes lying on his cheeks. His skin was pale and under his eyes was that faint blue shadow ill people get. His hair was untidy as if someone had laid his head down carefully then did not want to disturb it again. There was a smudge of reddish clay on his forehead and dried blood round the tear in his leather tunic from the fatal arrow. I noticed for the first time that under his quilted jacket he wore a tunic of grey-blue silk embroidered with silver thread and sewn with tiny silver stars. It was a small detail revealing the man's character, something beautiful but hidden from view, as if he was not too sure of showing a love of beauty.

Someone, probably Aragorn, had placed Boromir's hands round the hilt of his sword but they were too cold already and just lay on it and did not grasp it. Boromir's powerful physicality in life seemed to have left him in death and he looked almost ethereal...

'Daddy, daddy there's a dead man!'
'No, no, dear it is only a model...'

People were crying discreetly but I waited till I got out then announced to Indis and her sister that I did not feel well at all and they looked at me with a horror born of the thought of carrying Varda all the way back to Paddington. First aid in the shape of lunch helped but to be honest the rest of the day was a blur. I will deal with the rest of the exhibition when I have dealt with this.

What did they say happened to the boat after it went over the falls of Rauros....?

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..thanks folks for your replies last night, I have taken today off, as my boss is not impressed with my work at the best of times and I would impress him even less in my present state of mind. I'm still not really back from ME. Boriel is right, we just can't bear for the ride to end.

On a more objective note, the exhibition is well worth the effort to go and see it, although it should have a health warning for the likes of us. The detail of the artefacts is unbelievable, and truth is in the details, and the details are one of the reasons I at least found Jackson's Middle Earth so compelling.

As there is no catalogue and no photography allowed you tend to try to absorb more intensely than you might under normal circumstances. We are bombarded with images in daily life and in this exhibition you have to use your eye in a more concentrated way. You could literally spend all day at one exhibit. It is like some kind of spiritual exercise, a meditation, but you find it hard to adjust to the real world when you come back out...

The exhibition is weighted towards the Fellowship of The Ring and I thought some characters were better served than others, Aragorn, Arwen, Gandalf, Galadriel and Frodo and Théoden are well done but Gimli is not much in evidence and Legolas could have done with a video display. I would have liked to see Grima's remarkable costume and black sword too. There is no Faramir, but perhaps they borrowed it back to reshoot scenes for ROTK and put him into the film properly? we can dream.....

The real heart of the exhibition is the display of clothes. They convey the character of the wearer even better than a video or a thousand words. Aragorn's worn and grimy Ranger outfit was the most popular display, and Frodo's tiny suit of homely garments was the most moving. But the others were almost as stunning. A lot of people brought art material in as you could not take pictures, and it was only when I tried to draw the figures that I realised how complex the costumes are. On the Gondor Ranger I made out a linen undergarment, a leather tunic, a woollen knee-length tunic, a padded gambeson, a leather cape and a green cloak with ragged hem. As well as his sword and quiver belt and inlaid buckles and leather and cloth pouches and a black scarf. Especially for a lousy artist like me, it was practically undrawable but it looked and felt like the clothes of a man who had to fight and live and sleep out in the wilds in all weathers.

The closer you looked the better it got, and the Haradrim's costume had strings of amulets carved from bone and wood into tiny skulls and crescent moons, sunbursts, stars and leaves. The best single costume was Théoden's, even seen from the back. But some characters were represented only by one or two artefacts and yet they conveyed the personality of that individual. One of the most beautiful objects I thought was Aiglos, Gil-Galad's spear, so elegant yet lethal, bearing a long Elvish script and wittily poised above not inside the case with the notes on it. His shield as well, brave but faded blue with gold stars all dimmed with time.

I would have liked more of Haldir but we only got his sword and scabbard which I tried to draw. It has minute inlay of golden leaves on blade and sheath and beside it was a sword from the Prologue, showing a development in the armament of the Elves, the blades getting slimmer and lighter and more elegant. The most beautiful sword in the whole exhibition was Arwen's, though, Hadafang the Elven sword. Once again truth was in the details and the arms revealed the characters of the different races, the Dwarven axes heavy and angular and utilising various metals, the Rohan swords richly embellished with horse motifs, the Ranger's sword with a round brass pommel which could be used as a weapon in its own right but was decorated very simply, whereas the Elven swords were graceful and intricately decorated and as much works of art as weapons.

The arts of peace were represented too though and imagine my delight when I saw Elrond's telescope, for if you have a telescope you gotta have an observatory, right? It was suitably Heath-Robin-ish and showed the Elves' curiosity in their world and their delight in making and decorating beautiful things. I wish they had put Elrond's armour in too but they did put in his sceptre, which is silver (Mithril?) and has a strange Dwarven design.

Above the exhibits was a fabulous display of banners and hangings, from Gondor, the Elven kingdoms and Rohan. It made it look like a medieval chapel with knights banners over the stalls. Some were torn and smoke-stained by battle, as in medieval cathedrals. There were also orc banners. receding up into the dark; when you come out you literally emerge blinking into the day.

I must admit I spent most of my time at the Elvish and costume displays, but there were others that people could not tear themselves away from. The video display of Andy Serkis 'becoming' Gollum was rivetting, and the cockroach orc on the wall beside the cave troll was great! You can have your picture taken hobbit-size and handle the rings of chain mail, heft Rohan swords and see a film of Lurtz having his 12-hour make-up routine done. How to teach Aragorn to use a sword and train people (ladies with equestrian skills wearing fake beards!) to act like iron age cavalry and how to bring Gandalf to life. Yet it never feels like unnecessary information or anorak stuff and it certainly never feels as if the magic is being dispelled, only made even greater. And even those exhibits which looked small and dusty and forgotten, like the Palantír, reminded us that it all did indeed happen a long time ago and far away and none now live who remember......

One rather uncanny thing I noticed was how many of the cast seemed to become the characters they played. The swordmaster who taught Viggo said he was the best pupil he ever instructed, and that he never stopped learning, and Aragorn is also on a learning curve, finding out how to lead his people, often learning by bitter mistakes. Aragorn is a listener but also a man of action, and the costume he wore was frayed, torn and even mended by himself, as if Viggo had lived rather than acted the part.

I went over to look at Boromir when I went in, and before I went out, or it would have overwhelmed the whole visit. Everyone who saw it felt as if they were in the presence of the dead. When we came out we went for lunch and I stood for a long time hopefully holding an empty cup in front of a coffee machine with a large sign 'THIS MACHINE IS OUT OF ORDER' on it before someone behind me poked me in the ribs and said 'It's not working, move on!'

If we only could move on! When we came out and went into the Underground there was a busker playing Knocking On Heaven's Door so we gave him money and he gave us a low courtly bow, it seemed like the right song for the day....

Thanks for listening, I am sure I haved left out half of it...