New Zealand: A Land Fit for Fantasy

You know when you were a kid, when you were lonely or sad or scared and you just… imagined you were somewhere else? Where did you imagine? What fantastic landscapes did you get lost in?

Emerald valleys beribboned with sapphire rivers? Mysterious lakes mirroring snow-capped mountains? Ancient forests with hidden waterfalls? Waves crashing upon black rocks beneath stormy skies? How about bubbling, blue-grey pools surrounded by steam vents, lava flows and powdery, yellow rocks?

Fantasy Image from Pixabay.com

You know.

Growing up in England, I thought New Zealand was some sort of fantasyland. But that didn’t mean I wanted to leave my home and my friends and everything behind to go there. When my parents told me we were moving to New Zealand, I’d never been more lonely or sad or scared!

I did feel slightly better, however, when my dad informed me they were filming The Lord of the Rings there. If I was going to be forced to live somewhere, it was good that it was somewhere magical.

BridalVeilFalls03

Bridal Veil Falls, Waikato, New Zealand

I was disappointed to find, upon arrival, that New Zealand was just like everywhere else. I mean there were a few things I found strange, but on the whole it was just like England. Of course, I’d only seen the airport, the motorway and our new town at that point. The more I saw of New Zealand’s countryside, the more magical it seemed.

Ngauruhoe

Tongariro National Park, New Zealand

No wonder so many fantasy epics get filmed here! Apart from The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, there was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Legend of the Seeker, Xena, Hercules, 10,000 BC, The Water Horse, Bridge to Terabithia and others I’ve forgotten. They’re doing Terry Brooks’ Shannara as we speak. (Or as I write. Whatever.)

A ridiculous amount of filming is done at Bethells Beach, for example. My boyfriend, Tim, grew up there, with a view over the valley, the silver-black sand dunes and the sea, so I’ve been a fair bit. It is beautiful, but not only that. It’s got a sort of… mystical quality. It’s not just a beach. If I believed in such things, I’d say it was a weak point in reality… a gateway to the Otherworld… You have to go when the light’s just right, I suppose.

Bethells Beach

Bethells Beach, Auckland, New Zealand

A lot of filming is also done around Queenstown. That’s where the mysterious lakes mirroring snow-capped mountains are at. My family went there on our New Zealand campervan rental tour and it’s almost overwhelming being in the midst of so much natural beauty.

Lake Pukaki

Lake Pukaki, Canterbury, New Zealand

Other places in the world are beautiful. What makes New Zealand special is simply that it has so MANY beautiful landscapes, and such a RANGE of beautiful landscapes, all within one small country. Scottish actor Graham McTavish put it well when he spoke at the 2015 Hamilton Armageddon: New Zealand is like Neverland, he said – a child’s drawing of a fantasy island with everything you could possibly want on it, in terms of natural scenery and adventure.

Cathedral Cove

Cathedral Cove, Coromandel, New Zealand

In terms of culture, well that’s improving all the time. Auckland’s getting a full-scale replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre this summer! Pity it’s only going to be a temporary ‘pop-up’ building, but still – pretty cool, eh?

Lake McLaren

Lake McLaren, Bay of Plenty, New Zealand

More:

Locations from The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit

What Hobbiton’s Like

The Magic of Waitomo Caves

The Magical Creatures of New Zealand

Campervan Sales NZ

Why New Zealand Made Me Write

I’ve nearly finished my novel. (For real this time.) And I’m terrified. This world and these characters have been consuming my life for nearly two decades. (I’m only twenty-four.) They’ve been my reason for living – my only reason until I met Tim. But the novel might never have happened if my family hadn’t moved to New Zealand.

When I was a little kid, living in England, I never dreamed of being a writer. My parents were teachers, so I wanted to be a teacher. I went to dance lessons, so I wanted to be a ballerina. I went to violin lessons, so I wanted to be Vanessa-Mae. Then, when I was six, my nana gave a notebook. It was a very ordinary-looking notebook, but it had a hardcover. That made all the difference.

Books with hardcovers, my six-year-old brain thought, are for Very Special Stories. So I sat down and I wrote a Very Special Story with a Carefully Drawn Front Cover and Everything. The story was called Sarah and Anne. (It was supposed to be Sarah and Annie, but on my Carefully Drawn Front Cover I’d accidentally missed out the ‘i’ and no, Mum, I couldn’t just squeeze one in – that would ruin it!)

book-730479_640It wasn’t a novel.

It was simply a piece of meandering prose about the daily lives of a girl and her favourite doll, who could talk. (I’d recently seen Toy Story.) It was finished when I reached the last page of the notebook. Nevertheless it was a masterpiece.

I presented it to my mum and, without really thinking about it, went to the local and stationer’s and bought a second notebook.

Soon I was staying up long into the night, hastily flicking my bedside light off whenever I heard my parents’ footsteps on the stairs, filling notebook after notebook with the adventures of Sarah and Anne. I still didn’t dream of being a writer. I just had a story in my head that wouldn’t stop and needed exorcising.

fairy-tales-671406_640As the years went by, my stories – well, one continuous story, really – took on the influences of what I was reading. It had the children-from-our-world-entering-a-magical-world of Narnia, the fantastic castle of Harry Potter, the enchanted forest of The Magic Faraway Tree… It was also part-diary: the mundane things that happened to me/Sarah at school side-by-side with the fantasy.

But something was about to happen to me that wasn’t so mundane.

When I was nine years old, my parents told me that we were moving to New Zealand. My world was shattered. Everything was gone: my best friend, my grandma, my dance lessons, my violin lessons… because the small town we moved to in New Zealand didn’t have any dance schools or violin teachers. I was lonely. I was just so, so lonely. And bored.

book-2869_640Boredom was the thing, really. I was sitting around one day, no friends to hang out with; no dances or violin tunes to be practising, and I thought to myself: what can I do? Well I’d obviously found writing enjoyable enough. Why not do that? But PROPERLY this time. I’d write a novel. A proper novel. How hard could it be? It was just something to pass the time; it’d be finished by Christmas.

But a novel about what? Try as I might, I couldn’t think of anything. Then I felt a little tug on the back of the T-shirt of my mind. “I’m still here,” Anne said.

“Yes, but you’re a doll,” I told her. “I’m too old for stories about talking toys now. They’re stupid.”

“But I’m not a toy,” she said. “None of us are. We’re shape-shifting magical folk. And we’re here to protect you.”

“From what?” I asked… and the novel was born.

Creepy Porcelain Doll

My own picture, (the rest in this article are off pixabay.com) featuring the inspiration for Anne, my porcelain Alice in Wonderland doll

Despite the fantasy elements, it was still largely autobiographical. Sarah was an English girl whose family had moved to a small town in New Zealand. Although her father’s reasons for shifting the family had been rather different to mine. Sarah’s route to school and the school itself were the same as mine. Then there were her friends…

I must admit, loneliness drove me to use the names and basic looks of some of the friends I’d had in England. By writing about them, I felt like I was still interacting with them. Of course, they soon developed into their own characters, separate from the people they were based on, but I wouldn’t blame the people they were based on if they felt a little freaked out.

Years later, I reconnected with some of them on social media. It was a weird experience for me. I didn’t tell them, but I almost expected them to be like my characters. They weren’t. It was worse meeting one of them in person – I didn’t see England again until I was seventeen, so the differences were quite staggering.

The characters have all grownup with me, you see. When I finished the first version of that first novel, I was older, wiser and had better taste in writing, so I had to write it again, better. Then, when I finished the second version, I was older, wiser and had better taste in writing… so… you get the idea. Each time I finished it, I was completely embarrassed by the juvenile crap that the younger me had written.

mortality-401222_640But in-between all the re-writes of the first novel, I wrote sequels to it. The characters aged as I did. It got out of control. The world grew and grew. It got darker. Writing was no longer my hobby, it was my life. I didn’t choose where the stories went, they ran ahead of me, dragging me in the dirt behind them, scraped and buffeted by self-criticism, but unable to stop.

This is the final version of my first novel. I’m nearly finished. Maybe, someday soon, I can regain some sanity. And by ‘sanity’ I mean ‘mental health’, because writers should be a little insane. It’s got to the point now where I couldn’t do anything else with my life if I tried. Writing is the only thing I’m good at.

I often wonder what my life would have been like if we’d stayed in England. Would writing have become my life’s passion if I’d still had my other hobbies? Would I have been bullied in the same way, forced to spend high school lunchtimes hiding in the library, where it was natural to read and write? Life might have been easier if my self-esteem wasn’t so wrapped up in writing.

Kuirau Park

One of my pictures from Kuirau Park in Rotorua

I also think about how much New Zealand, the country itself, has influenced the world of my novel. Have the attitudes of my characters changed? The landscape of the world? I know that there’s somewhere in my second novel that was very consciously inspired by the magical glowworm caves of Waitomo. And another place inspired by the volcanic terrains of Rotorua, Taupo and White Island.

I haven’t used any of the magical creatures from Maori folklore so far, although at some point there is an old woman with removable fingers of fire, obviously inspired by Mahuika from the Maui legends. I remember that story from a Year Eight art class, and I wish I’d been told more about Maori folklore years ago.

One of my favourite fantasy writers, Juliet Marillier, is from New Zealand, but she mainly writes novels inspired by Celtic folklore. I suppose I take my influences from lots of different places, though there’s a certain amount of, as Terry Pratchett put it, re-arranging the furniture in Tolkien’s attic. But then all fantasy is.

(To set my nana’s mind at rest, my book also has a firm basis in the real world. Not that what happens in the fantasy world isn’t real – you just ask Neil Gaiman. I mean that one of its most significant settings is a small town in New Zealand. (My nana thinks fantasy is a waste of time because none of the things happening are real. It took long enough to convince her that ‘writer’ is a respectable career prospect, but ‘fantasy writer’ may need more work!))

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Bringing Joffrey Down!

joffrey2Yesterday, I was witness to the downfall of the most hated king in fictional history: Joffrey Baratheon. Yes, the Lord of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros and incurable you-know-what was toppled before my very eyes. And in New Zealand, no less.

I was making my way down Auckland’s Queen Street when I noticed a crowd gathered in Aotea Square. At the centre of it all was a magnificent, golden statue of Joffrey. The sight sickened me, but, being a massive fan of Game of Thrones, I approached with interest.

I’d heard about this happening, but forgotten. (It was a happy coincidence that I was wearing my Daenerys top.) It was a publicity stunt promoting the new series. The statue had a rope around it, and the rope was attached to a large, wooden wheel. How fast the wheel turned was dependent on how many ‘tweets’ on Twitter the event got. I haven’t got a Twitter account and have no desire to get one, but I was tempted to create one just to help bring the bitch king down faster.

When I got there, at about two in the afternoon, the statue was tilting slightly. I didn’t have anything to do for the rest of the afternoon, so I settled in for the long haul. It was quite a boring wait, but I had my Robin Hobb with me, so I read while the statue inched imperceptibly to a lean.

The sun was beating down on the square. The golden crown on the boy king’s smug head was gleaming. Still, the crowd waited. And grew.

I was sitting on the ground right next to the safety barrier. All around me, I heard snatches of conversation: people daring each other to grab a chunk of the statue when it finally fell; people asking exactly when it was going to come down; people who didn’t watch the show asking, “So is he, like, the evil one?”

joffrey3I was just impressed that this was happening in New Zealand, the place where nothing usually happens except the filming of fantasy movies. In fact, I heard someone comment, “Aren’t we supposed to be Lord of the Rings, not Game of Thrones?” I wasn’t complaining. I wished we’d got a ‘washed up’ dragon skull on one of our beaches, like England got, though.

As the sun dropped below the line of buildings that surrounded the square, the swollen crowd was getting a bit restless. Then – who’d have thought? – a seagull landed on Joffrey’s head and stayed there. The crowd went wild. Seriously, we were like peasants starved of entertainment. When the seagull flew off, there was a great “AAAWWWWWW” of disappointment.

At some point, they started giving out posters of different house sigils. Of course, being a Northerner, I wanted a Stark one. Typically, they ran out before I got there. I ended up with a Targaryen one, which, you know, isn’t bad. I also got a Tully one and an Arryn one, but who cares about those, right?

Then, from the loudspeakers set up around the square, came those first ominous notes of The Rains of Castamere. The atmosphere improved instantly. This was what I’d been sitting around the last few hours for. The deeply sung words sent shivers up my spine:

And who are you, the proud lord said,
that I must bow so low?
Only a cat of a different coat,
that’s all the truth I know.
In a coat of gold or a coat of red
a lion still has claws.
And mine are long and sharp, my lord,
as long and sharp as yours.
And so he spoke, and so he spoke,
that lord of Castamere,
but now the rains weep o’er his hall
with no one there to hear.
Yes, now the rains weep o’er his hall
with not a soul to hear.

But the statue didn’t fall. They started playing the titles music, which built to crescendo that had never seemed more dramatic. Everyone stood poised to cheer.

But still the statue didn’t fall.

They played Rains of Castamere again. And the main theme. It got to the point where everyone groaned every time it began again. I mean couldn’t they have played The Bear and the Maiden Fair to pass the time?

Then, finally, Joffrey looked about to fall. They played the main theme AGAIN, hopefully for the last time. It finished. The statue hadn’t fallen. Then, miraculously, it fell.

Well, flopped.

It was a bit of a letdown, really. It didn’t crash to the ground like in the films, shattering dramatically save for an outstretched hand. It just swung down to land headfirst and stayed there, facing the plinth, upside-down but upright.

The top of the head shattered a bit. The crown broke in two, which was nice.

joffrey4People started moving away. I was among them, but then I heard a great cheer go up. Some guy had jumped the barrier and nicked the crown, and was now running away as fast as he could, chased by a fat security person. I’m glad to say the guy made it to freedom, darting into the mass of people walking up Queen Street and disappearing from sight. I wonder what he did with the crown.

The spectacle of Joffrey Baratheon being brought down in Aotea Square marked, I think, an important day for New Zealand. Until now, New Zealand has been notorious for being months behind America and Britain as far as TV shows are concerned. (Don’t even get me started on Coronation Street.) But yesterday, we were firmly in sync with the rest of the world, and it felt good.

As a side note, I found it startling how such a large crowd could be united in hatred against a mere statue, even if it was just in fun. I feel like I fully understand now why statues are pulled down. It was satisfying and disturbingly emotive. I felt as though, had we really been starving peasants outside King’s Landing, we’d have taken up our pitchforks and stormed the Red Keep. You’d think you’d be intelligent enough to resist mob mentality, but it was fun just being involved. Exhilarating.

Down with King Joffrey!