SocietyAugust 16, 2021

They may take our Amazon series, but they’ll never take our giant airport Gandalf


After news came that Amazon is relocating season two of its Lord of the Rings series to the UK, Oli Lewis checked in on Wellington Airport’s enormous icons of Middle-earth. 

Deep in the Mines of Moria, hanging by his fingertips to the edge of a broken bridge, Gandalf the Grey turns to the other members of the fellowship: “Fly, you fools,” he tells them, before his grip fails and he falls, tumbling after his adversary, the Balrog, into the bowels of the earth.

On Friday, Amazon followed that advice and announced it was leaving Middle-earth, New Zealand, to film the second series of its new Lord of the Rings project in the United Kingdom. Despite receiving a sweetheart deal from the government entitling them to a 25% rebate on almost every dollar spent here, the global behemoth evidently decided it could do better.

The news was met with political recriminations, shock and dismay. After the success of the Sir Peter Jackson films of the early 2000s, New Zealand became synonymous with Middle-earth, encouraging a horde of Ringers, or Tolkien Tourists, to visit the country. Having the franchise head offshore is a possible nightmare for the tourism sector. As the New Zealand Herald revealed, officials have warned the legacy of the original series and the three Hobbit films could quickly taper off if the UK or another country becomes associated with the fantasy epic.

Despite these fears, Wellington Airport is standing staunch. For over eight years now, two giant eagles, one with Gandalf on its back, have been hanging from the ceiling of the main terminal at Wellington International Airport. The sculptures of those eagles, which each weigh about 1 tonne, have a wingspan of 15 metres, far larger than the 2-3m wingspan of the extinct Haast’s Eagle, a terrifying avian predator known to Māori as poukai.

In 2014, a year after they were installed, one of the eagles went global, attracting international news coverage when it went for a short flight (or fell from its hangings) during a magnitude 6.4 earthquake. Fortunately no one was hurt. Ever since, the big birds have remained firmly strung up, an ongoing tribute to their creators, Weta Workshop, and the series Wellington creatives helped bring to life. They were joined in 2014 by another winged beast, the dragon Smaug the Magnificent, set among a rocky facade in the check-in area.

“Gandalf the Grey, the Two Great Eagles and Smaug the Magnificent remain in the terminal today,” an airport spokesperson said, in a statement provided to The Spinoff.

Wellington Airport takes the cake for its two-decade run of LOTR-themed artworks. In 2003, a six metre high sculpture of Gollum’s head, hands and the One Ring was installed on top of the airport terminal. It was taken down in 2004, but the wretched creature, a supernaturally old soul with a love of “juicy fish”, was back in 2012, this time inside the terminal to mark the world premiere of the first Hobbit movie. The 13m long structure, made from huge blocks of polystyrene, weighed in at 1.2 tonnes. 

Image: Supplied

Like Gollum, who died in the fiery pit of Mt Doom clutching his precious ring, the sculpture wasn’t to last – it was taken down four years later.

Unlike Amazon, Wellington International Airport is firmly against depriving New Zealanders of their LOTR connection. The airport couldn’t tell The Spinoff how much it had spent on the artworks, but the spokesperson made it clear: the sculptures weren’t going anywhere. “The sculptures are well loved by visitors to Wellington Airport, and we have no plans to remove them.”

For the foreseeable future, bleary-eyed travellers and delighted children will be able to look up and see Gandalf riding an eagle, or check-in near Smaug and know they are in LOTR country, in an airport in the middle of Middle Earth. And not Amazon, nor Jeff Bezos, can take that away from us. 

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