Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

20 years later, Ian McKellen's Lord Of The Rings filming blog is still charming as a hobbit's home

Photo: New Line/WireImage (Getty Images)

As social media has become the de facto way for celebrities to interact with their internet fans—for whatever definition of “interact” they deem comfortable or sufficient—it’s left some fascinating alternatives behind it in the rubble. None moreso than the celebrity blog, a now-mostly-defunct artform that saw famous people (or their assistants) often penning hundreds of words at a time in order to reach out to and connect with the people, and project their public image.

Most of these instances of blogging solipsism are gone now, of course, sunk like so many LiveJournals beneath the sands of the internet. But one of the first has just been pushed back into the sun, courtesy of its author: Actor Ian McKellen, who gently nudged his Twitter followers toward the journal he maintained, 20 years ago, while filming Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings.

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Divided into The Grey Book and The White Book—to denote the status of pre- and post-Balrog Gandalf, of course—the blog is a fascinating, warm, and supremely charming thing to read through, collecting McKellen’s thoughts on the wily wizard, his time in New Zealand, and everything else that seems to filter through his thoughtful and inquisitive mind.

Here he is in the very first post, for instance, dropping a non-sequitur that then links back to the then-upcoming challenge of embodying one of literature’s favorite mages:

I am aware of the high expectations of Tolkien’s fans—like myself. But, never having imagined that I would ever play any sort of wizard, I am ill-prepared. I just worked with a witch, however, a white one, whose spells are formidable. Her energy is impressive. I shall have to come to understand the nature of Gandalf’s energy—what keeps him going. What keeps any of us going?

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Watch McKellen (in 1999, and after only a single post) already wrestling with, and moving past, the weight of commenter culture:

Meanwhile, Tolkien aficionados are mailing to the “Grey Book.” From teenagers and readers old as wizards come the advice, the demands, the warnings—united by the hope that the film’s Gandalf will match their own individual interpretations of the Lord Of The Rings. I take comfort from the general assurance that they approve of the casting (not just of me but of all the other actors so far announced—thrilling news that Cate Blanchett is joining us.) Yet how can I satisfy everyone’s imagined Gandalf? Simply, I can’t.

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Here he is talking about filming with Christopher Lee:

Spread across the black throne under Orthanc’s vasty roof, he looked like King Lear in age and authority. He is 78 years old, handsome and powerful. When he speaks, all I see and hear is Saruman, my old associate gone wrong. Except once when he rounded off a speech, at Peter Jackson’s suggestion, with a snarl. To be within four feet of a Lee snarl is unsettling. I was glad he wasn’t wearing his fangs.

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Or penning an ode of admiration for one of his other co-stars:

More my style is the chestnut Rastus who plays Bill the pony and is adorable. The compliant, ever-licking Rastus is 11 years old, an American quarter horse crossed with Shetland. Led by Samwise (Sean Astin) he reliably carried the Fellowship’s baggage and endured the uncomfortable snowstorm of polystyrene and rice flakes when Saruman’s agents attacked the nine of us in the Wellington studio en route for Moria. He was less fazed by the tempest than the rest of the cast, even though he didn’t have blinkers on. He didn’t complain of dust in the eyes or polysterene balls in every bodily crevice. Between takes, as I called for bottled water and a make-up check, Rastus calmly helped himself to the layer of salt which added glitter to the surface of the snow. I wish he had made it into the mines of Moria. He would not have been daunted by all those steps and passageways nor by the rowdy goblins. Indeed I would have trusted him with the ring itself.

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As a piece of internet archaeology, Ian McKellen Is Gandalf In The Lord Of The Rings is fascinating, coming from a time when literally nobody knew what the relationship between actors and their fans on the internet were going to shake out to be. But it’s even better as a written artifact: McKellen is exactly as charming and thoughtful as you might hope, expressing wonder at the creative endeavors of the films’ production crews, and dropping lots of fun little revelations, like the fact that Billy Boyd once talked him into sliding down a 20 feet fire pole after a night of watching dailies.

The only real problem is that the actor might have slightly underestimated how much traffic he was about to send toward his cheerfully Geocities-esque web site: Things are currently moving a tad bit slow at mckellen.com—but, then, is that not in of itself proof that the journey is just as important as where you are when you ultimately arrive? (In this case, “where you are” includes a low-res JPEG of Elijah Wood, a bright red button labeled “Indices,” and Ian McKellen’s thoughts on the Honey I Shrunk The Kids! theme park ride.)

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