If you’re a big fan of Tolkien and you’ve spent some time searching around for Tolkien related material online, you’ve probably come across an amazing replica of Minas Tirith built out of matchsticks. This eighth wonder of the world was designed and built by Pat Acton of Gladbrook, Iowa. Pat began building models of out of matchsticks in 1977, starting with a replica of his local church that consisted of 500 sticks. He’s since built over 60 models, including the U.S. Capitol Building, a space shuttle, and (using 600,000 matchsticks) the Hogwarts Castle from Harry Potter. His model of Minas Tirith, begun on April 7, 2007 and completed February 15, 2010, consists of 420,000 matchsticks, and includes hundreds of city buildings, as well as a certain white tree. In this exclusive for TheOneRing.net, TORN’s own J.W. Braun catches up with Pat and chews the fat, and Pat shares photos of the matchstick Minas Tirith model in development.
J.W: Pat, I bow before a true fan of Tolkien such as yourself. How old were you when you first read his books?
Pat: I believe I read The Hobbit shortly after high school, but do not think I read the Rings trilogy until I was 23 or 24 years old. I remember thinking while reading The Lord of the Rings, “Wow! Why didn’t I read these before now?” I really loved the books. Although I enjoyed being introduced to the Hobbit world in The Hobbit, I was immediately pulled into the Ring story in The Fellowship of the Ring. I had always been so interested in history and non-fiction, as well as fiction that is based on historical facts, that I never took much interest in fantasy other than common children’s literature. The trilogy blew me away. I will never forget it!
J.W: It reads like a piece of nonfiction, doesn’t it? Because usually with fiction, the writer will try to avoid redundant places and characters and limit whimsical tangents. Yet throughout The Lord of the Rings Tolkien is constantly adding new characters and locations (rather than reusing past ones) and adding maddeningly diverse storylines, making it difficult for the first time reader to keep up with what’s going on. It’s something you see more in nonfiction because that’s what real life is like – when there is no “conservation of characters” principle in place, and things happen in a wide variety of locations in a wide variety of ways.
Pat: That is a very interesting theory, but I had never really considered that before. Indeed Tolkien was introducing me to new places, characters, species, animals, creatures, lands and objects at every turn, which was an astonishing journey through this unknown Middle-earth. I loved Tolkien for his ability to introduce me so intimately to dozens of characters, and then to describe in such clarity the lands these creatures had come from throughout Middle-earth. Amazing!
JW: Were you excited about The Lord of the Rings movies when they were first coming out?
Pat: I waited for each of the movies to come out like a child passing time before Christmas arrives. I am married with three grown children, and although we all were excited for the movies to come out, my 28 year old daughter Tara and 24 year old son Brennan are bigger LOTR fanatics than I am. I would get texts and emails from them announcing when the trailers for the movies might be out, and asking me if I was going to the midnight openings at the local theaters. Right now our focus is on the release of the first Hobbit movie. How can one possibly get enough Hobbit… or should I say Tolkien?
J.W: How did you come up with the idea of building Minas Tirith out of matchsticks?
Pat: The idea was suggested to me while I was talking with someone about my intentions to build a model of a medieval castle. The suggestion struck me as a great idea. I was always fascinated by Tolkien’s descriptions. The castle idea was scrapped immediately and my attention focused on drawing plans for Minas Tirith. I was excited about the challenges of building it and how I might replicate the mountain portions of the fortress city. I’d never attempted anything like it before – an entire city rather than a model of one specific thing such as my earlier models of machines, architecture, and animals. The whole idea appealed to me greatly. I often say that taking a pile of nearly a half million matchsticks and gluing them together to represent anything is the ultimate jigsaw puzzle. The fact that the fortress Minas Tirith was “hewn from rock”, as Tolkien put it, presented me with new architectural and design challenges I had not faced in any of the previous 60 Matchstick Marvels models I had constructed up to that time.
J.W: How do you even know where to begin with a project that incredible? Do you do a drawing or a small model to help guide you with these miniatures? Because I have to admit that if I was given a pile of 500,000 matchsticks and told to assemble Minas Tirith, I’d have no clue how to start!
Pat: If an art piece is my own design, my vision, then a model is constructed from simple drawings I create. Some matchstick models of ships, trains, and planes I have constructed are based on measurements taken from small plastic models that I have then drawn to the size (scale) I want to build. Some are based on technical drawings and/or other information taken from the Internet, books, or pictures I can find. I have used library exchanges to gather information, and information collected from museums housing artifacts I have modeled. For the Matchstick Marvels version of Minas Tirith, I built a small, plain, scale model out of cardboard to get the appropriate scale and proportions based on a small model of Minas Tirith that was distributed with a special collector’s edition of the DVD movie set. Once I had the cardboard version looking proportionally correct, I then drew my plans for the matchstick version to scale. I then added the thousands of small details to the model by viewing hundreds of pictures seen on the Internet.
J.W: So that’s why it seems so much like the Minas Tirith from the movie – even though Tolkien’s description of Minas Tirith has some differences.
Pat: I did not refer to the books, but I have never regretted basing my matchstick version on the movie version. I had originally considered building it with my own design, but once the movie version established their vision of the fortress city, I thought people would more often wonder why I had strayed from that vision with the Matchstick Marvels version, so I can say that I am very happy with my model as constructed.
J.W: Is your model an exact replica of the movie version then?
Pat: It’s not exactly the same. Hundreds of the buildings making up the Matchstick Marvels version of Minas Tirith are of my own design.
J.W: Have you ever heard from the filmmakers or Weta Workshop about your model?
Pat: No, I have never had any contact or connection with persons from the movie studios or with Weta folk. I built the models as a hobby because of my love for the story and the challenge of Minas Tirith’s design. I will say that that the Matchstick Marvels version of Minas Tirith was the rage for a time as its images exploded across the Internet.
J.W: That must have been something to see that sort of fan reaction. I still see photos of the model posted on facebook and twitter everyday.
Pat: I didn’t haven’t Facebook or other social media in mind when I made my version of Minas Tirith, but as a fan of Tolkien myself I’m thrilled that so many people like it.
J.W: Is it true that you’ve finally retired as a careers counselor and are now doing this matchstick hobby fulltime?
Pat: I recenty signed a three year agreement with Ripley Entertainment to build models for them on a fulltime basis. This combined with a retirement package offered from Iowa Valley Community College District where I had worked nearly 28 years has allowed me to to follow my passion as a model builder. The only way I could enter into a contract with Ripley’s is to devote my fulltime efforts to the construction of models. Over the years, Ripley’s had bought nearly 20 of my matchstick models and is familiar with my work. Their plans call for growth over the next few years and matchstick models will be needed for their expansion of their Ripley’s Believe it or Not museums around the world. It is quite exciting for me and will give me the opportunity to build bigger and more elaborate creations. The decision to leave my professional career counseling job and devote my efforts to matchsticking was very easy for me, despite the fact I loved working at the college and had no intentions of retiring early. So the on-going joke around the house is my wife telling everyone that I have retired, and me insisting that I am not retired and will be working harder and more hours than ever. Yet, I do not believe I will ever tire of creating matchstick models when the process can carry me to places like Middle-earth!
J.W: So where is the model of Minas Tirith now, and can I have it?
Pat: Minas Tirith was on display at the Matchstick Marvels museum in my hometown of Gladbrook, Iowa for three years, and is now on permanent display at the Ripley’s Believe it or Not museum in Hollywood, California. And no.
J.W: Is the model still special to you?
Pat: Minas Tirith will always remain one of my favorite artworks for a couple of reasons. It is the third largest matchstick model I have constructed of over 400,000 matchsticks (following Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, 600,000 matchsticks; and the model of our United States Capitol building, 500,000 matchsticks), but most importantly because it is my visual representation of a significant story line in the amazing LOTR story from the genius literary mind of J. R. R. Tolkien.
J.W: So what’s next? Meduseld? Lake Town? Smaug?
Pat: While I don’t have any current plans to build more LOTR-inspired models, I am always on the lookout for the next big project, and Hobbit book/movie-inspired models are exciting are an exciting idea to me. What’s next? You never know!