Amsterdam: Flight of fantasy

By Mark Ferguson

Incarnations at the Elf Fantasy Fair. Photo / Supplied
Incarnations at the Elf Fantasy Fair. Photo / Supplied

Lord of the Rings, opening shots. Mighty Lord Gil-Galad, King of the Elves, leads his noble silken-haired forces in a Last Alliance battle with the Army of Men against the Dark Forces of Sauron.

Close up of Gil-Galad's Spear of Legend, Aiglos, cleaving yet another orc in two.

Suddenly Sauron himself looms, blocking the sun and perhaps the future of all Middle Earth. Cue the Great Battle between Good and Evil, the Heroic Elven King versus the Dark Lord ... surely you remember this? No? I'll forgive you. It was cut. All of it.

Well, not all. About 1.8 seconds remain. In fact, my credit at the end of the film is longer than my appearance.

In case you're interested, I lost the fight. Sauron turned me into a flaming meteor. My heart goes out to the stuntman who had to be set on fire and thrown across a carpark three times, almost hitting the ambulance that was waiting in case he screwed it up.

Such is the life of an actor ... killed by little blonde Kirsty on Shortland St, killed by Xena (four times) and now killed by the combined forces of nasty Lord Sauron and a misguided little man, crouched in a darkened cave, known as The Editor.

Ah well, at least I have a couple of plastic replicas to console me. A bust of the elf king at his most regal. And, better still, an action figure! With "Realistic Spear Action". I'm not sure how realistic because mini Gil-Galad has never been let out of the box, much to the confusion of my kids. Who knows how much it will be worth in the future.

That should have been the end to it, surely, so why am I telling you this? Because every year in the Netherlands, at a castle near Amsterdam, more than 25,000 fantasy fans put their costumes on and gather for the Elf Fantasy Fair. You can see where this is going, can't you?

A couple of actors with tenuous links to the Fantasy World are invited to be VIP guests at the fair. This year it was the guy who played Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and, er ... me. Luckily, the organisers never saw the film and fell for the Elf King credit.

Not to look a gift fairy in the mouth, with cynicism securely stowed, suddenly I find myself in a place that could really only be imagined after consuming 2kg of Amsterdam's famous SpaceCake ... except I didn't have any, really.

Since 2001, come April, people from all over Europe invade the picturesque Dutch village of Utrecht to attend the Elf Fantasy Fair.

The two day event is held in the grounds of Kasteel de Haar, a magnificent fairytale castle that wouldn't look out of place in the world of Shrek.

The building was first mentioned in 1392 but owes its current grandeur to the broke Catholic Baron Etienne van Zuylen Nijevelt and his wealthy Jewish wife. She was very particular when it came to the renovations.

She wanted a better view so the 15th century village was demolished and rebuilt 3km up the road. She didn't want to wait for the planted trees to grow so 7000 fully grown ones were horse-drawn into place.

The castle's main claim to fame these days is the annual fantasy weekend, when the huge and beautiful grounds are divided up and given names like Field of Honour, Magic Grounds and Gothic Romance.

Each area offers something different to the fantasy enthusiast: you can buy some medieval chainmail, listen to a lecture on Arthurian myths and legends, watch a full-scale battle, cheer on your team playing some type of soccer game involving a severed head ... or visit the Walk of Fame and buy an autographed photo of me.

Luckily, my queue wasn't very long and I was able to explore and meet some Fantasy fanatics. Poor James, the Buffy guy, was working his signing hand into an RSI claw. Fame does have a price - €15 (NZ$30) an autograph, to be exact, which makes being a popular vampire a nice little earner.

I don't know what sort of costume parties you've been to but they can't compete with the detail, imagination and sheer scale of this Fantasy Disneyland. But unlike Disneyland, the performers aren't wearing the costumes, the guests are.

And what costumes! Many who come here have spent every available second during the past year conceiving and creating the outfits they will inhabit for just two days. Orcs, magicians, dragons, knights, vampires, elves, unicorns, gothic Lolitas, manga comic heroes ... all the fantasy tribes are represented.

These elaborate creations aren't just worn, they are brought to life as the castle grounds become the stage for thousands of ordinary people spending the weekend as extraordinary beings.

Old, young and whole families parade, have their photos taken and listen to music, all openly living out their fantasy dream.

One couple from Germany became a pair of giant, green insects, complete with inbuilt, stereophonic clicking noises. They'd spent all their holidays and weekends making the costumes. The rest of the year they work in a bank, but today they're cicada-like creatures that no can of Raid is going to stop.

Round the corner I found myself complimenting an elegant woman - who had the longest nails I'd ever seen - on her very tight corset.

"Thank you," she said, "I'm trying to get my waist down to 15 inches [38cm] for my wedding."

Then she added the non-sequitur, "I'm a hermaphrodite, both sets, complete."

"Wow," I responded, and for once meant it.

"It has its pros and cons," she explained, adding to my confusion. I decided to think of the pros first, wished her the best for the big day and wandered down into the Dark Woods.

Whole family groups had set up camp here to live for the weekend as medieval serfs. "Why serfs?" I asked.

Jan, the spokeserf, explained, "Serfs had the fun, could get drunk, roll around and not worry about their clothes." Makes sense, in a Dunedin student kind of way.

The peasants next door were not so lucky. They spent the day wandering the grounds, led by a demented nun wailing that the plague had doomed them. A good plague re-enactment sure puts swine flu paranoia in its place.

Meanwhile, a man dressed as a winged demon - a Balrog, I think - was posing in character against a castle wall. He does this for the whole two days. Doesn't see anything of the rest of the fair.

"I look amazing," he tells me, "people deserve to photo me". He does look amazing and I do photo him.

The atmosphere is relaxed and friendly. A group of manga-inspired teenagers cruise past carrying signs declaring "free hugs".

They are followed soon after by a leather-clad man carrying a sign declaring "free whippings". Balance is important to the Dutch.

Back signing autographs, I start to feel like those girls in the windows in Amsterdam, but in reverse. I'm the one fully clothed and the people looking in are dressed sexy.

A man completely transformed into the King of the Dead asks for a signature. He looks more perfect than the character from The Lord of the Rings and I know the lunatics have taken over the asylum.

In this world the actors sit quietly, wear ordinary street clothes and watch passively as the audience, frustrated by sitting in the dark, give life to their personal fantasy characters. For two days they leave behind dull jobs, traffic and school fees and strut their stuff as anything they want to be. And here they're totally accepted by everyone else.

I couldn't help thinking how this concept would go down in New Zealand. After all, we built Hobbiton and staged the great battle of Helm's Deep, and our fauns and centaurs and other Weta Workshop-fuelled creatures defeated that mad Ice-Lady who never blinked in the Narnia movie. We created fantasy, goddammit!

Dress up as a round worm to celebrate the Field Days? Can't see it myself. Would put the mystery back into Mystery Creek though.

The Elf Fantasy Fair made me feel so much better. Yes, I was cut from the film. But here I felt surrounded by thousands of characters cut from thousands of films. And they don't care. It's their fantasy and they're having a blast.

Mark Ferguson and Gil-Galad, King of the Elves, attended the Elf Fantasy Fair with help from Air New Zealand.

- NZ Herald

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