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Middle Ages meets Middle-earth



The ingredients to bring the mythical realm to life are simple: take a well-preserved ancient village and let Tolkien illustrator John Howe add artistic flourishes.

These include a gargoyle ready to pounce on unsuspecting passers-by and the scaly, elongated body of a dragon wrapped around the picturesque medieval bridge leading into Saint-Ursanne.

Howe has led the transformation of this sleepy village tucked away in a forgotten corner of northwestern Switzerland into a fantasy world.

The outdoor installations, exclusive exhibits of Howe's art, concerts and medieval re-enactments are all part of the summerlong Saint-Ursanne La Fantastique festival.

"Up until the Middle Ages legends and myths were still important, that's why a medieval village takes you a step closer to that world," Howe, one of the lead artists on the hugely successful film adaptations of JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, told swissinfo.

The partnership between medieval village and artist for Middle-earth, the fictional land created by Tolkien, began when a local resident went in search of the person responsible for an illustration depicting a bridge that bore more than a striking resemblance to that in Saint-Ursanne.

Once found, the Canadian artist who lives in the region expressed his willingness to participate in the project, saying he was "taken by the enthusiasm and spirit of the people" who wanted to do something for Saint-Ursanne on a large scale.

A total of 12 installations give the village a mythical air and provide the appropriate backdrop for screenings of fantasy films, including the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and a series of literary debates with grand titles such as "the history of heroism".

"We wanted it to be more than just a normal exhibition," explained Cédric Cerf, head of the festival's organising committee.

Medieval charms

Cerf says that over the past few years more and more artists and craftsmen have discovered the charms of the intact medieval village and have come to live and work there.

He hopes this festival with its big-name draw will take the village and surrounding area "to a higher level".

Even without Howe's fantastical touches, the village has a lot going for it. It is still only accessible through its three medieval gates, and if that is not enough to take visitors back several centuries, a step inside the collegiate church or cloister certainly will.

In addition Howe's creatures have the power to transport people to otherworldly places.

But the artist admits the mood has to be right. "In a situation like this you can't always control the lighting, the point of view or the perspective, but there are hints of what it could look like in the right conditions," he says. Like on a dark and stormy night.

At the very least Howe wants the festival to underline the importance of preserving historical buildings and structures.

Contradictions

"Saint-Ursanne is quite striking if you go up in the hills above it and see the layout of the village with the river and beautiful bridge, and the fact that it's very compact and huddled around itself," Howe said.

"I think it's worthwhile to be reminded that individually we are here for a short time but collectively we are here for a lot longer, and all of these things remind us that we – simultaneously – have both little and great influence," he explained.

"It's this centring on the basic contradictions of human existence which really interests me and I think places like Saint-Ursanne are a good environment to seriously consider those things."

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Saint-Ursanne

Saint-Ursanne La Fantastique

John Howe will be present at a number of the literary debates in Saint-Ursanne this summer.

There will also be screenings of two documentary films portraying the artist:

"Lord of the Brush" is a Canadian production being shown each Saturday.

"There and back again" is a Swiss-Swedish co-production and is screened each Sunday.

The highlight of the festival is expected to be the medieval weekend of festivities to be held from July 6-8. It will include period music, markets and jousting contests and is expected to attract up to 60,000 people.

John Howe

The Canadian-born illustrator has spent his entire adult life in Europe, first having studied art in Strasbourg, France.

He lives in canton Neuchâtel in western Switzerland.

Along with Alan Lee, he was conceptual designer for the Lord of the Rings film trilogy.

He is also a member of the Swiss-based medieval re-enactment troupe, the Company of Saynt George.

Howe is currently working on a book which he says is the classic retelling of Anglo-Saxon legend Beowulf and a how-to-do fantasy illustration book.



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