The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies marks an end to Peter Jackson’s two-decade association with Middle-earth.

And so it ends. Well, almost…

There is still the extended cut to be released on Blu-ray and DVD sometime next year. (And who knows, should rights be ever sorted out, perhaps even Lucas-esque re-edits of the original three The Lord Of The Rings films?)

“I said goodbye to Gandalf in 2000, well here we are in 2014 and it goes on and on and on,” says Ian McKellan.

But for all intents and purposes, The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies (TH: TBOTFA) marks an end to director Peter Jackson’s close to two-decade association with Middle-earth as it does for actors who’ve been involved in the project from the very beginning, in particular Sir Ian McKellen.

The veteran actor of stage and screen who plays the wizard Gandalf in all six Jackson-helmed films is, however, philosophical about the finality of it all.

“I said goodbye to Gandalf in 2000 when I left New Zealand (after wrapping filming on the LOTR film trilogy), well here we are in 2014 and it goes on and on and on …,” he says to a packed room of journalists at the world press conference for TH:TBOTFA in London last week.

McKellen, 75, continues: “I was just impressed (at the premiere) by the ages of the kids who’d stayed out all night to come and wish us well. And some of them weren’t born in the last century when we started. Our work is part of their lives. And they are now going to show these films to their own kids.

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“To have been involved in films that are now classics is overwhelming.

“So in the end, it’s not the end. It’s the beginning now as people see the film. And then they’ll want to see all six and that will be a whole other experience than none of us has had until this last Hobbit was made.”

“Twenty-four hours of joy,” director Jackson quips, before adding that part of what makes the conclusion of the current trilogy special is the possibility now for the two series to be taken as a complete, six-film story.

“It’s amazing to think that there are children who will watch it in the story order that it was initially intended,” says the 53-year-old director.

“We are three or four years away from the generation that will see these movies in the order that they should see them.

Lee Pace discussing a scene with director Peter Jackson on the set of The Hobbit: The Battle Of the Five Armies.

“Children that are too young now to see them, in a short time they’ll be able to see them. And hopefully they’ll see them from Hobbit 1 to The Return Of The King,” he says.

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It wasn’t always supposed to be a sextet, of course. Jackson clarifies that when he and producer (and life partner) Fran Walsh first pitched the idea to producer Harvey Weinstein sometime in the 1990s it was to be just three movies: one Hobbit film, and LOTR made over two films.

Up to fairly recently too – around the time Mexican director Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Pacific Rim and the Hellboy films) dropped out of the project and Jackson took over the reins – the plan was for The Hobbit to be a two-parter.

But as Jackson has repeated a few times over the past few years, once the project, initially plagued by production and legal issues, was off the ground, he, Walsh and screenwriter Philippa Boyens knew that they wanted to explore beyond the book’s 300-odd pages and draw story lines to the LOTR.

Hence the decision to bring back the likes of Legolas (played by Orlando Bloom), Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Saruman (Sir Christopher Lee) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett).

Explains Bloom, who was 24 when The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring was released in 2001: “One of the first things when we sat down and we were talking about Legolas coming in was the fans and how they would feel about bringing in characters like Legolas and Tauriel (the female elf warrior played by Evangeline Lilly) who aren’t in the books necessarily.

“But it was made very clear to me by Pete and by Fran that they wanted to explore the backstories to these characters and then tie them in and see those characters move through and make them a connection point for The Lord of the Rings.”

The return of two other Jackson alumni: Billy Boyd (who starred as Peregrin “Pippin” Took in the LOTR trilogy, and who wrote and performs the current film’s final song, The Last Goodbye) and Andy Serkis (the voice of Gollum, who served as second unit director on TH:TBOTFA) – also provide clear links to the first trilogy.

Boyd, 46, talks about the bittersweet experience of having been on set for the final film.

“It was so good to be down (in New Zealand) when you’re used to being an actor and you leave it … to be there in the last couple of weeks and the excitement of putting it all together and getting to sit with Pete as he edited it was great,” he says.

And so six films, close to 24 hours of filmed footage, and yet, so complex is the world Professor JRR Tolkien created that there aremany tales, like the fall of Númenor (which is only alluded to in the films) and the legends of the Silmarils and Túrin Turambar (which aren’t even broached), still left to tell.

Jackson, however, is calling time on his spell in Middle-earth. But not, it would appear, out of choice.

“The Tolkien estate owns the writings of Professor Tolkien. The film rights for The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings were sold by Professor Tolkien in the late ’60s, but they are the only two works of his that were sold as potential films. So without the cooperation of the Tolkien estate there can’t be any more films,” he explains.

McKellen is hopeful though that Jackson isn’t quitting Middle-earth for good.

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He says: “The next development, I hope, is that Peter is going to devise, not more films, but a situation that you can all go to that is much theatrical as cinematic.

“A living museum where you will actually have the experience, as you sometimes do in the greatest exhibitions of that sort, to go in and be (in Middle-earth).”

The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies opens in cinemas nationwide on Dec 18.

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