Keeping On Track With Tolkien


Constance G.J. Wagner


No one will deny that for those who love the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, the fully realized world of Middle-earth is deeply immersive – so much so that reading the books or watching the films is akin to draping yourself in dream. There be elves, there… and wizards… and hobbits. It is a world of fantastical images – and profound meaning. And although Tolkien stated that Middle-earth was our earth, just in another time, most would say it is a world now gone from our ken.

Perhaps not.

For every Labor Day weekend, the streets of Atlanta, Georgia spill over with so much costume and music and fine feeling, it might as well be Mardi Gras – or Bilbo Baggins’ eleventy-first birthday. It is the time of DragonCon – a festival of fellowship for all who love science fiction and fantasy, and lovers of Tolkien can find kindred spirits to celebrate the tales that really matter to them.

Anyone who has ever gone to a “con” knows the heady rush to be had in the friendships that arise when fans gather to debate the intricacies of story and presentation. DragonCon is a place where imagination can run riot and where fans of any tale can pursue their passion with pride. Tolkien’s Middle-earth (the official name of the Tolkien fan track at DragonCon) strives yearly to bring an interesting mix of panels and presentations to delight, amuse, and even painlessly educate with accessible scholarship.

…And that’s where I come in. Over the last several years, I have had the privilege of being a Tolkien Track “regular” as a purveyor of said “accessible scholarship” crafting panels and presentations that allow Tolkienites to learn something new about their favorite works and yet be engaged in the discussion, offering insights of their own. To the casual passer-by, it may look like a lecture (albeit a very informal one with beautiful Power Points done by Track Master of All Media Jim Wert), but to me it feels like Home.

Every year when I sit down to present my first panel of the convention, the rush of excitement I feel is like riding with the Rohirrim at dawnlight. The energy of expectation in the room is palpable. People want to be engaged and challenged, and so we plunge happily into discussion. I provide information and observations to get things started, and then throw out questions to all comers. The responses and interaction between attendees is what I love best about this, this heady experience of the intellect at play, this immersion into the many insights of those present. The exchange of comments and ideas in the track room can be counted upon to be fresh, funny, and even profound. From a presenter’s point of view, there is nothing quite like seeing an audience morph into colleagues as we all discuss “Our Middle-earth and its intricacies” with passion and commitment.

During this most recent DragonCon, one of the most compelling questions I fielded came from a boy who appeared to be about 11 or 12 years old. We had been discussing Tolkien’s close friendships with his high school classmates (i.e., the members of the TCBS) and how that association sparked a life-long appreciation for fellowship in Tolkien. Upon learning that all but one of these friends died in World War I, this young boy wanted to know if Tolkien based the characters of the four hobbits of the Fellowship on himself and these friends, perhaps as a kind of tribute. A fresh and intriguing observation about Tolkien’s creative process to be sure!

Other memorable moments (among so many!) came during my panel on Sam: Master Samwise: Warrior for the Working Day, when people excitedly offered their favorite examples of the true bravery and commitment shown by this not-so-simple gardener at so many points during the Quest. The list kept expanding like a roll call of honor. And when I asked Jim Wert (who was dressed as Sam Gamgee) to end the session by reading the final paragraph of The Lord of the Rings, no eye was dry when he at last said, “Well, I’m back.”

And for more experiences such as these, I hope to go there and back again… next year. But for now, I will hold fast to DragonCon memories and say namárië…!