Wednesday, October 01, 2008

My Trip to the Shire

This past weekend I got a chance to visit the Shire. It was re-created in Kentucky, and it was amazing.

The Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, is about 30 miles south of Lexington. This was a thriving village up until the Civil War but then fell into decay. In 1961 it was saved and has since be refurbished, with costumed actors playing the parts of Shakers. But for this one weekend, it became Middle-earth.

The rolling Kentucky countryside, the old buildings, the stone walls, the quiet (away from traffic) and darkness at night (away from street lights), combined with 144 Tolkien enthusiasts (most in costume), made the leap of imagination from contemporary America to Tolkien's Shire a very short one indeed. The people who organized A Long Expected Party brought Tolkien's vision of a joyful rural idyll to life.

I gave one of my talks in a gigantic barn, performed a bit of Beowulf in that same barn, and then got to give another talk in a 19th-century house. The audiences were amazing: incredibly informed about Tolkien (and about medieval literature), eager for more, and full of challenging and interesting questions. Even more importantly, every single person I met (and I feel like I met all 144) was interesting, kind and just a pleasure to talk to. I had originally thought that I would sneak back to my room, which was in an incredible little wash house built around 1850, and grade papers between talks, but I got caught up in all that was going on and ended up learning about armor from Michael Cook, listening to costumers discuss sewing techniques and riding a riverboat with hobbits, elves and rangers (Quote of the trip: "Spider in the boobs! Spider in the boobs!" -- the dangers of certain costumes).

Several of the organizers are involved in theatre, and it showed. The weekend never felt like a real convention event (it was not commercial, we weren't jammed into a hotel, there weren't long lines to get actors to autograph things), but by the second day it was becoming something else entirely. The only way I can describe it is to say that the organizers were in some ways putting on a play, but all the rest of us in the "audience" were becoming part of it. By the time we reached the climactic celebration of Bilbo's and Frodo's birthdays, we were pretty much integrated into a single show, the fundamental division between audience and performers completely blurred.

It was, of course, very fun for me to have so many people enjoy Beowulf in Old English (and let me tell you, an old barn, filled with 144 people and surrounded by pitch blackness--it was a new moon--is the perfect place to perform the part of Beowulf where Grendel enters Heorot and eats Hondscio), and it was gratifying to have so many people interested in medieval literature and its links to Tolkien. It was even better to have a chance to spend some time with the parents of one of my best students ever, and I loved listening to the ethereal singing of Kate Brown.
But the very best moment for me came towards the end. Bilbo's party was set up, with paper lanterns strung between trees. The Brobdingnagian Bards were performing on the stage. A large group of people, in full costume, were dancing reels and jigs. I walked pretty far away from the party, into the darkness, until I was far enough from the lights that I could look up and clearly see the stars, so incredibly bright, the milky way clouding the entire middle of the sky. I looked back, and there was the patch of gold light, surrounded by darkness, the people dancing and laughing, the music just barely reaching me. I looked back at all that, and I saw and felt what dream was for the Anglo-Saxons, the joy of people and companionship and music, the joy of the little circle of light. We feel dream, but we rarely can step back and watch it. Tolkien's works give us one way. Seeing what some people inspired by his works could create gave me another.

þær wæs gesiþa dream, duguð unlytel, holbyltla ond ylfa and manig monna and wifmanna.


KLCtheBookWorm said...

I hope this is going to become (or already is) an annual event because I so want to go next year!

Ardamir said...

I think that it was those parts (Kentucky) that Guy Davenport claimed Hobbits "came from". If you haven't read his essay, check out this thread at the LOTR Plaza:

But most people don't believe in that theory, and rely instead on the common conception that Tolkien's inspirational sources for the Hobbits are for the most part rural English people around the year 1900.

Unknown said...

I think that Prof. Drout himself noted in his edition of Monsters and the Critics that Tolkien looked to Kentucky's residents as his muses for the Hobbits. I'd give a citation, but I'm too lazy right now.

I'm glad that you enjoyed yourself in the Bluegr . . .uh, the Shire. I live about 15 minutes away from Shaker Village in the beautiful countryside of Jessamine County (Wilmore is the closest town), about 3 miles north of the river. In fact, I would guarantee that you passed by my house on your way to and from the party. I'm glad that you find the Bluegrass as beautiful as I do.