Dragon Con is one of the largest fan conventions in the United States, saying that it is “by fans, for fans.” The con celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2016, and once again set attendance records, drawing 77,000 fans from all over the world to Atlanta, Georgia.
I have had the great pleasure of reporting on Dragon Con for Middle-earth News for the past three years. That certainly makes me still a noob in con reckoning, but the Tolkien group at Dragon Con is so warm and welcoming that I felt like family my very first year.
In case you haven’t heard, there will no longer be a Tolkien’s Middle-earth Track at Dragon Con, beginning in 2017. The track is being absorbed into a broader “High Fantasy” track that will also encompass works such as Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (and its television incarnation, Game of Thrones), and Jordan’s Wheel of Time.
The Tolkien Track at Dragon Con was unique. It represented a happy mix of scholarly and literary panels and media/popular culture events. Former track director Larry Curtis and his entire track staff have done an outstanding job of bringing excellent panels, events, and special guests to Dragon Con for years. 2016 was no exception to that rule. For this article, I picked a few (indeed, very few) of the Tolkien Track events from 2016 that, in my humble opinion, truly set the Tolkien Track apart. To be honest, it was difficult for me to NOT enumerate the track sessions list in its entirety!
- Scholarly panels. 2016 offered a terrific variety of panels by true Tolkien scholars, such as Constance Wagner, Gregory Wilson, Michael Martinez, and Matt Steffney. Fans could hear about the history of Hobbits, delve into Tolkien’s influence on modern fantasy, get up close with everyone’s favorite gardener-turned-hero, Samwise Gamgee, and ask the wildest and weirdest questions about Middle-earth. There was also a panel that brought together Tolkien and Martin fans, Middle-earth vs. Westeros. 2016 was the third year in a row that this panel was presented (with new content each year), to large and enthusiastic audiences.
- “Fight Like a Dwarf/Elf,” presented by martial artist and weapons expert Michael Cook. Mr. Cook is a fantastic showman, and weaves skillful demonstrations with humor and audience participation to both entertain and enlighten. After seeing this session, I will definitely choose the axe over the sword!
- Partying in Middle-earth. The evening party events have been a mainstay of the Tolkien Track. “An Evening at Bree” draws many fans from other tracks to venture to Middle-earth for the night of great music, dancing, and fabulous cosplay. 2016 saw the end of an era, with the final Dragon Con performance of Emerald Rose. Another event popular throughout the con was “Hobbit Drinking Songs,” with the fabulous duo Marc Gunn and Andrew McKee, the Brobdingnagian Bards. A particular favorite for me in 2016’s repertoire was a rendition of “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins,” originally recorded by Leonard Nimoy. For Middle-earth cosplay with a different twist, there was the “Middle-earth Dance Party.” The theme for 2016 was glam rock, a nod to honor the great David Bowie.
- Bringing Middle-earth into your own world. Sessions like “Feasting in Middle-earth,” presented by the mulit-talented Emily and Jim Wert, the panel on “Touring New Zealand as Middle-earth,” and Larry Curtis’ presentation of “Uncle Larry’s Middle-earth Vacation Slideshow” showed fans ways to bring Tolkien’s world into our own, and gave a taste of living the tales that we hold so dear.
Hard as it may be to believe after that list, I’ve shared only about half of the Tolkien Track events from Dragon Con 2016. Unfortunately, it does seem that this treasure trove of Tolkien content will diminish. 2016 was, as it turns out, the Tolkien Track’s “Last Goodbye” as a dedicated track. As I reported when Dragon Con first made this decision known, the con clearly stated that the new track will continue to include Tolkien content, and that the decision to eliminate the Tolkien Track was not based on poor numbers in sessions, lack of fan interest or support, or bad reviews of events, but rather is part of a streamlining plan. Nor was the Tolkien Track the only casualty. The timing of eliminating the Tolkien Track is rather curious, with 2017 being the 125th anniversary of Tolkien’s birth, and with the upcoming release of Beren and Lúthien.
While Tolkien will still be represented at Dragon Con, there is no doubt that the loss of the dedicated track will greatly reduce the number of Tolkien-related sessions, and potentially reduce the quality of panels and participation by celebrity guests. Only time will reveal the ultimate impact of this reorganization. I think those of us who love Tolkien are, on the whole, and optimistic sort. We are fully with Sam when he says, “There’s still some good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for!” So, I will hope to see my former Tolkien Track family in Atlanta in September 2017 as we welcome the new High Fantasy track, and see what this new age will bring.