Visitors entering Shaker Village's Meadow View Barn on Thursday met a platinum-blonde elfin woman swathed in a luxurious pale blue fabric, wearing contact lenses to match. She said to look for J.P., who'd be dressed as Gandalf. Meanwhile, "Mister Baggins" had just left to get something, she said.
This weekend, four Shaker Village buildings have been rented out for "There & Back Again," a Tolkien-themed convention — as in J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the book The Hobbit.
Starting Wednesday evening, about 120 people began arriving for the convention. Some drove from as near as Georgetown and Harrodsburg, and others flew in from Canada. They're all coming for costume pageants, skits, tours and panels filled with Lord of the Rings experts.
Thursday night, the Meadow View Barn had been converted into an elfin paradise with a harpist and billowing white fabric. The night was to be a celebration of the traits Tolkien granted the elves, namely artfulness and elegance.
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"Tonight's more of an artsy-fartsy night," said co-organizer J.P. Cummings, who was indeed dressed as Gandalf, complete with painted-on wrinkles and a fake nose.
Cummings and his co-organizer, Tim White ("Mr. Baggins"), began wearing costumes to Tolkien conventions in 2004 but were always disappointed with the conventions' settings.
"They were always in big cities — hot, with steel and concrete," Cummings said. "They were always busy and expensive, with lots of lines."
Cummings and White, who both grew up in Harrodsburg, felt that a tranquil setting like Shaker Village would much better suit the feeling of Tolkien because it resembles the Shire, the home of the hobbits.
On Thursday, participants and at least one speaker familiar with the Tolkien circuit seemed to agree.
"This is the best, hands-down, that I've ever been to," said Jef Murray, a Georgia-based artist specializing in Tolkien images who has been to Lord of the Rings conventions across the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom. He was slated to lead several sessions, including one titled "Fanning the Secret Fire: Tips for Travelers to Sub-creative Realms."
Many people came to "There & Back Again" this year because they'd heard good things from friends who attended the first convention in 2008.
"The first time we did it, the only complaint we got was 'It's too short! We don't want to leave!'" White said. So this time around, they added an extra day (the event runs through Sunday).
Daniel Smith and Barry Ginsberg traveled from Los Angeles on a recommendation from friends in a Tolkien-themed social group they attend. Smith said the Shaker Village gathering had qualities his group should incorporate into their Tolkien celebrations.
"It's very embracing," Smith said, "Everyone's wonderfully friendly."
That is White's favorite aspect.
"It's the camaraderie," White said. "There are people here from every background, college-age to senior citizen. And they're all dressed in costumes. There's all walks of life, and they're all here with the same goals and interests. ... Everyone's on a first-name basis, no matter what their title is. You leave your title and your attitude at the door."
White said he thinks this sort of egalitarianism is what Tolkien dreamed of when he created the Lord of the Rings. He said he's pleased to try to bring it to life in a setting that "is just so ethereal."