Shaffer: Hobbit skeptic raises fantasy cash as elfin drag queen

December 23, 2012 

John Kessel tries on his elf queen costume at Hughie & Louie's in Raleigh, shortly before reluctantly attending a screening of "The Hobbit."

JSHAFFER@NEWSOBSERVER.COM — JOSH SHAFFER

— John Kessel doesn’t speak any Elvish, can’t translate runes, wouldn’t tattoo himself with maps of Middle Earth and considers himself only a dabbler in the world of J.R.R. Tolkien.

He’s a mild-mannered college professor and fantasy novelist who can follow “The Hobbit” to its Anglo-Saxon roots. But you’ll never hear him debating whether Bilbo Baggins brushes his foot hair.

The new movie struck him as ridiculous overkill – despite the record-setting box office receipts – and he vowed to avoid it even if you paid him in dragon’s gold.

Then he agreed to deal: Lit professor goes to see “The Hobbit” in exchange for contributions to a health care fund to benefit struggling sci-fi writers.

More than two thousand bucks later, Kessel zipped up a long white robe, pulled a blond wig over his thinning black hair and fitted a tiara topped with moons and stars – bound to the movies dressed as Galadriel the elf queen.

“I think I might shave the bottom of my legs,” mused Kessel, 62.

Kessel’s cross-dressing, species-hopping gesture is aimed at the world of scribblers earning a pittance for their offerings, the Kilgore Trouts of the world reduced to curing their ailments with imaginary alien technology.

His personal Hobbit fund gets delivered to the Science Fiction Writers of America, which has included such notables as Isaac Asimov and Anne McCaffrey, but also the thousands of writers toiling under a bare light bulb, typing in the face of debt.

Kessel found a regular job teaching at N.C. State University, and his novels win critical praise, including a Nebula Award nomination for his 1989 novel “Good News From Outer Space.” But he can identify with those who struggle, and he readily bowed to former students who pitched the idea.

“I didn’t do much,” he joked, “but offer my body up for sacrifice.”

In his classes at NCSU, Kessel places Tolkien near the beginning of the course, “The Hobbit” most often, the ring trilogy less frequently because of its phonebook length.

But he admits a less-than-avid appreciation for Gandalf and Co. He came late to the party. In the late 1960s, when Tolkien fans were spray-painting “Frodo Lives” on walls, he kept a safe distance from the material.

“Everybody was naming their dog Frodo,” Kessel recalled. “I thought, ‘I’m not going to get on that bandwagon.’ It’s kind of perverse to me.”

But once his former students began goading him, and offering the chance to help a charity he cared about, all the walls crumbled.

With his fate sealed as Galadriel, the mind-reading elf witch, Kessel offered this note on his Facebook page:

“If we could wind Tolkien, in his grave, in copper wire and fix brushes to his ankles, we could power a small city!”

Grave-rolling noted, he headed off to Hughie & Louie’s, the costume shop on Glenwood Avenue, asking, “Do you have a tiara of some sort?”

Kessel took his challenge seriously enough to sample the Hobbit Hole Breakfast at Denny’s, and he waved politely to passers-by honking their horns at the 6-foot-plus elf queen with stubble.

He described the experience as fun, Hollywood excesses notwithstanding, and joked that he enjoyed more notoriety than he’s found in 30 years of writing books.

I’m sure Tolkien had a sense of humor that occasionally bubbled up through the soup of dark lords and ring wraiths in his brain, and if he could see to North Raleigh from his perch in the Undying Lands, he’d take an appreciative puff on his pipe at the sight of Kessel in elf garb and toss a farthing into the collection jar.

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4818

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