Essay / Misc.

Hobbits is From Kentucky!

Hobbit from KY by Bakshi When J. R. R. Tolkien was a student at Oxford, he found that one of his classmates (Allen Barnett) was from the state of Kentucky, and that this classmate had a lot of good stories about how Kentucky folk talk, behave, and live. Tolkien pumped Barnett for all the Kentucky info he could get out of him.

Years later, Tolkien as Oxford Don had among his students a fellow named Guy Davenport, who has written about his classes with Tolkien in the essay “Hobbitry,” published in The Geography of the Imagination. Here is how Davenport warms up to his subject:

Some grudges are permanent. On Judgment Day I shall proudly and stubbornly begrudge learning how to abandon a sinking ship, how to crawl under live machine-gun fire, and Anglo-Saxon. The first professor to harrow me with the syntax and morphology of Old English had a speech impediment, wandered in his remarks, and seemed to think that we, his baffled scholars, were well up in Gothic, Erse, and Welsh, the grammar of which he freely alluded to. How as I to know that he had one day written on the back of one of our examination papers, ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit’?

Davenport ended up taking a University job in Kentucky, where he met Allen Barnett and was the first to break the news to him that that Tolkien fellow had become a pretty famous author. Barnett’s response, according to Davenport:

Imagine that! You know, he used to have the most extraordinary interest in the people here in Kentucky. He could never get enough of my tales of Kentucky folk. He used to make me repeat family names like Barefoot and Boffin and Baggins and good country names like that.

Davenport muses on Kentucky’s ubiquitous tobacco barns, and while admitting that plenty of Tolkien’s hobbitry is based on the United Kingdom rather than the University of Kentucky, he makes the case that there’s something abidingly Kentuckian about Tolkien’s hobbits:

Practically all the names of Tolkien’s hobbits are listed in my Lexington phone book, and those that aren’t can be found over in Shelbyville. Like as not, they grow and cure pipe-weed for a living. Talk with them, and their turns of phrase are pure hobbit: ‘I hear tell,’ ‘right agin,’ ‘so Mr. Frodo is his first and second cousin, once removed either way,’ ‘this very month as is.’ These are English locutions, of course, but ones that are heard oftener now in Kentucky than in England.

I despaired of trying to tell Barnett what his talk of Kentucky folk became in Tolkien’s imagination. I urged him to read The Lord of the Rings but as our paths have never crossed again, I don’t know that he did. Nor if he knew that he created by an Oxford fire and in walks along the Cherwell and Isis the Bagginses, Boffins, Tooks, Brandybucks, Grubbs, Burrowses, Goodbodies, and Proudfoots (or Proudfeet, as a branch of the family will have it) who were, we are told, the special study of Gandalf the Grey, the only wizard who was interested in their bashful and countrified ways.

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