Archive for December, 2012

Did Kentucky inspire Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit’?

J.R.R. Tolkien literary goal was to create an English mythology. But his Middle-earth may have some Kentucky flavor.

Eleven years after fantasy film fans attended the celebration of his “eleventy-first birthday” party, Bilbo Baggins is back — this time as the central character in Peter Jackson’s new movie adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit.”

Like “The Lord of the Rings” films, which were released at Christmastime in 2001, 2002 and 2003, Tolkiens’ original  story about Middle-earth will be a trilogy. The first part, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” opened in theaters today amid a new wave of Tolkien mania.

“This is not a work which many adults will read through more than once,” an anonymous reviewer in London’s Times Literary Supplement once wrote, but he was wrong. Seventy-five years after the release of “The Hobbit,” Tolkien still has a cult following unequaled by any author, with the possible exception of his friend and fellow Inkling, C.S. Lewis.

Though he was born in South Africa, J.R.R. Tolkien was the quintessential English writer. In “The Hobbit” and his epic sequel, “The Lord of the Rings,” the Shire represented rural England, and the hobbits were the common folk of that green and pleasant land — yeoman farmers, craftsmen and shopkeepers.

First edition of "The Hobbit," 1937.

The Oxford don admitted that what he was trying to do was create a mythology for England because his country had no myth of its own other than that of King Arthur, who was actually a British Celt, not English, and whose legend was a creation of the French.

However, Bradley J. Birzer, in his book, “J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth,” reveals that England may not have been the only inspiration for the Shire and its inhabitants. It seems that Kentucky, of all places, may have influenced Tolkien’s characters.

Tolkien’s former Oxford classmate, Allen Barnett, was a Kentuckian — a history teacher from Shelbyville. Barnett once said that Tolkien “used to have the most extraordinary interest in the people here in Kentucky.”

“He could never get enough of my tales of Kentucky folk,” Barnett said. “He used to make me repeat family names like Barefoot and Boffin and Baggins, good country names like that.”

Those quotes are from Barnett’s response to writer Guy Davenport, who was one of Tolkien’s students as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, and whom he met at the University of Kentucky.

Of particular interest to this Bardstonian is that the name of one of the central characters in “The Hobbit” is Bard, the warrior.

According to the faith blog, Patheos (, Davenport, who died in 2005, later wrote: “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.”

Tom Shippey, who also authored a book of criticism of Tolkien’s work, wrote that Tolkien enjoyed fiction of the American frontier, especially “Red Indians” and James Fenimore Cooper’s “Leatherstocking Tales.” Cooper’s main character, in turn, is believed to have been modeled in part on Kentucky’s most famous adventurer, Daniel Boone.

The more I think about it, the more I think it’s curious just how much the ranger Strider (later revealed to be King Aragorn) resembles the character of Boone as it has been recreated in America’s own mythology.

December 2012
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