Sunday, August 14, 2005

Tolkien's Ol' Kentucky Hole?

Are Hobbits from Kentucky? Ralph Luker mentioned History Carnival #14 was out at Natalee Bennett's Philobiblon and, lo and behold, her first mention was that of The Elfin Ethicist's discussion of an interesting source for Hobbits: Kentucky, which referrs to John Holbo in his The Valve - A Literary Organ. He discusses Guy Davenport’s essay, “Hobbitry”, from The Geography of the Imagination (1981). Davenport mentions:

The closest I have ever gotten to the secret and inner Tolkien was in a casual conversation on a snowy day in Shelbyville, Kentucky. I forget how in the world we came to talk about Tolkien at all, but I began plying questions as soon as I knew that I was talking to a man who had been at Oxford as a classmate of Ronald Tolkien’s. He was a history teacher, Allen Barnett. He had never read The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. Indeed, he was astonished and pleased to know that his friend of so many years ago had made a name for himself as a writer.

“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.”

And out the window I could see tobacco barns. The charming anachronism of the hobbits’ pipes suddenly made sense in a new way...

"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."

Luker continues:
I've admitted that I found all of that fascinating, largely because, like Davenport and Barnett, I'm a Kentuckian, but when I first read this I was wondering how much of it should I discount because Davenport was also a Kentuckian. I've read and discounted some of the claims that English and Scots-Irish immigrants settled in remote pockets of mountainous eastern Kentucky and preserved 18th century folk culture and language largely unchanged into the 20th century. But Lexington and Shelbyville are in the lush bluegrass central part of the state. They've never been isolated in ways that the mountain communities have been.

So, I thought I'd just toss these claims out for discussion by those who know more about The Lord of the Rings than I do. What would a well-informed historian do when confronted with this kind of evidence? Did Davenport discover the hobbits, living unbeknownst in central Kentucky or was his own provenance over-reaching?

...ClioWeb's Jeremy Boggs sends this via e-mail: "I'm from far southwest Virginia, Wise county to be exact, and I remember a few Baggins last names in the phone book. I went to Morehead State U. (in Morehead, Ky, my freshman year) and also remember a guy named Boffins. AND I remember a rather elderly man back home saying "eleventy-first" instead of one-hundred eleven, but I never thought to tie it to Tolkien's work until your post. Really interesting, I'll have to look into it more."

Although The Elfin Ethicist is somewhat skeptical. Upon looking for Hobbit names in Kentucky census records, she says:
I'm not terribly impressed with the results. In particular, the disproportionately low concentration of Goodbodies, Tooks, and Proudfeet relative to the rest of the country is disappointing.

Worse still, I found 123 entries for Goodbody, 81 for Took, and 541 for Proudfoot in the British listings at Infobel UK. There are ten British entries for Gamgee, compared with no legitimate-looking listings at all in the US. There are also 58 British Boffins, but only twelve in America and none in Kentucky.

Some of those are business names, but that was disheartening. I was only slightly encouraged by finding a scarcity of Bagginses in the UK; there were just two likely-looking British listings, compared with one in Kentucky.

That does not in any way disprove the account we have from Barnett via Davenport. It merely means I haven't done anything to corroborate it.

Originating from the region that is known as "Kentuckiana" (I'm from the Indiana portion with a fair knowledge of Western Kentucky--my family has been in the region since the early 1800's), I'm not that surprised. There are nooks and crannies of small valleys and wooded hills thereabouts that, in my childhood, I spent much time. Many are out of the way, and not observable from the main roads. The culture there has a different sense of time, of place. The language of Tolkien is akin to that of the area. For many small communities, there was more contact with the Ohio River than with the big cities. Louisville, Cincinnati are far away from these. The Amish with their farms have more connection with many of these folk than city people do. I've known people there that could be mistaken for Bagginses and Brandywines, even a few Tooks (talk about family pictures--wasn't that my grandmother?)! They kept pretty much to themselves. Might not even be in most censuses.

Just a thought.
Just Ken
CLASSical Liberalism


Blogger Just Ken said...

In a private comment to an historian about this post, I thought about an important point:

One of the most valuable things that my father did for me when I was a child was take me, almost every summer (he was a teacher and had the summers "off"--to the extent that teachers have the summers off) we would go river rafting throughout the rivers and tributaries in Southern Indiana and Western Kentucky in the late fifties-early sixties. It gave me a great sense of the difference of life in Kentuckiana from the previous generations. Where we go today via freeway and roads is not where we used to go using river rafts and boats to transfer goods, services and people.

I discovered the real history of the region this way, much like the recent repeat of the Lewis & Clark expedition has done. It is far different. When the roads disappear, you discover an entirely different kind of life there, one that doesn't exist on AAA maps. Perhaps much of it doesn't exist anymore. I honestly don't know as I have not riverboated there since then. When you travel by boat, you see things, smell things and feel things which take you into an experience far different than by land. Cities disappear. Old communities emerge. It is the same land, but it is not the same.

Just a thought.
Just Ken

5:10 PM  

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