Does 'The Hobbit' have a Kentucky connection?

jbrammer@herald-leader.comDecember 27, 2012 

One of the biggest holiday films this year, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, is based on British writer J.R.R. Tolkien's 1937 fantasy novel. But it turns into a mystery when Kentucky is linked to the worldwide literary classic.

"There has been a lot of speculation that Kentucky had something to do with inspiring Middle-earth, the setting of the book, and the hobbits and their practices," said Devin Brown, an English professor at Asbury University.

Brown is a scholar on all things Tolkien and Hobbit-esque at the Christian liberal arts university in Wilmore. He teaches a class at Asbury on the works of Tolkien and has just published a book, The Christian World of The Hobbit. It details Tolkien's strong faith and biblical messages found in the novel.

The alleged Kentucky connection to The Hobbit, Brown said, primarily is attributed to the late Guy Davenport, who taught in the University of Kentucky English department.

Davenport, who died in 2005, wrote in a 1997 collection of his essays, The Geography of the Imagination, that Allen Barnett, a Shelbyville history teacher, was a classmate of Tolkien's at Oxford University sometime between 1911 and 1915.

Barnett reportedly told Davenport, a Rhodes scholar who studied Old English under Tolkien, 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. He used to make me repeat family names like Barefoot and Boffin and Baggins, and good country names like that."

Davenport wrote that "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."

He contended that Barnett was the source of Tolkien's use of small, rolling hills in Middle-earth and curing barns for the pipe-weed the hobbits loved to smoke.

Davenport admitted that plenty of Tolkien's hobbitry is based on Tolkien's native United Kingdom rather than Kentucky, but he argued that there's something Kentuckian about Tolkien's hobbits, an imaginary race similar to humans but smaller, with hairy feet.

David S. Bratman, another Tolkien scholar, is not as enthusiastic about connecting Kentucky to The Hobbit.

Bratman, a librarian in Sunnyvale, Calif., near San Jose, and co-editor of the journal Tolkien Studies: An Annual Scholarly Review, wrote a paper several years ago titled "Hobbit Names Aren't From Kentucky."

Bratman later defended his paper, saying it did not offer "a categorical rejection of the possibility that Tolkien may have used some names that he remembered hearing."

But Bratman said name statistics he compiled countered information that "hobbits are merely Kentucky country folk transplanted intact to the Shire."

"The phrase, 'Hobbit Names Aren't From Kentucky' doesn't mean that not a single hobbit name could possibly have come from Kentucky but that hobbit names as a group are not characteristic of nor distinctive to Kentucky," Bratman wrote.

Bratman said he found few "hobbit names" in Lexington and Shelbyville phone books in 1999 and expressed doubt that the names Davenport mentioned could have vanished in the 25 years since Davenport's report.

In a recent telephone interview, Bratman said he has concluded that Davenport "puffed up" Barnett's comments: "Maybe it's possible that Barnett talked to Tolkien about Kentucky when they were at Oxford, but I think Tolkien's writings were based more on England than Kentucky."

Asbury's Brown said he doubts that Davenport "made any of this up.

"It's just unfortunate that we can't find out today what he meant," Brown said.

Bratman visited Shelby County 12 years ago in an attempt to find out more information about Barnett. He could not find any of Barnett's relatives but learned that his late widow years ago sold some of his letters. Bratman has not been able to find them.

He has been able to dispel a popular Shelby County rumor that Tolkien visited Barnett in Shelbyville.

"Tolkien never went to America," Bratman said. "Tolkien was not much of a traveler. He once was invited to the University of Wisconsin but did not go."

Jack Brammer: (502) 227-1198. Twitter: @BGPolitics. Blog: bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com

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