I have been rereading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit in anticipation of tomorrow’s movie release. When I first read There and Back Again thirty years ago as a boy in Kentucky the Shire seemed very far away. I would have loved to run into a round door in the side of one of the hills around my house.
One of the more interesting, and obscure, essays on the background of The Hobbit was written by the late Guy Davenport, and collected in his book The Geography of the Imagination. Davenport was a native of South Carolina, but spent most of his career as a professor at my alma mater, the University of Kentucky in Lexington. A Rhodes Scholar, and ultimately a genius certified by the MacArthur Foundation, Davenport is the sort of fellow who constantly exposes one’s own lack of knowledge and sophistication with every essay of his you read.
As a Rhodes Scholar at Merton College, Oxford, Davenport had been a student of Prof. J.R.R. Tolkien. Davenport writes in his short essay “Hobbitry” that Tolkien was a “vague and incomprehensible lecturer” who “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….How was 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’?”
But it was a chance encounter Davenport had in Shelbyville, Kentucky with a former classmate of Tolkien—a history teacher named Allen Barnett—that changed Davenport’s perspective about his former professor’s clever tales. To Davenport’s amazement, Barnett had no idea that Tolkien had turned into a writer, and had never read any of the adventures of Middle Earth.
“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,” Barnett told Davenport.
“And out the window I could see tobacco barns,” Davenport writes. “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 phonebook, and those that aren’t can be found over in Shelbyville. Like as not, they grow and cure pipe-weed for a living.”
It is no surprise, then, that Wendell Berry, a friend and colleague of Davenport, writes hilariously about the adventures of fictional Kentucky farmer Ptolemy Proudfoot, not named after a hobbit, but rather the genuine country people of Kentucky.
When I first read Davenport’s “Hobbitry” twenty years ago I felt like the earth had moved. It was revolutionary! I had grown up around that tobacco and those tobacco barns.
New Zealand may provide the dramatic scenery for Peter Jackson’s movies, but it was the rolling hills and tobacco country of Kentucky that was the real backdrop for Tolkien’s Shire.
The Shire hadn’t been as far away as I thought.