Tolkien’s Kentucky Hobbits

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.

J.R.R. Tolkien

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.


[Please follow Pinstripe Pulpit on Facebook and Twitter]

20 thoughts on “Tolkien’s Kentucky Hobbits

    • Whoa…this made me look out my window at The Knobs, THE rolling hills on the edge of Shelbyville, KY. When I go see The Desolation of Smaug tonight these words will surely be flashing through my mind.

  1. Keep a lookout in Marion Co @ Popes Creek Ranch…. There may be Hobbit Houses in the future….. btw I grew up in Henry Co and live and farm in Shelby Co now

  2. “‘The Shire’ is based on rural England and not any other country in the world… [Later in the same letter he implied that the Shire was “an imaginary mirror” of England.]” …… “[The Shire] is in fact more or less a Warwickshire village of about the period of the Diamond Jubilee”… Tolkien – Letters, #178

      • Tolkien’s interest in names, though, was also something that is undisputed. I don’t doubt he did question his Kentucky-based student on things like that. So, no, the Shire is not ‘based’ on Kentucky…rather, rural Kentucky is ‘based’ on rural England, just as Tolkien’s Shire was :).

        And hobbits smoke pipes…because Tolkien smoked a pipe. No need to look too far for that connection!

        But the Kentucky countryside does fit well with the Shire.

  3. Ehhhh…. I don’t know. I’ve lived in KY my whole life, and while I want to believe this, everything I’ve ever read, seen, or heard regarding Hobbits and the LOTR has Tolkein pointing to two things: his faith, and his England.

  4. I’m a Kentucky girl, raised in South Carolina. My Dad has read the Hobbit at least 17 times at last count. It’s no wonder he always felt at home in the Shire. I can’t wait for him to read this blog.

  5. The names we have in Kentucky, are also last names in England and Wales and so forth…because, ultimately, the family names in America came from Europe. The “rolling” hills of Kentucky do have a lot of similarities to European country sides, I know, I’ve seen it (It is amazing to drive through the country side of another country and feel like you’re traveling east in this Commonwealth). Ergo, the similarities may be exciting, but reality stands: Tolkien wrote about England and mirrored those villages, not Kentucky. Sorry folks.

  6. A writer includes everything in them. If Tolkien had any interest in Kentucky and gathered names from there, they were influential, whether on purpose or not. As a writer, I am influenced by everything I come in contact with. I see bits of people and places I never intended to include, but my mind uses everything.

    He wrote about England, but that doesn’t mean his conversations about Kentucky weren’t there as well, under the surface. The very idea of the possibility is enough to make one smile.

  7. And equally exciting across the pond, I learned recently of the fight to save a derelict farmhouse in Galloway in Scotland. It and its historical surroundings, scenes of battles, had been the inspiration for many of the names and places in Lord of the Rings. He and other creative writers and artists used to gather there in the isolation and beauty and spark ideas off each other.

  8. Pingback: Hobbits Have a Kentucky Connection | Into the Wonder

  9. Those who say that Tolkien referenced England and England alone fail to see how the storyteller’s mind works. Stories come about from a multitude of influences. It is quite rare that a work of fiction is not an amalgamation of sources, settings and occurrences.

    Additionally, just because a writer attributes much influence from one place does not mean that the spark for that line of musing did not come from elsewhere.

  10. There’s also a few references to a guy named Lorenzo Carter, who was the third generation descendant of a Cambridge alumnus named Rev. Thomas Carter. Lorenzo was the first settler “under the hill” in Cleaveland OH, who was no doubt inspired by stories about George Rogers Clark. My, what a small world we live in!

  11. Very interesting. I read all the Tolkein books when I was a teenager. I was happy to see how respectfully Peter Jackson treated them in his movies. What an undertaking!

Leave a Reply