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Aug 2, 2005 8:14 pm


How Stephen Foster Inspired "The Lord of the Rings" ...



Well, not exactly, but several weeks ago at The Valve, John Holbo pointed to Guy Davenport's account of a conversation that he had years ago. Davenport (1927-2005) was a learned literary critic in the English Department at the University of Kentucky. He published this account in an essay for the New York Times entitled"Hobbitry." Davenport recalled talking with Allen Barnett, a historian who retired from 30 years as head of the department at Woodbury Forest to his home in Shelbyville, Kentucky.
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.
As a Kentuckian, that excerpt that Holbo quoted interested me enough to go looking for more. Davenport's essay continues:
"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."
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?

Update: The Elfin Ethicist and Jeremy Bangs, in comments here at Cliopatria, do some empirical investigating. Davenport's point seems neither proven nor disproven by the results, so far. The Elfin One suggests that the 1910, 1920 and 1930 census records for central Kentucky would be a more reliable guide than current telephone directories. Then, there's also the question of language patterns and research in Barnett's, Davenport's and Tolkien's papers. There's a dissertation in it.
Further Update: 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."


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Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs - 8/2/2005

According to "AnyWho" there now are 27 telephone listings for the name Grubb in Lexington and 1 in Shelbyville. There are 5 for the name Burrow in Lexington and 1 in Shelbyville. There is 1 Took listed in Shelbyville. The other names are not listed in either town's directory. They may all have gone off on some quest.

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