What inspired the lush hills and unique names in The Hobbit? How about Kentucky?
Now, keep in mind that this is not a direct quotation from the author himself. Instead, this information is coming to us via Devin Brown, an English professor at Asbury University and author of The Christian World of The Hobbit. Brown, in turn, was citing Guy Davenport, a former professor at the University of Kentucky who studied Old English under Tolkien. Davenport, for his part, was using the information he received from Allen Barnett, a Shelbyville, Ky., history teacher who was a classmate of Tolkien’s at Oxford.
While it all may seem a bit convoluted, Davenport wrote about Tolkien in his 1997 collection of essays, The Geography of Imagination. According to these essays, Barnett spoke about Tolkien and how the author "used to have the most extraordinary interest in the people here in Kentucky.” According to Barnett, “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.”
In his essays, Davenport further wrote that the names used in The Hobbit could be found in phonebooks for Lexington and Shelbyville, the small-rolling hills in Middle-Earth greatly resembled Kentucky and the hobbits’ love for smoking pipe-weed in the curing barns was Kentuckian. Davenport also argued that phrases such as “I hear tell” and “this very month as is” were commonly used in Kentucky.
Tolkien’s fascination with the American frontier has also been argued by author Tom Shippey, who claims that he was a fan of James Fenimore Cooper, another author who once supposedly modeled a story after the Kentucky frontiersman Daniel Boone.
However, David S. Bratman, another scholar of Tolkien’s work, does not buy it.
Author of the essay, "Hobbit Names Aren’t From Kentucky," Bratman asserts, “hobbit names as a group are not characteristic of nor distinctive to Kentucky.” Bratman, whose essay cites the absence of Hobbit names in Shelbyville and Lexington phonebooks, simply argues that Barnett’s claims were “puffed up” by Davenport.
If this Kentuckian influence is true, it makes you wonder if Tolkien was perhaps perpetuating a stereotype. As Flannery O’Connor showed us in “Good Country People,” college grads have this tendency to label country folks a certain way. Whether the Oxford-educated Tolkien was guilty of this or not is just speculation, but it is a little bothersome that Bilbo is somewhat the archetypal country bumpkin.
Either way, this is just speculation and takes nothing away from Tolkien for writing an epic pop culture story. The novel is a classic and the movie is currently undefeated at the box office. Even if Middle Earth isn’t Kentucky, it’s definitely a goldmine for Peter Jackson.