Author Quotes: Guy Davenport On Tolkien’s Bluegrass Shire


“The closest I have ever gotten to the secret and inner Tolkien was in a casual conversation on a snowy day in Shelbyville, Kentucky. I forget how in the world we came to talk of Tolkien at all, but 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 names like that.’

And out of the window I could see tobacco barns. The charming anachronism of the hobbit’s pipes suddenly made sense in a new way. The Shire and its settled manners and shy hobbits have many antecedents in folklore and in reality. . .Kentucky, seems, contributed its share.”

– Guy Davenport, essay excerpt from The Geography Of The Imagination

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While enlightening, this revealing little excerpt may not be as interesting to non-Kentuckians. I am myself of Bluegrass stock and, having lived away for a few years now, I am continuing to see my appreciation of the simple green nooks of the Ohio River Valley snowball with every continuing season. This little tidbit makes me almost as excited about Kentucky as having Wendell Berry among our numbers.

It has been argued that Davenport stretches this Kentucky idea and perhaps Tolkien did not often reconsider his stories from Barnett in the writing of The Hobbit. It does seem unlikely that Barnett would know nothing of Tolkien’s success and yet trump up these recollections, so I would assume that either he knew more of Tolkien’s works than he let on or Davenport stretched the truth in his retelling their conversation. If neither of these is true, it does seem hard to see no connection whatsoever between Barnett’s recollections and Tolkien’s writing.

The truth of the matter is that I am a quarter Irish and a quarter I-Don’t-Know, both from Cincinnati, Ohio. The other half in me is Appalachian. With family names like Ball, Hensley, and Phillips; its safe to guess that most of those ancestors started out on rolling English hills before the uprooted to rolling Kentucky hills. The reason Tolkien would have been fascinated by Kentucky would be that it reminded him of the rural English countryside of his youth. It was the land rooted-ness, the folk-ishness underlying these similar peoples, that obviously and undeniably fascinated him.

The hill people with their limited outside knowledge and unique local customs were at the heart of Tolkien’s most popular myths. For years, he created a fantastic world of higher orders of beings warring for pure good and evil. Then, almost accidentally, he stuck in an entire race Hobbits; the Kentucky-rural, English bumpkins who didn’t know there were other lands with which to be concerned.

Realizing this, I can’t help but feel proud, then insulted, then honored. Proud to be associated with a culture that Tolkien found fascinating. Insulted to see how backwards and ignorant he (accurately?) paints such cultures. Ultimately, its an honor to realize that The Lord Of The Rings really points out that simple people can continually surprise you with their bravery and willingness to fight for good.

If you understand Tolkien, you begin to realize that he cherished the idea of localized, slow-growth cultures. He was fearful of the impending washout of all cultures to one, because he valued the traditions and heritage of all peoples, and the truth, beauty, and courage that can be built upon and passed down by every Father.

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I will leave you with this interesting bit from Davenport’s essay. He met Hugo Dyson, the loudest of the Inklings and class clown of the group who stuck his foot in his mouth with everyone he met. He would often refuse to participate in meetings if his dear friend Tolkien’s fantasy manuscripts were to be read aloud.

“‘Dear Ronald,’ Dyson said, ‘Writing all those silly books with three introductions and ten appendixes. His was not a true imagination, you know: He made it all up.’ I have tried for fifteen years to figure out what Dyson meant by that remark.”

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