Thursday, July 21, 2011

Of hillbillies and hobbits

I see John Holbo was here, but that isn't going to stop me from quoting Guy Davenport on J.R.R. Tolkien and the Appalachian lineage of the hobbits:
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 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. [...] 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.
A few random notes:

1. Davenport "never had a driver's license, was especially passionate about the destruction of American cities by the automobile." (Thus, after my own heart, to some extent. But he also believed in "a Fourierist utopia, where small groups of men, women, and children have eliminated the separation between mind and body" -- decidedly not something I approve of.)

2. Vaguely related geographical tidbit: "Kentucky has 120 counties; depending on definitions, this is either third or fourth among U.S. states. [...] The original motivation for having so many counties was to ensure that residents in the days of poor roads and horseback travel could make a round trip from their home to the county seat and back in a single day, as well as being able to travel from one county seat to the next in the same fashion."

3. There might be scope for an updated Hobbit in which Smaug (clearly also a tobacco reference) runs a meth lab.

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