JRR Tolkien

Could hob­bits have orig­i­nat­ed not only in England’s green and pleas­ant land, but also in Kentucky’s beau­ti­ful Bluegrass region?

Was Strider, the ranger who was des­tined to become Aragorn the king in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, mod­eled in part on Kentucky’s leg­endary fron­tiers­man, Daniel Boone?

It’s pos­si­ble that these ideas are more than fantasy.

Tolkien was born in South Africa and was of German descent, but he was the quin­tes­sen­tial English writer. In The Hobbit and its sequel, The Lord of the Rings, the Shire rep­re­sents rur­al England, and the hob­bits were based on the “lit­tle peo­ple,” the sim­ple, peace­able but stout­heart­ed folk — the yeo­man farm­ers, crafts­men, and shop­keep­ers of the shires.

Tolkien, an Oxford don who taught medieval lan­guages, admit­ted that what he was try­ing to do with his tales of Middle-earth was to cre­ate a mythol­o­gy for England because his adopt­ed coun­try had no myth of its own oth­er than the Arthurian myth, which real­ly isn’t English at all, but is a medieval French tale that grew out of leg­ends about a British (mean­ing Welsh) war­lord of the Dark Ages after the fall of Rome.

In his book J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, pub­lished 20 years ago, Bradley J. Birzer explains how Kentucky, as well as England, may have been an inspi­ra­tion for the Shire and its people.

According to Birzer, Tolkien’s for­mer Oxford class­mate, Allen Barnett, was a Kentuckian.

“Imagine that!” Barnett once said when talk­ing about Tolkien. “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.”

That quo­ta­tion came to us from the Kentucky writer Guy Davenport, who recalled a con­ver­sa­tion with Barnett on a snowy day in Shelbyville, Ky. According to Davenport, Barnett, a his­to­ry teacher, nev­er read The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit, but was “aston­ished and pleased to know that his friend of so many years ago had made a name for him­self as a writer.”

“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, it seems, con­tributed its share,” Davenport wrote in The New York Times in February 1979.

And, accord­ing to Tom Shippey, author of a book of crit­i­cism of Tolkien’s work, the English writer enjoyed the fic­tion of the American fron­tier, espe­cial­ly the “Red Indians” and James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales. Cooper’s main char­ac­ter, known as “Hawkeye,” “The Pathfinder” and oth­er names, is believed to have been mod­eled in part on Daniel Boone.

The more I think about it, the more I notice the resem­blance between Strider, played by Viggo Mortensen in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings movie series, reminds me of Hawkeye, played by Daniel Day-Lewis in the 1992 movie ver­sion of The Last of the Mohicans.

The wide world is small­er than we think.

Note: This com­men­tary is adapt­ed from an ear­li­er ver­sion of this sto­ry that I wrote for my old blog, “A Newer World,” years ago. Versions of it have been print­ed in The Winchester Sun and The Kentucky Standard of Bardstown.

  • Randy Patrick

    Randy Patrick is a deputy coun­ty clerk for elec­tions and vot­er reg­is­tra­tion and a for­mer reporter and edi­tor of The Winchester Sun.