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.