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Tom Chaney: Time Out from Axes & Blood for Hobbits, Pipe-Weed

Of Writers And Their Books: Time Out from Axes and Blood for Hobbits and Pipe-Weed. Tom Chaney reports that practically all the names of Tolkien's hobbits are listed in the Lexington phone book, and those that aren't can be found over in Shelbyville. This column first appeared 10 April 2005.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: Hard Boiled and Bourbon Soaked

By Tom Chaney

Time Out from Axes and Blood for Hobbits and Pipe-Weed

In the spring of 1966 a fellow teacher and friend at Southern State College, in Magnolia, Arkansas, loaned me a book she had just finished reading. "Tom, you have to read this book right now!" Marette Jackson said as she burst into my basement office in the English Department. She handed me a copy of The Hobbit by British writer J.R.R. Tolkien.

I did go on to meet my classes and grade some freshman English themes. But as soon as I could, I escaped to my house across town; put on a pot of coffee; and banished Pablo A. S. Fang, my disagreeable little dog, to the back yard.

I was immediately transported to a wondrous world of little people who lived in holes in the ground with round windows and smoked pipe-weed, and who, while they preferred to stay at home, went on adventures when necessary.

Bilbo Baggins had me -- trapped in Middle Earth. And I knew that Marette would sit me down and quiz me the next day if I didn't finish the book. As I recall, I read it all that night -- neglecting class preparation and all else.

All three volumes of Lord of the Rings soon followed. There was no bookstore in Magnolia, so we got the rest of the books as we could on trips to Shreveport, Louisiana, sixty miles away.

Some years later I studied a bit with Dr. Guy Davenport of the University of Kentucky English department. From him I learned of the Kentucky connection to Middle Earth.

Davenport told in his book, Geography of the Imagination, of a conversation he had with Allen Barnett, a Shelbyville history teacher who had been a fellow student with Tolkien at Oxford University. Barnett had not read or heard of The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings, but he was pleased to hear of his former classmate's success.

"Imagine that," Barnett told Davenport. "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."

Out of that Shelby County window Davenport could see the curing barns for pipe-weed, smoke curling up from winter houses, and the gentle, contented folk of the neighborhood.

According to Davenport, "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 cure pipe-weed for a living."

Many of us have read the books; likewise the movies based on the books have been wildly successful. Could it be that our delight in the adventures of Bilbo Baggins comes from holding a mirror up to our own lives in our place?

Or is that just a pipe-weed dream?

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2014-04-13 02:26:04
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