Friday, December 28, 2012

Learn now the lore of clueless features

Today's hed tip: When you feel compelled to write a deck that knocks down the question in your question hed, that should be a sign unto you that the story beneath it is losing air rapidly:

One of the biggest holiday films this year,
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, is based on British writer J.R.R. Tolkien's 1937 fantasy novel. But it turns into a mystery when Kentucky is linked to the worldwide literary classic. (1)

No, it doesn't -- at least, not much of one.

"There has been a lot of speculation that Kentucky had something to do with inspiring Middle-earth, the setting of the book, and the hobbits and their practices," said Devin Brown, an English professor at Asbury University.

That's as may be (though how much speculation counts as "a lot" is a different matter). There's plenty of speculation about plenty of things out there. What you do with that speculation before you put it in the front page actually tells your readers a lot about how you treat speculation -- and readers -- in general. Let's have a look:

 ... The alleged Kentucky connection to The Hobbit, Brown said, primarily is attributed(2) to the late Guy Davenport, who taught in the University of Kentucky English department.

Davenport, who died in 2005, wrote in a 1997 collection of his essays,
The Geography of the Imagination, that Allen Barnett, a Shelbyville history teacher, was a classmate of Tolkien's at Oxford University sometime between 1911 and 1915.

Barnett reportedly told Davenport, a Rhodes scholar who studied Old English under Tolkien, that Tolkien "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."

Davenport wrote that "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."

I expect he meant Shire-hobbits, not Bree-hobbits, unless there really were a lot of Goatleafs, Appledores and Fernys in the Lexington phone book.(3) But it does suggest a plausible way of dealing with the evidence-based world: seeing if a similar test produces similar evidence. Let's look in the December 1982(4) edition of the Chapel Hill phone book for any hobbits listed in, oh, the farewell speech at Bilbo's birthday party. No Bagginses, Boffins, Tooks or Brandybucks, but plenty of Grubbs, Chubbs and Burrowses (and Bankses and Underhills, among the "natural names" found in both Bree and the Shire). No Bracegirdles or Proudfoots, but a Proudfit and plenty of Barefoots.

Urban areas have a fuller list. Mineroa Boffin, a near-perfect hobbit name, shows up in the 1940 Census in New Haven, Conn. (Her husband, Edward, was born in new York; other Boffins were born in Indiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Missouri.) That year also found a Beatrice Bracegirdle (born in England, 1891) in Detroit, with other Bracegirdles in Colorado, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. Bagginses were thick in Georgia but also turned up in New York City and Chicago.

I wouldn't place a lot of weight on finding an "H. Gamgee" in a 1982 college-town phone book, any more than I'd try to sell a black falcon to the "H. Bogart" on Springview Terrace.(5) But that doesn't mean we don't have Gamgees; the 1880 Census lists Susan and Charles Gamgee in Brooklyn, both born around half a century earlier in England. And that gives us a little context for the next few grafs:

He contended that Barnett was the source of Tolkien's use of small, rolling hills in Middle-earth and curing barns for the pipe-weed the hobbits loved to smoke. 

OK. I recall waggons of leaf headed to or from the Shire at assorted parts of "The Lord of the Rings," and someone must have cured the stuff (it being pipe-weed, more likely in the Kentucky style than North Carolina). Tobacco barns -- no, they don't stand out. And imagine what happens when you search the Interwebs for "gently rolling hills" and "England":

The topography of England consists mainly of gently rolling hills and lowlands.

Are you starting to get the idea that when Tolkien needed to see the Shire, he didn't have to look very far? But back to our story:

Davenport admitted that plenty of Tolkien's hobbitry is based on Tolkien's native United Kingdom
(6) rather than Kentucky, but he argued that there's something Kentuckian about Tolkien's hobbits, an imaginary race similar to humans but smaller, with hairy feet.

Despite Tolkien's professed dislike for allegory, people have been seeing what they want to see in his works pretty much since they first came out (particularly when the pipe-weed is involved). That doesn't offer much in the way of material for 1A stories. To its credit, the paper does acknowledge a contrary view:

David S. Bratman, another Tolkien scholar, is not as enthusiastic about connecting Kentucky to The Hobbit.

Bratman, a librarian in Sunnyvale, Calif., near San Jose, and co-editor of the journal Tolkien Studies: An Annual Scholarly Review, wrote a paper several years ago titled "Hobbit Names Aren't From Kentucky."

He seems careful to point out that he isn't proving the negative:

"The phrase, 'Hobbit Names Aren't From Kentucky' doesn't mean that not a single hobbit name could possibly have come from Kentucky but that hobbit names as a group are not characteristic of nor distinctive to Kentucky," Bratman wrote.

Which seems like a sensible conclusion; it looks as if hobbit names spread across the United States in much the way that other names did. It'd be fun to see if names are associated with dialect -- more Proudfoots and Barefoots in rhotic areas, say, and more Bracegirdles and Fernys elsewhere -- but we're still left with competing explanations for the world. There's a realistic one, and then there's a fantastic one that's not much of a fantasy and even less of a mystery.

Tolkien went through names at a pretty fierce clip; when you need three new dwarves just for a throwaway line in the Book of Mazarbul, it's nice to have a stock of dwarf names handy. No doubt he had good store of appropriate country names for hobbits, too. Was he drawing on what he saw around him, or on conversations 30 years earlier? Did he make his classmate repeat Barefoot and Boffin because he'd never heard them before, or because he was interested in how migration carries language?

I like the simpler explanation, but it doesn't make for much of a story. And that's the core of the problem, I think, because readers form their sense of how you handle evidence from -- how you handle evidence. If you run fundamentally implausible stories because, well, they're local, and the audience will lap up anything that's local, there's very little to separate you from the folks who run lurid fantasies about the Kenyan Muslim socialist conspiracy just because the audience laps them up.

Conspiracy journalism rests on being able to put the telescope to the blind eye -- on stories that are too good to check out. The real stuff rests on an assurance that we've looked at the relevant stuff, whether we wanted to or not, and if the evidence doesn't support the story, the story doesn't run. Holiday-week features aren't necessarily what the One Great Scorer will judge us by when she comes to mark against our names, but they're a good place to start practicing.

1. Also a contender for Elongated Yellow Fruit of the Day.
2. Your small fire, of course, would not melt even ordinary zombie rules -- let alone the split-verb superstition.
3. I recall a grade-school teacher named Ferneyhough, which would have made a nice hobbit name, but that was in Virginia.
4. I am not making this up.
5. Or the "Yur Mama" in Teague Dorm. Kids these days.

6. Tolkien was born in what is now South Africa.

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Blogger Denise Vultee said...

Mineroa is indeed a lovely and Tolkienesque name; unfortunately, it's just a typo for Minerva. (I checked the 1940 and 1930 census on Still, some fantasy writer ought to claim it.

6:29 PM, December 28, 2012  
Anonymous Brian said...

I suspect Minerva Boffin would find herself more comfortable in that other excellent English literary series, the one featuring young wizards fighting the dark arts.

10:26 PM, December 28, 2012  
Anonymous raYb said...

Methinks the writer and subjects have the Tolkien tale mixed up with "Bored of the Rings." It comes from hanging around the Goodgulf station wearing Arrow shirts.

3:37 PM, December 31, 2012  
Blogger fev said...

Aiyee! A Ballhog!

7:59 PM, December 31, 2012  

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