A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Another Kind of Digital Humanities

They can do amazing things with geographic information systems, these days.  My local county government lets you look up all kinds of useful geographic information on line.  This one came across the Twitter feed this morning:  look up your family name, and find out where they live on a map of the UK.  Obviously it’s intended for real people, not fictional ones, so let’s start with reality.  Here’s my maternal grandfather’s name:

He told me he was Scotch-Irish!

Tracking my British ancestry.

I see two hot-spots.  One is in Manchester, the other in Birmingham. Family lore says we’re Scottish, but family lore says lots of things and believing them is not always advisable.  (That castle in Toulouse turned out not to exist, dommage.)

Enough reality.  From what I know of Professor Tolkien’s biography, there’s an intriguing overlap here. His old stomping grounds were near Birmingham, and he wrote it into his tales. That got me to looking up hobbit names.  Surprise, it worked!  Took, Burrows, Bolger, Baggins, Underhill … Lots of them have hot-spots around Birmingham. Maybe my grandfather comes from good Hobbiton stock.  The Cottons are a bit to the north, like us.

There had always been a Baggins at Bag End.

There had always been a Baggins in the middle.

Lots of other hobbits aren’t there. Sandyman and Brandybuck can’t be found in the modern UK at all.  All the Grubbs are over in Lincolnshire, on business of their own that doesn’t concern me.  Sackvilles are in Gloucester and Leicester, which makes me wonder if I ought to be skipping the pronunciation of some letters in the middle of their name.

So, nearby hobbits have Birmingham names.  Strange half-foreign types like Bucklanders are completely fabricated.  The bad guys are from “far-away” places. All this makes perfect sense, if we imagine that JRRT was trying to create an idealized version of his childhood surroundings in the Shire.  Except for one glaring exception.

Service of the Baggins family may have involved commuting.

No Bagginses here. You’re in the wrong part of the Shire!

Samwise and his Gaffer seem to be Londoners.  In Tolkien’s day they could have taken the train (making a noise like a firework dragon) but how the family ended up with jobs in the Shire is a mystery to me.

In any case, I love maps as much as old Bilbo did.  Even if they don’t immediately open up new vistas for the digital humanities, they give me things to ponder.  It’s not impossible to imagine a study of subcreated worlds that draws on maps of this one, but I can’t see it yet.


Conference: Inklings and Science


Dark Side of the Rainbow for Inklings Nerds


  1. Joe, I love this post. It shows real insight. I couldn’t tell if you had plotted out every hobbit name against the maps of England and the Shire, but weren’t you looking for a paper topic on science and the Inklings?

    We can think that the Gamgees had been in the London area from way back, when parts of today’s city were in the country, and St Martin’s in the Fields was actually in the fields.

    Since people often migrated to places like Birmingham in the 18th and 19th centuries, your ancestors could well have been Scottish. Who knows, you could even imagine that they’d lost their land for backing the wrong side in 1745. It’s a good story.

    • Joe

      Today I Learned: it’s (St. Martin)’s (in the Fields), not St. (Martins in the Fields).

      You make a good point. I might have trouble recognizing a good topic, just because somebody else made all the measurements and processed all the data. It’s a new century; I have to get with the program.

      Besides, “data” originally meant “the things we were given”. Back to our roots!

      • Well, what is given still needs analysis and synthesis, no? Interpretation? True enough whether the data are words in a literary text or something “harder.” And you would be processing these data in a different way than those who gathered probably intended. I look forward to your presentation.

  2. You could also look at the names of the hobbits and men in Bree.

    What about the places names in the Shire?

    • Joe

      I was about to say that place names in the Shire are about as boring as it’s possible for a subject to get, but then I remembered that my farm is between Short Mountain and Round Hill. I took the the banner photo on this website about 20 yards downstream from the mill, on Mill Creek.

      So who am I to accuse hobbits of being boring, just for naming a place “Bywater”?

  3. Joe

    One thing I thought it might be important to check out. Oliver O’Brien did not put the hobbits in his database as an Easter egg.

    • Good thought. You never know these days. It would be a shame to spend all the time arguing the point only to discover it was based on a practical joke.

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