Prof. Olsen’s Dracula Lecture 8 includes a special bonus rant on the wrong way to write papers about literature. It matches up marvelously with the next section of my paper. The issue, in a nutshell, is that if students think up a thesis and then look for evidence to support it, they can usually find some. Which is a good first step, but it doesn’t go far enough. Stopping there lets the writer get away with a thesis that’s not necessarily true. Ideally, the writer should also collect all the evidence that the thesis is wrong, and then decide which set is more convincing.
This is one of those cases where being a scientist helps. Standard methods for data analysis take contrary evidence into account on an equal footing with supporting evidence, so the subject of Prof. Olsen’s rant is one of “the blunders we didn’t quite commit” (in Piet Hein’s words).
Which brings us to the core of the paper: how do the regions of England that provide the names of hobbits relate to their role in the story?
Hypothesis: Family names from Birmingham or the West Midlands are close to the Narrator; names from other parts of England indicate families to be kept at arms length; and names that aren’t found in England indicate families that are liminal or distant from the Shire.
I’ve previously defined the categories of families. The regions of England are from Wikipedia. Birmingham, where J.R.R. Tolkien grew up, stretches from the “W” to the “a” in “West Midlands” now; it was much smaller a hundred years ago.
These are administrative regions, but I’ve checked with an English colleague, who confirms that the regions have cultural significance as well as political. If they were both in London, for example, a person from Warwickshire and a person from Shropshire would agree that they are almost neighbors, as if they came from the same place. (An example of the opposite case would be a Virginian and a Marylander. We don’t feel like we’re from the same place, even when we’re both in California.) So it makes sense to include everyone from the West Midlands in a single category, which is essential to this project because the heat-maps are only that precise.
When we count the number of hobbit families in each group and region, the relationship looks like this figure. Birmingham names are dominant among the “close” group and rare among the others. Names from other parts of England are almost as common among the close group, dominate the “arms-length” group, and drop off in the other groups. Names that do not appear commonly in England are steady across the four groups. Of the three clauses in the hypothesis, the first seems likely true, but the second and third are dubious. Not so good.
All names are not equally important, though. When the importance of each family to the story is included, the graph looks very different. Important characters with Birmingham names are overwhelmingly close to the narrator. Other English names dominate the “arms-length” group, as we expect. The high value of the red line in the “close” group is almost entirely due to Sam Gamgee, as we noted ‘way back at the beginning of this project. (If Sam were “close”, the red line would drop to 15 at “close” and the purple line would jump up above 35. More on that later.) The big spike of important, non-English names in the “liminal” category is mostly due to Merry Brandybuck. “Distant” families aren’t important at all.
So, to take us back to the top of this post, the preponderance of the evidence supports the hypothesis. The “Birmingham” line slopes sharply downward, the “Middle-Earth” line of names that sound strange slopes upward, and the “England” line of names that should sound like they’re from far away is in between the two. The causality runs only one way: if we’d tried to prove that families close to the Narrator were from the West Midlands, the first graph wouldn’t agree. (Only about half of the “close” families are from there.) Using a scientific approach tells more than one side of the story, and sets limits on the strength of the conclusion. With that I shall close, and amuse myself by imagining the look on the face of my high-school English teachers if I’d ever turned in a paper with graphs in it.