Skip to content

The Irish Accents in “The Rings of Power”.

September 4, 2022

There’s apparently some very ugly review bombing going on with this new staggeringly expensive Second Age Tolkien adaptation. This seems to loop back to “diversity in casting” and the horrible reaction that some unhappy people get when they see a dark-skinned elf.

But there’s also been some disquiet over here about the “Irish” accents conferred upon the Harfoots (proto-Hobbits) in the series. Now I don’t need to remind this readership that “Harfoot” was not a word used originally by Tolkien to describe early Hobbits but rather the most numerous tribe/variant of Hobbit. The other hobbit tribes were the Stoors and the Fallohides. Stoors were closer to dwarves, Fallohides might confab with elves and Harfoots were human orientated. Stoors and Fallohides are absent from this series though.

These Harfoots remind me a bit of Ewoks. I can imagine them taking out imperial stormtroopers with their amusingly rustic woodland booby traps. They are adept at camoflage. And they have sort of Irish accents. Of these accents let it be said that Lenny Henry’s is not the worst. With the gargantuan budget at their disposal, it is clear that inability to afford a qualified dialect coach is not the reason for the erratic vocal stylings of many of these Harfoots. It is rather that these actors perfected an “accent” that satisfied the director and producers. It’s the sort of accent that has no real existence on this island but has a particular “universal” semantic value.

And I suppose what we’re worried about is that there’s an “accent” that is identified globally as “Irish” that somehow still means “primitive”. Since we’ve heard hobbits speak in Peter Jackson movies, the vague assumption is inculcated that once upon a time the shaggy itinerant Harfoots were Irish but they had evolved past that by the Third Age. There’s an undoubted association of Irishness with “pastness” which connects with disturbing teleologies. Although this “Irish” accent is deployed affectionately in the sense that everyone is supposed to like the Harfoots, we are left wondering what is it that the wide world loves Ireland “for”? What do they want from us? Do they want this country to remain the repository of a “backward” pre-industrial set of values?

You can’t treat one accent in isolation. You have look at them structurally and differentially if meaning is to be generated, as we’ve known since Saussure. The top species at the beginning of the Second Age in this series remains the Elves. They speak posh English RP, although Morfydd Clark (who plays Galadriel as an action hero and staggeringly ambitious swimmer) has remarked that she found the Elvish easier to pronounce as a fluent Welsh speaker.

Here, incidentally, is something that has never been tried in a dramatisation – how about having Elves speak English as though it’s a second language? How about they have a Polish or a Czech accent? How about having them slightly slow and stiff in English and rapid and happy in Elvish? But no – posh RP English remains default setting Elvish discourse. Next time.

Dwarves seem to be Scottish, presumably because making them Welsh might subconsciously remind people of a Welsh language that might have inspired Elvish. Humans so far mainly talk like folks from vaguely north of the Trent. These are of course the “left behind” humans many of whom sided with Morgoth in the First Age and who chafe under the well-intentioned governance of the Elvish imperium. We have yet to meet any Numenorians though I suspect we’re about to. Their accents will be revealing.

The orthography of Tolkien’s dialogue, reinforced by the Jackson movies, has Orcs as Millwall supporters. East End Cockney provides the least sympathetic version of English available. A larger survey of the politics of accent hierarchies will wonder if Danny Dyer could ever get to play King Gil-Galad.

The accuracy of accents is less important than how they establish relative power relations.

But there’s more to be said about the Harfoots. It occurred to me that the Harfoots are as “primitive” as all that compared to their Third Age descendants. (Technological progress is not a natural feature of Tolkien’s universe and the only person really invested in the idea is Saruman.) Lenny Henry’s Harfoot is rather erudite and has made a detailed study of astrology. He’s got this massive book he consults on a regular basis. Very few Third Age hobbits are big readers let it be noted. The main difference between the Harfoots and Third Age hobbits is that Harfoots are itinerant. They are hunter gatherers rather than farmers. They don’t have villages; they have camps. How we feel about the primitive Harfoots may be revealing about how we feel about travelling communities even today. Especially today.

Does it take more wit and ingenuity to survive as a settled farmer than as an itinerant hunter gatherer? Which way of life is more complex and sophisticated? Is one form of life destined to evolve into the other? While complaining about the primitive Harfoots having Irish accents is there the risk that we’re empowering an intolerant narrative about Travellers?

Good grief, but this is complicated. All we can hope for is that future dramatisations have the wit and discernment to cut to the root of our vaguest prejudicial assumptions and have the verve to turn them inside out in liberating ways.

Was Galadriel really planning to swim all the way back to Middle Earth on her own though?

From → Uncategorized

  1. Gavin Sutter permalink

    Interesting thoughts. Enjoyed reading this as a reasoned musing on the matter (as distinct from the polarised screaming on much of social media). I suspect with the Rings of Power narrative we’re headed towards the well-meaning, if often no less problematic, stereotype we Irish often encounter, that of the fey little people who seem simple but with their charm and folk wisdom get the upper hand over those who think themselves superior.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. ‘Irish people have faced centuries of discrimination’: why are Lord of the Rings’ accents so offensively bad? – Hobbit Media Network
  2. ‘Irish people have faced centuries of discrimination’: why are Lord of the Rings’ accents so offensively bad? | Television - ChroniclesLive
  3. ‘Irish people have faced centuries of discrimination’: why are Lord of the Rings’ accents so offensively bad? | Television - Web Today

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: