Why is Fantasy Always in a British Accent?

Sword of Gandalf

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[Ed. Note:  I’m on vacation till Saturday, July 30th, so I’m publishing some old posts I drafted but never published.  Some of these might be rough around the edges.  Also note that it may be difficult for me to respond to comments.  But feel to discuss!]

A brief detour into pop culture.

I haven’t seen the recent HBO miniseries Game of Thrones, although I read the first book in the series on which it’s based.  I have been told, however, that the television adaptation continues the tradition whereby all characters within a fantasy milieu must speak with British accents.  This disappoints me slightly.

I wasn’t the biggest fan of the book, but I admired the fact that it had a more contemporary (and maybe even American?) sensibility.   The series has a mostly British cast, but why need we create yet another British fantasy world in the first place?  It’s completely subjective of course, but something in the novel read very American to me.  Other experiences may differ.

Don’t get me wrong:  I know there are some aesthetic reasons for not using American accents in fantasy.  We never had castles in North America (outside of architectural curios built by wealthy 19th-Century magnates).  Nor have we had armored knights, kings, lusty tavern wenches, or any of the other staples of fantasy literature.  I can see why it would be jarring to hear American accents within such a medieval milieu.

But at the same time, nobody spoke anything approaching modern British accents in medieval times either.  Or, for that matter, anything like modern English, period.  So why the Britishness?

Tolkien might have something to do with it.  He rooted much of his world on the mythology, languages and history of the British Isles (indeed, borrowing from Welsh to construct several of his languages).  Middle Earth resembles a pastiche of imagery close to the heart of British identity, and we’ve perhaps never let go of fantasy’s association with that corner of the world.

Interestingly, when fantasy breaks out of the sword and sorcery mold, the unspoken rule that fantasy must sound British seems to relax a bit.  The New Zealand-filmed Xena and Hercules shows from the 1990s had actors speak American accents, despite a fairly low percentage of actual American actors in the cast.  But the tradition has never quite died out in other works.  (And I’m not even mentioning the related use of British accents in movies set in ancient Rome).

Must fantasy be spoken with a British accent?

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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39 Responses to Why is Fantasy Always in a British Accent?

  1. Erin says:

    I agree that I think more fantasy could do to have a better mixture of non-English accents, but I think using English actors was a good idea in Game of Thrones.

    For one the stories in the books are strongly inspired by the English Wars of the Roses. There isn’t (as I understand) meant to be a direct parallel between the northerners and southerners of Westeros and English Northerners (and Scottish) and Southerners, but the accents help easily evoke the cultural differences between the southerners and northerners in Westeros.

    • Ed says:

      The War of the Roses wasn’t between Northerners and Southerners: it was between the Houses of York and Lancaster. Both of these houses are in the north of the country, but their troops came from all over England.

      • Jake says:

        Erin didn’t claim the war of the roses was between the north and the south he was making two separate points. However, the war of the roses had almost nothing to to with Lancashire and Yorkshire as the counties stand today, it was just the family names. It was more of a war between North and South than North East and North West.

  2. AL says:

    The Dragon Age series of computer/video games by Bioware is a nice change of pace from this trend. In the DA “universe”, Fereldan (and Free Marcher) humans do tend to speak with various British accents, but dwarves and most elves speak with North American accents. Humans from Orlais speak with French accents, and both humans and elves from Antiva are shown speaking Spanish or Hispanic accents. The games are set in a swords and sorcery, fantasy type world.

  3. marc b. leavitt says:

    As you know, the American cinema through at least the early forties, has always had a tradition of using British or mid-Atlantic accents. It seems as though Shakespeare HAD to be declaimed in a British accent. Today it’s no longer true; the trend seems to veer toward acting Shakespeare in an approximation of the Elizabethan accent, which is closer to a West Country, or even an Irish accent. But I do agree that it’s rather humorous to hear ancient Romans speaking with a southeastern English accent. Shouldn’t they speak English with a Latin accent? And no, it wouldn’t sound l;ike the Italian pronunciation of Latin. The classical pronunciation used hard C’s and hard G’s, J was pronounced as Y and V was pronounced as W. It might be fun to hear a play or film using English with classical Latin pronunciation.

    • Nick says:

      I think Pontius Pilate’s famous “Welease Bwian!” was based on the Latin pronunciation of V as W.
      (That doesn’t explain Biggus Dickus’ lisp, though.)

  4. Andrej Bjelaković says:

    What AL says is true. Another great fantasy PC game series is Baldur’s Gate, in which, as far as I remember, many characters spoke with American accents.

    Regarding Martin’s Westeros, Wars of the Roses aside, its history is also based on the history of England: Children of the Forest are the native Celtic inhabitants, the Andals and the Roynar are Angles, Saxons and Jutes (Seven Kingdoms they founded are based on the Anglosaxon Heptarchy), and finally, Aegon the Conqueror that arrives over Narrow Sea is obviously William the Conqueror.

    And as for the sensibility… well it definitely is more gritty and less elevated than traditional high fantasy like Tolkien. But I would argue that doesn’t make it necessarily more American, nor more modern. I would call it more realistic. Older fantasy owes more to the Victorian romantic, idealized view of the Middle Ages. What we find in Martin’s writing is more akin to the way things really were. Not that actual medieval literature ever presented such a picture.

  5. Jeff says:

    I kind of like the fantasy in a British accent. For some reason it brings seriousness or formality to the story for me. I hear them and think, “Ooohhh. He has an British accent. He must be someone important and dignified. I should take him seriously!” That’s probably just me though. Maybe its because I spent a long time in the southern US.

  6. Great discussion, here! As I am about to begin recording my own (sorta) fantasy novel, SWORDSPOINT: A MELODRAMA OF MANNERS, I just had a similar Little Talk with my producer, and had to explain to her that, since the book was inspired as much by Damon Runyon as by Georgette Heyer, I have, over the years of giving readings of it and connected work (now called the “Riverside” canon), developed a whole set of diction and class-markers that are *not* British – and the other actors are just going to have to listen & follow me. (Hope this isn’t a train wreck!)

    Yes, it’s a curse for authors as well as audience, pals. I remember well when the late, great Bill Cavness read my THOMAS THE RHYMER in its entirety on his WGBH-FM show, “Reading Aloud.” The novel takes place in the Scottish Border country, and I very deliberately did *not* use Scots dialect; the rhythms of speech and the diction of Border balladry were my tools instead. Bill got about 1/3 of the way down the first page just fine, and then started shifting into a heavy *Irish* brogue . . . which never left the building.

    It is to sigh.

    To be fair, though, and to answer the original question: To Americans, anything containing Kings must be British. QED.

  7. Anna Lawrence says:

    So that the characters won’t sound like hicks.

  8. Andrej Bjelaković says:

    “I have, over the years of giving readings of it and connected work (now called the “Riverside” canon), developed a whole set of diction and class-markers that are *not* British – and the other actors are just going to have to listen & follow me.”

    Interesting. Would you care to elaborate? I’d be really interested in hearing what you’ve come up with. 🙂

  9. boynamedsue says:

    Good question, it makes me think of Tony Curtis, who once famously said in broad Brooklyn: “Yonda lies de castle of my fahduh de king”

    I don’t mind American accents in medieval/fantasy stuff, as long as they are not used to indicate the good guys, against British for the bad guys. (Here’s another Brit’s take on this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vEVJ_48YgTg contains images some might find offensive)

    I also really get annoyed when English socialist heroes like Robin Hood get transformed into tea party activists with American accents. Robbed from the RICH, not from the tax collecters…

  10. Greyson Stoehr says:

    I’m reminded of watching Stone’s “Alexander” and wondering aloud to my friends about why all the Greeks had Irish accents–except for the lone Scot who pitches a great scene toward the back half of the movie! Even some of the American actors had adopted a quasi-Iri-Brit accept to sort of match their compatriots!

    Then again, remember how weird it was to listen to Kevin Costner play Robin Hood with his flat, nasal American accent alongside both American and British actors who were all trying to keep to at least a mid-North Atlantic accent?

  11. Delia Sherman says:

    For Ancient Romans speaking like Edwardian Brits, I place the blame squarely on Robert Graves’ I, CLAUDIUS, which is essentially Roman History as it would look if all the patricians had gone to Eton and Harrow.

    • Shaun says:

      I do remember seeing an interview with Brian Blessed where he said in trying to get a hold of his character in I, Claudius it suddenly clicked – ‘Mafia!’ Of course that doesn’t mean he used an Italian or American accent.

  12. Ed says:

    Some Americans have this idea that England is all folksy and rural, with people playing cricket on the village green and attending the vicar’s tea party. I wonder if this idea came before or after the association of fantasy with an English accent.

    I think that it is specifically English as well. I don’t recall any Scottish or Welsh accents in fantasy films.

    • Shaun says:

      There’s always Sean Connery in Highlander. And I seem to remember him voicing a dragon in something too.

    • J says:

      “Some Americans have this idea that England is all folksy and rural, with people playing cricket on the village green and attending the vicar’s tea party.”

      What’s funny is that this is quite literally what I did think of Britain until sometime in my late teens. I was largely unaware of the rest of the world, and for that matter, anything outside of the area I lived in. I remember I’d hear of England here and there and think something along the lines of what you wrote. Being an American kid, you’re not exposed to anything else because all of our TV shows and movies are American. Plus, there’s not much interest in anything besides playing with your friends. If it weren’t for the internet I might still think this way. I do remember thinking when I was a kid that Europe was a medieval place. HAHA!

      • Mike Ellwood says:

        Of course, parts of it are still a bit like that. There are villages near me with greens where cricket is played. And there is still a fair amount of green, despite the rapid post-war urban development.
        I don’t know about vicar’s tea parties, but, e.g. village and village school fetes, for example, are still popular in summer.

        Nevertheless, when looking at archive pre-war footage, or pre-war movies based in England, it often seems to be a different world to present-day England, which it actually was, in many ways.

  13. Darren says:

    sci-fi fantasy tends to have american accents utilized for the most point (star wars, star trek etc)

  14. AL says:

    In Star Wars, didn’t some of the higher-ranked Imperial officers speak with British accents?

    Star Trek is kind of interesting since it’s supposed to be set in the future of our Earth (unlike Star Wars which is inexplicably supposed to be in a galaxy far away). Most of the humans in the Federation are depicted with American accents, but Picard’s isn’t – I can’t quite place his accent, but I believe his character has French roots?

    • AW says:

      The Star Wars movies were shot at Elstree near London, so all the minor players were recruited locally, only the 3 principles were American. (The man in the Darth Vader suit was English, but the voice was American).

      As for Picard, Patrick Stewart is an English Shakespearian actor, and spoke standard RP (although he’s actually from Yorkshire). It’s odd that he pronounced lieutenant as [lu:tenənt] but commander
      as [kəmɑ:ndə] rather than [kəmandə], which would have suited both the US audience and his native accent.

      I don’t ever recall him speaking French in the series, perhaps he doesn’t speak the language.

      • Nick says:

        My guess is that the director allowed him to say /kəmɑ:ndə/, knowing that an American audience would perceive it as a mere difference of accent but, having seen only American war movies, would be nonplussed by /lɛftɛnənt/.

        I recall one scene where Data denigrates French, cf.
        ‘By the 24th century, French was considered an archaic language but was still spoken to some extent. (TNG: “Code of Honor”, “Family”) As a native of France, Jean-Luc Picard was fluent in the language, including folk songs and curses. (TNG: “Disaster”, “The Last Outpost”, “Elementary, Dear Data”)’
        http://memory-alpha.org/wiki/French_language

  15. EmmJ says:

    “How to Train Your Dragon” is a strange example that breaks that rule – the Vikings have Scottish accents, and the main character has an American accent.

  16. Shaun says:

    Coming to the underlying question, I think it’s simply a case of which countries are associated with the era and style the story is set in. The corresponding accents feel right to me even using contemporary accents rather than medieval ones, as long as the idioms don’t feel inherently modern. Of course that doesn’t automatically mean English or British; German, Italian, Russian would all be interesting possibilities for European settings.

    Equally a samurai style setting would feel right with a different set of accents.

    There’s also a strong subgenre of middle eastern style fantasy. I haven’t seen Prince of Persia, but am I right in thinking it was criticised in some places for having American accents?

  17. boynamedsue says:

    The best ever accent in any historical film is Cerdic in King Arthur. A snarling cowboy with a hint of south of the Mason Dixon. Very scary indeed, but I think it’s dubbed rather than the actors voice.

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  19. psychopompous says:

    “something in the novel read very American to me”

    I had the same impression, overwhelmingly in fact. I’m Australian. I’ve read all the books in the series except the last one, and they feel extremely American to me. It actually surprised me that most British fans didn’t seem to feel it was odd that the TV version uses British accents (although that may say a lot more about the British than about the books).

    The books are unmistakeably American, more or less right from the start. I think it’s in the first chapter of the first book that we learn that there are redwoods growing in the forests of Westeros, for example. On a slightly more subtle level, there’s the very personal religiosity of many of the characters, especially the “good guys”, which surely owes much to American attitudes to religion. It’s light years away from the general lazy agnosticism of modern UK/Europe. There’s also of course the general language in which the book is written and in which the characters converse, and the way the characters interact with one another. Naturally and largely unavoidably, all of that has an American feel.

    On a rather less subtle level, however, there’s the geopolitical layout of the Game of Thrones world itself. Westeros is a large, powerful, fertile country in the northern half of the western hemisphere of the world. To the north, there is another large region, much wilder, colder and more sparsely populated, separated from Westeros by a long, straight border running all the way from one side of the continent to the other. To the south of Westeros, there are some islands where it’s sunny and warm, which seem to be largely populated by black people. Sounds familiar? But wait, there’s more. Across the sea to the east, there’s a bunch of little countries, all very cultured and quite old and very “sophisticated” in the slightly morally suspect sense of the term, which look down their noses to some extent at the primitives in Westeros, but which also trade willingly with Westeros and even fight as mercenaries for it because it’s so big and rich. Beyond that there’s this huge landmass that just goes on and on, with horseborne-barbarian-filled steppes quite close to the aforesaid little countries and beyond them various vaguely Middle-Eastern, Asian and African peoples. The latter regions are not described in much detail in the books and the Westerosi know next to nothing about them.

    What is that if not a rather good artist’s impression of “the world as viewed through the eyes of Americans”? I don’t spend time in the internet forums for fans of Westeros, so I don’t know how many other people have noticed this. I have no idea if even Martin has noticed this. But it’s not that hard to see, is it??

    Yes, Martin’s world is American to its core. It’s the Middle Ages recast in an American mold.

    • Chris says:

      Interesting you ascribe Martin’s Westeros landmass as American.

      Wouldn’t your description apply equally well to England? What’s more it’s a country that does have a North / South span. And a wall (which is still there) separating the England from Scotland.

  20. Jay says:

    I’m a bit late to this blog, but it’s exactly the point I was researching. I’m just editing a completed 65k novel – an erotic fantasy – and the language has emerged as ‘oldeworldish’. It’s the context of the period so it probably wouldn’t work as well with modern speech.

    At least that’s what all the characters are saying…;)

  21. Thomas Lark says:

    As an American (alas!) dialectician, writer and actor, I can tell you authoritatively that such films must be done using the Queen’s English and nothing else.
    Were we transported back to these mediaeval times, the speech of the king, his nobles and so on would sound to our ears like Oxonian English, even if they were actually speaking Gaelic, because such characters would speak their language the way it is correctly and properly supposed to be spoken. Similarly, Parisian French and Hanoverian German, if we understood them, would also sound like Oxonian English, within that milieu. That’s why films about foreigners always employ this device when said foreigners are speaking their own language. If they must speak English, then the inevitable accent is used. The Queen’s English, as it is the way the language is supposed to be spoken, gives the language a beautiful neutrality: you could be anyone in any time in any culture. This is also why Biblical epics, for example, properly done, always feature a very English Christ and His Disciples, all using Oxonian speech.
    But those hideous, bloody American dialects invariably date you and place you. They’re too modern. This is a big part of why “Xena” was such a stupid show: all these New Zealanders walking round trying to sound as if they’d just got off the bus from Fresno. Ridiculous! Anachronistic! Inappropriate! Bad direction! Puerile plots!
    I have a modest proposal. Not only is the American dialect inappropriate for said fantasy films, it’s inappropriate period. Well, I’ll give you the broadcast-standard Kansas dialect. And even the planter-class Southern dialect. But I LOATHE the Southern farmer redneck dialect. That is an offence to the Ears of Almighty God.
    You give me a few thousand broadcasters and English teachers from the UK and the Commonwealth, and by God, in a generation, I’ll make all the North American dialects a collective bad memory!
    GOD SAVE THE QUEEN!

  22. Chris says:

    I’m even later to this blog than Jay was!!

    @ Thomas Lark. You raise some interesting observations, I’d certainly never looked at the situation that way … and, it makes sense.

    However, a large majority of the cast do not speak with anything like an “Oxonian” accent, nor in the Queens English. The Southerner’s may to some extent, but almost everyone allied to the Stark’s speaks in a rather noticable and broad (common) Northern English and / or Irish accent.

    Then again, perhaps that’s the Director’s intent, perhaps that further proves your theory?

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  24. archaeobee says:

    Interesting debate – though psychopompous has an interesting line in anti-British/Europeanness!!….lazy agnosticism…..mmmhhh….the enlightenment was a bad thing then!!!!

    However, I would disagree. For me the books are firmly set within a mixed British/European medieval milieu. Contra psychopompous, the geography is a cypher for it with Westeros bearing a very close relationship to Britain (descriptions of barrows and a wall separating the wild north from the south must be a dead giveaway!!!!…..oh and the Iron Islanders as Vikings) and the lands to the east a mixture of mediterranean and steppe geography (if you want a sort of cultural parallel see the Dothraki as the Huns).

    Again contra psychopompous (sorry!) religion has a very European feel – the old gods, the newer seven (still pagan, but very much like what we know of pre-Roman religion in Britain and Europe – i.e. aspects of the goddess etc.), and the new one…….I hesitate to draw a parallel with the adoption of Christianity by the Romans here, because it’s not quite the same. However one argument for it was the political expediency of having one god and thus defining and using orthodoxy as a means of control. Psychompous is confusing the complex acceptance of a variety of different gods (often nebulous) with the blind acceptance of a strict doctrine as seen in some parts of America. George Martin has captured the complexity of the Roman/medieval mind as far as religion goes.

    As for language, when we read a book, we read with our own accent (in our head), so of course it will sound American, Australian, British or whatever to whoever’s reading it. However some fantasy books do read American – for instance (for me) the Belgariad by David Eddings. If ever filmed (and I really hope not!!) reverting to the usual tropes (American = good, British = bad) would be appropriate and probably fun for it. A Song of Ice and Fire does not though. The language is clearly British English – the best indicator (as always) being the swearwords used. I worked for quite a bit in the States and the slang/swear language style is wholly British. George Martin, of course, does use the occasional Americanisms – i.e. smart for clever etc, but most of the language is exactly what you’d find in a pub!!!!

    In answer to Ben’s question – no, fantasy need not be spoken with a British accent. However, if the setting of the source material is in a British/European milieu then it will be more appropriate. In the case of Game of Thrones, though, I suspect it’s also because the film production was based in Northern Ireland and that British actors are cheaper than American ones!!!!!!

  25. Christopher Sattaur says:

    Whenever Americans play an aristocratic or emperor type role that is set outside the realms of America, it neither sounds authentic, looks real or right, as it should. I think of the historical or fantasy roles that Brits have played in films such as Cleopatra with Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, or Lawrence Olivier as Zeus in Clash of the Titans, and other roles that Brits traditionally play as they look and sound the part. Whenever the Americans cast British actors it is for a reason as the Brits look, breath and sound the part, and are far better. Game of thrones proves that, however having said that, Peter Dinklage plays a prominant role and is one of the finest and best characters in the show. All said and done, Game of Thrones huge success is down to its mainly British cast.

  26. Sheldon Stolowich says:

    For me, the real language puzzle of Game of Thrones is why all British accents (RP and regional)—even Peter Dinklage speaks in a strangled acting-school version of RP—and at the same time resolutely American diction rather than British, even when the British choice would be easily understood in US: e.g., “smart” not “clever,” “crib” not “cot,” Tywin’s “I could care less” (which is US adolescent and would sound ludicrous in the mouth of any Westerosi adult, let alone a great lord), /ljuːˈtɛnənt/ not /lɛfˈtɛnənt/.

  27. Mike Ellwood says:

    “The Shire” was intended to stand for England, as I understand it, so a non-English sounding Hobbit would jar on my ears. As for the rest of “Middle Earth”, I’m not 100% sure (about Tolkien’s intentions).

    Harry Potter is clearly set in the UK (is Hogwarts supposed to be in Scotland? – I’m not sure). The original filmed Dumbledore was Irish. His replacement seems to have adopted an accent that is somewhere between the original one and a kind of “Mummerset”. Perhaps this was meant to ease the transition from the original one.

    Back in Tolkien’s world, Gandalf’s accent is rather sternly RP – Well, he clearly went to the Wizard’s Eton (I’m not sure Hogwarts would have cut it).

    I suppose the further you get from “The Shire”, the less English characters need to sound, and indeed variety would be more “realistic”, if we can talk about realism in a fantasy context.

    Other than LOTR/The Hobbit and Harry Potter, I don’t have much experience of fictional fantasy worlds, and therefore no strong views on their characterisation.