Why are Gandalf and Leonidas British? The Curious Case of British Accents in Historical and Fantasy Films

There’s been a lot of ink, both real and digital, spilled pondering this phenomenon, so it’s unlikely my observations will add any real insights into this, but I would like to explore it a bit here.

I recently watched the entire first series of MTV’s (I know, I was surprised, too) television adaptation of Terry Brooks’ fantasy novel, The Elfstones of Shannara.  It’s a good series as far as adaptations of fantasy novels for the small screen go, with a solid cast and competent acting on all parts.  (Though I did find it a bit rushed, especially the final episode which ought to have had more time to really explore Amberle’s choice and its implications for the other characters–no spoilers here!)  What is interesting as a directorial choice here (though understandable that Brooks’ series takes place in a future post-apocalyptic Pacific Northwest) is that the vast majority of the characters in the show speak with American English accents (John Rhys-Davies gets to keep his British accent as King Eventine, and Manu Bennett his New Zealand accent as Allanon).  It’s a little surreal hearing Poppy Drayton’s American accent as Amberle juxtaposed with her normal British Received Pronunciation accent.  In a world where many British actors attempting American accents sound like bad impressions of Canadians, her American accent is beautiful.

So The Shannara Chronicles puts the usual trope of fantasy characters speaking in a British accent on its head.  If you don’t believe me, take a look at other recent fantasy film and television adaptations.  HBO’s adaptation of Game of Thrones is a prime example.  George R. R. Martin is an American author writing about a fantasy universe heavily influenced by medieval Europe (spoiler here if you haven’t heard it yet, but Martin is ripping off the War of the Roses–Lannister and Stark sound an awful lot like Lancaster and York, don’t they?), but that doesn’t necessarily imply that everyone speaks like a BBC announcer.  Yet they do.  It makes a little more sense that Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings would feature British accents given that Tolkien was himself British, but again, it’s not a given (after all, Elvish is a weird spiritual child of Welsh and Finnish, and the Dwarvish Khazad is based somewhat on Hebrew).

Mytho-historical and historical films do this, too.  Troy does it (they’re Greeks, not Londoners!), 300 and its sequel do it, Gladiator does it, too.  Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf does it (sure, Beowulf is written in old English, but the real accent he would have would be Scandinavian, not British).  Kingdom of Heaven, about a bunch of French knights in the Holy Land, defaults to British accents.  And Risen‘s Romans and Judaeans all sound like they came from This Sceptered Isle.

So why are our cinematic fantasy worlds mainly populated by speakers of British English?  And why the same for characters from the historical past?  The best answer I can come up with is that the British accent is exotic enough to American or international ears while still being easily understandable.  Brian Wheeler writing for the BBC notes that British RP is “other” enough from the standard American Midland accent that it highlights the exotic and weird nature of fantasy or distant-past universes in media.  What I also figure is that, at least for American audiences, the British accent hearkens to our own country’s “antiquity” (not that 400 years is all that long).  We hear a British accent, it sounds like “old” English as we would think of it.  Of course, the RP accent isn’t all that old, either, so this is a conceit created by Hollywood more than a representation of actual history.

And this “all ancient people and fantasy characters speak British English” phenomenon seems, to me, to be recent.  In the golden age of American sword and sandal films (and later, sword and sorcery movies), you’d often find a mishmash of accents, or no attempt to create a uniform “foreign” accent at all.  Kirk Douglas’ Spartacus is a good example of this.  Laurence Olivier keeps his British accent, but Douglas and Tony Curtis don’t bother to trade in their American accents for English or even Italian ones.  The Vikings, another Douglas flick, does the same thing.  The original 1982 Conan the Barbarian also makes space for multiple accents (of course, having Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sandahl Bergman, and Max von Sydow playing major roles leads to a greater likelihood of dialectical plurality).  This kind of phenomenon might be easier to get away with with movies about ancient people, especially when dealing with Rome, because of the cosmopolitan nature of the Roman world.  But it doesn’t explain the more modern turn to giving everyone a British accent.  (The recent Rome-flick The Eagle refreshingly does not do this, but this was apparently out of a desire to make a political statement–the Romans here are cast as analogues to American troops in Iraq.)  Regardless, from the 1960s onward uniformity of accents doesn’t seem to be a real issue in movies until recent years.

The other reason I can think of for this is the tendency for actors in Hollywood’s early days to use the Trans-Atlantic accent (think Cary Grant or Grace Kelly), America’s answer to British RP.  All I can imagine is that Hollywood’s love affair with British accents might be a replacement for this.  It’s recognizable, it sounds august, and it sounds old.

So this may be why we like our fantasy characters and historical figures to speak like an Englishman on film.  Even though the British RP accent is a more recent development (the British didn’t drop their Rs until the 19th Century, so they probably sounded more like us in the United States), we like it in these films because it seems old to us.  We Americans don’t talk like our British “parents” anymore, so it’s an “older” English better suited for the seeming antiquity of historical or fantasy worlds.  I wonder if perhaps we wouldn’t be better served to just not care about accents like the Hollywood of the ’60s, since in the case of either historical or fantasy worlds nobody knows how they really would have sounded anyway.  But it may also be that the modern viewer’s imagination can’t suspend disbelief enough to allow for such a plethora of accents.  Regardless, The Shannara Chronicles  may hopefully signal a return to the older-style of fantasy or costume-drama film where multiple accents are on display.

A Black Country Nativity (Michael Prescott, 1968)

The following was originally published in the British Regional newspaper, The Express & Star, in 1968, by Michael Prescott, a Sunday School teacher who had moved to England’s Black Country region, and was taken by the region’s dialect.  He had his students tell Bible stories in their own words, and recorded them as follows:

There was this girl called Mary and er lived in a place called Nazareth. One day er mum went out an er was left do do the ousewerk.

All a sudden the room went all bright and when er turned round er saw somebody standin by the winder. Er wor arf surprised and nearly fell off er chair.

“Oom you?” er asked, “yo day arf gie me a tern.”

“Doh be scared,” answered the bloke. “I wo urt ya. Me name’s Gabriel, an arm an angel.”

“Yo ay, am yer?” said Mary.

“I am,” ee replied. “An I’ve cum to tell ya summat.

“What?” said Mary, cause er was thinking what a carry on this was.

“Yo’m gooin ter av a babby,” said the angel.

That shook er, and er looked at im an said: “Doh be saft. I ay marrid.”

“That do mek no difference,” ee answered. “If God says yo’ll av a babby, yo’ll ava a babby, yo will an that’s it. Yo’ve got ter call im Jesus.”

Mary was still a bit shook, so the angel said: “An arl tell yer summat else. Yo ay the only one oos gooin to ave a babby. Yer cousin Elizabeth is gooin ter ave one an all, an er’s an old woman.”

“Well, if you say so, ar suppose that’s it,” said Mary. “Ar cor do anythin about it, but me chap wo arf be surprised.”

When eed gone, Mary sat fer a bit an thought about it, then er med up er mind to goo and see Elizabeth. So er ad a swill an went off ter Juda.

When er got there, Elizabeth was waiting at the gate an when er saw Mary er said: “Ar ay arf glad to see yo, but fancy yo cummin to see we in yor state.”

Mary answered: “An angel cum an sid me, an arm gooin to av a babby in December.”

They went into the ouse an Elizabeth med a cup of tay. Er told Mary that er old man, Zacharias, day believe er when er told him about th3e babby, an ee were speechless. “Ee cor spake a werd now,” er said.

The chap what mary was engaged to was called Joseph. When Mary told im about the babby er was having, ee day knwo what to think. Ee said: “Yor mum wo arf kick up a chow row. Er’s bound to blame me. An they wo arf rattle down our street. It ay good enough.”

Any road, ee day get is air off, an when ee went ter bed that night, an angel cum to im in a dream. “Doh get mad at Mary about the babby,” ee told im. “It’s God’s son er’s avin, an is name’s Jesus. Sumbody’s got ter av im, or ee wo get born, an yower Mary was picked. So just yo marry er, me mate. There ay nuthin ter worry about.”

Soon after they was married, Joseph cum in an told Mary: “Arv ad a letter from the tax mon, and that Ceasar of owrn says as we’ve got to goo to wheer we was born to be taxed. So we’ve go to traipse all the way to Bethlehem next wick.”

Mary cut sum sandwiches an packed a few cairkes an opples. Then er med a bottle a tay, (then the thermoses then) an when they’d ad a daysent breakfast, Joseph got the donkey out, put Mary on, an away they went.

“Cheer up, our kid. It ay far now,” Joseph told er.

“Yo can see teh lapms in Bethlehem down the road. We’ll soon av a rest. I shore be sorry neither. I keep gettin bricks an sond in me sandals.”

When they got into town, Joseph knocked on the door of an inn an asked for a double room. The bloke what answered said: “I cor elp yer,. There’s that mony on em eere they’m avin ter sleep in the passage.”

The next un was like it an all, but Joseph said to the chap: “Aint there anywhere we can goo? My missus is out theer on a donkey, an er’s gooin ter av a babby soon.”

The chap scratched his yed, then ee ad an idea. Ee said: “We cleaned the stable out after tay, so it ay mucky. If I shift a couple of osses an a camel, you could kip down theer.”

Joseph day even bother to ask Mary. Ee said: “We’ll tek it,” straight off.

In the noight, Mary woke Joseph up an said: “The babby’s ere.” So Jesus was born, an they wrapped im up tight an put im in the manger what the osses et out on. Mary an Joseph wor arf proud. the innkeeper cum with is missus an brought Mary sum ot milk.

They thought Jesus was a bostin little lad an the innkeeper said to Joseph: “Yo’d better cum an av a drink to wet is yed.” So he did. The innkeeper’s wife told em all: “There’s a woman out theer just ad a babby,” er said,”an if ony o yo lot kick up a racket, yo’m out.”

Up in the ills, there was sum shepherds luckin after the sheep. It was cold, so they was sittin by the fire lettin their dogs do the werk while they ad summat to eat an a smoke.

Suddenly the sky lit up loike bonfire noight, an an angel cum. They day know owt about angels and they was that frittened they all fell on the ground.

“Yo’m a silly lot,” said the angel. “I shore urt yer. I got a message for yer. There’s a baby bin born in Bethlehem. Is name is Jesus an ees God’s son. Goo an ave a look at im. Ee’s in a stable lyin in a manger.” The shepherds cum donw the ill into Bethleheman they kep on about the angels. One said: “Fancy angels cummin to we. We ay nobody. It ay as if we’m important.”

Another agreed an said: “It wor arf a good tune what hey sung, but I cor remember the words, con you?”

“Summat about glory an God in the ighest,” answered is mate. “When we get back we’ll try an get it writ down between we.” They must av or we wouldn’t know it.

Any road up, they cum to the town. One on em said: “It’s or roight im sayin we’ll find the babby in a stable, but they’m all over the plairce. We cud be looking for wicks.”

Is friend snapped at im: “Why doh yo shut yer moanin? Us two’ll look this soide, an yo pair look the other.” Another said: “It ay much use lookin in stables what’m shut. An if there’s a new babby, they’ll a the loight on.”

Then they eard their mates whistle an they fun em outside a stable built in a cave. Someone whispered: “Doh mek such a clatter. We’m ere.” One knocked on the door and Mary called: “Come in.” They took off their ats an went in on tip toe. The chief shepherd said: “Adoo missus. A angel tode we ter cum an see yower babby.”

Mary smiled and beckoned them in. Joseph said: “Eere ee is. Cum an look, but mind you doh breathe on is face.” The shepherds knelt down round the manger an looked. “Ay ee tiny?” said the youngest. “an ay ee got little onds?”

“Course ee’s tiny, yo saft ayporth,” said the leader, “ee’s new, ay ee?”

“I know that,” said the young un, “but you cor imagine God bein little, can yer?”

Mary smiled an said: “Oil spin sum wool an knit im a jumper, an is dad’ll play the flute ter mek him sleep.”

The shepherds turned to goo, an little Jesus smiled. The leader said after as it wind, an all babbies did it, but ee wor as sure as ee med out. While all this was a-gooin on, three wise kings was in a country far away lookin at stars. Suddenly, one on em put down is telescope an called: “cum eer yo lot. Oi’ve fun a star wot wor theer afore, and it ay arf a big un.”

“Yo’m roight mate,” they said then they looked. “Oil bet it’s that one what’s to tell us a new king was born.” They checked up an it was.

One day, they cum to Jerusalem an went up to the Palace an knocked on the door. A sentry opened it an they asked: “Is the King in?” The sentry said: “Arf a mo, Oil goo an see.”

The King’s name was Erod, an ee was in. “There’s three kings to see yo,” the soldier told im. “Oh ar?” said Erod. “Weer?” Ee ad a fit when the soldier told im “Outside.”

“Yo cor leave kings standin on the step,” said Erod. “Get em in.”

So they all come in, an Erod said ow noice to see em an wot cud ee do fer emn. they said they was looking fer a new king, and wondered if ee was theer.

Erod said: “Ee ay ere, but when yo’ve fun im, drop in on the way back so’s Oi can goo anay a look meself.”

They said “Righto,” an off they went. When they’d gone, Erod said to isself: “Theer’s ony room fer one king ere, an Oi’m it. When Oi know weer the new un is, Oi’ll have im killed.”

The star stopped over the ouse where Jesus was, an the kings day worry cos it wor a Palace. They went in an knelt down by Jesus an gid him their gold, frankincense and myrhh.

Mary looked at the presents an said: “Thank yo, they’m smashin, but Oi’ll keep em till ee’s bigger, if yo doh moind.” The kings took off their crowns and bowed.

Then they said: “Tarrah abit,” an went all the way back wum. But they day goo back past Erod’s palace cos a angel ad told em what a awful bloke Erod was, an ow ee wanted to kill the little Jesus.