You could almost hear a Silmaril drop as The Irish Times asks the showrunners of the Lord of the Rings spin-off The Rings of Power about their decision to give the harfoots, its hobbit-like characters, stage-Irish accents and depict them as a tribe of Palaeolithic leprechauns. When the series debuted, a fortnight ago, we say, many Irish viewers thought it was caricaturing Irish people.
A moment of silence descends before JD Payne and Patrick McKay respond.
“My gosh — I hope not,” says McKay. “My family is from Ireland. I’ve been there many times. My wife has family from Donegal. I feel such strong roots there. And love it there so much. Part of the joy of imagining this world was trying to come up with regional accents across the different worlds.
We were inspired by Tolkien’s imagination and are not in any way attempting to capture the Irish people
“We adopted a version of the Scottish burr for the dwarfs. That’s certainly not intended to reference Scottish people. It is literally just trying to take a particular dialect and hopefully do our Middle-earth spin on it. You’re seeing the same thing with the harfoots. In no way is it meant to mock or characterise any people around the world. We were inspired, as Tolkien was, by particular regional accents around the British Isles. Hopefully it comes off as its own thing rather than a specific reference. And if people feel that way, oh my gosh, that is certainly not how it is intended.”
But if you give the harfoots stage-Irish accents and portray them as filthy and dressed in rags — particularly if you then give officer-class English accents to the series’ noble elves — what else can it be but stereotyping?
“That’s really not where we’re coming from,” says Payne. “There is another world, the Southlands, where we’re doing a version of a northern-England accent, like Manchester. The way they live — in medieval huts in some cases, with mud and grime and chickens in the yard — is in no way meant to reference real people, certainly not the folks in Manchester. The same with the harfoots and a travelling community. We were inspired by Tolkien’s imagination and are not in any way attempting to capture the Irish people.”
Were the series to be completely faithful to Tolkien, he adds, its various races would all speak different languages anyway. “They’d be speaking Elvish. Tolkien talked about how, ‘If I were to render the orc’s dialogue, what they’re actually doing is using profanity all over the place. It would make my readers blush. So I’m translating something that helped the audience get the feel of what they’re saying.’
“A lot of our decisions are similar, where we feel, like, ‘Well, what exists in our world that kind of points a little bit towards how this might feel?’ While also realising that any translation or transposing from one medium into the next is going to have aspects that more accurately or less accurately capture what you’re trying to report.”
I think people debating about Tolkien, the choices the showrunners have made, that stuff is great. When you tell a story that’s what you want. But when it’s hate speech it’s completely different
To be fair, The Rings of Power has very correctly tried to update Tolkien for the 21st century by using a diverse cast. All too predictably, a subset of Tolkien fans have reacted negatively to the idea of black elves or female dwarfs without beards. (They are very hairy in Tolkien’s text.) This is part of a wider reckoning in fantasy with the racism that was often stirred into the genre.
“The backlash is very real, and it’s very much happening,’ says Sophia Nomvete, who plays the dwarf princess Disa (without beard). “The reality is that we have created a world that is now accessible to those to whom it may not have been. Or who felt it may not have been, because Tolkien has always been accessible to anyone.”
There is a distinction to be drawn between fans who quibble with story decisions that Payne and McKay have made and those who take to the internet to spread racism and prejudice, says Robert Aramayo, who plays the elf prince Elrond. “I think people debating about Tolkien, the choices the showrunners have made — ‘I wish he’d done that, or she’d done that’ — that stuff is great. I’m sure people are going to have loads of conversations. Ultimately when you tell a story that’s what you want. But when it’s hate speech it’s completely different.”
For an Irish person, particularly an Irish Tolkien fan, watching The Rings of Power can be like riding a very wonky roller coaster. You want to applaud the casting and luxuriate in the thrill of returning to Middle-earth. But then along come the harfoots, like escapees from Darby O’Gill and the Little People or that episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation featuring “Irish”-like aliens, and suddenly everything is flipped and we’re dangling upside down, the object of the joke. Are we to grin and bear it? Or perhaps just watch House of the Dragon instead? Forget about the whereabouts of the Dark Lord Sauron or the forging of the One Ring. This is the conundrum that Irish Tolkien devotees must wrestle with in the weeks ahead.
The Rings of Power is streaming on Amazon Prime Video with new episodes arriving each Friday