Voicing High Fantasy: the use of British Englishes in heroic fantasy media

Isaure Emmanuelli, Aragorn (The Lord of the Rings) played by Viggo Mortensen in front of a British flag and Xena (Xena: Warrior Princess) played by Lucy Lawless in front of a flag of the United States of America. Digital drawing. November 4, 2023.

 

When watching films, TV shows, or even playing video games set in fantasy worlds, it becomes quite obvious to anyone who pays attention that characters will tend to speak using a wide array of British varieties of English. This tends to be the case whether the fantasy worlds are based on our own world or completely fictional, and regardless of the country of production or the nationality of the actors. The most well-known representations of this would be in cinematic franchises like The Lord of the Rings (2001–2003) or in television series like Game of Thrones (2011–2019). Both examples are primarily American productions yet have an almost exclusively British and Irish cast, with actors from other countries donning British-adjacent accents as well. This has become an integral part of the [fantasy] sub-genre and even film and TV critics recognize that they can be “a little surprised when those kinds of characters do not speak in British accents”[1], showing how this choice of language has become intrinsic to the genre. However, the doubt lies in how British accents became an expected trope of heroic fantasy and adjacent sub-genres.

 

It has to be said that outliers using other varieties of English do exist. One example would be  the mid-1990s to early 2000s TV show Xena: Warrior Princess (1995–2001), set in a fantasized and magical version of Antiquity, mostly in Ancient Greece, which uses standard American English varieties. This contrasts with other TV shows or films also set in variants of this era yet adopting British varieties such as the film Gladiator (2000) set in Ancient Rome.

However, it appears that the general rule for fantasy settings is that characters should speak using British accents, even in completely fictional worlds where Britain does not exist. Indeed, out of a selection of 12 fantasy films all from different franchises chosen among the highest-grossing fantasy films in the US between 2000 and 2013, 81% of characters spoke British varieties of English, mostly Received Pronunciation (62%), but also various British Regional accents (19%) such as Cockney or Scottish English.[2]

The overwhelming use of British accents in fantasy has been linked to several possible origins, which most likely all play a significant role and work together. Some have theorized the existence of pre-set expectations because of the common tropes and settings of the genre. Also, Hollywood has for decades made a link between RP-adjacent accents and power which has found its place in fantasy films as well. Finally, there is most certainly a standard being reinforced by major pieces of fantasy media.

Firstly, the preference for British accents may come from a series of associations. Indeed, the specific case of the high fantasy sub-genre is quite often set in worlds at least partly inspired by European medieval times. Thus, the use of British varieties, mainly the seemingly more distinguished Received Pronunciation, can help with the immersion especially to North American audiences who would not associate their region and their ways of speaking to medieval-like settings. This is an opinion shared by George R.R. Martin, the author of the series of books which inspired Game of Thrones who has said when commenting on the almost exclusively British cast of the TV adaptation “It’s full of castles and lords and swords and knights and all the other trappings that we associate with England in this country [the United States]. It seems natural. It would be hard to do with a group of actors who had thick Southern [United States] accents.”[3] This expectation in turn expanded to other sub-genres of fantasy and is now a major trope of many fantasy sub-genres.

Moreover, because of the British Empire, early Hollywood has made the association of elite British accents with power.[4] While this was initially for social and political power, it also applied to characters with otherworldly powers once the fantasy genre started to exist, such as in The Wizard of Oz (1939) with a sometimes modified version of RP used in Hollywood called the Transatlantic Accent, which was initially present in most films but disappeared after the dissolution of the British Empire. However, these varieties remained for characters representing evil power or with otherworldly abilities[5] such as the Empire in the Star Wars franchise and its most famous villain Darth Vader. This marks a beginning for standard setting.

This use of British accents thus set itself more and more in the genre thanks to precedents set by major high fantasy TV shows, films and games. There is no better example of this than the crown-jewel of fantasy: The Lord of the Rings. English author and philologist J.R.R. Tolkien wrote the original novels and Peter Jackson’s film adaptations kept the speech specificities of the written material, drawing on its British origins. Humans and Elves are heard harboring accents closer to RP while Hobbits and Dwarves tend to talk in Northern, Welsh and Irish varieties. The cinematic trilogy becoming one of the most influential film series ever made regardless of genre also meant it became the ideal to achieve in the high fantasy genre. Thus, it has set a standard and shaped modern heroic fantasy media.

This influence finds confirmation in recent works such as The Witcher (Poland, video game & USA, TV show) with the Netflix version being played by English actor Henry Cavill, or 2023 Game of the Year Baldur’s Gate 3 (Belgium, video game) set in the world of Dungeons and Dragons, and its entire British voice-acting cast. This standard thus keeps being reinforced year after year with every new piece of fantasy media making the choice to follow what has become genre conventions and primarily using British varieties of English.

Isaure Emmanuelli, Daenerys Targaryen (Game of Thrones) played by Emilia Clarke drinking out of a souvenir teacup. Digital drawing. November 4, 2023.

 

Bibliography

[1] Brian Wheeler, “Why are fantasy world accents British?” BBC News, March 30, 2012, https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-17554816.

[2] Gunvor Kjos Moltu, “‘One accent to rule them all’ a sociolinguistic study of accent use and stereotyping in American fantasy films” (MA Diss., University of Bergen, 2014), 39-40.

[3] Wheeler, “Why are fantasy world accents British?”

[4] Scott McGhee and Josephine Simple, “Why Do So Many Wizards, Kings, and Romans Have British Accents in Fantasy Movies?” Slate, February 1, 2018, https://slate.com/culture/2018/02/why-do-so-many-wizards-kings-and-romans-have-british-accents.html.

[5] McGhee and Simple, “Why Do So Many Wizards, Kings, and Romans Have British Accents in Fantasy Movies?”


OpenEdition vous propose de citer ce billet de la manière suivante :
Isaure Emmanuelli (1 juillet 2024). Voicing High Fantasy: the use of British Englishes in heroic fantasy media. EN-globe. Consulté le 24 juillet 2024 à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/11x0p


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