The Rings of Power, Prime Video’s much-anticipated Lord of the Rings spin-off, works hard at recapturing the magic of the Peter Jackson movies. But for Irish viewers the $1 billion series evokes less welcome memories. It features a race of simpleton proto-hobbits, rosy of cheek, slathered in muck, wearing twigs in their hair and speaking in stage-Irish accents that make the cast of Wild Mountain Thyme sound like Daniel Day-Lewis. Twenty minutes in, I’m having flashbacks to that 1997 EastEnders episode with the fightin’ villagers and donkeys walking the streets.
The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power (Prime Video, streaming from Friday, September 2nd) takes place centuries before the original Lord of the Rings, and the harfoots are ancestors of the hobbits. If they don’t quite keep livestock in the livingroom, they are otherwise a laundry list of 19th-century Hibernophobic caricatures.
The accents embark on a wild journey from Donegal to Kerry and then stop off in inner-city Dublin. The harfoots themselves are twee and guileless and say things like: “Put yer backs into it, lads.” One is portrayed by Lenny Henry, a great comedian and actor who deserves better than having to deliver lines such as “De both of ye, dis does not bode will” (in an appalling Irish accent). Scouring the internet, there is no evidence of any Irish actors having been involved.
Why do these primitive itinerant hobbits sound like something from the dodgy-Irish-builders episode of Fawlty Towers? According to the show’s Australian dialect coach, the accents are intended to be “familiar but different” – and the harfoots are meant to have an “Irish base to their accent”, but they do not speak as though they’ve walked out of a “particular cross street in Dublin”.
The portrayal of “Irish” characters as pre-industrial and childlike – simpletons, really – threads neatly into the Anglosphere’s rich tapestry of disdain for Celtic peoples. It brings us all the way back to the 70s – the 1870s. There’s an early scene in which we see the harfoots, wearing filthy rags, scrabble in the ground for food. What is this, Famine cosplay?
The Scots get it too in The Rings of Power. Stand-ins for the dwarfs, they are portrayed as aggressive and argumentative. It gets to the point where I expect Durin, prince of Khazad-dûm, to whip out a deep-fried Mars bar. Every other “mad Jock” cliche has already been ticked off.
This all tracks with JRR Tolkien’s disdain for Celtic culture. “They have bright colours,” he said of Irish and Welsh mythology, “but are like a broken stained glass window reassembled without design”.
Perhaps he protested too much. Many scholars today draw a line between Tolkien’s elves – willowy immortals from across the sea – and the Irish Tuatha Dé Danann, a semidivine race immune to sickness or age. The parallels between the Irish mythological figure Balor of the Evil Eye and Sauron, the flaming-red iris of Barad-dûr, are similarly obvious. And Tolkien’s great romantic tragedy, Beren and Lúthien (which was inspired in part by the author’s own romance with his wife, Edith Bratt), carries echoes of the old Gaelic epic The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne.
So if anyone should sound “Irish” it is the elves. They even have a high king. Instead, and of course, these noble sophisticates have upper-class English accents. The grubbier humans sound like Lancashire mill workers – not as cultured as the elves but a long way ahead of the O’Harfoots in the pecking order. Somehow the Victorian caste system has been smuggled into a 21st-century American fantasy series.
With that huge caveat out of the way, is it any good? Actually, it’s great – as long as you can get over the Celtic “othering”, which I’m not sure is worth the effort. Still, if you desperately want to return to Middle-earth, then, yes, the showrunners have done a fantastic job combining the grandeur of Tolkien with the grit of Game of Thrones. If anything, it feels more like vintage Thrones than the new Westeros prequel, House of the Dragon, as we cut between multiple characters across Middle-earth – each alerted, in varying ways, to the return of the villainous Sauron.
But for every high-flown moment – many featuring Morfydd Clark as the elf warrior queen Galadriel – there is one of those awful harfoot scenes. By the end of the first episode it’s hard not to conclude that they’ve been included partly as a joke – and that we are the punchline.
The first two episodes of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power are available to stream on Prime Video from Friday. New episodes will then arrive weekly