Today, we are thinking about inconsistent regional accent use in the HBO fantasy series Game of Thrones.
Like most fantasy television shows, Game of Thrones is largely populated by English actors speaking with English accents. This is because Americans are still unconvinced that England is a real country, and associate English speech patterns with kings and magic and sorcery and frequent stabbings.
But Game of Thrones takes its accents a step further: Its characters in speak in several different English accents, and often those accents correspond to to the real-world geography of Britain. Eddard Stark, the Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North, is played by Sheffield's own Sean Bean, sporting his native northern English accent. Tywin Lannister, Lord of Casterly Rock and Warden of the West, is played with a posh southern accent by the great Charles Dance. And so on.
Generally speaking this is very cool (to nerdy Anglophile prisses, I mean. Not to me. I only like sports). It's a useful way for a dense, complicated series to quietly signal backgrounds, affiliations and alliances; it draws on pre-existing associations to quickly develop and define character; and it provides people on the internet with a new axis along which nitpicking can take place.
Which is why we're here! To nitpick.
Why do Ned Stark's kids all have different accents? Stark, as noted above, is played with a distinct, and real ("real") northern accent. Robb Stark, Jon Snow and Theon Greyjoy, Ned's older sons (sort of), are all played by non-northern English actors (Richard Madden, who plays Robb, is from Scotland, which is too far north, I guess; you can listen to his real accent below), but they've all, to varying degrees of success, adopted Bean's Sheffield accent.
The younger Stark kids, however, all have sort of generic southern accents. (Sometimes when Arya Stark speaks you can pick out Maisie Williams' slight West Country accent.) This is, maybe, explained by the fact that the girls and the younger boys have largely been raised by their mother, Catelyn Stark, who is from the Riverlands in the south (of Westeros, not England) (well, south of the North) and, as played by the North Irish actress Michelle Fairley, speaks with a decent though not perfect southern English accent. But! The kids' nurse Old Nan (played by the late Welsh[!] actress Margaret John) has a strong northern accent.
Why do all the Baratheons have different accents? King Robert Baratheon's northern accent, courtesy of York native Mark Addy, is among the best deployments of accent-as-characterization in the series: King Robert and Lord Eddard are boyhood friends who fought side by side in Robert's Rebellion; their similar accents reflect their shared past, communicate their rapport, and warn of the distance between the two men and the posh, RP southern-accented Lannisters. See:
Except that, okay, King Robert isn't from the north, the way Ned is: He's from the Stormlands in the east. And you could maybe explain this away by pointing out that Robert and Ned both grew up as wards of John Arryn, Lord of the Eyrie and Defender of the Vale, and therefore adopted the accent of their foster father. But that would require the people of the Vale, in the east of Westeros, to speak with northern accents—none of which are on display when Catelyn Stark and Tyrion Lannister drop by for a visit in Season One. (In fact, some of the knights in the Vale speak with Welsh accents, which, Jesus.)
Stannis and Renly Baratheon, meanwhile, both speak with very actorly and slightly different southern accents. Whatever.
Why does Thoros of Myr have a Westerosi accent? Just as the Westerosi characters in Game of Thrones have English accents, the characters from the Free Cities and other destinations across the Narrow Sea speak in various "European" accents. Syrio Forel of Braavos is played by Englishman Miltos Yerolemou with a kind of... Mediterranean accent. Jaqen H'ghar, who is maybe Lorathi, has Tom Wlaschiha's native German accent. Carice van Houten, who plays Asshai-born Melisandre, speaks her lines with her Dutch accent. We don't know Shae's background, but since she's played by the German-accented Sibel Kekilli we can assume she's from Lorath. (Not that we've thought about it in any depth before, obviously.)
Thoros of Myr, on the other hand, is from, yes, the Free City of Myr, and yet as played by Paul Kaye he sounds like he's from London. (He seems to speak High Valyrian fine! But his Common Tongue is London through and through.) This kind of works for the whole groovy gay hippy "Brotherhood Without Banners" vibe, but it absolutely does not work for a hypothetical accent spreadsheet some viewers may have created at some dark point in their hypothetical lives.
And also: Jorah Mormont is from far in the north, and is played by the Scottish Iain Glen, yet has the same ACTING! accent that (two of) the Baratheons and (two of the) Lannisters have. (Did he change his accent when he went into exile?)
Davos Seaworth, played by Irishman Liam Cunningham, has a terrific Geordie accent that no one else on Westeros seems to have. (Maybe it's class-based? Not that any of the other working-class characters have it?)
Roose Bolton is a northman through and through, but uses an actorly RP accent as played by Michael McElhatton, who's Irish. Hard to really complain about McElhatton's amazingly creepy voice, though.
Samwell Tarly is from the Reach in the middle of Westeros, and hates the north, and, yet, in the person of John Bradley, speaks with a northern (Mancunian, in this case) accent.
The best I can do with Aiden Gillen, the Irish actor currently using every single vowel sound in every single word he says as Littlefinger, is to pretend that it's not the actor but the character, a very minor rural lord with aspirations at greatness, affecting that bizarre accent to sidestep his (Vale, and therefore "Welsh"?) background.
Peter Dinklage: I mean, I don't know. A disaster, basically, but somehow it works. Nickolaj Coster-Waldau, who plays his brother, somehow manages a better accent despite being Danish.
Good Accent Award: Rose Leslie, who plays the redhead wildling Ygritte, is a super-posh Scot (two castles, her family owns. Two. Her real name is "Rose Eleanor Arbuthnot-Leslie." Arbuthnot.) who pulls off an incredibly convincing northern accent:
Dorne: What are they even going to do for this. (Australian?)
"The show has dragons, who cares if the accents don't match?": Well, first of all, I care. Second of all, the cornerstone of science fiction and fantasy fandom is nitpicking. Third of all, the fact that Game of Thrones doesn't take place within our collectively agreed-upon reality doesn't release it from its responsibility to verisimilitude or the maintenance of internal consistency within its own systems.
(We, by the way, contacted HBO, but they were unable to provide anyone from the show for interview before the deadline for this piece. "[T]his isn't a subject which has ever come up in my pr dealings on this series," a very accommodating network publicist emailed me. "Sounds like you're a fan[.]" HEH.)
[image by Jim Cooke]