The Rings of Power dialect coach talks expanding Middle-earth

J.R.R. Tolkien was an interesting writer. He’s the guy behind the wildly imaginative Lord of the Rings story, but storytelling wasn’t his first love: language was. That was his field of study in his academic career, and Tolkien famously created invented languages like Elvish before he wrote a story where they could be used.

Naturally, Amazon took the languages seriously when making their new show The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. They hired Leith McPherson as a dialect coach, and she takes her job seriously. “Every moment I can, I go back to my favorite place, the appendices of The Lord of the Rings,” McPherson told Inverse. “The appendices feel like Tolkien is speaking to me, directly…That’s my template. That’s my touchstone. That’s my home. I try to be an ambassador for his work as much as I can.”

That kind of familiarity comes with very specific feelings about how the various languages of Middle-earth should sound. “[Orcish] should feel awful to speak and to hear,” McPherson said. “It’s guttural. It’s harsh. It’s full of rough consonants. All language is a physical act upon the listener. Elvish is a beautiful experience. Orcish is awful.” And then there’s Dwarvish, which is kind of between the two extremes. “These are people connected to the Earth, to stone in particular. It evokes their very solid present. It’s beautiful but there is a rougher quality, a feeling of weight.”

You want the sense we are taking the audience on a journey. We have extraordinary artists placing you in a different world each time we move between cultures. We want that individuality acoustically, too. Hundreds are focused on the visual [elements], but here is this little team focused on making the auditory experience rich and varied, a kind of signpost as we move from place to place.

The Rings of Power explores new parts of Middle-earth

Again, the languages are hugely important to getting Tolkien’s world right. There are scholars who have devoted their careers to the study of the invented languages of Middle-earth; people know what it’s supposed to sound like.

And yet, The Rings of Power will go off the beaten path. The show is set during the Second Age of Middle-earth, thousands of years before Frodo or Sam were born. Tolkien sketched out this period in his books, but there’s a lot he left unsaid; that means Amazon has to fill in the gaps.

“There are pathways, descriptions for sounds Tolkien set. We are honoring his work,” McPherson said. “We’re not venturing so far off the map that Tolkien himself hasn’t given scope for it. At the same time, we have flexibility to create, to be creative with the aural.”

It’s coming home to landscapes we haven’t explored before. We’re on parts of the map we’ve never seen that Tolkien himself presents as an interpreter. His traveler didn’t necessarily go to all these places. For us to be in undiscovered country is a thrill for anyone who has a sense of exploration in them.

Thrilling, yes, but also potentially divisive if the show does things that Lord of the Rings fans feel are out of step with Tolkien’s original work. Then again, the author did leave space for interpretation. “Tolkien never really opened all of the doors and cupboards in the house. He himself, dare I say, was inconsistent,” McPherson said. “He would revise a word, it would have a meaning here and have a different meaning there. Even the most developed forms of his work are not complete. It eludes in ways. I was talking about this with the showrunners at one point, it’s like Tolkien was terraforming with language.”

Middle-earth languages will only appear in the English-language track of The Rings of Power

One interesting thing McPherson notes about how language works in Middle-earth is that it’s based on who you are, not where you live. “Your language and your use of language is a form of cultural identification, not regional,” she said. “That has power when, for example, a human speaks Elvish, or an elf speaks in Quenya. You are connecting as you do when you code switch and speak with somebody in their dialect. That sense of cultural connection and validation. That kind of thing has power.”

I’m curious to hear what the show does with all these languages. However, fans who watch the foreign dubs will be out of luck, as all the invented languages of Middle-earth will only be available in the English-language track.

That kind of sucks, and I don’t know why it’s happening. Couldn’t they just dub over the English parts in whatever foreign language they need and leave the Elvish, Orcish and Dwarvish parts alone? I guess not.

The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power premieres on Amazon Prime Video on September 2.

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