Judging by the reaction of critics and long-time fantasy fans I suspect I wasn’t the only one to lose interest at an early stage in the recent steampunk drama Carnival Row from Amazon Studios in the US. Despite the money and attention lavished on the streaming show a ragbag of mismatched fantasy tropes and clichés combined with just plain poor writing made it more of a non-watch than a must-watch. Especially in light of the creative and world-building behemoth that was HBO’s Game of Thrones.
In my case it didn’t help that the main character, portrayed by the British model-turned-actress Cara Delevingne, sported a bizarre pseudo-Irish accent, and for no obvious reason except her own thespian hubris, that strayed perilously close to racist caricature. The drama, such as there was, took place in a sort of parallel early industrial Earth where the homeland of a fairy-like race, imaginatively called the Fae, had been invaded by a distant cod-Victorian empire in an obvious but poorly executed analogy of the overseas colonialism by the nations of Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. The name of the continent on which the Faes lived and fluttered – quite literally – was Tirnanoc. This, of course, is derived from one of the modern anglicised names of the Otherworld in late Medieval Irish literature, better known in contemporary Irish as Tír na nÓg or “Land of the Young”. Other freely pilfered Celtic or supposedly Celtic terms and ideas popped up throughout the initial episodes of the show making it a cringe-worthy watch for those of us with an awareness of Irish, Scots and Welsh history.
This leads me to this short post by the researcher Orla Ní Dhúill, pointedly titled “Do Fantasy Writers Think Irish is Discount Elvish?”, where she addresses the failings of contemporary writers and artists when it comes to their treatment of the indigenous cultures of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Mann and Brittany.
It is common for colonised cultures to be portrayed as demonic and hyper-sexual. This is used to present the culture of the colonised people as savage and in need of the civilising influence of imperialism. Similarly, when all the different cultures of the “British Isles” (a gross imperialist term that most Irish people never use) are just thrown together in a big mess it is reinforcing colonial erasure.
Another way colonialism disrupts cultures is through the destruction and devaluing of their languages. The Irish language could not be used on birth certificates or any official documents under British rule despite it being the primary language spoken by the majority of the country until the 19th century. Other colonialised populations, in the Americas or Australia, had similar experiences of imperialism. In some countries their native languages were banned outright. I make this point to explain that this is more than bad writing.
This is explored further in a recent episode of the podcast Motherfoclóir, featuring Ní Dhúill and host Peader Kavanagh.