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  • Writer's pictureG R Matthews

Walls in fantasy

There was a great article on the BBC website this morning. It detailed one man's obsession with the Great Wall of China. I'd really suggest, if you've got a few minutes after finishing this little blog post, that you go and read it.

Anyway, this article got me thinking... what is this obsession we have with walls in fantasy?

"We don't," you say.

"Ah, but we do," replies I. "Let me tell you about them."

First of all, it would be hard to talk about any wall in Fantasy without mentioning the Great Wall itself. Really a series of walls, not just the large structure we see on the news and in tourist photos, built to protect the country and to define its boundary the wall is iconic structure that cannot be separated from the country itself.

And as we are starting with the Great Wall of China, it would be remiss not to mention the new film coming out starting Mat Damon. I've put the trailer here so you can make up your own mind. However, put aside any issues to do with white-washing etc. here is Wall built to defend the world (the empire) from monsters that seem determined to destroy it. Isn't that what walls do? They are often the first and last line of defence against ... something.

And there are other walls in fantasy too. The Battle of Helms deep. Defenders ranged along the wall, waiting for the storm of arrows to break up them and the stone work. There is something about a wall that says 'here I am, do you worst!' It sounds strange, but walls are solid things not just in the physical sense but as an impression that humans (elves, dwarves, orcs) upon the landscape. They are a statement made by the people (or creatures) who built them.

George R R Martin's Game of Thrones has a wall in it. A great big wall that defends the realm from the creatures of the north, the White Walkers. To be posted to the wall was an honour, a hardship and in many cases a death sentence. A defensive wall that could never be breached... in the same way the titanic could never sink, or indeed the Great Wall of China would hold back the hordes.

But walls are also a magnet to enemies. They represent a stronghold, a structure, something to take from your enemy. Land is one thing, but without a defined boundary it is just a flat grassland, an endless track of forest. Take a castle and you command the land you can see from its high walls. In Edding's Belgariad series, the Algar people live a nomadic life but have built a fortress to give their enemies something attack. It is easier to destroy them when they are all gathered in one place apparently. However, that simple idea does bring home the purpose of walls, castles and keeps... it gives your enemies something to attack, and you something to defend.

How many fantasy novels, certainly of the more epic and traditional variety, feature a siege of a castle or a battle on a wall? Surely most of them do. There is something in our culture, our society, our traditions, our history that demands we build walls to protect ourselves and that we are drawn to attack.

Hadrian's wall, built in the north of England by the Romans. The Walls of Babylon. The Walls of Troy... walls, walls, walls everywhere!

To return to the Great Wall of China for a moment. It is an immense structure made of stone, mud and mortar. There are watch towers and keeps along it. There are lost walls, multiple layers of walls. All in all, 56,000km (give or take) of wall constructed to keep their empire, their people safe. And yet thousands died in the building of it. This kind of thing is fascinating and is why we write about it, and read about it, in our fantasy novels.

Now if only there was a series of books about the Great Wall of China, with castle sieges, battles and magic... if only!

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