Myth, Legend and History: The Shaping of THE HEIR OF NIGHT

When asked, I always describe The Heir of Night as “classic epic fantasy.” In part this is because it is a hero tale with the fate of the world, and perhaps even of all worlds, at stake. It’s a tale of adventure and magic and battles, of friendship and betrayal and love, of both individuals and a whole people under pressure: all the stuff in which the mythologies and legends that underpin our western culture—the Greek, the Norse and the Celtic, with a fair dash of side influence from the Egyptian and Babylonian—are steeped. The Heir of Night is not a retelling of any particular saga, but it definitely draws on the concerns that inform mythic stories, which are not simply war and hero journeys, but the conflicts surrounding power and the big questions of ethical and/or correct behaviour when tested. So in this sense, it is very much in the classic tradition that goes back well beyond The Lord of the Rings: to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Morte D’Arthur of the medieval era, and further back again, to Beowulf, Sigurd and Cuchulain, Achilles and Penthesilea, Jason and Medea.

But myth and legend are not the only influences I believe shape The Heir of Night’s style of epic fantasy. History also tends to be a major driver, with the classic model for epic worlds, from Middle Earth to Westeros, being primarily medieval. Although there are exceptions, such as the Troy of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Firebrand or the Greece of David Gemmell’s Lion of Macedon, the worlds, their politics and players, as well as weapons and technology are still historically based. The Heir of Night is set in an alternate world, one where the technology and society are fundamentally pre-industrial, although with hints that this might once have been otherwise. Culturally, the basic concept is western European—and other elements from history have definitely informed the story. These include the initial age of the central protagonists as discussed in my recent “The Evolution of Character” post, to the Derai people’s elitism and militarism (think of the Spartans) and the civil strife and prejudice against elements within their own society that has characterised their recent history. (You may take your historical pick of civil wars, from the Roman to the Spanish, as well as a plethora of religious and racial conflicts and discrimination, for source material here!)

But although historical understanding has undoubtedly shaped The Heir of Night story, it is not based on one period or incident in history—although I very much enjoy fantasies such as Lion of Macedon that are strongly tied to a particular historical character and period. I may even write one myself ‘one day.’ But the closer one comes to real history, the more historically accurate the elements within the story have to be—and often the magical and sense of the fantastic are correspondingly harder to sustain. I believe there is a place for both kinds of storytelling in epic fantasy—but The Heir of Night belongs more in the realm of myth and legend (albeit not retelling any particular one) and is imbued with the deep magic that resides there.


Helen Lowe is a novelist, poet, and interviewer. Her latest novel, The Heir of Night, the first of THE WALL OF NIGHT quartet, is published in the USA and now the UK. Helen has twice won New Zealand’s Sir Julius Vogel Award, for Thornspell (Knopf) in 2009 and The Heir of Night in 2011—and The Heir of Night has just been nominated for the Gemmell Awards, in both the Legend and Morningstar categories. Helen posts every day on her Helen Lowe on Anything, Really blog and you can also follow her on Twitter: @helenl0we