Last week I mentioned the diversity of heavily armed societies a reader might expect to find in a High Epic tale like THE GATHERING OF THE LOST (UK|ANZ) – which got me thinking about the importance of conflict to epic fantasy generally, and about the specific conflicts in the Wall of Night series’ world of Haarth.
The Importance of Large-Scale Conflict In Epic Fantasy
Something I’ve discussed before in relation to epic fantasy – particularly in my Big Idea post for THE HEIR OF NIGHT (UK|ANZ) – is the way in which classic epic stories speak to our human condition through juxtaposing the internal conflicts of the protagonists with the external conflicts in which they are engaged. Nations and worlds are often at stake; at the very least major paradigm shifts and world-altering events provide a way of exploring more personal struggles and human cost.
The conflicts that characterize the Wall of Night series honour that epic tradition.
Sources of Conflict In The Realms of Haarth
In the first novel, THE HEIR OF NIGHT, the story sets up the classic epic backdrop of a world in peril and contending forces of “light” and “dark.” The main focus though, is on the Derai, the warrior race who garrison the eponymous Wall of Night and see themselves as champions of good, but are in fact a society divided by a history of civil war and its legacy of prejudice, suspicion, and fear.
The Derai are also alien to Haarth and their arrival had cataclysmic consequences for the world. Nonetheless they remain isolated and xenophobic, regarding the other peoples of Haarth as at best outsiders, and at worst enemies, as well as technologically and magically inferior.
THE GATHERING OF THE LOST opens up the story to other realms beyond the Derai Wall, many of whom have their own conflicts to contend with. All are remnants of the Old Empire, which was destroyed in the Cataclysm caused by the Derai’s arrival.
The nearest realm to the Wall of Night is The River, which is effectively a society of independent city states, where the peace of road and river is kept by the mysterious Patrol, an armed order whose faces are always concealed by closed helms. The Patrol effectively prevents rivalries between the mercantile city states escalating into all-out war. Other leavening forces in the politics of the River are the societies of assassins—but the motivations of players in River politics are best expressed by a prince of the Ilvaine kin, from the city of Ij:
And my honor, as you know, is more dear to me even than my life.” His smile deepened and the eyes of the leopard above him glittered in the lanternlight. “The honor of the Ilvaine and all my kin stand second only to my personal honor, and the honor and glory of Ij come very close after that. As for the River, it appears that I have some slight feeling for all our lands. The rest of the world I disregard, unless it intrudes upon my notice—which it has now done.”
The dukedom of Emer, home to the Emerian knights, is perhaps best described by the mercenary Raven, early in THE GATHERING OF THE LOST:
Emer isn’t like the River,” the rider said. His eyes narrowed, as though concentrating on something seen at a distance. “It hasn’t had the cities and the Guild to build a peace, or the Patrol to keep it. It wasn’t even a united country for a long time, just a host of little kingdoms vying against each other, and what peace there is has inched its way out from Caer Argent. The marches were the very last to be brought under the Duke’s law, which is still a chancy thing in remote parts—like here.”
The conflicts of Emer arise from that period of warring states, with the last war only a generation away and the great families of the dukedom still jostling for precedence. In areas like the remote Northern March, civilization depends on one thinly stretched garrison of the heavily armed knights.
Further south again lies the theocracy of Jhaine, a society that rivals – if not excels – the Derai for xenophobia and isolationism. In Jhaine, orthodoxy is enforced and dissent suppressed by “fire, hot irons, and the headsman’s axe.” As well as fending off raids from the “wild, bloody realm” of Lathayra, Jhaine is not above armed incursion itself, in pursuit of fugitives from the theocracy – and neighbours like Aralorn must find a way to deal with the riders of Jhaine:
…the call went up, closed realm or not, to cross the river and finish the last of the forsworn. The first riders began to move that way, until a line of cloaked and hooded figures emerged from the trees and fanned out along the Aralorn bank. The newcomers bore no obvious arms and stood unmoving, but the advance toward the river stopped. After a long silent wait on both sides, the Jhainarian pursuers turned their horses back.”
From the Derai Wall to the River, from Emer to Jhaine, the realms and peoples of Haarth are being caught up in the sweep of world-altering events – but for me, a big part of epic is exploring the societies as well as the conflicts.
How about you: is there a conflict and/or culture that epitomises epic for you? Tell me in the comments!