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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 River

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!

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Helen Lowe

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  1. Paul (@princejvstin)

    February 27, 2013
    at 6:27 am

    Hi Helen.

    I suppose I am going to go back to the The Silmarillion and the epic conflicts in it that make the War of the Ring seem like a small and shriveled thing. Continents sink! Jewels that contain the light of the world! Songs that change reality! The ultimate expression of rebellion, darkness and evil rebelling against its creator!

  2. Helen Lowe

    February 27, 2013
    at 2:40 pm

    Now you have made me want to go back and read The Silmarillion again, Paul–because although I recall being disappointed that it was not a ‘story’ in the same way as The Lord of the Rings, it still managed to ‘seize the imagination’, very like the Norse myths it draws on.

    • Paul (@princejvstin)

      February 27, 2013
      at 4:06 pm

      I’ve been recently listening to lectures from “The Tolkien Professor” Corey Olsen on the Silmarillion, and the rich veins it offers to readers, and writers, too, as a model and inspiration.

  3. Andrew

    February 27, 2013
    at 11:21 pm

    I am going to go with the struggles of Raymond E Fiests “Kingdom” in the first book of his series.

    I loved the combination of an unknown and truly alien adversary, descending upon a well realised world that was already rife with its own internal conflicts and tensions. I could make some parallels here with your own work!

    I found the Tsurani to be very believable adversaries, that were increasingly humanised as the story progressed.

    The action spanned worlds, races, cultures and societies. The protagonists grew and evolved throughout the story, and there was a nice twist at the end.

    • Helen Lowe

      February 28, 2013
      at 6:46 pm

      I think “Magician” is a classic, for many of the reasons you mention, Andrew, although I have to put my hand up for the Empire trilogy with Janny Wurts as being my “favourite.”

      Having said that, if the Tsurani had not been developed more fully through the first Magician trilogy, in the way you highlight, then Empire would not have had so strong a base to springboard off.

      I also really like the way the cultures and history of Kelewan’s hidden conflicts are explored through the Empire trilogy, in the same way Raymond Feist does for Midkemia in “Magician.”

  4. June Young

    February 28, 2013
    at 4:42 am

    This is a big question.

    Two base stories that I like to read (and watch) different versions of are The Arthurian Legends about the Knights of the Round Table, and the legend of Troy.

    That’s the nearest I get to “epic” as I prefer stand-alone books.

    • Helen Lowe

      February 28, 2013
      at 6:57 pm

      The Arthurian cycle the legend of Troy are both great stories and huge cultural influences, not just on epic, but on our whole western literature (imho.)

      Not all epic/high fantasy stories are series though–standalones that you could check out include Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana, and Brandon Sanderson’s Warbeaker. You might also like Patricia Brigg’s two Aralorn novels “Masque” (reissued) and “Wolfsbane” (new) that are both effectively standalone and came out as an omnibus, “Aralorn”, last year.

      Thanks for you comment, June.:)

  5. Jennifer

    February 28, 2013
    at 11:48 pm

    For me, the epitome of epic is Steven Erikson’s Book of the Malazan series. So much detail in his world-building and the conflict between the people and characters. Maybe too much detail at the expense of the actual story-telling, but an amazing achievement nevertheless. And I finished it (and enjoyed most of the books).

  6. Helen Lowe

    March 1, 2013
    at 5:34 am

    I agree, Jennifer: the Malazan series is a tremendous achievement, with amazing world building. I haven’t read all the series yet (I do find writing cuts back on some of my reading time:))but some of the places and characters in the early books are ‘favourites’: Darujhistan, Whiskeyjack & the Bridgeburners, Tattersail, Coltaine & the Chain of Dogs…

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