A few months ago, I subjected a map I made to the internet. Most people (~80%) liked it, a few had some useful criticism, and a handful trolled as hard as they could. I wrote a post about it, actually, and added a section to this blog where I discussed the naming process. It was actually useful. However, one comment, in particular stood out, and still bothers me.
“I see you have a wall (Marius’s Wall) on your map. That seems like a rip off of George R.R. Martin’s Wall.”
It would be easy to make fun of said person. However, after some reflection I have come to the realization that people who are new to the fantasy genre and may not realize that the idea of the wall appears in quite a prominent few fantasy books, many of which predate GRRM’s outstanding modern fantasy epic by some time. Walls are barriers. Inside the wall is safety and civilization. Outside the wall is danger, adventure, and strange lands. The wall can be a classical threshold to a great adventure, an obstacle, or a symbol of dystopian control.
Here are a few of my personal favorite walls in fantasy:
Dros Delnoch: From David Gemell’s Legend. Six high walls and great fortress that guard the pass into the lands of the Drenai (which I like to think of as mythic scotland). Each of the walls has a name, which is based on the emotion that the defenders feel when are driven to the new wall. The names are Eldibar (exultation), Musif (despair), Kania (renewed hope), Sumitos (desperation), Valteri (serenity), and Geddon (death). Follow this link to an excellent article on the book and how the whole work is a metaphor for Gemell’s feeling about cancer, brought about by a mis-diagnosis.
The Black Gate: From Tolkien. The Black Gate changed hands many times before Aragorn staged his diversionary assault here at the end of Return of the King. Sauron built it to keep his enemies out. Gondor took it over and used it to seal off Mordor after the first defeated him. It then changed hands again after a while. Tolkien uses the Black Gate to represent many of the conflicts that are based around borders over a long period of history.
The Shield Wall: Frank Herbert’s Dune; apparently a natural barrier, but I always pictured it as very much like a great border wall, especially when Paul blew it apart to let the worms in.
The Wall around Mega-City One: Judge Dredd. I really enjoyed the depictions of the borders around the vast city. Kind of like a cross between the great wall of China and the Berlin Wall, but on a crazed modern sprawl scale.
Walls are barriers. Inside the wall is safety and civilization. Outside the wall is danger, adventure, and strange lands. The wall can be a metaphor for many things, but frequently plays up to the fact that in a medieval setting distant lands are considered strange, dangerous, and hostile and defences are needed to protect the land. Kingdoms in the middle ages had to rely on physical barriers to control their territory, and thuse used walls and castles along with natural barriers like rivers and mountains.
Use of the Wall in fantasy in Fantasy writing is rooted in history and Myth.
The Wall of Ur/Uruk: When Gilgamesh fails to find immortality he shows his friends the walls of Uruk, and says something to the effect of “this is my immortality”, meaning that a man’s works and accomplishments are how he is remembered.
The Walls of Jericho: Biblical. A set of of fortifications so mighty that God himself has to take a hand in putting them down. Joshua walks his army around the walls for seven days blowing on ram’s horns. On the seventh day, the walls fall.
The Walls of Troy: The walls of Troy are a legendary set of walls that protect the city of Troy from the Greeks in Homer’s Iliad. The walls are so mighty that even after defeating the greatest heroes of the Trojans the Greek host is forced to resort to trickery and deception to gain entry. Wily Odysseus hides a crew of greek commandos inside a great wooden horse left as an offering to Poseidon who sneak out and open the gates for the hidden Greek armies later on.
Hadrians Wall (Antonine wall as well): Hadrian’s Wall was built to defend southern Roman Britain against northern invaders. It was a series of fortifications manned by legions. Romans actually settled beyond the wall at some points, but in was considered the edge of the Empire at its height. It is the prototypical border wall for western fantasy, our version of the Great Wall in some ways. Many walls that appear in Fantasy are based off Hadrian’s wall, although they tend to be more fantastic in their construction. Hadrian’s wall controlled the flow of people in and out of Roman Britain, and its function, although undeniably military, was partly base around customs and trade. The idea of the wall as the edge of civilization often appears when discussing Hadrian’s Wall. The idea of defending a remote border, far away from your homeland and everything about your former life is also an idea associated with the legions manning the wall. For many of those soldiers Hadrian’s wall was was an unimaginable distance from anything familiar.
The Great Wall of China: The Great Wall of China is the best example of a historical border wall. It Dwarfs Hadrians wall and is still in great condition. It was built to keep the Mongols out and assert the Glory of the middle Kingdom. It did a piss poor job of the first, but kicked ass all over over on the second. The idea of the border barrier separating the civilized from the uncivilized is particularly strong with this wall, since China has a superb sense of its own history. Naturally, it also has a strong influence on Fantasy literature.
The Berlin Wall (And the Iron Curtain/Korean DMZ): Proving the medieval mindset of the Cold War, in my mind, the Berlin Wall and its affiliates acted as the same sort of fantastical barrier that we see around the “Kingdoms of Good” in many fantasies. It was meant to contain the spread of opposing “evil” powers and everything. Actually the more I think about it the more the idea of the cold war resembles a warped version of a bad black and white fantasy novel. Regardless, the Berlin Wall itself was deadly serious up until the end, a legendary barrier that kept the bad guys out in every way.
Naturally you can think up several examples of newer border walls being erected even now. The same themes apply. Control, customs and trade, and in too many cases the separation of “the foreign” from “the civilized” based on conceptions of reality that are too often rooted in Fantasy of the ugliest sort.
The Wall in A Song of Ice and Fire represents all of these tropes and presents an interesting deconstruction as well. It is a direct take on Hadrian’s Wall, although certainly a more fantastical version thereof. The Wall is the Border of civilization in Westeros to the point that the people who live beyond the wall are even called “Wildlings” and the evil that it is meant to keep out are termed the “Others”. Neither of these names are meant to be original, instead they evoke that primal sense the old archetypal medieval borders: Civilization has an edge, beyond which lie monsters and worse. The Wall also serves as a metaphor for mental barrier of sorts (spoiler alert). Beyond the wall the Wildlings engage in taboo behaviour such as cannibalism or having sex with their own daughters openly and with impunity. Of course, GRRM follows the historical idea of the wall, where the people of Westeros are far more of a danger to themselves in many ways than any outsiders (And they engage in the same perversions, but have to hide it). In this he often seems closer to Tolkien than people realize, with the people of middle-earth being so fixated on Morder that they often fail to notice the real problems in the heart of their Kingdoms.
In Bloodlust: A Gladiator’s Tale, Marius’s wall represents the same sort of border of civilization, a mystical version of Hadrian’s Wall. However it is worth noting that people pass beyond that border to gather fodder for Gladiators to slaughter in the arena. Perhaps I am trying to convey something there…
So I think it is pretty safe to say that while GRRM uses the wall very well, he doesn’t own the trope (nor did he ever claim to, I bet he’d laugh if he thought someone credited him with the idea of a border wall). The wall is a powerful idea. At its best it means civilization, and acts as a metaphor for the call to adventure in strange lands beyond the wall. It is often the physical threshold that a hero must cross to answer the call to adventure in strange lands. But it can also mean oppression and control, the darker sides of so called civilizations, where the wall acts as a prison of sorts or an arbitrary division that serves to keep out physical enemies but not the rot at the heart of the empire…