Helen Lowe on Romance vs Reality: War & Conflict in Epic Fantasy and “The Gathering of the Lost”

I would very much like to thank Trent for the opportunity to visit with him here on Trentonomicon as part of my blog tour to celebrate publication of “The Gathering of the Lost”, the second book in The Wall of Night quartet. The Wall series is epic fantasy and deals with the grand sweep of events and conflict between peoples. These conflicts range from political manoeuvering, personal quarrels (the central society in the Wall series, the Derai, have a tradition of blood feuds), street fighting and skirmishes, through to the threat of full-blown war. At one level, this is very much the fare of epic fantasy, in part because war is shorthand for conflict on the grand scale, and partly because historical tradition tell us that major conflicts do frequently lead to war.

A common criticism of epic fantasy is that it romanticises war, focusing on the glamour of combat and weaponry, rather than presenting the real consequences of armed conflict—the “war is hell” so succinctly attributed to General Sherman, who undoubtedly had plenty of experience of its realities. I believe it is true that this sense of “dead and mangled bodies … the shriek and groans of the wounded and lacerated” (also Sherman) is rarely emphasised in epic.

The romance versus reality of writing war and combat is an ongoing tension for The Wall of Night series—and perhaps most of all in this new book out, “The Gathering of the Lost.” Much of the action takes place within the knightly society of Emer (very loosely based on the Burgundian knights during the hey-day of their power) and since I like an adventurous story, the combination of action with heavily armored knights lends itself to both tournaments and armed engagements. Plenty of scope, in other words, to romanticise plate armour and chivalry.

Chivalric adventurous stories are always fun to read, too, and I for one enjoy reading them. Nonetheless, I remain wary of romanticizing, not just war but the medieval period of western European history, which was both warlike and frequently a very harsh time in which to live. In The Gathering of the Lost, I have tried to balance the tension between romance and reality by setting the action in an environment where starvation is much an enemy as an armed knight, and a history of prolonged warfare has given several main characters a passion for peace. In the words of the Duke of Emer: “Sometimes in order to have peace we need to make peace—to give something, as well as demand concessions.”

And as in “The Heir of Night,” the first book in the Wall series, when people pick up weapons and attack each other, they are frequently wounded and often die. The focus of the book may not be on Sherman’s “dead and mangled bodies”, but when fighting occurs that reality is integral to the story. Or to quote from the book again: “So now you know what battle is,” the hedge knight said. “There is no field of glory, only the charnel house.”

I would still argue that “The Gathering of the Lost” and The Wall of Night quartet are very much big epic. But rather than focusing on a romanticised view of war, it is the internal conflict within the protagonists—their struggles between the pressures of self-interest, the socio-political forces in their societies and the codes they hold to be true and right—that drive the power and drama of the narrative.

Helen Lowe is a novelist, poet, and interviewer. She has twice won the Sir Julius Vogel Award for achievement in SFF, for Thornspell (Knopf) in 2009 and The Heir of Night (The Wall of Night Book One) in 2011 and is currently the writer-in-residence at the University of Canterbury. Helen posts every day on her Helen Lowe on Anything, Really blog. on the 1st of every month on the Supernatural Underground. and occasionally on SF Signal. You can also follow her on Twitter: @helenl0we


Photo by PJ Fitzpatrick

11 thoughts on “Helen Lowe on Romance vs Reality: War & Conflict in Epic Fantasy and “The Gathering of the Lost””

  1. Sean, may I somewhat guiltily confess that I haven’t yet—but I would very much like to read “The Blade Itself.” It has been recommended by a number of readers whose opinions I value. I understand from them that Abercrombie is very ‘gritty’ and ‘realistic.’

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