Image source http://gameofthrones.wikia.com/wiki/The_Wall

I’ve just started reading Sabriel by Garth Nix. I’m not far into it enough to comment on the story’s overall quality, but I came across something early on.

The land is divided.

By a big-ass wall.

Separating the north from the south.

And now I’m finally asking somebody to explain to me: Why do we keep writing about this?

What is our collective obsession with giant mounds of stone and dirt forming stretch marks across the landscape?

In A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin, we have a huge wall dividing the frozen north from the cultivated south of Westeros.

In Codex Alera by Jim Butcher, we have a huge wall dividing the frozen north from the cultivated south of Alera. We have another wall dividing the Marat lands in the north from the Calderon Valley in the south.

In Lord of the Rings, we have a naturally occurring wall of mountains around Mordor.

And now there’s the big wall in Sabriel, dividing the frozen north from the cultivated south of Ancelstierre.

Of course any trope is likely to appear in multiple stories, but this one is so darn specific, right down to most of the walls serving the same purpose – keep out the invaders from the cold lands of the north.

It’s not just fiction, either. We have the Great Wall of China in real life, built to keep out invaders from the north.

I just … I don’t get it.

Why do we always want to wall off the North? Did the North kill our dogs? Are we all secretly afraid of Santa mustering an army?

Actually, somebody write a novel about that.

Maybe we’re all so fascinated by the incredible size of China’s Great Wall that the same concept keeps showing up in fiction.

Maybe we like the implied backstory of an entire land coming together to construct something impossibly big.

Maybe it’s a symbolic manifestation of fear of the other – a desire to keep away the unknown by erecting a literal barrier. The wall represents safety, and threats to walls make us instinctively uncomfortable, making it a very effective storytelling device.

Or maybe one guy wrote about a big wall first, and everybody else said, “Shoot, that sounds really cool. I’ma do that, too.”

Whatever the reason, I’m getting to the point where I read something about “the huge wall dividing north from south” and I sigh. It’s like stories about prophecies or chosen ones. It’s no longer interesting as-is. Somebody needs to revolutionize the trope of the huge wall. Find a way to make it new again.

Maybe build it to the northwest.

Have you seen any other fantasy novels with big walls? What about other weirdly specific tropes that show up everywhere?

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2 thoughts on “Why Are There So Many Big Walls in Fantasy Novels?

  1. Your post is great and quite humorous. And well, the natural occuring mountains that walled of Mordor was in the South. I don’t know with fantasy, but I think in real life, in the world’s collective history, walls were built primarily for defense and protection or divide properties or create borders. So maybe it’s just natural to cross over fiction.

    1. True about Mordor; it doesn’t quite fit the trope. I agree about the real-life examples inspiring the fiction. I would guess the symbolic safety of a wall makes us feel something on an instinctive level when we see walls threatened in a story. (Or in the case of Mordor, when there’s a big wall keeping us from something we need.)

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