Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Five famous duels in fantasy

1. Bigwig vs. General Woundwort
Watership Down, Richard Adams

Who would have thought that a fight between two rabbits would be so desperate and gripping? But that duel takes place as Woundwort’s army is digging its way into the home of the Watership Down rabbits, and it’s the only way Bigwig can hope to hold them at bay. Despite the fact that Woundwort is larger and fiercer than he is.

My favorite part of it is where Woundwort, fought to a standstill, tells Bigwig that he can bring in troops to tear the walls down around them, so why doesn’t he just give up? Bigwig replies that his Chief Rabbit has told him to hold his position, and until his Chief Rabbit says otherwise he’s holding it.

Until that moment, it has never occurred to Woundwort that Bigwig is not the Chief Rabbit of his warren. And that’s a shock to him and to the troops who hear it. There’s another rabbit who’s perhaps tougher than Bigwig? Where is he? What’s he going to do to them?

2. Prince Oberyn Martell vs. Ser Gregor the Mountain
A Storm of Swords, George R. R. Martin

This is one of the most shocking and unexpected scenes I’ve ever read.

It’s also a great example of how to use description. Start a story with the details about what characters are wearing and what weapons they carry, and it may not hold attention, but this duel occurs toward the end of the book and there’s significance to everything from the type of shield Oberyn carries to the spectators lined up to watch.

Plus, not only is there a great deal of bad blood between Oberyn and Gregor – Gregor raped Oberyn’s sister, then murdered her and her two small children – but the entire duel is taking place as a trial by combat, and the life of an innocent man hangs in the balance. So I’m emotionally invested in what happens, and that makes the colors of armor and the emblems on shields interesting.

That, and Martin really stacks the deck against Oberyn. Gregor outstrips him in height and is far stronger. Gregor also wears full plate armor over chainmail, whereas Oberyn is lightly armored. What happens in the end will startle any reader.

3. King Fingolfin vs. Morgoth
The Silmarillion, J. R. R. Tolkien

The only thing more terrifying than going up against Ser Gregor the Mountain would be taking on the Dark Lord whom Sauron served – Melkor, Morgoth, He Who Arises In Might. The book isn’t an easy read, but I love the duel.

Therefore Morgoth came, climbing slowly from his subterranean throne, and the rumour of his feet was like thunder underground. And he issued forth, clad in black armour; and he stood before the King like a tower, iron-crowned, and his vast shield, sable unblazoned, cast a shadow over him like a stormcloud. But Fingolfin gleamed beneath it as a star; for his mail was overlaid with silver, and his blue shield was set with crystals; and he drew his sword Ringil, that glittered like ice.

That description – and the subsequent battle to the death – always makes me shiver.

4. Iorek Byrnison vs. Iofur Raknison
The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman

The first time Lyra meets the armored polar bear Iorek Byrnison, he’s doing demeaning work for people who have stolen his armor and who pay him in liquor. Once he gets his armor back, he’s a terrifying force – massive, sharp of tooth and claw, clad in overlapping plates of rust-red iron.

Naturally, Iofur Raknison is bigger as well as having more armor; each of his paws is described as a sledgehammer tipped with six-inch-long spikes. And the future of the Svalbard bears rides of the outcome of their duel.

Iofur had noticed. He began to taunt Iorek, calling him broken-hand, whimpering cub, rust-eaten, soon-to-die and other names, all the while swinging blows at him from right and left which Iorek could no longer parry.

5. Barra vs. Yahweh Sabaoth, El Shaddai
Jericho Moon, Matthew Woodring Stover

This historical fantasy is set in Jebusi (or Jerusalem, as some called it in those days). Barra is a foreign mercenary hired by the king of Jebusi because a huge army called the Habiru Horde is being led against the city by an old but charismatic general, Joshua ben Nun. Seems they believe the city is theirs by rights – and they have a strange but very powerful god on their side.

Barra draws on her own people’s beliefs and the strength of Jebusi’s goddess in her struggle against this titanic enemy, who turns sand grains into scorpions and makes meteors rain from the sky. I love the use of religion in the book, and the fact that she’s up against something which can’t be killed, much less reasoned with, and which commands tens of thousands of fanatical followers.

What duels – in fantasy or otherwise – are your favorites?

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