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  • Writer's pictureMartin Vine

Top 10 Epic Fantasy Battles

Updated: Aug 3, 2019

Before we charge the barricades, some rules of engagement. I’m sticking to fantasy, widening the net slightly to include historical fantasy. This is all about the clash of steel on steel – no lightsabers, no X-wings, no Death Stars (for now). Not to say the thrill isn’t there, but there’s a certain grit that comes from close-quarter combat that even the grandest outer-space melee fails to capture. We’re talking edged weapons, before the age of gunpowder, and being on the losing side means slow, bloody, painful death.

It’s hard to miss the patterns in the pivotal battles of our favourite fantasy epics. The heroes are always outnumbered, and often ridiculously so. Victory is elusive, as elusive as it is inevitable. We know it’s coming, but how? I have isolated three paths to victory:

  • (a) Ally arrives

  • (b) Magical salvation

  • (c) Tactical brilliance

  • (d) Defeat

If there is another bullet to add, I am yet to encounter it. I can certainly assign all of the above to any of the skirmishes (large and small) featured in the Waking World trilogy. Recognising the pattern is important. At the end of each summary I’ll add the category, then dissect the pros and cons. Where to begin? With werewolves, of course.

10. Lucian’s revenge

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans

What we lose in the absence of series star Kate Beckinsale, we gain in the blood-curdling tooth-'n'-claw battle finale. Captured here is no medieval clash of arms. On one side we have a castle fortress, looming Minis Tirith-style against an imposing rock face. The ramparts are loaded with ballista and other classics of medieval warfare. Manning the tools are vampire warriors, resplendent in gleaming armour, and armed with sword and spear, bow and arrow.

The cinematographer drops a deep blue lens over the camera to set the tone of the lycan night-time charge. They emerge howling from the darkened forest, answering the protagonist Lucian’s call for revenge. What follows is one of the most visually memorable fantasy/horror battles of all time. Granted, there’s not a lot of tactical prowess from the werewolves. It’s all about size, strength and savagery for Team Furball. The fortifications offer little resistance. Lycans can run vertically, as easily as horizontally, and they are soon cresting the ramparts, smashing the armoured vamps as if they were made of tinfoil. You never really get the sense this is going to be anything less than a massacre, but the breathtaking visual set piece is also a grand plot move designed to herd lycan hero Lucian to his vampire arch-nemesis Viktor for the final showdown.

Category: (c) Essentially, a brute force victory, but there was a tactical element to the lycan assault. The whole thing was a jail break, and the dungeons filled with lycan slaves turn out to be the primary target of the first wave, swelling the pack and tilting the odds further toward lycan victory.

Pros: Visually spectacular, and just a little different – how many times have you seen armoured knights fighting werewolves? The lighting is a frosty shade of grim, but we lose nothing in the darkness (as per Winterfell). Could watch this one over and over infinitum.

Cons: It was a little one-sided. Sure, a handful of lycans met the pointy edge of a sword, but couldn’t have hurt to see team vamp spring a few tactical surprises (weren’t they s’posed to be the smart ones, after all?).

9. The Battle of the Heroes

The Heroes – Joe Abercrombie

One can’t but admire the brass neck of an author who writes an entire novel about a single battle. The Heroes pits the rugged northmen against the Union – a more advanced kingdom to the south. In a previous epoch, the Union had swallowed a large chunk of the continental north known as Angland. The northmen want it back. And to give their foes a bloody nose, to boot. It begins quietly enough with a small force of northmen embedded on a hilltop overlooking Osrung. The high ground has been captured, with which they direct allies to capture the unprepared town. By the time the Union rally, the beardy, salt-of-the-earth northmen are well entrenched.

You know it’s going to get bloody when the northmen boast such gruesome names as Black Dow, the Dogman and (my personal favourite), The Bloody-Nine. Even just a few chapters in and it’s hard to imagine such an army being bested. What makes this such a compelling read is how quickly it evolves into a test of wills: the brute-force savagery of hardened northmen versus the meticulous military discipline of the more civilised southerners. What follows is an insane mash-up of battle tactics and clash of arms: Cannon and catapult (whoops, broke my “pre-gunpowder” rule), trench warfare, cavalry charges, siege tactics and even house-to-house combat.

Category: Technically a (c) for tactical brilliance, but add in a little behind-the-lines diplomacy and betrayal. Not even gonna spoil it by revealing the victor.

Pros: Narrative is distributed equally between the northern and southern forces. Both sides have their heroes; with no clear good guys and bad guys. In this the author has created something almost unique in the realms of fantasy fiction: he leaves it to the discretion of the reader to pick a favourite.

Cons: There is magic in Abercrombie’s world, but the author saved it it for his follow-up First Law trilogy (no slouch on the epic battles front, either). The absence thereof is not really a con, of course. The story didn’t really need it.

Brienne and Jaime. Foreplay has never been this much fun.

8. The Battle of Winterfell

Game of Thrones: Season 8

(and possibly The Winds of Winter, should George ever decide to publish the damned thing).

Despite my well-documented issues with the tactical stupidity, there’s no denying the visual spectacle that was the Battle of Winterfell. Yes, it was a tad dark, and many were not happy with the outcome, but Team Heartbeat’s epic showdown with the Night King’s army of the dead cannot in good faith be omitted from any best-of list of fantasy battlegrounds. Let’s check some of the boxes:

  • Flaming sword charges

  • Flaming catapult artillery

  • Zombie army in numbers beyond counting

  • Castle fortress

  • A creepy crypt

  • Witches

  • Dragons

  • The Hound!

I could go on, and still not capture the bloody, stormy, breathless heart of this world-shaking melee. Cranking the tension up to maximum is the unpleasant fact that every man, woman and child on the continent will die if our heroes fail.

Category: (b) Magical salvation. When Aria slipped her Valeryian steel between the Night King’s icy ribs, the old magic animating the undead dissolved, leaving the Whitewalkers an army of snow cones.

Pros: Classic siege warfare. A zombie army. Fire-breathing dragons battling it out overhead. Did I mention the Hound?

Cons: See previous blog for details. For more on the plot flaws, check out this excellent YouTube dissection of everything that went wrong with GoT final season.

7. Victory

Spartacus: War of the Damned

So was the final episode named, but anyone who’d read the history of Rome’s Third Punic War knew exactly what grisly fate awaited the slave army of Spartacus. After the series finale aired, I recall telling a fellow fan that it was the best hour of television I had ever watched. Does that still stand in a post-Thrones reality? Perhaps it has been surpassed, but only by the slimmest of margins.

Victory charted the final showdown between Spartacus and the Roman Imperator Marcus Crassus, who was in a race with the rival Pompey to take down the Empire’s most troublesome rebel. Spartacus finds himself outnumbered – thanks to the headstrong Crixus, who lost his life in a doomed assault on the capital – and facing one of the most formidable legions in Rome’s arsenal. As the bugles blow, we soon learn the crafty Thracian Gladiator has a few tricks up his sleeve. Some masterful tactical diversions even the odds, but the whole blood-and-steel dance spectacular has been choreographed to drive our heroes toward one-on-one swordplay with their Roman rivals: Gannicus V Caesar (yes, that Caesar); Spartacus V Crassus (old mate Marcus no slouch with the steel himself). Yes, I watched it again. Yes, you should to (the entire series now on Netflix). From season 1 (RIP Andy Whitfield).

Category: (d) Defeat. And therein lies the curse of the historical fantasy. As much as one can embellish the set pieces (unlikely that Spartacus ever met Crassus on the field), the result cannot be contested.

Pros: The 300-style combat cinematography that characterised the series never looked better. Everything moved toward satisfactory conclusion. And the Shakespeare-styled banter adds an extra layer of awesome.

Cons: I think they miscast Caesar, but that’s nitpickery bordering on twattery.

6. 300 series

300 + 300: Rise of an Empire

Spartans. Arcadians. Athenians, A twelve-foot tall Persian God King! I was going to focus on the original, but after rewatching the sequel, it would be criminal to ignore the orgy of oceanic slaughter that followed. Regarding the latter, it could be argued that Themisticles’ victory at Salamis was the more historically significant. But could the Athenian general have rallied so many to the cause absent the earlier sacrifice of Leonidas and his 300? Let’s leave that to the historians to argue and focus on the good stuff.

300 gave us a small band of Geece’s finest – warrior-caste Spartans defying their own leaders to defend their homeland from an invasion force of 400,000 Persians. They march directly for “the Hot Gates”, a narrow pass at Thermopylae where the natives figure they can negate numerical superiority and give the haughty Persians a right bloody nose. And do they what! So maybe there never was an assault by elephant-mounted Persians. Maybe their famed Immortals never charged into battle atop armoured rhinos, or dressed like ninjas with gruesome death masks. When you're watching the action on a 22-metre iMax screen, who cares, right?

Naturally, we wanted more. Frank Miller delivered. Where 300 morphs history into fantasy, 300: Rise of an Empire cranks it up a notch with a cracking origin tale of the Persian God King, a discarded Greek traitor called Artemisia stepping up as commander of the Persian Armada, and a reality defying scene in which Themistocles charges across the decks of burning boats on horseback. Has history ever been this much fun?

Category: (d) for 300; (c) for 300: Rise of an Empire

Pros: The cinematography was the clear winner, creating a whole new comic book-inspired trademark slow-mo/full-mo mash-up that captured the violence and carnage of battle like never before. The heroics of the never-say-die Greeks fighting insurmountable odds will always appeal to the romantic-of-heart

Cons: For history buffs, the inconsistencies, historical errors and over-the-top fantasy would be borderline insufferable Just imagine sitting through 3 hours of Troy with one!

5. The Battle of Hogwarts

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II

After the extended chase scene that was Part I, JK Rowling delivered big with the climactic battle pitting the Potter-aligned factions defending Hogwarts against the not-very-nice-at-all Team Voldemort. The lead-up is suitable grim, as the beleaguered defenders contemplate how badly outgunned they are. Children mostly, but with a little tricksy magic, they are joined by a platoon of stone knights, the defences further bolstered with a great magical dome, courtesy of the few grown-up wizards in residence. There’s very little sword, but a whole lotta sorcery when the adversaries finally meet. Voldemort unleashes a magical barrage to bring down the force field. An attempt to breach the castle via the wooden bridge is foiled by the fleeing Neville (still with one moment of glory to come), who brings it crashing down around them. The victory is short-lived. Leading Voldemort’s Death Eaters into the fray are club-wielding giants, who make short work of Professor McGonagall’s stone knights. The bad guys seem unstoppable, but Harry and friends detour from the action to quest for the remaining horcruxes, destroying each in turn to drain the Dark Lord’s mojo.

Category: (b) magical salvation. Destroying the horcruxes weakened Voldemort to the point that Harry was able to best him in round 2.

Pros: Visually stunning, but also cleverly structured into two parts. The author weaves into the combat action some classic quest fantasy, stitching alongside some grand reveals to tidy up all the loose threads (for those who were actually paying attention). As Ron would say, “Bloody brilliant.”

Cons: Fighting with wands is all a bit silly, but at least Neville got to wield a right proper sword. For a spell.

4. Helms Deep

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

Helms Deep. The very name hints at how utterly grim things are looking for the cornered Horse Lords of Rohan. Surrender was not an option (see Saruman’s, “Leave none alive…” speech). This was a battle for survival. Saruman’s army of über orcs marches on the cliff fortress in legions beyond the counting. Standing against them are a few thousand Rohirrim, their numbers bolstered by the late arrival of Haldir, the Marchwarden of Lothlórien commanding 500 elven soldiers. Watching the army of Saruman filling the valley under the veil of night and you get the sinking feeling that it’s never gonna be enough. The drums are beating. Arrows are fletched. The first assault is repulsed but the gruesome looking orcs have a few tricks of their own. In their fight to breach the stone walls, they employ fancy ladder mechanic to mass scale the walls. When that doesn’t pan out, they send a suicide bomber into a conveniently located drainage channel. Bomber orc brings down the outer wall and his orcy mates pour into the breach. We’re at close-quarter combat now, and things are looking a darker shade of grim. Tolkien cranked the tension by drawing focus on the women and children sheltering deep in the fortress. Jackson painted it perfectly, capturing the utter hopelessness on the sounds of battle penetrate their inner sanctum.

Category: (a) ally arrives. Gandalf to be specific, and the exiled Rohirrim under Eomer.

Pros: The night setting added a perfectly shadow tone to the affair. Uruk-hai orcs were terrifyingly gruesome. Theoden King’s suicidal cavalry charge down the fortress rampart, scattering the orc invaders like matchsticks.

Cons: Only that it wasn’t quite as epic as Minas Tirith.

3. The Nameless Order vs Tao Tei

The Great Wall (2016)

Way back before it became a tourist attraction, the great wall served a higher purpose; defending Imperial China against swarms of monstrous demon hounds known as Tao Tei. Blink and you’ll miss the origin story (meh, not really important), but you won’t have to wait long for the action to start. 15 minutes in and the first assault begins – legions of the vicious beasts swarming from a spooky, oozing-green-light canyon. Defending the wall is an army known as The Nameless Order. Imagine a rainbow version of the Night’s Watch, conveniently colour-coded according to category: black for infantry, red for archers, etc. The stand-out division were the blue-cloaked Crane Corp, an all-female posse of kung-fu badasses who position themselves on gangplanks fanning out into the void and, spear-in-hand, leap headfirst down wall to deal fast, pointy death.

It’s as ridiculous as it is awesome, but even their good work cannot stop the relentless waves of Tao Tei. The hounds look all but unstoppable, but little did they count on Matt Damon, who wields a bow with Legolas-level accuracy. From the wall, to the skies, and all the way to the Imperial Capital, the action is so heart-pounding it’s almost a disappointment when we take a breather to let the plot catch up. Of course, how else could we learn that the Tao Tei are no dumb marauders, but controlled by an intelligent queen, evolved enough to strategise a few battle tricks of her own. If you guessed that their greatest strength would also be their greatest weakness, you just may have seen this kind of thing before.

Category: combination (b) and (c). Magical salvation, if black powder counts (it’ll make sense when you see it).

Pros: Kung-fu aeronautics aside, much of the appeal derives from the gruesome defences The Nameless Order utilise to defend the wall: rapid-fire ballista, trebuchet firing flaming projectiles, and my personal fave – giant circular blades that emerge from slits in the wall to mince the unfortunate Tao Tei climbers. And Matt Damon.

Cons: There is nothing wrong with this film.

2. Battle of the Bastards

Game of Thrones – Season 6

The aforementioned Battle of Winterfell had all the fantasy bells and whistles, but when it comes to raw, gut-wrenching brutality, the Season 6 finale will always be my re-watch of choice. Why? This battle is all about revenge. House Bolton usurped the Stark lands and titles, conspired to murder Lady Caitlyn and King Robb, and spawned the arch fiend Ramsay, whose degenerate predilections need no describing here. Enter Jon Snow, leading a ragged band of Wildlings and other outcasts to make Ramsay and Co. pay for their transgressions. The opening scene sets the tone (see above). Ramsay kicks things off with a showcase of trademark cruelty, writing the inconvenient Rickon Stark (remember him?) out of the Song of Ice and Fire with a well-placed arrow. Jon arrives too late, and finds himself alone in no-man’s land. Bolton orders a cavalry charge. In one of the most iconic scenes of the series, a defiant Jon, refusing to turn, draws Longclaw, insanely standing his ground. Just when you think he’s about to be minced, the good guys charge in from the rear. The fun begins.

Sadly, we are still yet to read how George himself would have penned the action, but it seems somewhat irrelevant at this point. This battle was a high watermark in TV battle scenes (yes, I know I’ve said that before). I recall nothing preceding it that so perfectly captured the chaos and brutality of a sword and shield melee. Outnumbered and surrounded, Jon’s forces soon find themselves hemmed in by the Bolton alliance. For all their villainy, one has to step back and admire the military prowess – shield, step, spear – as they closed the steel circle on the good guys. Of course, in the heat of battle, everyone seemed to forget one important game piece was still on the board. Remember Sansa? Remember the legendary Knights of the Vale (in the books, they were a very big deal)? A distant bugle sounds (never get sick of that one), a sea of falcon pennant appear over the rise. For the first time, we see fear on the insufferably smug face of one Ramsay Bolton. You know what happens next *wags tail*.

Category: (a) ally arrives (see above).

Pros: The up-close-to-the-action scenes of madness. Horses flying in out of frame to smash warriors sideways. The endless pan follows Jon through the chaos. He ends up in a crush of his own soldiers. The feeling of utter hopelessness as our hero loses air. Truly, an epic against-the-odds battle.

Cons: The weirdness still sticks with me. Battleground heroism aside, it was the hard-soft diplomacy of Lord Petyr Baelish that actually delivered the Starks an unlikely victory. Funny how they repaid that debt.

1. The Battle of Pelennor Fields

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

More than a decade on and the climactic battle of Middle Earth remains the single most epic, eye-meltingly awesome fantasy battle of all time. Defending the citadel of Minas Tirith are the remains of once-mighty Gondor, their own defences cobbled by the half-mad Steward Denethor. In the shadow of the fortress march the combined forces of Sauron – orc legions in numbers beyond counting, bolstered by mercenaries from the south (Southrons) and their fearsome oliphants. The odds seem insurmountable, but the good guys have a few trump cards in the deck. Gandalf the White deposes the mad Steward to take control of Gondor’s defences. Across the plain on a high ridge, allies assemble – the legendary Riders of Rohan now reunited under the restored King Theoden (if his “red day” speech doesn’t stir your blood, you have no blood worth stirring). Of far greater significance, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli have completed their sidequest and found some friends of their own.

But let’s get back to the action. It begins with siege engines catapulting the severed heads of Faramir's doomed cavalry into the fortress. Of course, Sauron's boys are just having some fun before pulling out the big guns. Gondor responds, firing huge chunks of masonry into the orc legions. High overhead, the shrieking nazgul swoop in to attack the Gondorian artillery. We’re in the heart of the city and things are looking so dire, Gandalf takes time out to tell Pippin how the afterlife is filled with butterflies and rainbows and such. Things really get cooking at the charge of the Rohirrim. For the first time we get to see fear etched into a twisted orc face. The Riders hit them hard and fast, slicing a little off the flanks. The numbers are still overwhelming, but the Rohan have size and mobility on their side. Until a great bugle sounds. For the first time we get to see the mighty oliphant regiments. Swarming with mounted Southron archers, the mammoth-sized beasts boast great chains swinging between their tusks – especially bad news for horse riders, as it turns out. The see-saw momentum of battle just swung back to Team Sauron. You just can’t wait for the final tilt from Aragorn’s ghost army.

Category: combination (a) and (b). Ally arrives, with a little otherworldly magic,

Pros: The scale of this thing was simply beyond beyond. How Peter Jackson even began to storyboard Tolkien’s climactic battle into such a spectacle boggles belief.

Cons: My only beef is that it was over too quickly. And just a little too easily. Perhaps some genuine resistance to the ghost army would have added an extra layer of tension.

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