Trope Workshop:Great Wall

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Great walls. Clockwise from top left: Ba Sing Se, Paragon City, the Great Wall of China, The Wall of Westeros, Hadrian's Wall, Wall Sina from Attack on Titan.

The natural impulse when it comes to defending one's lands from an invading force is to build a wall to keep them out. And when there is a great threat, then there is a Great Wall. These are barriers of truly monumental size, length or both -- they don't defend just a town or a city, but often an entire nation or continent. The most extreme examples not only stretch for miles, they also tower hundreds of feet above the lands they guard.

Naturally, as soon a such a wall appears in a story, the need or desire of someone to cross it becomes important to the overall plot. Or perhaps the fact that someone has already crossed it, or is crossing it far more easily than they're supposed to. Either way, the Wall is more than just a landmark -- it's a plot point. It's a destination, or an obstacle, or (counter-intuitively) a portal. When you have a Great Wall in a story, it becomes a motivation as well as a set piece.

The Trope Namer is, of course, The Great Wall of China.

Great Walls are rarely employed as part of a military defense in the modern era, as aircraft pretty much render walls of any size useless. That didn't stop East Germany from building the Berlin Wall in 1961, but then they weren't trying to keep the West out (mostly), they were trying to keep their people in. And the Gaza-Israel barrier is focused less on keeping out conventional military forces than it is on individual terrorists. However, as symbols, Great Walls excel even when they can be circumvented (as at least one American politician from the early 21st century was well aware).

This trope is only for literal, end-to-end-solid, physical walls -- figurative ones like the Maginot Line don't count.

Very much not an Invisible Wall. If the Great Wall is sufficiently huge and sufficiently effective (and what's on the other side is sufficiently unknown and/or scary), it may also be The Wall Around the World. Contrast Absurdly Ineffective Barricade (although a Great Wall can be one if constructed poorly or haphazardly, or if it has a Secret Path through or around it).

Examples of Great Wall include:

Anime and Manga

  • The London Wall in Princess Principal is a Victorian Steampunk equivalent to the Berlin Wall (see below), separating the Commonwealth of England Albion in the west from the Kingdom of Albion in the east, the result of a revolution ten years before the start of the anime. It is a truly immense example of a Great Wall, hundreds of feet tall and thick, incorporating whole buildings (including an entire cathedral) into its structure, and containing internal tunnels wide enough to host a two-lane highway. Despite its name, it surrounds more than just the city of London (as is shown briefly on a map in the series), although its full extent was never revealed.
  • The concentric walls protecting the city of humans in both the anime and manga versions of Attack on Titan. They're dozens of meters tall, and thick and strong enough to have been repelling the titular giants, who are essentially living humanoid siege engines, for at least a century. If built in the real world the outermost wall, Wall Maria, would encompass a roughly circular area stretching from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico in the United States, or from Amsterdam to the Aegean Sea in Europe. Naturally, the outer rings fall during the pilot.

Comic Books

  • In Marvel Comics' Exiles, one of the Alternate Timelines the group visited was an Earth where the entire western half of the United States was controlled by race of Lizard Folk created by Curt "The Lizard" Connors, and a massive wall had been built across the country (north to south) to separate them from the surviving human population.

Film

  • In the 2010 British film Monsters, giant alien tentacle monsters infest northern Mexico after a NASA space probe crashes there. To keep the monsters out of the US, a huge wall is built along the US-Mexico border. The main characters are trapped in Mexico and are trying to reach the wall to cross back into the United States -- but they may not be the only ones trying to reach and pass it.
  • In Doomsday, in response to the appearance of a deadly plague in Scotland the UK builds a sixty-foot wall with automated weapons emplacements to separate it from the rest of Great Britain. While it's successful at keeping people from crossing, it doesn't stop the virus.
  • Mulan has the Great Wall of China. Shan-Yu and his men manage to breach it in the first five minutes. Fortunately, one brave soldier lights the signal fire, alerting China of the invasion.
  • Discussed by Shrek in his debut movie. He tells Donkey that once Lord Farquaad gives him back his swamp -- "their" swamp, Donkey corrects because he's helping Shrek rescue and deliver Princess Fiona to the Lord -- he's going to build a giant wall to keep would-be ogre slayers out and give him some privacy. Donkey uses the wall-building as a pretext to call out Shrek for his self-pitying cruelty, after a misunderstanding causes Donkey, Shrek and Fiona to have a falling out. Shrek ends up abandoning the idea by the end of the movie after marrying Fiona, though he misses the lack of privacy in Forever After.

Literature

  • The wall separating Ancelstierre (think, Great Britain circa WWI) from the Old Kingdom (think, a notably darker version of a High Fantasy setting) in Garth Nix's Old Kingdom books. While it's actually a magical artifact designed to keep all manner of undead and magical nasties inside the Old Kingdom where they can be dealt with, it's not 100% effective, so the Ancelstierre side is reinforced with bunkers and trenches and permanent military installations.
  • The Wall from A Song of Ice and Fire -- eight hundred feet high, stretching from one side of Westeros to the other, and built out of immense blocks of ice, it was emplaced to defend the Seven Kingdoms from the ice zombies and their rulers/leaders to the north. Unfortunately, the caliber (and quantity) of troops manning the wall has decayed over the past few centuries...

Live-Action TV

  • The Wall from Game of Thrones. Thanks to a remarkably faithful adaptation, it adheres with admirable closesness to its literary counterpart as described above.

Newspaper Comics

  • In Calvin and Hobbes, we get a tinier variant with the snow forts that Calvin and Hobbes make. Calvin makes one that is practically impenetrable and towers high over his tiny six-year old body-- so high that he has to call for help, since he didn't think to create an exit.

Oral Tradition, Folklore, Myths and Legends

Tabletop Games

  • The Magic: The Gathering setting Dominara in Legends has the Great Wall, an ancient stone structure that's 200 foot tall and separates geographical areas. What does it do as a card? Be a very strong contender for worst card of all time! Great Wall the card does nothing but make the Plainswalk ability non-functional, with the slight problem that even if shutting down Plainswalk was useful (it isn't) nothing in the game had the Plainswalk ability before Great Wall was released. Even today, with well over 20,000 cards in the game, there's six cards with Plainswalk[1], one of which is an unplayable joke card that has it purely because of the ability's infamy, and another (which also happens to be the only one anyone would ever remotely try to use seriously) was only released in Asia and Oceania with English copies being extremely rare.

Theatre

  • In Hadestown, a great wall surrounds the titular town where Hades is the mayor. All the workers build the wall, and they sing under Hades's spell that the wall gives them work and protects them from those without jobs, who are jealous that they have a wall. The Fates reveal to Eurydice-- after she signed some paperwork Hades gave her in the privacy of his office-- that Hades goes out into the world, preys on the vulnerable and hungry, and lures them to Hadestown to have a constant labor force. She has constant meals now, but a lifetime of servitude and forgetting her name and past.

Video Games

  • The War Walls surrounding the neighborhoods of Paragon City in City of Heroes are a combination of Force Field barriers atop massive concrete walls, towering hundreds of feet above the adjacent streets. They were created to protect the city from Rikti forces during the Rikti War in the Backstory of the game. Smaller than the default Great Wall, they still count because they encompass all of the playable area of the game.
  • The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind has the Great Ghostfence (also known as the Ghostfence, since smaller ones existed in the setting's past), a forcefield wall powered by (willing) souls that's intended to keep Dagoth Ur, his minions, and the disease they carry inside its perimeter. There's a few slight problems with it. One: Some of Dagoth Ur's disease carriers can fly. Two: Dagoth Ur himself has no intention of leaving since the divine artifact he's experimenting with is inside the barrier. Three: Dagoth Ur's forces have built tunnels under it. It's shut down after the end of the main quest once it is no longer needed.
  • The Great Barrier of Gothic is a deadly forcefield that keeps all inhabitants of the penal colony mines inside. Due to a miscalculation, the barrier is permanent and now the kingdom responsible is forced to barter with prisoners for ore instead of using them as slave labor. Some of the mages responsible for enacting the barrier were trapped inside and are now accepting donations of the magic ore used as currency within the prison to fuel their attempts at removing it there's also an Eldrich Abomination inside the barrier's boundaries, and the Water Mages are actually trying to strengthen the barrier because of it, scamming their donars for the safety of civilization. It goes down in the ending once the threat is killed.
  • The Great Gate and Native Fortress stages from Crash Bandicoot are both imposing wooden structures, as wide and tall as tower-blocks, that appear to block off parts of N. Sanity Island, and the only way past is to scale them. Imposing in their own right, the fact they're constructed entirely out of wood, and apparently by the native populace with no heavy machinery makes them all the more impressive.

Western Animation

  • The wall around Ba Sing Se in Avatar: The Last Airbender. Although Ba Sing Se is officially a city, it is actually large enough to contain nearly a quarter of the entire Earth Kingdom -- between its outer and inner walls is enough farmland to make this nation-sized city self-sufficient, as well as a small mountain chain and a substantial lake inland sea. Its walls are so massive that they are considered a geological feature and are depicted in scale on world maps. Its gates can only be opened with earth-bending, and the only time it was actually penetrated, it was because there was a mole on the inside helping the invaders. How General Iroh actually besieged Ba Sing Se effectively for 600 days is unimaginable.
  • He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (2002 version); in the backstory, after Keldor (aka Skeletor) failed in his first insurrection, the Elders erected the Mystic Wall at the border of the Dark and Light Hemispheres, in effect making the entire Dark Hemisphere a prison for Skeletor and his minions. Presumably, this wall had some sort of magical ward that prevented them from climbing or flying over it or burrowing under. They would eventually break free after two decades, having spent that time gathering Corodite crystals to craft a weapon capable of breaking through it.

Real Life

  • Hadrian's Wall, built between AD 122 and 128, spanned the entire width of the island of Great Britain when it was completed, and marked the boundary between Roman Britain and the unconquered lands to the north. It was, according to period sources, intended to keep the northern tribes out of the Roman-occupied territories to the south. It was twenty feet high or higher along its entire length, although after it was abandoned it was torn apart for building materials, and what is left is not nearly as impressive as it once was.
    • Paralleling it some distance north was the Antonine Wall. Begun in AD 142, it was built mostly of turf and wood.
  • The Great Wall of China. First begun at least 500 BC and rebuilt and expanded over the next two thousand years, it reached 13,171 miles long. Twenty-six feet tall and seventeen feet thick at its largest points, the Great Wall was built to protect China from its less-friendly neighbors, particularly nomads from deeper in Asia. Sadly, it wasn't terribly effective; it was routinely breached, most notably by the Manchus, who after looting Beijing went on to found the Qing dynasty.
  • The Berlin Wall was a continuous 155-kilometer (96-mile) concrete barrier built by the government of then-Communist East Germany in 1961 to physically separate the Western-controlled section of Berlin from the rest of East Germany. Unlike most examples of the Great Wall, it wasn't built to defend East Germany but to keep its citizens from escaping to the West.
  • The Gaza-Israel barrier is a seven-meter concrete wall topped with barbed wire that separates Israel from the Gaza strip. Construction began in 1994 and despite being largely torn down in September 2000 eventually encompassed the entire length of the border between the two, including an underground wall (completed in 2021) designed to prevent Hamas militants and other terrorists from tunneling into Israel.
  • Former American President Donald Trump invoked this trope when he promised that he would build a "big beautiful wall" along the United States' southern border to protect poor helpless Americans from ravening hordes of illegal Mexican immigrants. He also promised to make Mexico pay for it, though offered no means of doing so. Only about a hundred yards of it were ever actually erected during his administration, mostly to test various construction methods and designs, and it started collapsing from poor construction and cheap materials before his single term was over.
  1. Plus two that can turn the somewhat more common relatives Islandwalk, Forestwalk, Volcanowalk, and Swampwalk into Plainswalk or vice versa