Holding the Door and Dying Dragons – Old School

(Just a warning that this post is riddled with spoilers about two 80s fantasy films)

Let’s talk about a heroic act where a notable character held a door so others could push on to saving the day. A memorable and emotional sacrifice. Something that has lingered with me for years.

As may be obvious, no, this has nothing to do with a big idiot whose mind was ruined by time-travelling weirdness and who was left holding a door without realising it, by which point it was too late for him to run. By the way, I would love to see said character return as an undead figure, carrying a door to beat a certain teenage boy who destroyed his life with.

No, this is about the character Rell, the cyclops from the 1983 science-fantasy film, Krull.

Then we can talk about that moment when a dragon was killed in a dramatic fight, which hurt me and still hurts when I have watched it since. Those final moments of life from that character. A character who stood out and meant something, and who died playing an important role in the story. Again, I’m clearly not talking about something that just happened on tv. I mean Smrgol, the older dragon, in the animated fantasy 1982 film, the Flight of Dragons.

This is where I get into being a bit of an old grump. I’ve seen people say they lost their minds, literally cried, at the two tv show moments I alluded to. Okay, people react differently to things. I get that. No one can tell you how to be affected by story telling as you grow up. Still, I found these tv moments to be hollow. Dramatic, yes. Shocking, true. But nothing as emotionally scarring as the two incidents I’m going to describe. It makes me feel old and bitter, claiming to myself “young people today lose it over anything, whereas when I were a lad, we got upset over real characters being killed off” etc. I admit I think I’m being unfair, and a grumpy old man. Maybe younger people emote more than my generation did. Maybe they feel for these characters more than I ever could. Maybe the fact I grew up on other moments means these new moments can’t affect me, but they would if I were growing up now. I hope not. I hope I would always need an emotional core to an event for it to get me, and also I can still find my gut being wrenched when the art is worked skilfully. See the beginning of Up or the end of Moon.

I could write a big complaint about how people overreacted to these tv moments, but again, while I have my logical points to make, the bulk is just emotional reactions. Some work for certain people, others don’t. If anyone grieved over a CGI dragon that barely did a thing and had no personality, well fair enough. I can understand grieving more for the anguish the Mother felt than the creature itself, without doubt. Less so for the death on its own. Fewer so? Anyway, people have their own reactions to things and I don’t like berating others for their emotional outbursts, as if we can control them that well. I’m sure I would have been derided for wanting to cry over an animated dragon breathing its last breath, back when I was a child. Even so, I feel fully justified in that grief. Smrgol was a character and he made a choice and it cost him.

That’s a good place to start. Something that binds these two memorable moments. Choosing for yourself and paying the price. I don’t want to go on about things that didn’t move me and how snarky I got when others were affected. I want to use this to springboard into praising what did work and trying to explain why it did. For me.

Rell in Krull. Here is this big cyclops who appears and helps the band of characters out, later joining them. His story is explained in simple terms. Once his people made a deal with the Beast (the villain) but were tricked, losing an eye to see the future, except the only thing they could see ahead of them was the day of their death. They became a sad and lonely people. But as a cyclops, Rell clearly sees the Beast and his minions, the Slayers, as his enemies. He fights them for his own reasons, and joins the other heroes when he can see they are worthy people, and he has been able to prove himself to them. However, when the ending is near, Rell stays behind. The rest set out to reach the Black Fortress before it moves, yet he has to remain, because it is his time to die, and if he tries to avoid this then a very painful fate will befall him.

It won’t surprise to say that Rell does show up later to save them once again, but still, it made my heart leap to see him come riding in. The others are pinned down by Slayers, they can’t get into the fortress, but here comes Rell, stomping his way up, taking bolts to the chest and barely flinching. He works his way up, kills a Slayer and stops a stone slab door from closing.

That’s right, Rell holds the door.

The others begin rushing through. The door is slowly closing but Rell holds it as best he can. It’s still closing though. The others help a bit as the rest go through, except now that door is more closed than not. Rell is struggling. He calls out to them. Colwyn and Torquil strive to help him. It’s no good. There are gurgling noises as the door closes. There’s a shout, but could be from Torquil, still trying to save him. Then the door slams shut.

Rell chose to risk his life. Actually, maybe he chose to give it up – he knew his fate if he avoided the death he foresaw. He had stayed behind because he was meant to. Instead he rode after them, helped them get inside the fortress when none of them could manage it, and enabled them to save the world. Maybe he thought he could do this and survive, but it was highly unlikely. He went to help them knowing the risk, maybe even accepting a death if it could prove to be the difference. It was.

Rell chose. He suffered. Rell made a difference. He paid the price.

During the story, he had been an enigmatic figure who then bonded with other characters and showed a softer side, with a few funny moments too. He meant something to us. As much as Torquil, the outlaw leader, or Ynyr, the Old One. Rell’s character, saving others, his sacrificial, and also brutal, end – it hit me hard back then. Still does.

Now let’s turn to Smrgol. This is an older dragon who ends up having to go on a quest because a human from the 20th Century has gotten fused with a young dragon, who was supposed to go. So a lot of their interaction is Smrgol teaching Peter/Gorebash how to be a dragon.

This teaching goes up a level when Peter has to take on the Ogre of Gormley Keep. This big bastard has kidnapped the other quest members so they have to rescue them by defeating him, and Smrgol is too old for that shit. He tells Peter what to do, then watches in horror as the human gets it all wrong. So into the fray he goes. He gets it right, of course, and down goes the ogre, but just as it was warned, Smrgol found it too much. He collapses. His heart gives out.

Smrgol isn’t meant to go on the quest. Nor is he meant to fight the ogre. He agrees to go because they need him (well, they need three for some reason) and he helps out, and Peter needs a teacher. He gets into the fight to save the young man’s life. I love his “Hey, Hey You”, after they already called the Ogre Hey You in a challenge. He even taunts the ogre a bit as he tries to drag him off the wall. The ogre is a daunting figure, they made a great job of him being terrifying. He matches each dragon, bests one, just loses to the other. Smrgol uses his wits and wins. Experience plays out.

Smrgol is more affable, more likeable, than Rell from Krull. He is a friendly mentor, helping Peter. He can laugh, he cares, and he certainly isn’t in this for glory or bravado. He’s a knowledgeable dragon who knows what is at stake, but should be taking it easy, seeing out his old age. Loses him hurts even more. I mean hell, I just watched the fight on Youtube to check on things and even then I could feel my stomach tightening.

Maybe it’s nostalgia. Maybe it’s the inner kid seeing these images and getting to me. Maybe there’s just something about the noble sacrifice. I’ll admit, I’ve always had a thing for that. Dinobot in Beast Wars. Obi-Wan in Star Wars. Hector in the Illiad. Piccolo in Dragonball Z. Gandalf, even though he comes back. Definitely Boromir.

Still, I feel it has a logic to it as well as an emotional reaction. These characters mattered. They chose to act. They knew a cost would be asked. They risked everything. They paid it. You can’t beat that. Not for me, anyway.

I’ll admit, both films are very 80s, with a fair amount of camp and rushed plotlines, sometimes very stereotypical ideas. For once, I’d love to see a remake of either, or both, with more character development and some improvements to the story. Just witnessing a new generation look on in awe as Bryagh swoops down yelling “Puny scum of Carolinus! Prepare to die!” before scattering the group. He was a great baddie who could be fleshed out to be even better. One of my favourite bad dragons.

Still, I’d understand people scoffing at these films. Many did back then. More seem to like these and others nowadays, but they’re far from perfect, even in the eyes of us fanboys and fangirls. Yet these two moments always get me. Rell held that door. Smrgol died in a showdown. Both mattered to me. They still do. I hope their stories won’t be lost as those of us who grew up with them get older.

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There Be Dragons

A brief post on dragons in Sojourners in Shadow. Also on a few still talked about in legend.

Dragons came with the Shadow World. Arguably, they best represented it. While most monsters were strange, terrifying, unnatural, they were also mortal and flawed. Some could do magic, yes, but soon humans found that they could too.

Dragons were magic. They came in many shapes and sizes, they flew over continents with ease and made their nests wherever they chose. No one could contend with them. They tried, of course. Humans used science while hateful devil-beasts gathered and struck in numbers. It was all laughable. For one, magic did nothing to the dragons. It was like spitting at a rain storm. As previously stated, dragons were magic. It was their life, their blood and spirit, and they not only wielded it with ease but could do all manner of tremendous acts. Spells are needed by most magic-users, to focus the mind and summon the will along with what power someone possesses. Dragons breathed magic.

I should also take this moment to point out that dragons breathed fire too. Also, this was utterly incapable of harming them. It was their natural element, many would say. In fact, most would say dragons were just like fire – capable of giving, of life enhancing ability, and also highly destructive and tempestuous. Never piss of a dragon was an obvious general rule in the world while they reigned over it. Yet many suffered and never knew why.

Dragons left a century or so ago. They returned to the Shadow World, or at least that is the main claim. No one can say for sure. After all, the dragons didn’t explain themselves. The only person who may have an idea is Havoc, son of a dragon. Yet he is neither giving of information about his mother or her race, nor is he someone you can just stroll up to and bother with nosey questions. Much like a dragon, Havoc is known for letting an enemy live one moment and annihilating a settlement for disappointing him the next. Yet there is strong evidence that the dragons left of their own accord and went home. As previously stated (again), dragons were magic. They were huge flying beasts who spoke, could bless or curse others, and wipe out cities overnight to make a nest. They didn’t match anything this world contained, even after the Shadow World’s arrival. Not only that, but before they left, it had become noticeable that most dragons spent a lot of their time sleeping. In the early days they had soared through the skies, ravaged the land or etched their superiority upon humanity. Over time, they slowed down, then barely moved. Then they left.

A few quick details about the dragon race:

While they had their own names, they never shared them with non-dragons. They took the names of places they resided in or were associated with.

They tried to reproduce but never did. Havoc, of course, is something separate from that. There were never any new dragons. They seemed immortal and sterile. Another reason to leave.

While all were masters of fire, some also mastered other elements of nature.

They often chose islands and volcanoes to live on or in. They were also drawn to magical hot spots, for obvious reasons.

Dragons are very well remembered, also for obvious reasons. Because it has been a long time since they were around, the fear they easily conjured has lessened, as has any hatred. Even at the time, many lesser beings came to understand that the dragons never saw themselves or anything they did as either good or evil. They acted as they saw fit. They looked down on all other life. Impress them and you gained greatly. Annoy them and you were a memory within moments. While they caused many disasters, especially when they first arrived, rarely was it malevolent. People just got in their way. But they also did things to intimidate and conjure submission. Clearly some dragons enjoyed their role in the world’s hierarchy. But by now, people of all kinds speak of the awe inspiring beings, they tell tales of what they did and people enjoy listening, despite the horrors of those who had lived through those stories. People are glad the dragons are gone, many hope they never come back, but some do wonder if they could just see one again some day.

As for those remembered as individuals, here are a few famous ones:

Cornwall – Red. Male. Lived at the end of Cornwall, moved about to various posts along the coastline. Liked to watch the sea. Huge wing span. Would fly off to who knows where but always came back. At first had no time for humans, later taught them a bit, enjoyed the company of some. When he left our world, was sad to go.

Damascus – Green. Female. Devastated the city and curled up in the ashes. A long dragon. Later came to be a sleeper dragon and did not take kindly to the advances of the mutants. Warded them off. After that, they stayed away and she slept on until the dragons left.

Panama – unknown gender. Gold. Many think the reason the destruction of Central America didn’t reach Panama City is due to the dragon. Possibly even why things went weird. A nuclear attack versus a dragon’s magic, so close to a magical hotspot = a weird region to this day.

Gibraltar – Blue. Female. Had a mischievous nature, extorted ships coming in and out of the Mediterranean. Mostly playful, would scare those on ships rather than just attack and sink, but if any fought back she would destroy vessels and devour the survivors.

Hawaii – Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea – Two dragons who took up residence in volcanoes of Hawaii. One Black. One Silver. Genders assumed to be one male, one female. Romanticised story. Claim each dragon moved in, fought for dominance, then fell in love and became a couple. Their fighting terrified the people, but their relationship proved to be a blessing. There are other stories of them fighting a huge sea creature and controlling the weather.

That will do. I said the post would be brief. I should really learn to implement that word more honestly.

Yet this is just to give a flavour of what these beings were like, and how, despite their long absence, how their presence still lingers. People remember them changing their world. Literally.

Books From my Childhood

So recently I have been reading two books I came across when very young. The first, which I tore through in one afternoon last week, is Earth Invaded, a short, scifi novel. The second, of which I am nearing halfway, is the Doomfarers of Coramonde, a fantasy novel. The first was written by Nathan Elliott and is the first of the Hood’s Army trilogy, published in 1986. The second was written by Brain Daley and came out in 1977, with the Starfollowers of Coramonde coming out later. I have read all of those and hope to do so again.

It has been amazing to recapture the magic these books had for me and quite startling at how much they affected me. Despite being different genres, they follow the same basic concept – a good few versus a mighty enemy. A number of scenes and images have stuck with me all this time, some of which I had forgotten where they came from. Both have been easy reads because there are so many lines which I knew deep down.

To Earth Invaded first. As the title suggests, the Earth has been invaded by aliens, a warrior race of cold cruelty. Their technology is far superior and their soldiers and vehicles are protected by a golden energy glow. The year is 2052 and humanity has become peaceful and united after the Third World War’s end in 1999 (I do love reading of futuristic things in our past, don’t you?), so we’re getting spanked. We meet First Sergeant Hood and his comrade Corporal Will Redman as their unit is slaughtered amidst the wreckage of London. They flee and run into Marianne and her robot assistant AMOS (Automated Motive Operating System). Later they meet Big Mac and a number of battered survivors underground, along with the suspicious Adair.

If you’re feeling a twinge of recognition about the names, think Robin Hood. This story is a neat little twist of the Robin Hood tale, with aliens and a treacherous human governor. Oh, and get this – the way to defeat the aliens is to use projectile weapons because the golden shields deflect energy only, so guess what Hood uses? Yuppers. They run about with swords, bows and pikestaffs from a museum, if they later get hold of machine guns.

Another note is the cover. I like it, but it doesn’t reflect the content. Hood is 19, but looks over 30 on the cover. Marianne has long black hair but on the cover she is a redhead firing a laser gun (never happens). The K’Thraa (love the name) are described as slug-like but on the cover they look like, well, Rogue Trooper from the 2000AD comics.

It is odd but nothing new in publishing, let’s be honest.

So the story itself is quick, entertaining, a bit simplistic but a solid scifi adventure. The bickering between Will and AMOS is a little overdone as a comic relief support type-of-thing, but it is still amusing and probably somewhat fresh in 1986. The burning need for revenge is portrayed in capturing style. I did feel that this story is told very well in terms of pacing – you get the feel of a new world very quickly and also a good sense of characters without taking forever with descriptions. Images of huge spaceships descending to crush streets is such a stark picture due to its cutting simplicity.

Without spoiling anything, I will say Adair is the best character due to his mysterious past and eventual revelation. I liked him a lot and wish there was more of this story to develop all their characters. Still, it was a very good read, even now.

On to the Doomfarers. Told very differently, with much more description and slower language. But again, some great imagery and moments of action slapped into your face with a short sharp sentence. The telling of Duke Hightower falling to one knee, broken sword held out before him, was something I have never forgot. Other little sentences spring to my mind in completion as I read them – Andre slapping his sword at his side, dead bodies slain by sword and lance wounds, the fist raised in solidarity from the battered APC.

Wait, APC? Armoured Personnel Carrier?

The very same. This story has a neat little twist as well. Set in another world of magic and dragons, there is a man in it from our world. An American (but let’s not hold that against him, folks 😉 ) who invented a machine to travel across dimensions and has settled in Coramonde, helping the famous sorcerer, Andre deCourteney, and his sister, Gabrielle. They summon the APC and its crew from the Vietnam War to fight a dragon, sent against them by their enemy, Yardiff Bey.

The main character is Springbuck, however, and we start with him. He is prince and heir to the throne of Coramonde, except his stepmother seeks to put her own son there instead. Springbuck is ready to let him have it in fear for his life, but when he witnesses the death of Duke Hightower as the man speaks up for him, things change. He is meant for death but manages to escape, then reaches the only people who can stand up to his enemies. The wizard Yardiff Bey is behind what is going on at court, so they soon enter an alliance. Springbuck is an unlikely hero but we see him changing from self-doubting youth to warrior and leader. He is certainly a lead character to be cheering on.

As I said, I’m only halfway through this book, but I’m loving it. I wish I had bought it when young so I could have read it a few times by now, yet the impression it left on me has proven to be a lasting one. I know there are moments to come too. The siege and the futile charge, the fight between ogre and lizard, etc. There isn’t much humour to be found, but it certainly isn’t a grim tale only. When the other Americans arrive in their APC and the story’s perspective changes from Springbuck to Sergeant Gill MacDonald, we get to see the young prince for all his youthful exuberance and regal speech. The idea of a burly US soldier wearing a white gown and veils to lure a dragon in before lobbing phosphorous grenades at it has a humour all of its own too.

This story does remind me of the fantasy books by authors like David Gemmell and Stephen Lawhead and others. High fantasy, swords and sorcery, not afraid to describe actions or scenes in full so you can watch the world move along before you with liquid fluidity. Noble heroes, shady wizards, rough fighters, strong willed women – it’s all here. You can really feel it was written a while back, when you didn’t dumb the writing down (weapons of medieval times and the Vietnam War are described with military knowledge) and a fight scene was littered with thrusts and ripostes.

So far, so great.

I would recommend both books. Yes, Earth Invaded isn’t heavy on science and pretty straight forward, but it works and works well. Younger minds may absorb it more readily than aged readers. The Doomfarers is more solid high fantasy, with a journey into Hell thrown in for good measure, so if that’s your thing, get it.

Don’t let good books die off. These are certainly good books. I’m very happy I was able to buy them this time.

All thanks to my local library for containing these books back then, too. Where would my imagination be without all those stories I was able to grab, read and remember?
I shudder to think.