While Horror Flora is monster concerned with, y’know, horror, by now the site has established that horror isn’t its sole genre of focus.  It is still my main love as far as fiction goes, of course, but it admittedly wasn’t my first.  No, my first love was Horror’s close cousin, Fantasy, and while Horror has overwhelmingly consumed the bulk of my interest over the years, Fantasy is a strong if somewhat distant number two.    My expertise in Fantasy is not nearly as robust as my expertise in Horror, but my passion for the two is nearly equal, and so I decided to start a new essay segment here on the site: Between Logic and Enchantment, a critical yet sentimental look at Fantasy stories of great note.  We start off this segment with the movie that defined my love of the Fantasy genre: the 1982 Rankin Bass animated classic, The Flight of Dragons.

I saw this movie when I was very young, to the point where it’s one of my earliest memories.  Upon revisiting it a few years ago, I realized how profound of an effect it had upon me, both as a consumer of stories and as a storyteller myself.  Since one of the projects I’m starting now, The Midgaheim Bestiary, is particularly inspired by it, I feel it’s probably the best movie to start off this column.  It may not be the objectively best movie this column reviews, but I don’t think any other movie is quite so personally dear to me, and that matters a lot for a passion project such as this.

The movie opens with a sight straight out of a Metal album cover: a wizard standing on top of a mountain in the light of the rising sun as he calls a massive dragon to his side.  Said wizard is named Carolinus, and proceeds to lay out the film’s setting and core conflict with a brief but, in my opinion, rather beautiful monologue.

“There was a time between the waning age of enchantment and the dawning age of logic when dragons flew the skies, free and unencumbered.”  While the world of the movie is filled with dragons, wizards, and other fantastical beasts, it’s also a world that is seeing the rise of technology, and one that, ultimately, is subject to the rules of science and rationality.  Intriguingly, the movie does not cast the fantastical beings in this world as purely imaginary – they lie between that which exists and that which does not.  Dragons “soar past reality,” sure, but they also “leave illusion behind.”  The movie posites that Fantasy is neither fully real nor fully divorced from reality, but nestled between the two.

The movie’s conflict is almost identical to its setting in many ways: “All mankind is facing an epic choice: a world of magic, or a world of science.  Which will it be?”  The movie poses a question to us: can magic and science (or enchantment and logic, or fantasy and reality) coexist, or must we choose one or the other?  What is the relationship between our fantasy and the real world we live in?  It’s kind of a heady question for what is ostensibly a kid’s film, but it’s presented in a way that I feel lets kids engage the topic without getting confused.

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God it’d be nice if there was a cleaned up version of this movie so the stills didn’t look like shit

The opening montage of the movie focuses on the animals core to the movie’s title – i.e. dragons.  Many people before me have written how dragons are almost synonymous with the Fantasy genre, for good or ill, and this movie definitely plays with that idea in a marvelous way.  The beautiful imagery of these massive reptiles gracefully gliding through the air, smoke and fire streaming from their heads, is surreal and wondrous.  I would go so far as to say it visually sums up the very appeal of the Fantasy genre to me, as it presents us with an image that could not exist, and yet is so enchanting we wish it could.  Notably, the dragons are neither purely beautiful or ugly – they’re big, scaly creatures with bloated bodies, but there’s a grace and majesty to them alongside it.  Magic and fantasy can have warts, lumps, and other blemishes and imperfections of the real world, yet still manage to amaze.

When the opening montage closes, Carolinus and his companion dragon, Gorbash, stop by a farmer’s mill just in time to see a swan and several fairies get crushed by the water wheel.  Carolinus is understandably horrified: “The worlds of magic and logic must exist side by side, not destroy each other!”  The wizard tries to warn the farmers of their insensitivity, and their result adds another layer to the conflict.  Magic is firmly associated with nature – Carolinus says, “My domain is the green world, nature itself and all its inhabitants!” – while science and technology are associated with humanity’s civilization.  Both have negative aspects throughout the film, but one could be right in saying that humanity’s destruction of the mysterious natural world is what sets it off, adding “Nature vs. Technology” to our list of conflicting dichotomies.

Sadly, magic is losing the battle, just as the natural world has failed to overcome the progress and domination of civilization.  Nonetheless, it doesn’t go without a fight.  Another ally of Carolinus, an old dragon named Smrgol, consoles the wizard and offers to eat the farmers for their insult.  It’s important to note that Smrgol is a good guy overall, but he’s also still a dragon, and has dragon solutions to problems.  It is also important to note that dragons are capable of speech in this story – a rule that is far from universal in Fantasy fiction.

Instead of reacting with violence, Carolinus chooses to hold a council with his three brothers, each of whom are associated with a color, an element, and a theme.  Carolinus, the green wizard,  represents earth and the natural order.  The blue wizard represents water as well as the mysterious depths of reality, whether they be the abyss of the ocean, the void of outer space, or the undiscovered country of the afterlife.  The golden wizard represents air, transcendence, philosophy, and harmony.  Finally there is Ommadon, the red wizard, who represent fire and malice.  Given glorious life by James Earle Jones, Ommadon is our main antagonist, and provides just as much bombast and diabolical grandeur as you could want from the actor who also voiced Darth Vader.

Our wizards are all subordinate to an ambiguous force they call “Antiquity,” which ties their magic to yet another concept, the past.  If you’re having trouble keeping up, the dichotomies we’ve collected so far are: Enchantment vs. Logic, Magic vs. Science, Imagination vs. Reality, Nature vs. Technology/Civilization, and Old vs. New.  And, as our wizards point out, their side of this conflict, no matter how you want to define it, is losing, and soon they may pass from existence entirely.

Though he is a villain, Ommadon is the first to bring up the question of a solution to their conflict: “So what are you going to do, sit around like a bunch of old nannies and let it happen?”  Carolinus rises to the challenge, suggesting the creation of a Magic Realm, or, as Ommadon puts it, “A foolish retirement village.”

“The world, though it does not realize it, cannot live without magic!” Carolinus argues, going on to list all the ways magical creatures inspire man.  From the dragon’s thick skin inspiring armor and tanks, to the flight of fairies inspiring airplanes, to even wizards like Carolinus inspiring television and film with their crystal balls, magic – the impossible, the superstitious, the nonexistent creations of imagination – inspires invention.  As Carolinus concludes, “If man is to surmount the insurmountable, there must always be magic to inspire him!”  Fantasy and reality have a symbiotic relationship in Carolinus’s view, as magic inspires man to learn more of the world and create new technological wonders.

Ommadon, however, presents a different viewpoint.  “I will not concede defeat to this modern world!” he rails, “I have weapons you would not dare use!  Fear rules Man!  By summoning all the dark powers, I will infest the spirit of man so that he uses his science and logic to destroy himself!”  Ommadon’s plan preys upon the worst aspects of human nature, working with miscommunication, paranoia, greed, and short-sightedness to make mankind bring ruination upon itself.  He even takes Carolinus’s examples of how fantasy inspire humanity to achieve more and twists them to a grim end.  “I’ll teach man to use his machines!  I’ll show him what distorted science can give birth to!” Ommadon rants as the movie shows us images of humanity tearing down the natural world with construction equipment and slaying each other in war, before building to an even more pressing bit of industrial nightmare imagery. “I’ll teach him how to fly like a fairy,” Ommadon continues as we see a warplane bomber take off into the air, dropping an atom bomb that explodes into a mushroom cloud, or as Ommadon calls it, “The ultimate answer to all his science can ask!”  Where Carolinus sees the potential for wonder among man’s inventions, Ommadon only sees its potential for death and ruin, a potential that his magic’s nefarious inspiration will thrive within.

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It suddenly occurs to me that a lot of the movies I saw as a child featured nuclear annihilation and giant fire breathing reptiles

These two present us with two possible endings for our story’s conflict of dichotomies. Carolinus preaches coexistence, with civilization sustaining magic in their imagination while being inspired to grow by it in turn, while Ommadon preaches mutual destruction, with magic inspiring man to destroy the natural world and civilization in one selfish, short-sighted sprint towards annihilation.  While the other two wizards side with Carolinus, Ommadon will not relent, and sets out instead to enact his plan of destruction.  Only the death of Ommadon will save both magic and humanity, but there is a snag in the plan.

The brothers cannot fight directly – “The eternal laws of enchantment expressly forbid the four magic brothers from warring on one another!” As essential parts of the world, they cannot kill each other despite their power, though they can recruit mortals to help.  Though his brothers offer to help, Carolinus alone must do the task, as the Golden Wizard’s subjects are peaceful, while the Blue Wizard’s are restricted to the uncharted depths of the sea.  His task is to find three heroes who can begin a quest (which must begin with three heroes, no more, no less), though sadly he only has two on his side: his dragon companion Gorbash, and a knight, Sir Orin.

To find a third, Carolinus asks Antiquity, a supernatural force of order that manifests as a tree in this scene (further tying magic to nature).  Antiquity suggests Carolinus find “the Descendant of Great Peter.”  According to Carolinus, Great Peter tamed the dragons of old, while Antiquity claims his descendent – 777 generations removed – is the first of the line to be “a man of science.”  Carolinus is perplexed as to why this matters, just as the audience might be.  However, it is fitting if you think about it: if Carolinus’s forces of magic are fighting to save the harmony of fantasy and reality, it is only fitting that science, the flip side of that coin, lends aid as well.

Our protagonist enters the story at this point, sharing his dragon-taming ancestor’s name: Peter Dickinson.  He lives in the modern era (of the 1980’s) and has invented a game that’s obviously meant to homage D&D, which he is trying to sell to a pawn broker who looks and sounds a bit like Don Knotts.  Peter is sort of the bridge between the two books this film is based on.  While the bulk of its plot comes from a novel called The Dragon and the George, the title and some other aspects from The Flight of Dragons, a speculative biology book written by a real life man named… Peter Dickinson.  And, funnily enough, movie!Peter Dickinson is ALSO writing a book called The Flight of Dragons, which, if it is the same as the real life book of the same name, would have to be inspired by this adventure.  This is all very meta and fun, especially for those who have read the speculative biology book in question – the book version of The Flight of Dragons is, essentially, between enchantment and logic.

Peter’s other invention, the board game, is also important, even if it is an entirely fictional creation of the movie rather than a real thing you could read like the book.  Notably, his game’s miniatures resemble the four brothers, Gorbash, and Carolinus’s daughter, Princess Melisande.  While one might chock this up to a simple plot contrivance, it actually has a rather interesting symbolic meaning.  This game, which requires imagination to enjoy and logic to win, has recreated the world of magic.  There is a direct tie to the fantasies we dream up in our real, dragon-less world, and the Age of Enchantment.    Carolinus makes the connection all the more clear by replacing his miniature on the game board to convince Peter to join the fantasy it represents, and the two literally ride dice into the world of magic. As a D&D player myself, it’s an excellent visual metaphor for how the game transports you to another world via your imagination.  Or, as the movie puts it:

Peter, confused by amazed, asks, “Am I on the game board or in reality?”

“Perhaps somewhere in between,” Carolinus responds, “Imagination is the most potent of all magic.”

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Actual footage of D&D

They arrive in the magical world, at which point Peter promptly flips out when he sees and talks to Smrgol, an actual fucking dragon.  His enthusiasm and wonder if infectious, presenting the exact overwhelming confusion and delight most people would feel when confronted with the impossible things they’ve dreamed of seeing their whole lives.  I think few people who love fantasy would have trouble relating to Peter in this moment, which is important considering he’s our protagonist.

While Peter is understandably awed by encountering a dragon, he is more flustered when he sees Melisande, who he conceived as his dream woman when making his board game.  While seeing the fantasy image of a dragon is an exciting sight, he is more flustered at the slightly more grounded fantasy of his ideal romantic match, basically acting a shy schoolboy when they first meet.  It’s a short, quiet moment, but an interesting one to note for a movie that is constantly exploring the relationship between fantasy and reality.

Gorbash arrives to greet Carolinus, and Peter begins analyzing how the dragon’s body works almost immediately: “the fiery breath has something to do with the dragon’s ability to fly!  But what?”  This is a particularly important character moment, as it shows Peter is both fascinated with the fantasy of what he’s seeing, but also drawn to trying to see the logic behind it.  He doesn’t choose one over the other, but rather tries to bridge the two – and over the course of the film, he succeeds.

Melisande even connects with him in this, as she shows knowledge of dragon biology that proves to be illuminating: “Because dragons tend to ignite ordinary bedding, they find a soft metal to sleep on, and gold proves most comfortable for them.”  She helps Peter realize that his rational questions aren’t out of place, and that there is a reason behind the workings of these fantastical creatures.  While dragons may be imaginary, they can nonetheless be replicated by science.

Later Carolinus shows Peter his library of unwritten books – that is, books that have not been written yet.  From Beowulf to The Wizard of Oz, the ones he list represent a tradition if imagined tales – but also includes Peter’s text, which, as you now know, is a different sort of fiction, as it isn’t a narrative but rather a fictional biology.   To drive this home, Carolinus points out the importance of this detail: “You [Peter] are unique – a man with one foot in the realm of magic, and the other in the realm of science.”  Carolinus’s respect for Peter continues to grow when the modern man suggests drinking milk to deal with his ulcer – a problem no magic spell has managed to solve for the old wizard.  This shows both Carolinus and the audience that Peter’s logical mind may have powers the world of magic may not.

Ommadon, being a competent villain, sends his dragon minion Bryagh to take care of the problem of Peter, even though the red wizard isn’t sure how a logical modern man could threaten his magical power.  The wicked dragon arrives when Peter and Melisande are having a cute moment and easily kidnaps our nerdy hero.  Luckily Peter’s allies are close by and rush to action.  Gorbash flies off to recover him while Carolinus tries to use a spell to just teleport Peter back.

It should be noted that Bryagh, while technically a henchman, is very quickly established as an utterly nasty piece of work.  Our two main dragons, Gorbash and Smrgol, are fairly benevolent and likable, so Bryagh’s utter malice is all the more stark in contrast to them.  Though he gets few lines in the movie, every word out of Bryagh’s mouth is violent and cruel.  Case in point, Bryagh decides to drop Peter when he sees Gorbash in pursuit, sneering “May the rocks crush your skull!” as he does so.  Few dragons in film are as intentionally malicious as this one.

Carolinus’s spell goes through just as Gorbash tries to catch Peter, but, alarmingly, only Gorbash falls to the ground.  Unsure of where Peter went, the others bring Gorbash back to the homestead to recuperate.  Old Smrgol joins the others in watching over his dragon nephew, showing genuine paternal worry for the younger dragon.  However, all are surprised to discover that Gorbash isn’t quite acting like himself – because Gorbash and Peter were merged into one, and now Peter’s mind is at the helm of Gorbash’s body.

Carolinus, in contrast to many other wizards, admits immediately that he fucked that spell up hard, and that the quest is now a bit off since they technically only have two people to start it instead of the necessary three.  Smrgol, despite his incredibly old age, opts to join Peter and Sir Orin on the quest, both to satisfy the need for a magic numeral and so  he can in turn teach Peter how to be a dragon.

With that lead in, the movie indulges in another lesson on dragon biology straight from its literary namesake.  Smrgol explains that dragons need gemstones to breath fire, and rob dwarf mines to get the gems.  This builds a sort of magical ecosystem, with dragons needing dwarves for survival (and providing a reason for dragons to rampage among human/dwarf civilizations and steal gems and gold).  Dragons use the gems to grind limestone in their “craw”, and the ground up limestone helps make the fire inside their body.  Peter theorizes on how this may work in scientific terms: “Limestone is high in calcium, mixed with stomach acids it makes hydrogen, hydrogen lets you float like a blimp.”

Smrgol argues dragons don’t need a complex explanation – “you’ve got fire inside you that makes you go up, that’s all you need to know.”  But, when pressed, Smrgol gives Peter details that help him understand the details anyway.  It’s a merging of magic and science – it allows Peter to have his fantasy and analyze it too.  The tying of dragon fire to dragon flight is important, as they’re the two most fantastical elements of the dragon.

After this we finally get a proper introduction to Sir Orin, the much talked about third member of the questing party.  While chatting with Peter about their shared affection for Melisande, Sir Orin recounts the story of Gorbash’s birth, where he discovers a nest of dragon eggs that Bryagh sets down to devour.  This further establishes Bryagh’s malevolence by showing him to be a child-eating cannibal: “He began to sup on the next generation as it were,” according to Orin.  Orin is only able to save one egg, the one that ultimatley hatches into Gorbash.  Bryagh and Orin’s battle is equal parts silly and badass, which is also a description that works for Orin himself.  Between several almost comical blunders as well as several more genuinely astounding blows, Orin wins by keeping Bryagh from releasing gas before using his metal gauntlet to set off the dragon’s “Thor Thimble” (i.e. the electrical ignition switch dragons use to turn their gas into flame), making Bryagh suffer a somewhat explosive (but not fatal) fall.  This furthers the movie’s growing theme that science is present in fantasy despite the latter’s nature – reality and magic cannot fully be separated, even if beasts like poor Bryagh really wish it could.

The group gathers three more allies from here on out: Aragh, a talking wolf that has been returned to life to help our heroes, Daniel, a beautiful archer who is smitten with Orin, and Giles, an elf.  The scenes that introduce these characters are fun and provide nice character moments for Peter, Smrgol, and Orin, but are ultimately kind of unnecessary.  One of the flaws of this movie is that these three additional adventurers don’t add a lot to the plot – you could cut them entirely and keep the story intact, though it would be slightly less colorful and fun without them.

Eventually our heroes get to the one place all adventurers must visit when questing through a vaguely Medieval European fantasy land: an inn.  Said in is called Hell’s Way, as it lies on the border of “the Realm of the Red Death,” i.e. Ommadon’s domain.  This is when shit starts to get real for our heroes, as we  get a lot of build up for another powerful minion of Ommadon’s that lives near this border: the Ogre of Gormley Keep.  In the classic mythic tradition of monsters like Grendel, the Ogre attacks the Inn at night, when the heroes are sleeping and thus cannot defend themselves.  He kills most of the staff and patrons of the inn before kidnapping Daniel and Orin, forcing Peter and Smrgol to fight him.

The fight between the two dragons and the ogre is pretty brutal, with the ogre outmatching the dragon Peter in terms of raw strength.  Smrgol, despite being older and weaker, jumps into the fray to save Peter, shouting, “Hey you, let that schoolboy go!”  Despite only knowing Peter for a few days, Smrgol has clearly warmed up to him, and he notably uses cleverness and misdirection to destroy the ogre – classic serpent tactics, and also the strengths Peter has that he has forgotten to use in the brutish body of the dragon.  Sadly, Smrgol’s intervention comes at great cost, as the old dragon dies of exertion shortly after the battle ends, leaving Peter in charge of the quest from here on out.

(this fight is also one of the reasons I’ve considered dragons and ogres to be mortal enemies since childhood)

Our heroes face two more challenges as they enter Ommadon’s domain, both of which Peter solves through analysis.  First they encounter a deadly acid, which Peter realizes is sulfuric in nature by smell.  He then basically uses chemistry to figure out how to kill the giant worm creating the acid, saving his alles from death by worm.  This is a notable change from how Peter solved problems earlier in the film, as up till now he relied far too much on the brute strength of his new dragon body without thinking of tactics. The heroes are then cursed with despair, which only Peter resists before using a magic shield to repel it, which admittedly is less in the “using your wits” camp of problem solving and more in the “use a mcguffin” camp, but y’know, points for thinking still.

Infuriated at these failures, Ommadon orders Bryagh to set out with the title: A FLIGHT OF DRAGONS! (Look, if you don’t track this movie down after reading this, at least watch the video in that hyperlink for some quality James Earl Jones voice acting, you will thank me for it.)  That is to say, he asks Bryagh to lead the army of mind controlled dragons he’s collected into battle.  It’s a pretty badass moment, but sadly we don’t have the budget for a battle scene with an army of dragons, so Giles plays a flute to put all the dragons – Peter included – to sleep.  Bryagh remains, however, because unlike the other dragons who were enchanted into wickedness, Bryagh is legitimately fucking evil and refuses to submit. He then proceeds to kill all the helpers of the quest that remain, screaming, “PUNY SCUM OF CAROLINUS, PREPARE TO DIE!” as if to remind us that 1. He can talk and 2. He is an evil S.O.B.  Only Sir Orin manages to put up a good fight against him, eventually killing the cackling monster, though he sadly also perishes from his wounds shortly after.

With all the others dead, we are left with a final confrontation between Ommadon and Peter.  Though Ommadon believes he is victorious at first, Peter emerges from the sleeping Gorbash because he realized two things cannot occupy the same space at the same time, trumping magic with logic.  Ommadon turns into a monstrous, bloated thing with six dragon heads that resemble Bryagh, and challenges Peter to test his power.  Specifically, Ommadon says he can pluck down the sun, and Peter tells him that can’t happen because the sun is no longer in the position Ommadon would reach for: “What you see is the sun’s position 8 and ½ minutes ago… You are magic, mere illusion!  I am logic, science, and the truth!”  After all his trials, Peter realizes that ultimately, for all of magic’s power, it cannot trump the reality of existence.

Ommadon does not accept defeat easily, reminding Peter, “Deny me, and you deny all magic!”  To do away with the evils of imagination – lies, superstition, deceit – Peter must also admit the pleasures of it are equally insubstantial.  Peter does so at great cost, destroying Ommadon with his devotion to logic at the cost of banishing himself from the world of magic.  It is especially awesome when he repels Ommadon’s chanting by listing all the schools of science.

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This is also my reaction to hearing the word “algebra.”

The magic realm is created upon Ommadon’s defeat, and Peter’s allies are revived alongside the slumbering dragons, saving the day.  Melisande wishes to find Peter and thank him, but Carolinus states that Peter cannot return to the Magic Realm:  “The great dome of invisibility grows over our world to protect its sanctity for all time.  And no one on the outside may enter its boundaries, save for the length of a dream or flash of an inspiration.  But it will stay through the years, the centuries, and the ages, a part of man for all time.  And whenever man needs magic, we will be here.”  Melisande persists in her request, and, with some regret, Carolinus agrees to help her.

Peter returns to the modern day world and sells a shield he got on his adventure (and brought with him to the future… somehow, yes it’s a tiny plothole, hush) to fund his game and book.  Melisande follows him, pawning the crown of Ommadon and spending the rest of her life with Peter, showing that at least some bit of fantasy has followed him into reality.

Though not a flawless film, I absolutely adore The Flight of Dragons.  The character design is marvelous, the characters themselves are well portrayed and lovable (even if some are a touch undeveloped), and it is filled with wondrous imagery to inspire the imagination, which it certainly did when I was little and continues to do now.  In addition to all that, it has this wonderful meditation on the purpose of fantasy in a world that is decidedly not fantastical.  Why do we imagine things that do not exist?  Why are we drawn to them?  There are many reasons according to the movie, and though some may be nefarious, we must always remember that fantasy can bring out the best in us.  It can inspire us to create, for there is no other way to make a fantasy real.  We imagine what doesn’t exist so that it can become – and if we imagine a better world, perhaps that can help us find a way to make our world better.