Tag: fantasy (page 1 of 22)

Flash Fiction: Sorceress of Flame, Part 2

This week’s Flash Fiction challenge over at Terribleminds is to write the second part of a four-part story started by someone else. I picked “Sorceress of Flame” by Toni J, whose site you should definitely check out.

— Part 1, by Toni J —

The magic in dragonflame lingered long after any heat had died away. Lady Sera knelt down and pressed her hand to the ground. The charred earth sent a shockwave through her body. Broken wagons and barrels littered the ground beneath the black skeletons of trees. This place had been a popular trade route not a week ago. Now, it was a grave.

Olvar stood a few paces behind. He picked up a skull, and dusted off the ashes.

“Poor souls. Is this the work of the monster we seek?”

It couldn’t be. Her father was drawing a pact between dragons and men. It would be signed by month’s end. Why would a dragon risk destroying that peace? But, the forest had all the evidence of a dragon attack. She rubbed her arm as she stood up.

“I admit, it feels like the scars of dragonflame. When the villagers described what had been terrorizing them, I didn’t believe it.”

“Dragons are ruthless, uncontrollable beasts. It’s only natural they would stoop to this depravity.”

Lady Sera clenched her jaw at the insult. She’d known many dragons; even the most ruthless could never be called mere beasts.

“I… come. Let us find Juniper. Perhaps we can catch this creature before any others get hurt.”

Olvar spoke a blessing over the skull and placed it back on the ground. They followed the trail of destruction north and west, toward the mountains. A dragon would be impossible to track once it reached the peaks. Lady Sera gripped her staff tight as they approached the shredded carcass of a goat.

“Something isn’t right.”

Olvar sniffed the air.

“Agreed. The meat’s soured, but still smoking.”

“Over here. Another berry bush, burnt to a crisp. The evidence is too evenly spread to be random.”

“A trap, then. Very good!”

He rushed forward, pulling his longsword from its sheath. Lady Sera reached out to stop him.

“Wait! Juniper hasn’t caught up yet. Olvar!”

It was too late. The paladin let out a battle cry as he disappeared into the darkening woods. Lady Sera wreathed her hands in fire as she rushed after him. The magical flame lit the forest around her. She followed the sound of Olvar crashing through the underbrush.

She heard a falcon’s shriek overhead; Juniper’s hunting bird meant the ranger would be near. Soon after, a bellowing wail pierced the air. Lady Sera’s heart sank. It was a dragon after all. Massive wingbeats sent gusts of wind through the trees. When she reached the open cliff, she saw Juniper firing two arrows into the dragon’s right wing. The creature flapped once, twice, zigzagging over the foothills.

Olvar heaved and wiped the sweat from his brow. Bronze blood tipped the paladin’s blade.

“We were close. Next time, the monster won’t be so lucky.”

Lady Sera shook the magic flames from her hands.

“He won’t get far with those injuries. We should rest a while.”

Olvar wiped the dragonblood from his blade and saved it in a vial.

“When you said you were hunting, Junie, I thought you meant boar.”

“Never fear. Hera and I caught four rabbits. Build the fire and you can have two of them.”

Olvar piled the wood and set out bedrolls. Lady Sera struck the flint and bent low to blow on the sparks. They only caused a little smoke. She checked to make sure nobody was watching, and spat into the tinder. The fire sprang up instantly. She sat back to find Juniper shaking her head.

“Don’t waste your mana on our fires. You’re going to run out of replenishment potions.”

Lady Sera laughed, perhaps a little too loudly.

“I’ve never been good with the flint. Magic’s expensive, but it’s easier!”

During their meal, they discussed the scene of the dragon attack, and the creature responsible. Lady Sera had a host of questions, very few she could ask aloud.

“Did you see the dragon, Junie?”

The ranger shifted in her seat.

“It was dark. Must have been a male, though. A real brute.”

Olvar grunted as he tore off a chunk of leg.

“What do looks matter? Tomorrow the beast will die, and we will collect a kingly reward!”

Lady Sera’s appetite waned as she considered the possible dragons in this land. None that she could name deserved death. An interloper, perhaps? Her father would want to know of it. If she could identify him or her, she could alert the dragon leaders. They would lose their bounty, but what was gold compared to peace?

Later that evening, she waited for her companions to sleep. Olvar’s snoring kept the mountain wolves at bay. Juniper’s breaths grew deeper and more peaceful. Once she was certain they wouldn’t follow her, Lady Sera snuck off in the direction of the wounded dragon.

Dragonblood made a pungent trail through the foothills. Each drop reeked like a smelting factory. Where it touched stone, the surface became metallic. Lady Sera’s nostrils flared as she took in the scent. Mixed in with the blood, there was something… else. She followed that new, strange aspect straight into a bramble patch.

She hardened her arm from the thorns while she reached inside. The source of the mystery smell was an arrow. By flamelight, she noticed thin layer of poison coated the barb. She wrapped the arrow in fabric and tied it to her belt.

A low roar rumbled up ahead. Lady Sera took off toward the sound of the dragon. She found the wounded creature a mile later. It thrashed in the underbrush, dragging one wing along the ground. She cautiously approached, staying outside the range of a lashing tail or snapping jaw.

“Great One, I am Lady Sera of the Flame. Please, speak with me.”

The dragon wheeled on her. His golden eyes were clouded over. She held up her fire-wrapped hand to see him better. He staggered toward her; his slick, black scales reflected the orange light. Lady Sera’s eyes widened.


— Part 2 —

For a moment, the grove was covered in an aura of utter silence. Dragon and sorceress stared at one another. Lady Sera’s breath caught in her throat. Her father’s countenance was aggressive, almost feral; had he been so gravely wounded that he was blinded by his pain and his rage? Even at their most calm, dragons were dangerous creatures. Wounded and slighted, they were far more likely to strike rather than talk.

After a hearbeat that felt far too long for its own good, the golden eyes of the dragon cleared slightly. Vertical pupils blacker than obsidian narrowed within molten gold irises. Then, after a moment, she heard what was both a relief and a concern.

Daughter. You are the last presence I expected in this wood.

Lady Sera bit her lip at the sound of her father’s heart-song. In their natural forms, dragons did not have the proper structure in face and throat to make the sounds required for most mortal languages. Instead, when a dragon wished to converse with a mortal (and was uninterested in taking mortal form themselves), they focused their wills into a projection of their part in the song all dragons shared. It sounded like a chorus in Sera’s mind, low and harmonious, dangerous and soothing all at once, the words emerging from the song after a moment of clear, beautiful music.

The concern was that the voice of Vorathrax, her father, sounded somewhat strained. She approached, eyes on the dark ichor that stained his scales.

“Father, you’re wounded!”

Yes. The dragon turned his head to regard the gash in his shoulder. An envenomed arrowhead, slipping past my scales. An expert shot from a practiced archer. One of your companions?

Lady Sera winced. “Yes. Juniper, the ranger.”

Vorathrax chuffed, smoke billowing from his nostrils in brief, singular puffs. Better her than that oaf of a warrior you slum with.

“The wound is deep. You could die.”

I have endured far worse, and you know it.

Even as she heard his words, she watched him settle his four feet into the earth, then turn in a circle three times, reminding Lady Sera of a housecat. As he did, the song she could hear grew in pitch and depth, and she felt a sympathetic chord struck within her own being. Draconic magic was not like the arcana studied by mortals; dragonsong was a fundamental part of creation. As he rested, curling up on the ground, Sera approached. The dragon opened one of his eyes to study her, then closed it again. She slid into the center of the circle created by his body. Her father’s breath rumbled deep beneath the scales of his chest.

“Did you attack that caravan?”

No. Of course not. That was Skarathrax.

Sera nodded. Skarathrax was her half-brother, a young and impetuous dragon. “What set him off this time?”

Farouk and I were teaching him some of our history. He was struggling to pay attention. I chided him. He flew off in anger.

“What were you discussing?”

Some of our interactions with mortal-kind. Farouk and I were sharing stories regarding the songs that change form, for a time.

“Like how you met my mother.”

Just so. The music paused, and Vorathrax huffed again. It was perhaps not the best subject upon which to educate him at this point. He needs to shed soon. He is always cranky before a shed.

She nodded, resting her head on her father’s chest.

Serathrax. The feel of her own name, full and in the music of her father’s blood, made her shiver. You should come home.

“I can’t. The mortals have to be taught that you’re not all dangerous. And you’re far from savage animals.”

And you come into the wild hunting us as part of this education?

“It’s my hope that one day we’d find a dragon who would be willing to share their heart-song with someone other than myself.”

Your optimism has always heartened me. She felt a rumble in his chest; it was a sound of contentment and comfort. But you know, daughter, that those of us willing to mingle with mortalkind are few. And when we do, we prefer to do it in a form more familiar to lesser beings.

She nodded. “I know. But I still have hope.”

For a time, neither of them said anything. Then, her father’s heart-song, more melancholy and soft, drifted into her mind.

How is your mother?

Sera swallowed. “She’s ill. Nothing threatening, yet, but she’s rather miserable. I had to leave her to investigate the attacks.”

Vorathrax rumbled. I should come to her.

“You should stay with her.”

You know such an arrangement is impossible for me.

Anger flared within the sorceress. “You are one of the mightiest of all dragons. There is nothing that is impossible for you.”

I have power, this is true. But as one of the eldest wyrms, I also have responsibilities. Few of us yet live to believe in coexisting with the world, rather than conquering it. Without my guidance, hatchlings like your half-brother are doomed; perhaps not to death, but to lonely and completely destructive lives. I will not abandon them. Not even for you, my daughter.

Sera wanted to protest loudly, to argue, but a tingle at the edge of her senses pushed the discussion aside. Vorathrax felt it, as well, and his head raised even as he uncurled to stand. Lady Sera got to her feet, calling forth flame to her hand. By the flickering light of her arcane fire, she saw two familiar forms emerging from the underbrush, and her heart dropped into her stomach.

“Good work, Lady Sera!” Olvar crowed, the blade of his sword gleaming in firelight. “You found the beast!”

Juniper’s eyes narrowed, settling on the arrow tucked in Sera’s belt. “Something is not right about this.”

Lady Sera held up her flaming hand. A familiar itch tugged at her forehead, and down her spine. Not now, not now… “Olvar… wait.”

Instead, Olvar charged.

Movie Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

The second part of a three-part story is often the trickiest. It can be hard to work the tale in such a way that it feels like its own complete story, yet works to connect the first part with the last. Even when a work is planned as a trilogy from the outset, the second part can suffer from a bit of ‘middle child syndrome’, and parts of it can feel artificially padded as plot points are set up for the final installment to knock over. J.R.R. Tolkien and Peter Jackson managed to avoid this with The Two Towers, which has its own contained story to tell. The question many asked is, can the same be done with The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug?

Courtesy New Line Cinema

We pick up directly where An Unexpected Journey left off. Bilbo, Gandalf, Thorin, and the other dwarves are on the run from orcs. Even as the hunters give chase, they are unwittingly driving the company closer to Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, the goal of the company’s quest. While they evade immediate capture, Gandalf must leave to join Radagast the Brown in investigating rumors of a great evil on the rise. Meanwhile, Bilbo and his friends have to navigate the shady paths of Mirkwood, deal with the king of the wood elves, and behold the area around the Lonely Mountain known as ‘the desolation of Smaug’, a land scarred by dragonfire and cowering in the shadow of Erebor.

As much as I thoroughly enjoyed An Unexpected Journey, I am willing to acknowledge that, while it doesn’t rush, its pace can be a touch inconsistent. A good portion of that film, especially the first two acts of it, are occupied primarily with flashbacks and backstory. I realize this is necessary, particularly in the first chapter of a trilogy, but it can make the story move in two directions: forward, then backwards, then forward again. It can be awkward, and I’m glad An Unexpected Journey didn’t feel that way even as it shifts gears. Thankfully, The Desolation of Smaug has only direction: Forward.

Courtesy New Line Cinema

From the opening of the film, with Thorin and company on the run from orcs, until the confrontation with Smaug in Erebor, the story is always heading into its next encounter. The nice thing is that, as much as it’s constantly in motion, it gives more than enough breathing room for its characters. We get more time with characters established in the first film, and new ones are introduced and given their own elbow room. That’s one of the advantages to Jackson incorporating so much from Unfinished Tales and The Silmarillion and expanding this relatively simple story into three extra-long films. The world of Middle-Earth, and the beings that populate it, are given ample opportunity to come to vibrant, breathing life.

Even as the world expands and the story moves along, we manage to stay with and care about our core characters, for the most part. With Gandalf leaving the company to investigate Dol Guldur, and Bilbo already having overcome his impulse to just run home and curl up with a good book under about a thousand blankets, we focus more on Thorin Oakenshield. There are moments with other characters, to be certain. Thranduil gets more personality, Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel steals most of the scenes she’s in, and I really liked the character moments we get with Beorn, Bard, and even the Master of Laketown. More dwarven moments are always good, from Bombur doing more than just being the butt of jokes to Kili turning on the charm to Oin’s healing abilities. But really, this is Thorin’s movie, right up until we meet the dragon Smaug. Thorin definitely comes into his own, having kingly moments as well as showing the nuance and questionable decision-making that comes from obsession. All of this might sound like Bilbo is taking a backseat in his own movie, but he has plenty of great moments, and I was reminded more than once that not only is he the uncle of Frodo Baggins, he’s also related to Peregrin Took. I recall grinning at the screen, shanking my head, and saying “That’s a total Pippin moment.”

Courtesy New Line Cinema

I understand that there are quite a few die-hard Tolkien fans who aren’t satisfied with these films. And I can understand why. With its additions, expansions, and digressions, these film adaptations of The Hobbit are deviating from the text far more than Jackson’s work on The Lord of the Rings ever did. From the perspective of fans that have read and digested and lived with The Hobbit for decades, the simplicity and pace and whimsy of this story are being watered down, if not entirely lost. Since so much time is being spent with characters who aren’t the hobbit of the title, the deviations seem even more aberrant, again from their point of view. I can appreciate that perspective, and if that sort of thing is a deal-breaker for you, you’re justified in not seeing it. However, from my point of view, the inclusion of more of Tolkien’s lore and the growth of Middle-Earth around the core of this simple story and these vibrant characters is a good use of the material and leads to a satisfying continuation of a truly epic tale of fantasy. I may be overly optimistic, but I honestly believe this is building to a fully coherent and connected story that begins at Bag End with Bilbo Baggins getting a visit from a wizard, and ends at the Black Gate of Mordor. Or maybe a few scenes and a couple gratuitous fades to black after that.

Stuff I Liked: There’s a lot here for Tolkien nerds. The scene with Beorn is fantastically done. I’m glad they expanded on more of the dwarves. The execution of Bilbo in the forest of Mirkwood was very cool, from climbing the tree to the signs of his growing connection to the One Ring.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: Some of the digressions may not have been entirely necessary. A couple of the scenes’ CGI could have been sharpened up a bit – maybe they’d look better in 3D or 48 FPS?
Stuff I Loved: Thorin really seizes hold of both his destiny and our imaginations. Bard is a colorful character that makes decisions that always feel consistent from his perspective. There’s more wizardly daring-do, the fight along the river was a treat, and Martin Freeman continues to demonstrate what an inspired choice he was for Bilbo Baggins.
Stuff I REALLY Loved: Smaug.

Bottom Line: In the end, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug feels a lot more like the continuation of the overall narrative of The Hobbit rather than trying to stand entirely on its own. However, with its pace and new elements and complications, it feels a lot less like padded filler and more like a broadening and deepening of the world Bilbo is exploring. Absolutely die-hard long-standing fans of Tolkien may be turned off by its additions and digressions. However, it continues to demonstrates Peter Jackson’s directorial skill, the cast is in great form, the action’s never dull, and it delivers perhaps the best dragon on screen to date. For my money, it’s definitely worth seeing, and perhaps more than once.

Flash Fiction: The Wandering Sage

Dunes of the Namib Desert, taken by Simon Collins

The random fantasy character concept generator at the crux of this week’s Terribleminds Flash Fiction challenge gave me, among others, “a foul-mouthed sage is searching for a legendary weapon.”

“If this infernal heat doesn’t kill me,” Balthazar growled, “I’m sure the desert would love to fill my lungs with sand.”

“Why would the Equalizer be out here?”

“Think about it.” Balthazar tried not to snap at his apprentice. Gaspar was a good kid, and smart for his age, but he had an annoying tendency of not thinking things through. “If you wanted to hide something from the world, how smart is it to build a great structure out where everybody can see it?”

“But way out here? Wouldn’t you lose track of where you left it?”

“Not if you’re a Gods-damned Sage. Now enough with the belly-aching and give me the Astrolabe of Epsilon before I choke on the damn dune that’s come to play with us.”

Gaspar fumbled in his packs and produced the device. Balthazar squinted against the swirling sand, and tugged the dials into their appropriate positions. It was much like the other astrolabes in the world, but the one created by Epsilon, a sage so ancient even his name was lost, charted not the paths of the Sun and stars, but the lines of power that lay beneath the surface of the earth, invisible to the naked eye. He kept his eyes on it as he walked, stopping suddenly, turning, then moving on.

“The storm is getting worse!” Gaspar had to shout to be heard above the wind. “If we don’t find it soon…!”

“Please keep stating the obvious,” Balthazar replied, “because that certainly isn’t getting old.”

The Astrolabe of Epsilon rattled in his hands. No one was entirely sure how it knew, but it did. Balthazar pointed at the featureless sand at his feet.

“Here! We dig!”

Gaspar pulled the shovels out, and handed one to his master. It was hard to get started with the wind, but working together they managed to carve out a small hole in the dune. Gaspar’s shovel struck something about a foot under the surface, and when he tried to lift his shovel, it caught hold and there was a mechanical sound.

“Idiot boy! Back away before…!”

With a whirring, clunking sound, the trapdoor under the pair gave way, and they fell through the sand into the chamber beneath. The trapdoor shut almost immediately, and while the drop was short, it left both men half-buried in a small pile of sand.

“Augh! I told you Esvartus set up his laboratory this way! You should have been more careful!”

“I’m sorry, Master, but…”

Balthazar got to his feet and dusted off his robes. “‘But’ nothing. You need to pay more attention, Gaspar, and keep your mind more ordered. I know you’re young, yet, and visions of moaning women yeilding to your manly charms dance behind your eyes, but focus on where you are and what you’re doing, or you’re going to get yourself killed. Or worse, me!”

“Of course, Master. It won’t happen again.”

“By all the Gods’ knickers, it won’t. Now, let’s have some light.”

He extended his hand and spoke the right words. Elemental flame came to life in the air between his palm and fingers. He opened his hand more to give it more room to breathe. It illuminated the antechamber, showing pictograms and carvings on every surface, even the bottom of the trapdoor that had just admitted them into its bowels.

“Now. To find the Equalizer. Epsilon’s Astrolabe won’t work underground, so we need to go by Esvartus’ notes. What did you piece together?”

Gaspar pulled several half-ruined bits of parchment out of his pocket. “Only that to approach the Equalizer is to court the most dangerous of minds.”

“Pshaw. Esvartus wasn’t so dangerous that he wouldn’t let a pretty girl turn his head, either. You’d have liked him, Gaspar.”

“Why is that?”

“He died fucking.”

Balthazar picked his way through the corridor leading away from the antechamber, stepping over the skeletons laying over the various traps they’d triggered. Only a couple got past the first few feet of blades and spikes. The rest of the traps were cleverly concealed, at least from lesser minds. Balthazar made it a point to not tell Gaspar where they were. If the child was going to make it as a sage of his own, he’d have to deal with things far deadlier than static, ancient traps.

Once he reached the only other chamber in Esvartus’ hideaway, he turned to see Gaspar stepping gingerly over the last acid pit. Balthazar tried not to smile.

“There may be hope for you yet, shitbrain.”

“My hope is that you’ll stop calling me that.” Gaspar nodded towards the center of the room. “Is that it?”

Balthazar approached the dias, his unlit hand reaching towards the pedistal. “Yes. I believe it is.”

“Master, wait.”

Balthazar stopped, whipping around towards Gaspar. “What is it now?”

“On the off chance that intruders were able to pass all of these traps, do you think he would leave everything else unprotected?”

Balthazar blinked. “Come on, Gaspar, he wasn’t that paranoid.”

“Wouldn’t you be?” Gaspar stepped up to stand beside his master, produced a long thin wand of yew, and touched the pedistal. A sigil appeared in the stone.

“A summoning glyph. Probably some form of bound devil.”

Balthazar watched agape as Gaspar twirled his wand in an anticlockwise motion, intoning the dispersal spell Balthazar had taught him the week before. The sigil disappeared with a soft sigh.

“Hmm. Perhaps a succubus. A good way to appear to offer an explorer a reward before destroying them.” Gaspar turned to Balthazar. “What?”

“Gaspar, I take back most of the bad things I’ve said about you.”

“… Most?”

Balthazar did smile, now, as he removed the top of the pedistal and reached inside. The Equalizer was just past the stone lip. He pulled it out, and showed it to his apprentice.

“This is what the princes all fear?”


“What could men of power possibly fear from a book?”

Balthazar’s smile broadened.

“That proves, shitbrain, that you still have much to learn.”

Flash Fiction: The Farmer’s Child

Typical Medieval Farm House, Courtesy UNCP

In response to being asked to generate a random sentence.

This child farms.

She knows that it is work mostly done by boys. It is hard, long, muscle-snapping, back-breaking work, from sun-up until sun-down. Tools large and small are used to till the fields, harvest the grain, milk some animals, slaughter others. This child does all of those things.

It would not be this way if the farmer’s wife had had a son. This child knows this. She does want a brother. It would stop the other children from laughing at her, calling her a boy when she’s a girl, pulling down her pants when she’s walking with her arms full and laughing because she lacks what boys have. It’s not my fault, she often thinks. Why are they so mean? They never drew blood, but on days like today, they would blacken her eye or leave parts of her sore.

This child’s father is not one for comfort. He is a hard man of a hard land. Years of living under the realm’s protectors have made him so. They come and take his grain, sometimes a pig or even a cow, and give nothing in return save promises that his fields will remain unburned, his wife and daughter unraped. He calls them ‘thugs’ and ‘brigands’ and worse when they cannot hear. But this child hears, and the acidic and unpleasant feeling of hatred boils in her guts.

When the distant bells in the village begin to toll, it is towards the end of the day. Too late for worship. And the tolling is rapid, panicked. Then the voices can be heard: something has men and women screaming, calling for the guard, begging for mercy.

The farmer gathers up his child to get her inside. She can peek out around his shoulder. The village is already ablaze, and she hears the deep-throated roar somewhere beyond the thick, black smoke, which is buffeted by the power of mighty wings.

A dragon!

Out from the village ride several figures on fearsome chargers. They do not wear the white of the realm’s protectors, and their chain armor is black as pitch. Helms in the shapes of skulls and screaming demons adorn their heads, and they wield flails and axes and short bows. One laughs as he raises his bow, pulling the string taut and letting fly into a fleeing woman. She falls dead at the edge of the farm.

The farmer seems, for a moment, unwilling or unable to let go of his child, the child he didn’t want, the child he has not even named yet, claiming she would earn her name if she survived the decade. One year away, and now her world was burning. The farmer sets her down near the house, telling her to climb under it, reaching for his scythe. He is telling her to protect her mother when the arrow finds his back.

He cannot keep himself upright, and collapses on top of his child. She is unable to move him, screaming his name, pushing against his shoulders, horrified by the sound of his rattling breath in her ear. She pushes with all of her might, but his body will not budge. A soft, pained sound comes from his lips, and then he is still. She squeezes her eyes shut against the tears and the smoke, struggling and moving as much as possible, doing anything she can to escape.

Flames wash over the farmyard. Screaming, her body twists and turns, desperate to escape the prison her father’s corpse has created. The heat climbs quickly, and she coughs, breathing smoke. She gives her body one final pull to try and free it, and feels something tear. She doesn’t know if it’s her clothing or her skin, and she doesn’t care. She screams in pain as she slowly pushes herself free from the burning body on top of her, staggering to her feet and losing her balance almost immediately.

She stares at her hand. Flames race up her sleeve, and while her skin grows hot, she feels no pain from it. As she watches, a cut received during her struggle to escape her father’s grasp cracks and boils, slowly peeling the skin back. But the tissue beneath is neither red nor raw. She holds her hand up to the fire’s flickering light as she stands, flames reflected in tiny dark scales. She hears the roar of the dragon over the din of slaughter and the cries of the dying, and something in her yearns to roar back.

On sheer impulse, she begins to walk, then to run. She runs through the fire towards the smoke. She feels her human clothing, her human skin, her human disguise, falling away into the heat. Pain washes through her as her shoulders push against her back, growth and change giving her both a surge of strength and an overwhelming appetite. She leans on the wall of a burning house for a moment, and looks at her hand again. It is no longer the pink, squishy appendage of a little girl, but a strong hand ending in vicious talons and covered in black scales. She flexes her hands, looks down at the rest of her scaly body, and then back up.

The other children of the village, fleeing the fires, have stopped to stare at her.

She looks up. Wheeling overhead is the dragon, wings wider than the breadth of her father’s field, looking down at the scene with eyes like molten pools. They fix on the girl, and she is struck by what she sees in them. It is a gaze she has seen before, a quiet love and a resolute desire to see her rise above all that opposes her… the look of a mother proud of her child.

This child looks back at her bullies. Her talons shine in the fire light. Her mother’s riders rampage through the village.

For the first time in a long time, this child smiles. Her mother roars, and as she runs forward, she roars back.

Movie Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien, is a far more filmable piece of work than his larger work, The Lord of the Rings. It has a more simple narrative, its plot is contained to one volume, and its themes remain focused on the character of Bilbo Baggins and how he deals with his adventures. Yet, according to interviews and as evidenced in works such as the Unfinished Tales and the Silmarillion, Tolkien knew there was more going on than a hobbit coming out of his hole, and the intent was to embellish this work. Director Peter Jackson has taken it upon himself to do just that, adapting the story into three films, the first of which is sub-titled An Unexpected Journey.

Courtesy New Line Cinema

Bilbo Baggins is a hobbit. He is concerned with remaining a respected member of his community and not inviting any sort of trouble to his doorstep. Unfortunately for him, the wizard Gandalf has the exact opposite in mind. Thirteen dwarves show up at Bilbo’s house, and while they are certainly capable of troublemaking, they’re also personable and companionable. The leader of the company, Thorin Oakenshield, is a dwarf prince bent on reclaiming his homeland from the evil dragon Smaug, and to do that he needs the help of someone who can sneak into the dragon’s lair undetected. Gandalf has chosen Bilbo for this task, in spite of Thorin’s reservations and Bilbo’s own reluctance. The hobbit does come around to the idea of at least leaving his home – and a good thing too, otherwise we’d have no story.

The term ‘reluctant hero’ has never been more apt than in describing Bilbo Baggins. Neither a great warrior nor unflinchingly brave, there’s something very charming and telling about the hobbit in a very fashionable jacket and waistcoat following the heavily armed and armored company of dwarves. And when trouble does find Bilbo, he does not immediately seek a violent solution for the problem at hand; more often than not, it’s his wits and fast talking that saves him. It means a lot, in this day and age, to see a protagonist who does what he can to get himself out of trouble without violence.

Courtesy New Line Cinema
Does the contract also protect the dwarves from liability related to addiction to magic rings?

This isn’t to say that The Hobbit is devoid of action. In fact, many of the scenes from the book have been embellished with Jackson’s trademark adeptness with epic action set pieces. We even get flashbacks to epic battles of the past. The tale tends to feel even more fantastical than The Lord of the Rings, focused as we are on non-human races and characters. And while accusations have been leveled at the film calling it too long or too padded, the moments of expanded lore and the occasional cameo are actually welcome moments to catch one’s breath between all of the fighting and survival. In spite of the film’s length, it’s paced quite reasonably and does not overstay its welcome.

Martin Freeman absolutely nails the affect of a fussy, emotionally exasperated hobbit far out of his depth. Richard Armitage brings a sort of haunted nobility to Thorin Oakenshield, who is clearly cut from a different cloth than most of the other dwarves. Boisterous and personable as they are, it can be difficult to keep track of all of them. Sir Ian McKellan makes a welcome return as Gandalf the Grey, and I was very pleased with the expanded role given to Radagast the Brown, played by Sylvester McCoy. And rather than being part of a monolithic evil as they were in Lord of the Rings, the foes faced by the company vary wildly from three culinary connoisseur trolls to an orc with a grudge against Thorin. All of this makes for great storytelling and a fine film just in time for the holiday season.

Courtesy New Line Cinema
“You did remember the Old Toby, didn’t you, Bilbo? We can’d do this without the proper pipeweed.”

Stuff I Liked: The White Council. The antics of the dwarves. The pacing of the story and the ways in which it kept moving without feeling rushed. The detail given to each of the dwarves even if they were hard to keep track of. The new look of the wargs.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: After two and a half hours, the 3D glasses really started to hurt.
Stuff I Loved: Dwarven song. The connection between Gandalf and Galadriel. Radagast the Brown. Bilbo’s affectations and tics. The perfect ominous atmosphere of Bilbo encountering Gollum in his cave. Just about everything related to Erebor. The scene with the trolls. The way Bilbo faces his problems – he’s usually pretty scared, but he steps up anyway, and that’s what makes him heroic.

Bottom Line: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey not only works excellently as a tale in and of itself, but bodes quite well for the next two films to come. It is a welcome return to Middle-Earth, with the same high quality in performances and production as Jackson’s previous fantasy trilogy. It is clearly a labor of love for everyone involved, and you can lay any suspicion of it being a blatant cash-grab to rest. It is definitely worth your time to go and see.

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