The Greatest Creations of Fantastical Fiction Part 3

(In which we examine demons of fire and shadow, out-of-place police boxes, a thing from outer space, a floating city and freaky modern day fairy tale inventions…)

 

If you haven’t read the earlier entries you can find Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

 

The Balrog

Type: Creature / Antagonist * From: Lord of the Rings * Creator: JRR Tolkien

Tolkien populated Middle Earth with cannily developed races of myth and legend – goblins, dwarves, elves, dragons, but he didn’t stop there. Orcs, whether understood as a larger race of goblins, the warped descendents of elves or their own thing, were one creation and the race has entered fantasy fiction and game without heed of whether they ever were part of our shared mythological heritage to become the ubiquitous henchmen and cannon fodder they are today. But the Balrog amonsgt Tolkien’s creations, for all it likewise finds its roots in legend, partaking in its case of elements of imagined demons, stands apart.

Facing down the Balrog

Balrog Citadel Miniature

Citadel Balrog (unpainted)

It too entered the shared worlds of roleplaying, fiction and gaming miniatures, pilfered and appropriated, but as the ultimate ‘end of game’ boss, the warrior demon invariably equipped as was Tolkien’s original with sword and whip of flame, descriptively wreathed in fire and shadow, and standing around twice the height of a man.

Also, despite Tolkien only alluding to metaphorical wings of shadow, they almost invariably appear winged – John Howe, the illustrator of Tolkien’s works whose own work was used as concept art for the blockbuster movies noted: “It doesn’t say they don’t have wings, so why not? That was Peter’s tongue-in-cheek approach, too!”

Balrog (Citadel)

And painted…

And, of course, when we went to see the Fellowship of the Ring on its release, surely the Balrog was the particular element of the film we were slavering to see with all the visual power of modern Hollywood behind it and pasted over the wide canvas of cinema: it doesn’t disappoint. Not in any sense.

Balrog 2 Of course many, not least the film-makers, will have read Tolkien’s expanded works and learned of the Balrog’s backstory. Perhaps fittingly, like the mythology of ‘real’ supernatural creatures, there are numerous conflicting stories of their past and numbers in Tolkien’s Middle Earth legendarium, but in no respect are they diminished as a result.

But it strikes me that of all the many invented words of Tolkien’s created world there can’t be any more evocative than ‘Balrog’; it sounds exactly like what it is.

Like say you’ve gone potholing and you’ve taken a wrong turn and ended up exploring the mines of Moiria.

‘It’s a what?’ you check, having not quite heard the whispered head’s up of your caving guide.

And when he says it’s a Balrog, he doesn’t need to elaborate that Balrog’s are “scourges of fire… demons of terror”. Because whether or not that is what the racial name conjures in your mind (as it may well do) in all likelihood that name in its own right is going to have you reaching into your backpack – not for some magic scroll or healing potion, but for the spare pair of underwear you stashed beneath.

Balrog

 

The Tardis

Type: Space (and Time) Craft * From: Doctor Who * Creator: The BBC (various)

An obvious inclusion and a creation that needs little comment but, like the Daleks, the Tardis – okay TARDIS to be accurate – is something that has so ingrained itself in popular culture that it’s perhaps easy to dismiss how awesome it actually is.

There’s plenty of cool canonical stuff that has been retroactively incorporated into the Doctor’s iconic space / time machine. It’s got some kind of exotic telepathic technology that, aside from anything else, gives a rationale as to why the Doctor and his companions can speak English to all and sundry throughout the universe. It’s all-but indestructible.

Tardis

It’s amongst the most advanced technology conceivable, partaking of all manner of exotic part-explained science and components.

But, almost mirroring the real world situation of visionary creations versus budget limitations, the Doctor’s Tardis is compromised and flawed, stuck as a police box due to those budgetary strictures and the narrative conceit of a broken chameleon circuit. Nevertheless it’s a craft of extraordinary capability, doing away with the necessity of engines for movement by the straightforward higher tech device of instant spatial transition.

And, of course, there’s the absolute wonder shared by the Doctor’s companions and visitors as well as the viewers at the Doctor’s craft being bigger on the inside (dimensionally transcendental to those in the know).

Tardis Console

And sure, being so well established in the public psyche, the sense of wonder has waned to a degree of cheerful acceptance. But, regardless of how it came about, it remains – the Doctor’s old Type 40 especially – is one of the most fantastic and fantastical creations ever, flawed, quirky, and very British.

The Tardis is the Emperor McGuffin of all spacecraft.

 

Space-Bat-Angel-Dragon

Type: Antagonist / Creature * From: The Iron Man * Creator: Ted Hughes

There are some things – villains or otherwise – whose narrative force comes from the power of their description. The threat of Ted Hughes’ antagonist in ‘The Iron Man’, a children’s book of terse prose, is captured by its composite name alone: Space Bat Angel Dragon. It’s a name that builds up as it approaches the Earth, interpreted as different shapes as it does; hearing it read aloud as a child the creature took on cthulic nature and proportions, years before I’d even heard of Lovecraft. Then comes the description, establishing its size: its body occupying all of Australia, it’s a beast that is relatable only on a continental scale – it wants feeding and, looking back now, could have eaten an Elder God as a starter.

Not including an image; much better left to the imagination.

 

Bespin / Cloud City

Type: Setting * From: The Empire Strikes Back * Creator: Various

The Star Wars trilogy took us away to space in a galaxy far, far away, the planets therein and the familiar but exotic habitats thereon. We’d seen a desert planet (not Tunisia, whatever that is) and a forest planet, not to mention a giant battle station the size of a small moon. Then, in the Empire Strikes Back we find ourselves with our heroes on an ice planet (again, definitely not a glacier in Norway), and a swamp planet. That’s all great.

But then there’s Bespin and Cloud City.

Cloud City Main

Cloud City – Ralph McQuarrie

 Cloud City 3
 Bespin 2

Little needs be said perhaps, but there’s a whole city floating against an incredible, vibrant orange sky and billowing clouds, as we first see when the Millenium Falcon arrives on the gas giant planet. We see bluer skies later, explained in the expanded universe by a 12 hour day. And that’s before we start walking around the city itself…

Cloud City

Doubtless there’d been floating cities in science fiction in the years previous, and in Flash Gordon, part of Lucas’ inspiration for Star Wars in the first place; but the concept had never been realised like this before.

Bespin Cloud City 2

 

The Pale Man

Type: Antagonist * From: Pan’s Labyrinth * Creator: Del Toro

Del Toro brings us into a gorgeous, fearful, vibrant fairy tale world, set against the backdrop of Francoist Spain. On the second of three tasks to prove her worth (to the Faun) Ofelia enters the lair of the Pale Man, a child-eating monster, with the firm advice not to take anything other than its dagger. Of course in fairy tales telling a human what not to do is a pretty guaranteed way of ensuring they do exactly that. Eating two grapes and the Pale Man awakes to give chase.

But first, just roused, he needs to see the intruders – which means putting his eyes, which otherwise rest in a bowl, where they’re meant to go.

IN HIS HANDS.

Pale Man

Yep, mouths and teeth aside, and eyes having been covered already, if you want something freaky look to the hands. (The titular character from the anime film Vampire Hunter D has the odd twist of vampirism of having a fanged mouth in his hand; so, while that’s not quite deserving of a place here, that’s that variant covered).

What ensues is the most wonderfully grotesque chase with the Pale Man holding the backs of its hands to its eye-sockets, palms and eyes out.

But again, like Whedon (see Greatest Creations Part 1 – The Gentlemen), Del Toro knows that appearance is only one string to the bow and makes stunning use of its movement to reinforce the monstrous conceit of its vision and the child-eating monstrosity that it is.

Absolutely gorgeous.

 

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