There is a deeply personal connection with this animation and its cheesy song bring back dead media memories. This being one of the illegal VHS tapes I watched as an enthralled kid with Andrei Ciubotaru my high school friend (artist and art teacher now) and few others in 80s Romania. Pirated VHS where the only way to get such material, or via neighboring countries TV station depending where you were (Serbia, Hungary or in my case Bulgaria). Most of these VHS were dubbed by one single person – film critic Irina Nistor who did voices for all characters and for hundreds if not thousands tapes. This one was a rare EN copy.
Apart from being a childhood artefact it still stands the test of time for me. It is one of the great animations of the 80s and has this strange bizarre effect of mediated arrival via a winded move; a hybrid of US based D & D material content drawn by the top of the art blooming Japanese anime industry of the times.
It is also interesting in other regards. It is a animation based on a speculative evolution book from 1979 by Peter Dickinson with the same name, inspired itself by the speculative biology theories developed inside the Earthsea Cycle by Ursula K LeGuin (1968-2001), who I didn’t know much about at the time.
It is a sort of scientific explanation (or pseudo-scientific, take it how you want) that naturalizes these mythical monsters – the dragons. All those probable explanation of the dragon physiology, metabolism and chemical peculiarities (such as the hydrochloric acid thesis) from the movie are all present in this earlier book. The impetus to rationalize or to give scientific importance to various legendary, fables or superstitions may seem naive or misleading but I think there is great merit to that. Not only does it blur otherwise highly patrolled borders around what is a proper object of science but it also shows the deep interplay btw science, occultism, alchemy and Enlightenment. It also show that fictions have becoming shaping forces on their own, no matter if false of true, they are living their imprint on the world we live in. There is also the point of the peculiar history of the history science itself, especially the Scientific Revolution in its hermetic or esoteric threads. Thinking here of Frances Yates books in particular but also about the admirable work done by Erik Davis in his new book High Weirdness and at https://techgnosis.com/ in widening and following a fertile mutual interplay. A particularity of the animation is its emphasis on magic rather than religion or even sorcery.
The Flight of Dragons could not be more actual than nowdays in an age where flat earthers and hollow earthers and neo-barbarians co-exist with Netflix and where fictions and in particular, seemingly fringe creepy pasta fictions have definitely a life of their own. When the fringe is center stage, one is now aware both of the magical powers of science and of the “meme magic” (the infamous #memewarfare or CCRU hyperstitions), and more disturbingly of the big exploitable reservoirs and operational powers of online and offline hate. Otherwise it is an early example of D & D and plays on the fact that it is all a big animated board game. This fact reappears several time during the movie. Once played by the former scientist P. Dickinson and game board designer that actually plays the movie characters in a pawn shop setting were with the owner trying to get him to invest in his new gaming enterprise. Another time it is Ommadon himself, the dark wizzard that uses it as surveillance technology, like Sauron, monitoring the various characters in their moves towards his domain. It is never clear who is playing who and who is being written by whom – as much as thethe animated character Dickinson seems to be precisely the author f thethe dragon speculative evolution book.
I will focus on a few incredible moments from this animation. The first is the setting of a (board game) meeting of the ruling multicultural wizzards and their panic response; Carlinus the Green Wizzard (power of life, growth, everything green), Solaris the Blue Wizzard (sea, heavens) and Golden Wizard Lo Tae Zhao(ether, light) and Ommadon (black magic and evil) to discuss the need to protect and basically make invisible the magical realm. It is basically deterritorialization and reterritorialization in action. In particular this disenchantment manifests itself in an eco-primitivist context, the water wheels of particular nasty bunch of humans (looking more like goblins) kills a swan that is revived by Carolinus. To be honest I also get the slight feel of a sort of white collar vs working class polluters going on, but it is just me maybe. The aim is to protect this fantasy world from (guess what) Entzauberung aka the encroaching rationalism of Science and Technology that starts to limit, actively debunk and eliminate magic.
Here something happens that sort breaks the magic alliance – Ommadon is pretty sure that the palliative, pacifist and protectionist methods of the three other wizzards are doomed in the face of relentless progress. Here he exhibits a ruthless proto- accelerationist plan: to turn humans against themselves, to use hate, and the vicious destructive power of machinery to annihilate forests and thus human life support systems as such. Also capital in the form of accumulation and greed seems to be part of Ommadon’s answer to the challenge posed by progress to magic.
At the face of these, the three ‘good’ wizards resort to an apparently self-defeating tactic, they recruit a human from the future. It is probably exactly the opposite as the first Terminator. But then the anachronism works, not only does a Yank at King Arthur’s court miraculously solve medieval problems but he is actually more susceptible to the charm or lost magic, more retro, more into princesses like Melisande and unreal dragons. We could go endlessly on, with the end fact being that the modern skeptic is somehow enchanted with (also very modern) love in the end- the most powerful of magic that keeps him connected with the magic realms. There is a bit of Luceafarul material in there too. They bring somebody disenchanted with science and the dryness of it all – an escapist but with a science background to smuggle him to their world and make him start a quest against Ommadon. This is indeed the fulcrum of their argument – that he can be re-enchanted by what just seem his to own game creations which are in fact somehow ‘real’ and consequaential, make him part of an existing fragile world that needs his help.
Second spoiler moment and one of my favorites is the final confrontation, where everything seems lost and all the various allies (a wolf, a knight, archer, dwarf etc) are being killed by the evil dragon Bryagh in a desperate final battle. In the end only Peter, the nerd, geek and scientist faces the immensely more-than-human inhuman Ommadon that aims to squash all opposition. Here comes science into play – as counter spell against the evil black magic. Astronomy, particle physics and Einsteinian relativity theory formulas are being deployed and invoked exactly like magical spells, as ways to mercilessly dispel and even mock the darkest of the darkest magic. In the effect, while actually accomplishing what the good wizzards feared most, they also show the peculiar new magic of science that is as deeply operational as magic is supposed to have been even more so.
Lastly, not to be ignored is the fact that Peter’s mind is being transferred into the body of a dragon. In the beginning he is just cosplaying a young knight in a quest, then things go terribly wrong (or perfect depending on who is who). I consider this one of the greatest episodes in any speculative fiction – be it film, books or animation. It posits the fact that there is some mutual discomfort, that his mind and all its knowledge is not just being uploaded into another imaginary body. It does not even matter if it is an imaginary body or not, and this is the high speculative tenor of it. This body is actually quite substantial, it does work – it is a fire breathing, gas belching, flying dragon by the name of Gorbash. Gorbash is not gone, he actually sleeps inside the same head. You will have to discover the details of this unwanted body swap. This is a great experiment in dragon embodiment. It is not enough to write, to think and love dragons, one should also feel dragon, one should also switch places with them and see things from their perspective.
Suffice to say that Peter is thus forced to explore ‘scientifically’ the peculiarities of his new (actually Gorbash’s) body. This has all sorts of unintended consequences, including how the others perceive him, befriend him or not or how he learns from the old dragon to be a dragon or the fact that he has still to master and practice his fire metabolism and hone his flying skills. Being a brainy does not help in this case, his geeky mind is still actually relatively harmless in the most terrifying body of all. He is basically almost learning like a person who had a stroke – how to move, what and when to eat, and how know it’d strengths amd weaknesses, how to handle the various compartments of his body.