Dragons, Giants, Hydra, Titans, the Kraken: all monsters of superhuman size and strength, and all popular foes in much of specfic literature, and frequent guest stars in role playing and video games. When done well, facing these incredible beasties is some of the coolest, most exciting moments of the story. When done poorly, they suddenly don’t make a whole lot of sense.
One of my favorite scenes like this is an oldie but a goodie and, thanks to my daughter, I see it a lot. Disney’s Sleeping Beauty reaches its climax as Prince Phillip finds himself facing the evil Maleficent in the form of a giant black dragon. Immediately both Phillip and the viewing audience realize he is out of his depth. The dragon has no fear of his puny sword, his enchanted shield is barely sufficient protection, and his triumphant ride to his sleeping love becomes a desperate retreat through burning thorns and up jagged cliffs. Driven to the edge of a precipice, deprived of his shield, almost losing his balance, Phillip, but for some timely sorcerous intervention, is pretty well doomed. Now, while there are some holes in the battle (like ‘how does his horse survive’ and ‘how does he avoid going over the cliff with the dead dragon’?), generally it captures exactly what a battle with such a massive opponent ought to look like: it’s tense, terrifying, and you really don’t see how Phillip is going to get out of it until the fairies show up. There are other stories that do the giant monster battle pretty well, too (Luke Vs Rancor in Jedi is pretty decent; Sam Vs Shelob in Return of the King is pretty fabulous, etc.), and all of them follow a few basic rules of engagement:
- Monsters Don’t Fight Like People: You don’t stand toe-to-toe with the beastie and swing your sword like it’s an orc. Honestly, unless you’re really lucky, your sword is almost worthless, your armor isn’t really that useful, and most of your martial arts training isn’t going to help very much (Legolas excepted).
- Monsters Chew the Scenery: If you think you can have a fight with a twenty foot giant and not destroy a lot of property, you need to have your head examined. If you’re in a house, even money says its coming down.
- Monsters Can Move: You know how we are able to move around, turn, jump, run, and all that stuff? Monsters can do that, too. Sometimes they can do it even better than we can. Unless you’re a Jedi, don’t bet on running between its legs.
With these rules in place, it becomes rapidly obvious that, in order to defeat the beast, the hero or heroes will need to think outside the box. This isn’t a case of simply ‘hit it with your sword until it dies’ (a flaw in logic I’ve examined before); the toe-to-toe engagement is unwise. The heroes need to run around, hide, use their small size to their advantage, strike the weak points, and so on.
Too often, in video games and RPGs especially, the battle with the giant monster becomes more of a case of surrounding it and plinking away until it falls down. Never mind that most of your weapons are only hitting its shins and never mind that it can just as easily step on you to kill you as anything else and there is no way you can impede its movement. Not only is this unimaginative, it’s also dull. These conflicts can and should be among the most memorable and terrifying of the story; they should be set pieces, major plot events, and they should be given the time and attention they deserve. Recognize that if your hero faces a dragon on an open field, there are few plausible ways they ought to survive outside of technological or magical power enhancing their normal human capabilities. Like any good fight scene, you need to plot out how this can go down so that you build tension without violating reason. Heroes that face such enemies without forethought or who are surprised should find themselves in retreat or defeated, as a hero who summarily slays a dragon without much thought or substantial effort means both the dragon and the hero aren’t being used to their full potential. It begs the question ‘why use a dragon at all?’
To provide a counter-example to the one I mentioned above, do you folks remember the movie Willow? Ah, who am I kidding, of course you do! Anyway, the two-headed monster that shows up in the Tir Asleen battle is a great example of extremely lame monster-fighting. Now, granted, many of the problems are related to the fact that the film’s budget was only so large and they didn’t have CGI to make this thing really move, but still we have a whole battle in the middle of the movie with a giant monster that doesn’t really move, doesn’t really destroy anything, and that is killed just by stabbing it in the head. I mean, it’s sort of scary, but it doesn’t really steal the scene at all. In fact, a lot of the battle keeps going on while this whole giant monster is sitting there, eating Nokmar soldiers. Now, while I do approve of the idea of sticking a monster in the middle of an unrelated battle, this one doesn’t really do much more than act as scenery. The soldiers just kind of surround it, it sits there, and we patiently wait for Mad Martigan to kill it. It’s a fun scene, yes, but it’s nothing compared to the Cave Troll in Fellowship or the first time Paul faces a sandworm in Dune. This monster isn’t working to its full potential.
In the end, all I’m really saying here is that the massive monsters of mythology ought to be given their proper due when facing our heroes. There is just too much potential there to be wasted.