So we already covered fantasy’s ten stupidest moments. What about its ten coolest moments?
Fortunately, there are just as many, if not more:
Some fantasy novels are an unending string of “cool” moments from start to finish; such is The Lord of the Rings (with the possible exception of Tom Bombadil, who never quite worked for me).
The coolest moment in the whole series? Impossible to say. But is there a cooler, more menacing creature than the balrog Gandalf confronts deep in the Mines of Moria? Able to shroud itself in fire and shadow? Wielding a whip of flame? The creature is the perfect balance of the familiar and the otherworldly — and it is clearly ripped directly from the deepest, darkest depths of our collective unconscious. And the moment where Gandalf realizes they cannot flee, that he must stand and fight, is surely one of the coolest in all of fantasy.
“You cannot pass!” Gandalf tells the creature.
Later, when Gandalf realizes that only his self-sacrifice can give Frodo and the fellowship a chance to survive, he says, “Fly, you fools!”
And for the record? The encounter with the balrog in Peter Jackson movie version (where Gandalf says a slightly different line: “You shall not pass!”) is as perfectly realized as it is in the book.
The Two Encounters with the Lantern in The Chronicles of Narnia
The moment in the C.S. Lewis novel The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe that Lucy first pushes through the wardrobe into the land of Narnia is one of the most magical in all of fantasy. But how does C.S. Lewis indicate to the Lucy (and the reader) this this really is some place new and different and special — and not just that she’s found a backdoor out of the professor’s country house, and it’s happened to snow in the middle of the night?
A lit gas lantern burns in the middle of the forest.
Such a thing isn’t possible in the “real” world. But, Lewis is telling us, if such a thing can happen in this strange place, anything else can happen too. Why, animals might talk, Father Christmas might really exist — and this “winter” just might be the spell of an evil witch who seeks to keep the land frozen in her magical grip for all eternity!
In short, that lantern is the perfect entry into the land of the Narnia, and the perfect foreshadowing for all the things that lie ahead.
And if that isn’t cool enough, we see that lantern again, in a “later” book in the series, The Magician’s Nephew, when we learn how it came to be there in the first place: it was planted there in the first few days of Narnia’s life, when the land was rich with magic and anything put into the soil took root and grew.
None of the characters in the books are privy to both moments — just us, the lucky readers. And put together, we get to experience one of fantasy’s most seamless, and most wonderful, synchronicities.
Oz in Color
A lit lantern “growing” in the middle of a snow-covered forest is one way to announce a fantasy character’s entry into a magical new world; having the color of your film turn from the dreary black-and-white of Kansas to the bright and vibrant Technicolor of Oz is another way.
The impact of this brilliant and inspired choice is so profound that even 70 years, and untold technological advances in film later, the moment still leaves us breathless.
The Shattered Glass of Illusion in Time Bandits
Terry Gilliam’s 1981 film Time Bandits is chock full of cool visuals — and it includes David Warner’s terrific turn as Ultimate Evil.
But the film’s best moment? When Kevin and the bandits are wandering the desert in the Time of Legends, and they realize it’s all an illusion. With the throwing of an object, they’re able to shatter it. As the shards fall, the fortress is revealed at last.
Two Colors of Ink in The Neverending Story
Think the movement from black-and-white to color in The Wizard of Oz was clever? Just as brilliant is the central gimmick in author Michael Ende classic children’s book The Neverending Story.
The book is the story shy Bastian Balthazar Bux who is reading a book in an empty attic, but it’s also the story of Atreyu, a brash adventurer in the land of Fantastica — the story in the book that Bastion is reading. In other words, it’s a story-within-a story.
How does Ende help the reader distinguish between the two stories?
Different colored ink! It’s not a “moment” per se, but in the original hardcover editions, one story is told in red ink, and one story is told in green. As the storylines interweave and eventually join together, the two colors become one.
How the hell did Ende get his publishers to go along with something so daring (and, no doubt, expensive)? However he did it, it’s still really, really cool.
(A word of warning: in some paperback reprints, the different colored inks are replaced with itallics! Itallics! That is not cool at all.)
Elena’s Marrowmeld of Covenant in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant
In almost every great work of literature, there is a moment of quiet metaphor when the characters do or say something that subtly but perfectly encapsulates the theme of the entire story. In The Power That Preserves by Stephen R. Donaldson (Book 3 in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant), one of those moments is when Lord Elena sculpts a marrowmeld face, and Covenant immediately recognizes it as that of his bloodguard, Banner.
No, Elena tells him. The sculpture is of him.
How could anyone confuse the two characters on any level? After all, Covenant and Banner are so completely different, right? Covenant is impetuous and prone to outbursts, while Banner is staid and emotionless, perfectly disciplined in all respects.
A throwaway scene?
Not at all. In fact, under their superficial surfaces, the two characters are exactly alike in their infuriating refusal to compromise their principles — a point that the author is reminding us in this subtle, but wonderfully cool moment.
The Song of the Mystics in The Dark Crystal
It’s impossible not to be impressed by puppetry in Jim Hensen’s classic 1982 movie The Dark Crystal, but it’s actually a sound from the movie that may be the most arresting: the moment the Mystics begin to sing. These gentle beings communicate with, and drawn strength from, each other by lifting their heads joining their voices together; each Mystic sings a single note, but together they make a cord of perfect harmony. Their soothing song is a marked contrast to the shrill annoying voices of the evil Skeksis (another example of perfect foreshadowing of the story’s ultimate theme).
The “End” of Charlotte’s Web
There are apparently some clueless people who think two very stupid things: that fantasy is about escape from the “real” world, and that young children should never be exposed to “harsh realities” of this world.
Fortunately, children’s author E. B. White completely ignored these idiots in his classic 1952 book Charlotte’s Web.
What’s it about? Death.
I repeat: this is a kids’ book about death. A pig fears of his own certain death (for the Christmas feast), and so he and a friend, a spider, weave a web — literally — in order to save him.
And how does the book end? If you haven’t read it, here’s a spoiler alert, but while the pig is saved, the spider is not. She dies. But she leaves behind an egg sac — her “magnum opus.”
Everyone dies, this author has told generation after generation of children, in an ending as profound as anything in Eugene O’Neill. Death is final and inevitable — and perfectly natural. That said, for the living, life goes on.
“Speak Friend and Enter”
No list of “cool” fantasy moments can have only a single such moment from The Lord of the Rings. A second cool, but quieter moment comes when Gandolf leads the Fellowship to the secret entrance to the Mine of Moria, but is confronted with a riddle inscribed above the locked door. “Speak Friend and Enter,” it reads (in Elven, natch).
But speak what? None of the spells Gandolf tries don’t seem to work.
The answer, of course, is as simple and as clever as the best of all riddles: speak the world “friend,” or at least the elf word for it — “mellon” — and the magic of the door is released, and the door opens.
Tolkien gave us a number of clever riddles in both The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, but this is surely the best.
And once again, Peter Jackson’s screen adaptation gets is perfectly right.
The Skeleton Battle in Jason and the Argonauts
I know my fondness for this cool moment is partly about my being a kid when I first saw it. But I agree with Tom Hanks who, when giving a lifetime achievement award to special effects master Ray Harryhausen, called Argonauts “the greatest movie ever made.” The skeleton battle is the best moment in it.
Honorable Mentions: The introduction of the daemon in The Golden Compass; the explanation of the mythology of “true names” in the Earthsea Trilogy; encounters in Hogwarts School in Harry Potter; Elric’s “meeting” his sword Stormbringer, and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s general audacity.