Monday, April 4, 2011

Tale of a sad baby balrog

In my daily wanderings across the internet, I happened upon this illustration. It tells, rather eloquently for all its wordlessness, the unfortunate tale of a balrog.Unsatisfied with the melancholy of this visual epigram, I wrote a verbose and upbeat story telling of how, eventually, the balrog's fortunes turned for the better.

How baby balrog made his first real friend

After many years (for balrogs have long adolescences, dear reader) of accidentally scorching the knights who come, the balrog remains confused: why don't they stay and play? Of course, he doesn't think in English because he's had no formal schooling, but standard web browsers can't render the balrog font so I'm translating for you.

And then one year, a clever young blacksmith's daughter, in cahoots with a gorgeous elf prince who has fallen in love with her, forges herself a set of enchanted fireproof armor. It's not metal, but actually a very strong clay, a rather good insulator and terrible at transmitting heat. It covers absolutely every part of her body, with tiny articulated lobster-style joints all over the knuckles. The interlocking plates allow her a pretty full range of movement, despite its hefty weight. It also includes a cloth face-mask worn under the helmet which prevents the inhalation of soot or flaming air.

Emboldened by the elf-prince's few tests (juggling flaming torches open-handed, etc.), the young blacksmith's daughter sets out to rid her land of the terrible balrog-baby, who has (from her point of view) been destroying the population of 20-something men for her entire lifetime, as well as scorching the countryside, eating livestock, etc. So this bold and brash young lady packs up a backpack of your basic survival-and-monster-killing supplies and sets out from her father's house (against his wishes. Then again, he has always been pretty disappointed in her, since she is his only child and showed more interest in using the forge to bake pottery than to melt metal).

She travels many weeks, walking over increasingly less verdant and more sooty landscapes, until she reaches the ominously looming mouth of a cave whose inside is black as the dead of night on a night when the moon is not only new, but also pretty scared and behind some thick clouds. (It's really black is all I'm saying.) Undeterred, she lights a torch and heads in.

She wanders around the cave for a few days, because the cave system in this mountain is extensive (as it usually is in balrog nests -- see Les Whitestone's "On the Habits and Habitats of Ignis Collis (the common Balrog)", Oxford University Press, 1856). Eventually, rounding a corner one day on her way back to a little stream she found and has been using for water, she comes upon the balrog. He's really sad and all, playing with his collection of swords and axes. Then he notices her torch (dim though it is in the light glowing from his own molten body) and, delighted, leaps to his feet. Of course, from her point of view, it seems like she stumbled into the lair of a monster gloating over his kills who is now coming from her. She readies her weapons. The balrog, a tiny sword still in-hand, rushes over! and bangs on her sword. Pretty lightly, for a balrog, especially since he's just a baby and all.

Adrenaline pumps in her ears. The sword is bashed free of her hand and shatters into shards of metal on the cave floor. Baby balrogs do not know their own strength. Luckily for her, the blacksmith's daughter is nimble even in her heavy armor, and dances out of the way. The balrog, delighted in the "game," flares up in a giant pillar of flame, which is a basic balrog biological response to emotions of delight (or anger -- or really most emotions of any type, again see Whitestone's definitive volume). This blinds everyone in the cave, including the balrog, who as a baby hasn't yet got full control over his flaring-type abilities and went a little overboard in his delight, having been left alone for a pretty long time (since he has to wait for a whole new generation of men to grow up and decide to come challenge him for what they imagine to be his vast horde of treasure).

And when the balrog's retinas recover from the overabundance of light radiating from his very skin, he is astonished to see that his "playmate" hasn't changed to a pile of cinders like all the other playmates, but is actually still three-dimensional and moving around!

The young lady, who recovered from the flash more quickly because of the ocular shielding provided by her armor and facemask, has of course run over to the stream and grabbed her nearby bucket. She is now running back at the balrog with a bucketful of ice-cold cave water. She hurls it at him from as close as she dares to get, which is not really that close since she's worried he'll flare up again.

The water, shunted out of its bucket, arcs through the air quite prettily in the dim glow from the balrog. (Sort of like the water sculpture movies viewable here: .)

For a moment, everything moves in slow motion.

Then the water, which remember is pretty frigid and shocking to warm-blooded creatures like humans, hits the balrog's foot. Balrogs aren't warm-blooded, they're hot-blooded or even plasma-blooded, and so it is even more shocking to this poor baby balrog. He screams, a deep, long, low balrog roar that shakes the cave and knocks the girl over as she is trying to back away.

The balrog falls down and cries balrog tears, which are pretty fearsome for all that they are pitiful, since they are molten rock and everything. The girl, confused about how the monster hasn't attacked her, realizes she's actually dealt it a blow and thinks about maybe getting some more water in that bucket. But the balrog is now lying on the floor of the cavern, gently (for a balrog) crying to itself and cradling its foot.

A moment of insight. She recognizes this behavior: this is the same way her wolfhound -- or whatever other farm animal she has raised from infancy in her earthy and utilitarian childhood -- behaves when it has a thorn in its paw.

And so instead of ruthlessly continuing to attack the baby balrog, she walks right up (because his fire is quite dimmed by his pain and her armor is pretty awesome) and starts talking to the balrog, trying to comfort it and stuff.

And this tale has gone on quite long enough, oh patient readers. Not unlike a fractal, the story remains as amusing at any scale, with more and finer details beckoning to the writer from the depths of individual moments, gestures, or thoughts of the characters laid in our scene. I must resist the pull of such details, or our story will never advance beyond the next moment, as I write halfway there, then half again halfway there, then.... To cut it short, then, circumventing mathematical issues of infinite reasoning:

She sings it songs and the balrog figures out that she is speaking a language and, with the help of her suit, she is able to nurse the balrog back to health and help it to stand and walk again. During its invalid period, the balrog manages to pick up enough English to express itself, and she teaches it about how humans are flammable and must be dealt with gently, and they become fast friends.

Later in her life, the blacksmith's daughter, with help from her father, would craft the balrog a new, prosthetic, metal pinky toe, and weld it into place. Huzzah!

And, much later in its thousand-year life, when the balrog has matured and picked up a job in the publishing industry (clay and stone tablets being the preferred mode of recording text in this historical fantasy world), he writes in his autobiography about that fateful day. About the bold blacksmith's daughter whose courage and sympathy changed his life forever, he reflects, "That day I may have lost my pinky toe, but I gained an incredible friend, teacher, companion, and guide."

So they all lived happily ever after, including all the members of the village where this took place, who, with their alliances with the elves and the balrog, would go on to (quite peacefully) conquer their neighbors (everyone just forfeited the battles once they saw what they were up against) and spread their non-species-ist culture of acceptance, education, and the value of blacksmithery throughout the land.

(orchestral music swells inspirationally. roll credits)

This post's theme word is dolmen, "a prehistoric megalithic tomb typically having two large upright stones and a capstone." The much-beloved balrog was laid to rest in a dolmen.

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