Plot: Set in medieval times, the story begins as villagers with torches approach the home of a famous sorcerer (Sir Ralph Richardson). They need his help to fight a dragon. If they do not sacrifice a virgin twice a year, he will destroy their community. The sorcerer agrees, but he is killed when a warrior with the group insists on a test. The sorcerer’s apprentice, Galen (Peter MacNichol) goes in his place, telling them “I am the sorcerer you seek.”
On the way to the village, Galen discovers that Valerian, the boy who spoke for the group, is in fact a girl brought up as a boy to protect her from the lottery used twice a year to select a female virgin for sacrifice. They reach the dragon’s lair, and Galen casts a spell that causes an avalanche. Sure that the dragon is killed, they celebrate, and Valerian appears in a dress. The King is worried, telling Galen, “You came here to toy with a monster? Who are you to risk these people’s lives?” It was he who agreed to sacrifice the girls, after his brother was killed by the dragon. He throws Galen in the dungeon.
Galen is freed by the princess, who is horrified when Galen tells her that she has not been included in the lottery. She had been assured that she ran the same risk as everyone else, and she feels betrayed and ashamed. It turns out that the dragon has not been killed, and it is time for another sacrifice. The princess puts her name on all of the lots, to make up for the risks she avoided over the years. The king, heartbroken, begs Galen to fight the dragon. But the warrior tries to stop him, believing that the sacrifice is the only way to keep the rest of the village safe. As they fight, the princess is killed and eaten by the just-hatched baby dragons.
Galen fights the dragon with a shield made of dragon scales by Valerian and a sword made by her father. He is defeated and starts to leave, when he realizes that the sorcerer can still help him. He uses his magic to bring back the sorcerer, who fights the dragon until they destroy each other. It is not just the end of the two of them, but the end of that era, as Christianity replaces sorcery.
Discussion: When the community is at risk, how do you decide what to do? History is filled with problems created by people who made the wrong choices. Many people criticize those who tried to compromise with Hitler. Many criticize those who decided Americans should fight in Viet Nam. The king here makes the decision to compromise after his brother is killed. He negotiated a terrible deal with the dragon, but it was better for his people than the uncertainty they had before. In contrast, Galen wants to risk his own destruction and the town’s by fighting. When he loses, he leaves until he figures out a way to defeat the dragon.
And what about the king’s compromise, the lottery itself, and its fairness in theory and as practiced? The way we evaluate risks and benefits in making our choices (sometimes emotionally rather than analytically) is demonstrated here. Note the King’s change of heart when his own daughter is at risk.
Like the other famous sorcerer’s apprentice (memorably portrayed by Mickey Mouse in “Fantasia”), Galen doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. He thinks because he knows a few tricks, he has enough magic to defeat the dragon. But he is wrong, and the princess dies because of his mistake. He doesn’t know what he does know, either — it takes him a while to figure out why the sorcerer allowed himself to be “killed” before starting on the journey. But when the time comes, and he has to know the right moment to destroy the amulet, he is able to trust himself, and he gets it right.
Sorcerers and dragons cannot exist without each other. Valerian’s father says approvingly that magic is dying out. Particularly well handled here is the notion that religion replaced magic.
Questions for Kids:
What do you need to know in deciding whether to fight, compromise, or run? How have you seen those questions presented?
What adjustments might be difficult for Valerian after the way she grew up?
What was the point of having both the king and the priest claim credit for defeating the dragon?
What do you think about the princess’ decision? Why did she say that putting her name on all of the tiles “certified” the lottery?
Connections: Other “sword and sorcery” movies include “Labyrinth” and “Ladyhawke.”
Activities: Read Shirley Jackson’s famous story, “The Lottery” about a small town that uses a lottery to determine which of its citizens will be sacrificed.