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  1. The sun shone over the jungle-clad valley, where the green, muddy waters of the river Ganas slowly made their way between the hills. The trees were gently rustling, frogs croaking in their shade, but in the distance, the whisper of wind grew closer. It became stronger and stronger, until a shadow was cast over the valley, and descended until it blotted out the sun. With a soft thud, a huge shape landed on a hillside.

    Its serpentine body moved through the trees like it was swimming through water, its hues blending perfectly with leaves and foliage. Each of its four paws was dark green and soft like moss, and its claws were covered with small hooks which could sting like nettles. Along its back were folded wings with patches of white, yellow and scarlet, and all over its body were scales reminiscent of leaves.

    The creature moved carefully through the valley, collecting trees and vines and leaves. With skill and spells, it weaved them into a nest, the shape of an egg, so thick it held its frame without budging, and into the nest, it embroidered the image of itself. Then it lay down in the nest to close its eyes and rest its tired wings.

    In its dreams, it travelled to distant times and lands it had only heard of in songs. The sounds of the jungle formed a murmur around it, and sometimes, a screech or a flapping of bird wings penetrated its sleep and found a way into the dreams.

    One sound in particular roused it; it was a scream of pain. The scream was short-lived, and the creature drifted back into the depths of sleep. But soon, the scream was replaced by a wail, and the creature stirred.

    Eventually, it got up and left the nest. It was past midnight, and the crickets had long since gone to sleep. When it moved across the valley, its slender silhouette hid the stars from view, as if a river of darkness was flowing through the sky.

    It found the source of wailing, and it was a lion, lying at the bottom of a ravine. The lion’s face was bloodied, its legs were broken, and in all directions it faced steep walls. Yet it dragged itself inch by inch by inch across the rocky bottom, searching for a way out.

    The large creature descended until it sat across the ravine. Then it reached down with its slender neck and picked the wounded lion up in its mouth. A few gentle wing strokes were enough to bring it back to its nest, where it laid the poor animal on the soft floor of moss and grass and leaves.

    But the lion’s pain kept it from sleeping. To calm it, the creature started to hum, its deep baritone resonating within the hollow nest. Soon, the humming changed into a song, and it sang of peaceful forests and cool skies, until the lion forgot its pain and could finally rest. When it woke again, the large creature was by its side.

    “What is your name?” it asked in the lion’s own speech.
    “I have no need of a name”, the lion replied. “When I was with my pride, they knew me by my scent and my roar and the swat of my paw.”
    “I am called the Flower Dragon by other races. May I call you Sekuwin, after the dragon who fell into the salt sea?”
    The lion agreed, and so it had a name.

    The Flower Dragon nursed the lion back to health, but its legs would not get any better. Every day, the lion dragged itself across the grass and leaf floor to the nest’s opening. When it saw a bird fly by, it swatted at the sky and roared in anger.

    “No matter how well I get, I will never be able to walk”, the lion said. “My prey will laugh at me as I drag myself out of the shadows and crawl towards it.”

    “I will see what I can do”, the dragon said. He flew high over the valley and searched across the land, until he found a bear lying on a hillside. Its chest was crushed against the ground, but its legs were intact. The dragon landed on the hill, leaving huge marks in its sides. Then he ripped the bear’s legs and paws from its body, and carried them back to his nest.

    There he bit off the lion’s legs, and weaved the bear’s legs into its body, and sealed the weave with bear sinews and spells of growth. And every time the lion growled in pain, he picked a song from all the ones he knew. He sang of where rain and thunderstorms came from, of how trees grow and mountains wear down, and of creatures in far-away places.

    When the lion had healed, it rose and took a few trembling steps, then slumped down on the soft floor. Again and again it rose, only to fall down, until it gave up and hung its head. “My legs are weak and useless. I was too damaged in the fall.” Then it crawled towards the opening to watch the creatures move about in the sunlit valley.

    The dragon went out to search once again. He soared high above the mountaintops, surveying the land, and finally, spotted the body of a condor. There, on a snow-clad mountaintop, he ripped out its wings and brought them back in his mouth.

    For days he wove the wings into the lion, and when he was done, they both rested. The lion soon healed, and when it was ready, it carefully edged towards the opening of the nest. The dragon was sitting just outside, surrounded by a family of warthogs, and birds perched on its back. He nodded to the lion, which hesitantly spread its new wings and jumped from the nest. With roaring joy, it flew across the valley. Back and forth it glided, until it hit a tree and fell to the ground. Once again sad, it complained to the dragon: “My sight is not well. I can’t find my prey, and if I’m not careful I fly into things.”

    The dragon went out to search a third time. It flew far and wide, until it saw a robed figure lying on a road with a hole in its back, as if it had been stabbed with a large pike. The dragon ripped out its eyes together with its nose and forehead, and carried them in his mouth back to the nest.

    There, he weaved them into the lion, and let it heal. It was in great pain, and to soothe it, the dragon sang to it from all the songs and teachings he knew, and the lion began to know some of them by heart.

    When the lion was well again, it was overjoyed. It flew among the treetops, and swooped down on its prey. But as it tried to dig its claws into it, they were too weak, and the prey slipped away, barely scratched. “I won’t be happy if I can’t catch my own prey”, it said to the dragon, “but you have already done much for me.”

    “I will help you again”, the dragon said. He flew across the land for days, until he found a lizard with a spiked tail, which was lying dead in a mountainside cleft. He bit off the tail, and flew back to his nest. There, he bit off the lion’s tail and weaved the lizard tail into its body, and sealed the weave with spells of growth.

    Soon, the lion had healed again, and flew out to find prey. When it caught one, it swung its spiked tail at it until it lay still. In the evening, the lion was tired, and went back to the nest. Nothing ailed it now, and it was very happy.

    Not long after, the two friends were resting on the hillside, when they saw another dragon approach from far away. “Hide here”, the Flower Dragon said, and closed his paw around the lion.

    When the other dragon came close, the Flower Dragon spread his wings to their full width to greet it. It was a sulfur dragon, even bigger than himself. Its body was bulky and covered with grey ash, but where it had been scraped off, a stark yellow shone through. It oozed poisonous fumes, and small flames of fire flickered through its nose, which was just as yellow on the inside.

    The sulfur dragon spoke without delay. “I caught a lion many days ago, and dropped it in a ravine, but now it is gone. I killed a strong bear on a hillside, but when I got back, its legs were gone. I found a condor with huge wings and left it on a mountaintop, but when I got back, the wings were gone. I saw a human with excellent sight and left it on a road, but when I got back, its eyes were gone. I threw a spiked lizard in a cleft, but when I got back, the tail was gone. No beast of the land could have carried them off, but –” the dragon sniffed the air “– I smell them in your paw, and I demand them back.”

    The Flower Dragon replied, “I can’t give them back, but I can strike you a bargain.”
    “What is the bargain?”
    “I’ll set you a riddle, and if you can answer it, I’ll give you what you want without a fight, together with all the treasures in my nest. If you lose, I keep your prey and you leave in peace.”
    “A riddle is not a fair game”, said the sulfur dragon. “You can make one which is as hard as you want, and which only you know the answer to.”
    “I’ll give you the riddle first, and then you can decide if you want to enter the contest.”
    “Let me hear.”

    The Flower Dragon gazed at the horizon for a moment, then looked into his opponents eyes. “What foiled you in the ravine? What left the hillside before you could catch it? What escaped you from the mountaintop? What left the road before you could get there? What was missing from the cleft? All of these are the same thing, and it stands in front of you. It has teeth and claws and wings and four legs and a tail and can fly. It is a skilful hunter and is feared by the creatures of the land. It knows the songs of distant past, when the world was not fully formed. It knows the history of ancient races, when land was sea and sea was land. It has a shape and form of its own, unlike any other, even its own kind. What is it?”

    The sulfur dragon thought. The poisonous fumes made the plants around it turn grey and brittle, and where it touched the other dragon’s flowery hide, small flakes of it dried and fell off. A leaf floated down in front of the sulfur dragon’s face, and as the flickering flames from its nose touched it, it burst into fire briefly before it was consumed.

    Finally, the sulfur dragon said, “I accept your challenge.”
    “Good. What is your answer?”
    “You. You foiled me when you took the lion from the ravine. You left the hillside before I could catch you. You escaped me from the mountaintop. You left the road before I could get there. You were missing from the cleft. You have teeth and claws and wings and four legs and a tail and can fly. Like all dragons, you are a skilful hunter, feared by the beasts of the land. Only dragons remember the Earth and the ancient races that far back. Like any dragon, you have a shape and form of your own, unlike any other, even your own kind. There is nothing else on Earth which fits this description, and stands in front of me. If there was another dragon here, I would know its scent, but I can only smell you and my prey. It must be you!”

    “No”, the Flower Dragon said, “It is this thing.” He opened his paw, and in it stood a creature with the body of a lion, the legs of a bear, the wings of a condor, the eyes, nose and forehead of a human, and a spiked lizard tail.

    “This is the lion you left in the ravine. It foiled you when its courage and cries of pain made me rescue it. Here are the legs which left the hillside before you could catch them. These are the wings which escaped you from the mountaintop. Here are the eyes which left the road before you could get there. This is the tail that was missing from the cleft. And all of these are the same creature, because I weaved them together and sealed the weave with spells of growth. It has teeth and claws and wings and four legs and a tail and can fly. It has a shape and form of its own, unlike any other, even its own kind. It is a skilful hunter, and unlike me, it is feared by the beasts of the land.” As the Flower Dragon said this, he bent down his head to the lion, who lovingly stroked its chin against him.

    The sulfur dragon stared in disbelief at the small creature before it. After a long pause, it said, “But does it know the songs of distant past, which we only sing to our children? Does it have the knowledge no other race has?”

    Now the lion spoke. “Once, I knew nothing but the jungle, but the Flower Dragon sang to me when I was injured, and I learned all the greatest songs.” Then it recounted all the stories and names it knew, while the sulfur dragon stared at it amazed.

    When it was done, the sulfur dragon said: “This is by far the strangest beast I have ever seen. You have earned your prize.” Then it rose into the sky and left in peace.

    The lion stayed as the Flower Dragon’s guest, and they lived happily for many years. The dragon kept building his nest, until it was like a large house, with many rooms and secrets. Then one day it was time for him to move across the seas to another land, and he said goodbye to all the friends he had made in the valley.

    The lion remained behind to live in the nest, even after the winter rains stopped coming, and the jungle turned to grass-covered hills. The spells of growth had given it a lifespan beyond most others, and with time, more and more humans moved to the valley. The rumour of the lion spread, and people came from far away to visit it and listen to its great knowledge. It taught them of ancient times and far-away places, about creatures almost like them with almost the same problems, and it was especially fond of riddles. Some said it was a sphinx, others called it a chimera, but it always knew that its real name was Sekuwin, “Little Kuwin”, given to it by its friend a long time ago.

    The Chimera's Nest by Jonas Islander is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
  2. John Byrne’s Next Men ended in 1995 with issue 30 and a cliffhanger ending. The 2010 series picks up where the old one ended without missing a beat. Even though the story line takes off into a new direction, the art, plot and characters meld together seamlessly – it’s hard to tell fifteen years have passed.

    Every aspect of the work feels solid: the art is detailed, the characters always act according to their personalities, plot elements are never forgotten or left to chance, clothes, environments and historical details are thoroughly researched, and so on. The only complaint I can raise against the series is that it’s never really unexpected or awesome; it’s just very well executed.

    By the end of the ninth and last issue, it’s clear that the story is not really finished – it’s not clear what’ll happen to the main characters, or how the last plot will be resolved. Byrne does, however, make the ending much more low-key this time, and doesn’t leave more sub-plot hanging than necessary. The story will continue in a new series, Next Men: Aftermath.
  3. 16-year-old Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) has been raised in the Finnish wilderness by her father (Eric Bana), and systematically trained to fight and survive. As soon as she's ready, her father sends her on a mission to assassinate intelligence operative Marissa (Cate Blanchett), while Marissa in turn tries to hunt the girl down. Along the way, we see Hanna struggle to fit in with normal people despite her background, and get a few revelations about who she really is and why she's hunted.

    The spy story itself is predictable and doesn't make much sense, even though the script has appeared on the "black list" for best unproduced screenplays for both 2006 and 2009. It's unclear why Hanna needs to assassinate Marissa and reveal her own existence in the process, as opposed to simply hiding. Marissa's own reasons to hunt Hanna down don't seem believable, and the revelations about Hanna's background are not very surprising or original.

    However, the individual scenes are skillfully, sometimes beautiflly, crafted and we're treated to a few great performances. Cate Blanchet is scary as the obsessed Marissa, and Jessica Barden is hilarious as the chatty American tourist girl who befriends Hanna. Hanna herself is a mixed bag. The film tells us she's detached and unempathic, but utterly fails to show us this - she only fights when she feels threatened, and tries to protect people she's become friends with. Ronan does as well as she can with the self-contradicting role, and plays Hanna as perceptive, self-controlled and socially awkward, while acting out the fight scenes with an intensity which befits the character.

    The film is at it's best when it attempts characterisation and humour. The action scenes are very believable, and are rendered in a grounded, realistic style, but it's not enough to lift the spy plot above mediocrity. If you want an action flick with some characterisation and good direction, you could do a lot worse than Hanna, but don't expect a masterpiece.
  4. This review contains spoilers for the movie - but you may enjoy it more if you have an idea of what it's about before you see it.

    The Tree of Life is a story of a middle-aged man - Jack - who, in obvious pain, looks back at his childhood. His jumbled, and sometimes unrealistic, memories shows him growing up in 1950's Texas. Through his abusive father, pain and suffering is brought into the child's world, which twists and creates malice in him.

    But the close, personal story is interrupted for a much more epic one: that of life on Earth. The creation of the universe is shown in splendid colours. The camera wanders through stars and nebulas. The Earth forms, and the first self-replicating molecules appear. Beautifully computer-generated dinosaurs wander over fern-covered forest floors, to meet disease or disaster. The purity and beauty of the creation point, slowly gives way to greater and greater imperfection, just as the boy's happiness and innocence gives way to suffering and evil.

    When we return to the young boy, we know his story is part of a much greater one - that of the Tree of Life. We are reminded of this over and over again, as the camera wanders over the intricate patterns of a leaf, or a swaying forest of underwater reeds, or any other of nature's wonders.

    What makes the film special are its images. The sequences with humans in them are shown very subjectively, as a human observer would see or remember them. The crispness and stark contrasts, together with the shaky camera, create a hyper-realistic feel. Special effects are used to enhance the storytelling, not just to impress or dazzle. Houses, clothing and machinery from the period are shown in their imperfect glory.

    Unfortunately, the film relies almost entirely on its symbolism and visuals. For a viewer who doesn't grasp them, there's not much surface story to keep them entertained, and the whole film is likely to appear jumbled and incoherent. The director doesn't go out of his way to explain anything - the film's title is about the only clue freely given.

    In Jewish mysticism, the Tree of Life is a symbol not only for life on Earth, but for the whole of creation. The origin of the universe - God - is perfection, but that perfection is corrupted as his presence trickles down through creation. In the film, this is reflected both on the cosmic scale - the perfection of creation is replaced by death, disaster and indifference - as on the personal scale - the innocence of childhood is replaced by suffering and malice.

    This lack of perfection is not the result of sinning or free will, but part of the natural order. As the priest tells his congregation in one scene, disaster falls on everyone, good and bad alike. For the family, it may come as failure or the death of a loved one; for life on Earth, it may come as an asteroid impact. This, I believe, is at the core of the film's message - the suffering you experience on a personal level may seem cruel and meaningless, but it's part of a much grander cosmic order.

    But is that all - enduring suffering and trying to see a deeper meaning? The film suggests there is also grace. At the end, we see dead relatives come to life and meet each other. They embrace, and old bodies turn young again. This mirrors the Jewish conception of the afterlife - the end times, when the dead rise from their graves.

    The film may seem quite long if you're not taken in by its message or its entrancing visuals, but in my opinion the beautiful creation sequences alone are worth getting to the theatre.
  5. There's a hilarious rant on Twilight in the Oatmeal strip.

    (No, I don't hate Twilight, I just love the... um... "enthusiasm" surrounding it. From both sides.)