Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
In 2010, I was warned to stay far away from a newly released movie containing “dangerous revisionist history.” The movie was How to Train Your Dragon—the story of a boy who befriends a dragon and teaches his island community of Viking dragon hunters that the creatures actually aren’t terrible, bloodthirsty, and vicious, but that they are largely benign animals who act toward humans according to the treatment they themselves receive. In other words, if dragons are hunted and treated cruelly, they will respond in kind with ongoing warfare. But if shown deference, gentleness, and respect, they will reciprocate—and can even be tamed. In fact, dragons long for such relationships with humanity, but it will take hard work and mutual understanding between man and beast.
I grew up hearing (and largely ignoring) panicked warnings against animated films. Being a young Evangelical in the ’80s and ’90s meant growing up during the fervor of anti-Disney sentiment. But as an adult, it had been a long time since anyone had warned me away from an animated movie. Fantasy in general? Sure. Harry Potter, absolutely. Dungeons and Dragons, of course. But a movie about a make-believe Viking island and dragons because it (checks notes) “revised history”? That one made me scratch my head. Were people unaware that Vikings did not actually fight dragons, and the entire premise of the film was fantasy?
It was only after I finally watched the movie itself that it struck me: How to Train Your Dragon is a story that some found offensive not because it contains revisionist history, but because it is about revising history. And it’s not just about how history should sometimes be revised and reexamined, it proclaims—it lauds—this idea. While this concept is offensive to some people, the way in which it is handled in How to Train Your Dragon is largely what makes this particular story true, beautiful, and good. In short, it is a movie that invites us to remember that we were not always at odds with the natural world. The historical revision in the fantasy realm of How to Train Your Dragon presents a storied fulfillment of an Edenic longing.How to Train Your Dragon is a story that some found offensive not because it contains revisionist history, but because it is about revising history.
How to Train Your Dragon hinges on the relationship between the boy Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and the dragon Toothless. The way a boy and his dragon (perhaps we could also say a dragon and his boy) overcome their fear of each other to become radically devoted to each other allows them to challenge everything about their world—and thus end up changing it for the better. Hiccup first meets the dragon he eventually names Toothless while trying to be a “good” Viking like his father (Gerard Butler), the chief of the Vikings in Berk—their island home. Everyone knows all Vikings in Berk have to prove themselves by killing dragons (which plague the community), but Hiccup is skinny, small, and clumsy, and can hardly wield any weapon. Hiccup is resourceful, though, and clever, so he builds a machine that launches a rope weapon into the sky, and to his surprise, he strikes a dragon by pure chance.
But when Hiccup finds the wounded dragon he brought down in the forest, he cannot bring himself to kill the helpless beast—a rare Night Fury. Instead, in an act of mercy—surrendering his acute desire to prove himself to his judgmental father and his entire community—he cuts the dragon free. In return, the beast doesn’t kill Hiccup, but blunders away. Mercy for mercy.
Except for one thing: When Hiccup shot the dragon from the sky, he irreparably damaged the dragon’s tail. Toothless can no longer fly, and when he falls into a sinkhole in the forest, he is not only trapped, but again at Hiccup’s mercy. Hiccup finds himself filled with an insatiable curiosity about the dragon and faced with a remarkable opportunity to try to befriend, learn about, and learn from one of the terrifying monsters he’d been taught his whole life to hate and fear. Not only that, but he feels responsible for the creature; if he leaves Toothless alone in the sinkhole and never comes back, Toothless will die. So Hiccup splits his time between Berk and the forest—between training to fight dragons with his peers and training to befriend a dragon in secret.
A begrudging respect between Hiccup and Toothless began the moment they met—when each refused to kill the other. But trust and love grow in the weeks Hiccup goes back and forth between Berk and his new dragon friend in the forest. Hiccup’s time with the dragon is Edenic: the isolation in nature, his naming of the beast, his care and keeping of Toothless—and in a way, Toothless’s care and keeping of him—the peace that falls between the two of them who should be natural enemies.
Hiccup, ever the inventor, crafts tail fins for Toothless’s injured tail and never gives up until he gets it just right—determined that the dragon should fly again. Hiccup also crafts a saddle to be able to ride Toothless. He recognizes in the bond he forges with the Night Fury a way forward out of endless warfare for his people and for all dragons. That maybe the way it’s always been is not the way it has to always be. That maybe dragons have been tragically misunderstood. That if he and Toothless have learned to love each other and can even work together as dragon and rider, then maybe all Vikings and all dragons can work together.
As the story progresses, it’s revealed that it’s not just humans who have soured the relationship between humanity and dragon-kind. There is a malignant and evil dragon that needs to be defeated—an ancient evil, and one that has corrupted relations between humans and dragons. The union between Hiccup and Toothless proves crucial in bringing about the defeat of this creature and the salvation of all—dragons and humans—in this story. Not only do Toothless and Hiccup work together as a team, but their partnership is a testimony to others in Berk that a sort of Edenic communion is possible. In the end, even the island sheep—for so long the easiest pickings for the hungry dragons—need not fear the beasts. Beginning with Hiccup and Toothless and spreading through the community, restoration with humanity heals all wounds in the land of Berk and the dragons lay down with the lambs.
Even though How to Train Your Dragon should be a very silly story, sometimes very silly stories manage to say the very best things. And this one gives us a picture of the first and last Eden. A remembrance of an Eden that echoes in all our blood, and a glimpse of the Eden that is to come. Stories that contain these echoes are almost Advent meditations—they show us not just what could be, but what will be and what has been. They remind us of the now and not yet of our present reality. That it was “very good” and it will be “very good” again.
These sorts of stories work because they contain the forward and backward longing of Sensucht—that intense desire for a place we’ve never been. Sensucht is a concept that permeated the writings of C. S. Lewis, who was—coincidentally—highly inspired by Nordic (or Viking) mythology and who also utilized Edenic restoration with animals as a key theme and plot element in his fiction. From talking animals in Narnia to sinless creatures and unfallen ecosystems in his Space Trilogy, Lewis valued the idea of writing stories of longing for Eden and was himself a great lover of animals in real life. One has only to read The Chronicles of Narnia to see the care he put into the talking beasts and the good order of creation when Aslan gave the animals the power of speech—and to mourn as the story progresses and many of the animals become dumb beasts. As a result, the enmity of wild things springs up between beasts and men in Narnia, and humans forget there ever were talking animals in Narnia’s history at all.
The restoration of talking beasts that comes in The Last Battle of The Chronicles of Narnia is just part of a great joy that happens in that story as the Narnians remember their true history, their true God, and resolve all contraries that leads everyone who is faithful back to a garden. Or perhaps I should say forward to a garden. Where there is no more pain, no more suffering, and no more enmity between man and man, man and God, man and self, or man and beast.
Stories—even very silly stories about training dragons and talking beasts—can be far better than they have any right to be when they remind us that someday we’ll walk amongst animals that would in this life kill us dead, without fear or a desire to kill or a need to take and eat. Edenic longings are about Sensucht, but they are also simple longings for peace with God and his creation. In this regard, a story about a boy and his dragon is like a story about “a horse and his boy” which are both like the very idea of a lion laying down with a lamb.
Those early critics of How to Train Your Dragon were right, in a way. Hiccup and Toothless do revise the history of Berk, and it is a dangerous proposition for the Vikings to come to trust and even love creatures like dragons. But in doing so, they actually learn that they have been living a lie, and in fear, for as long as they have ever known—that humans and dragons were never intended to be enemies. It took a revisionist view of their own history to restore them to communion with animals that will help them to flourish. To fulfill an Edenic longing.