Saul Rosenthal, PhD

Boston Area Health Psychologist

I was lucky enough to attend an early viewing of How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World. I watched with a real mixture of responses; sad that it is the last movie in the trilogy, excited to see how the filmmakers deal with some of my favorite characters, blown away by the amazing look of the film. I left the movie with the urge to write about it. Not a review, which would be two words: SEE IT! Rather, I found myself mulling over the parallels between Hiccup’s and Toothless’s journey and our own development from childhood to adulthood. The curse of my decades trying to understand what makes us tick!

First, I, along with my daughter, have a long history with How to Train Your Dragon. We started with the books. I picked up the first and read it to her as part of my not-so-covert attempt to raise her with stories that were both atypical for girls and that I would enjoy. And enjoy them we did. Cressida Cowell draws you in with goofy characters and fantastic storytelling. Of course, Vikings and dragons right away make it worthwhile. But her real gift is allowing the characters to grow more complex, to face dilemmas without clear or simple answers, and to make mistakes. Good characters do bad things and bad characters do good things. Over the course of twelve novels (and a few companion books), Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III grows from a scrawny boy who does not have a place in the Viking world into a true leader and the conduit from one age to the next. Toothless grows from a tiny, naughty, vain, and sub-par dragon into a brave, someday-to-be Seadragonus Giganticus Maximus and one of the important King’s Lost Things (he insists the most important) that will unite the Vikings under a single leader. The films, while very different from the books, chart a similar evolution for both characters.

I can’t help but look back across the story and see parallels in how we develop as people. I think this is the “Hero’s Journey,” which narrates the growth of an individual through a series of crises. The protagonist transforms into a hero by discovering hidden strengths and developing new talents. By the end, they are fundamentally changed. Older, wiser, and perhaps sadder.

Like a hero at the beginning of their journey, we start our lives in a state of naïveté. The young child lives in a world that is a reflection of the important people in their lives. All we know about the world at first is based on how others act towards us. If we are hungry and get fed, we learn to expect our needs will be met. Growing older, our interactions expand to include the larger community. Social expectations and norms, in the form not only of parents, but of teachers and peers, shape our personality and our place.

When we first meet Hiccup, he has obviously learned that he doesn’t measure up. Compared to his fellow Vikings, he is woefully inadequate. He is physically weak and uses his brain rather than his fists. His relationship with dragons is one of curiosity rather than derision. In the books, Vikings use dragons as little more than slaves. In the movies, they are initially mortal enemies. Hiccup sees them as companions. He even learns Dragonese!

These characteristics of Hiccup set him apart and make him a social outcast (later a literal exile). Everyone around him, including his father Stoick, his teacher Gobbler, and his Viking peers tell him he is a poor excuse for a Viking and that he will never fit in. He knows this and accepts it as true. How can he ever fill his father’s shoes as chief? He doesn’t think he can, and neither does anybody else.

Hiccup as the pre-hero, or child, needs to learn that who he is can actually serve as a powerful core that propels him through the narrative, regardless of others’ expectations. He certainly does need to change — he makes many mistakes. But his journey serves to show him (and others) that many of his so-called weaknesses are really strengths (his ability to communicate with dragons and his view of them as equals is a major key to his success) and that he can develop unexpected skills (once he learns he is left-handed, his sword fighting greatly improves).

As Hiccup begins to learn that he is powerful, he rejects his father and the traditional Viking expectations. The disappointment in himself transforms into anger towards those who seem to demand he conform. Hiccup becomes an adolescent, separating from his childhood physically and psychologically. Adolescents rail against expectations as a way to forge their individualized self. Expectations of others (especially those representing the childhood self) are experienced as demands not to individuate. Those expectations have to be rejected so they do not hold the self back. 

Hiccup ultimately succeeds because he integrates his newly-developed self with the traditional Viking norms. Adolescents hopefully learn that rejecting expectations and norms can only get them so far. They need to function within the larger social world. In the third movie, when Hiccup tries to reject the human for the dragon world, he fails. He cannot fully leave his world. He needs to decide whether he will continue to reject Viking Society, or learn how to live within it. He choses the latter and grows into a great leader.

His journey does change the Vikings. In both book and movie, the Vikings learn to respect the dragons as intelligent, complex beings. But Hiccup, too, comes to appreciate Viking society. He recognizes the power of tradition to bind society together, and he develops invaluable relationships with his father, fellow Vikings, and even Snotlout (in the book, Snotlout is a very stereotypical Viking, Hiccup’s cousin, and second-in-line to be chief so, of course, hates Hiccup). In the end, Hiccup chooses to risk his own life to save the society that caused him so much misery as a young child. 

In both the books and the movies, Hiccup grows from awkward if well-meaning child, through rebellious adolescent, and into an effective, powerful adult. Ultimately, it is his ability to apply his newly-discovered self in the service of saving the traditional society that creates the hero. He changes, but he also impacts others — both dragons and Vikings are forever changed. Battles are won, relationships forged, and sacrifices made on all sides. The changes are necessary, and bittersweet. Just like the transition into adulthood.

By the end, the separate paths of book and movie converge. The final movie ends with lines from the final book. Regardless of the specifics unique to each manifestation, How to Train Your Dragon has much to say about the journey we all make.

Seeing most things through a developmental lens certainly leads me to shape a narrative to make my point. I really don’t mean to emphasize a “deeper” meaning at the expense of the fun and enjoyment of the books or movies (or television series, which is also terrific). Hiccup, Toothless, Astrid, Camicazi, Stormfly, Stoick the Vast (Oh Hear His Name and Tremble, Ugh, Ugh), and the rest of the vikings and dragons and witches and heroes and villains live in a fantastical, hilarious, dangerous world. Take it as a reflection of the shared experience of transitioning from childhood to adulthood, or take it as some of the best times you’ll have. You won’t regret joining them all for the ride.

Thankee par di goggle (Thanks for the look)!

February 3rd, 2019

Posted In: Development, Movies, Television, and Theater