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Monday, August 5, 2013

Another Way To Train Your Dragon

If you’ve seen the animated film, “How to Train Your Dragon,” then you know it pays be kind to dragons, to befriend them, and of course, give them yummy fish to eat.  If you want to ride them, it also pays to think up innovative designs for saddles and other flight-gear.  But if your community frowns on befriending dragons, you may have to radically alter their traditional views before they will accept such activities.

Cressida Cowell’s novel How To Train Your Dragon, book one of an ongoing series, presents a similar, but decidedly different dilemma for the protagonist Hiccup.  He and his peers (such as Clueless, Dogsbreath, Fishlegs, and Snotlout) wish to become full members of the Hairy Hooligan tribe.  So the ten boys climb up Wild Dragon Cliff, sneak into a Dragon Nursery, and steal young dragons to train.  When his friend Fishlegs disrupts a pile of sleeping dragons, Hiccup flees the cave like everyone else.  But he takes pity on Fishlegs, gives him the dragon he stole, and braves the waking dragons to rush back inside and get another.

Hiccup finds himself ill suited to be the son of the chief, and therefore the heir to leadership of his community.  The other boys don’t respect him, and he’s no good at yelling, which is the method recommended by Professor Yobbish in his short book on the subject (also entitled How To Train Your Dragon).  So he does something radical, something frowned on by his tribe’s tradition and culture: he learns the dragon language and talks to his young dragon.  He treats it like a treasured pet, and does his best to earn its respect. 

In Cressida’s world, dragons are selfish, and will only obey their masters if they are forced to.  Hence the preferred training method of yelling.  They are used primarily for hunting, as with birds and dogs.  No one attempts to train dragons big enough to ride, as they’d simply roll their eyes at you, and then gobble you up.  But Hiccup’s dragon is particularly unimpressive, no larger than a bird, and as it has no teeth, he has named it Toothless.  

Talking to Toothless involves breaking a taboo, and initially his training method doesn’t bear fruit.  On Thor’sday Thursday, after months of training, Toothless starts a fight with the other young dragons.  This forces Hiccup’s father, and the elders, to exile all the boys.  But when an immense dragon rises from centuries of hibernation under the ocean, it rapidly becomes clear that the traditional method of dealing with dragons--yelling at them--will prove ineffective in this case.  Thankfully, Hiccup has a radical alternative to offer, and he finds his father and the elders amenable to reconsidering their status, if only he and the boys can successfully banish the large dragon.

Cressida Cowell lavishes her story with humor, and enlivens the pages with illustrations.  While I love the animated film, I also enjoyed the novel: for me, the two rest comfortably side-by-side as vastly different, yet thematically similar stories.  Others, such as my niece in Texas, disagree.  She pronounced the movie “Okay,” but wished the filmmakers had stuck more closely to Cowell’s original vision.  Why not give the novel a try, and decide for yourself where you stand on the subject? 

Then again, if you’ve just crawled out of a cave, are still groggy from centuries of hibernation, and love dragon stories, why not try reading Cowell’s novel first, and then see the movie?  Then you can tell me which version you prefer.  I’d certainly enjoy hearing your opinion.  But please, no yelling.

I'm not that kind of dragon.

Dragon Dave

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