We went to see How to Train Your Dragon last night, and were delighted. It’s quite a fun movie, filled with action, but good for kids aged about 7 up; it’s got a wonderful storyline about learning to think outside the, er, dragon’s nest and looking for solutions to problems that don’t involve violence. It portrays disabled characters with dignity and grace. But perhaps the most important message of all has to do with fear. The hero, Hiccup (gotta love his name) is a runt of a Viking, a scrawny little geek of a kid born into a culture where brawn and brute strength are everything. Their homeland happens to be in the flightpath of dragons who regularly come by to steal their sheep (and torch the town, apparently for the sheer fun of it). Consequently, part of being a “real” Viking is having the will and the strength to fight, and kill, the fearsome, flying, fire-breathing beasts.
Although Hiccup trains with the other youths of the village in the art of dragon-fighting, he is rejected by his peers for the weakling nerd that he is. Meanwhile, during one spectacular dragon fight he manages to wound a dragon, and tracks it into the woods — but, seeing the fear in the eye of the creature, cannot bring himself to kill it. Instead, he befriends the dragon, naming it Toothless; he feeds it and helps it to heal, and… well, you know the name of the movie, and if you’ve seen the trailer you know that it involves Avatar-worthy flying sequences.
To me, the real heart of the movie comes after Hiccup has been discovered by Astrid, the girl he adores (and who, alone of all his classmates, figures out that he’s up to something). After Hiccup’s disastrous attempt to show the entire village that it would make more sense to befriend the dragons than continually fight them, he is left behind when a war party sails off — with Toothless in chains on the deck of the lead ship. Heartbroken, Hiccup gazes into the empty sea, and Astrid talks to him. She asks him why he couldn’t just kill Toothless when he had the chance. He hangs his head in shame and mutters that he was afraid, in fact the first Viking ever to be afraid to kill a dragon. Astrid points out that he was also the first Viking ever to fly with a dragon.
This simple re-framing forces Hiccup to see that fear may have been what he was feeling, but ultimately it was compassion that led him to spare the wounded dragon’s life — and that set into motion the series of events that caused him to rethink everything that his people “knew” was true. Understanding the dignity and power of his choice, Hiccup finds the courage to “do something crazy” and — with the help of his schoolmates who now respect him — goes on to save the day, and to forever change the way the Vikings relate to the dragons.
I think it’s so easy, even for Christians, to dismiss fear as the opposite of love — sort of a junior cousin to hate, which must equally be vanquished and transcended as we seek to grow spiritually. After all, the New Testament bluntly states that “love casts out fear” (I John 4:18). But maybe sometimes there is more to fear than meets the eye. If we befriend our fear, we might learn that it is not just a power that prevents us from doing what we want or need to do, but it can also be a sort of circuit-breaker, causing us to stop for a moment and allow submerged (but vital) dynamics — like Hiccup’s compassion — a chance to manifest. Seen this way, fear is far more than just the privation of love. It can even be a true gift. Perhaps this kind of fear is what the Hebrew Scriptures calls “the Fear of the Lord” — not fear directed at God, but rather fear given to us by God, that causes us to stop and see things in a new way. That sure sounds like “the beginning of wisdom” to me (Psalm 111:10).
Theologian Johann-Baptist Metz once said that religion could be defined in a single word: “Interruption.” Fear can be an interruption that leads to a new way of seeing things, the beginning of wisdom. Perhaps we should even pray that such a fear be given to us. It is not a permanent gift: as soon as it delivers its message, it needs to be cast out (by love). Even the fear of the Lord is only the beginning, not the culmination, of wisdom. Back to the movie: perhaps the dragons are metaphors for our fears. We can try to kill them, but they’ll just keep coming back, stealing our sheep and burning our villages. It is only when we befriend them and learn to fly them that they will unleash within us the power to transform our lives.