In the much beloved, critically acclaimed DreamWorks series How to Train Your Dragon, we encounter a world filled with dragons. But, in spite of their traditional power, ferocity and fiery breath, these are no ordinary dragons. They are still dangerous, to be sure. However, there is something noticeably different about these dragons compared to dragons in other stories. The dragons in the DreamWorks films are misunderstood dragons. And, being misunderstood, they are mistreated dragons. These dragons are good dragons who have fallen into the hands of wicked humans.
This Is The Town Of Berk…
In the first of the three films, the audience is introduced to the town of Berk. Berk is a Viking village locked in generational conflict with a bewildering variety of flying serpents, dragon armies from beyond the sea. As the story unfolds, however, we learn that these dragons are not innately cruel. They do not long to gnaw on human flesh nor to amass and horde the treasure and wealth of men. The conflict is entangled in a simple misunderstanding. It is a misunderstanding that began not with the dragons, but with their human adversaries. The dragons, if properly understood (and trained), can become the humans’ greatest allies.
And this is the basic thrust of the first film as the lead character, Hiccup, comes to befriend one of the most dangerous kinds of dragon, a “Night Fury” he eventually trains and dubs “Toothless.” Hiccup’s iconoclastic actions usher is a new era between men and dragons. Through his reaching out to the “other,” a genuine friendship is forged and a new symbiotic relationship between long-standing rivals formed.
The other movies in the series simply carry out this main theme as Hiccup and his companions fight other non-Berkian humans still hostile to dragons and who long to control them. In the third film, the series culminates when Hiccup realizes that men and dragons cannot live together in harmony, not because of the dragons, but because of the evil and ignorance residing in men’s hearts. Human beings just aren’t ready to have dragons as their friends. It is man who is unworthy of the dragon and the dragons must be protected. Hiccup ultimately allows Toothless and his newfound mate, a female Night Fury, to lead the dragon hordes back to the dragon homeland, a luminous cavern-world that exists under the sea. The dragon homeland is like heaven under the earth.
The Merits of HTTYD
The How to Train Your Dragon (HTTYD) movies are visually stunning, incredibly vivid and big in imaginative scope. The characters are well crafted and lovable. The humor, like most Disney or Pixar films in recent decades, is aimed not at the children watching, but primarily at parents (a feature that makes it a bit uncomfortable. After all, at some point children begin to pick up on the subtle humor and parental explanation is required). At the same time the movies do a good job of probing real moral issues: social, economic, environmental and, most poignantly, relational.
While one could comment on a wide variety of issues that the series touches on: marriage and divorce, leadership, exploitation, courage and romantic love, there is a more central theme in the overall story worthy of comment. It is a theme that goes beyond just moral and social issues of the day and how a biblical approach to those issues might differ from a Hollywood approach. It is a theme that relates to the very symbol set of the Biblical narrative itself, a symbolism that shaped the entire history of Western art and literature. It is the theme and meaning of the dragon itself.
A Word About Christ and Culture
Before I continue, let me state I am not one who believes Christians should always and only be in the role of repudiating culture, especially not in obnoxious or ignorant ways. Even in an American culture that is quickly unraveling, one finds hints and glimmers of the divine in and through cultural forms and expressions. There is more good in films like How To Train Your Dragon than bad. More positive virtues are defended in the series than vices excused.
A good approach toward any expression of culture is to first find the points of contact and commend them, before finding the gaps and filling them in with the Gospel. In this way not only do we safeguard against a form of judgementalism that often undercuts evangelism, but we also re-affirm the doctrine of general revelation. The Church has consistently taught that God’s common grace is poured out upon all his creation. We see God moving in mysterious ways, even, and often especially, through non-Christian media. Thus, the fingerprints of God and Christ exist not only in ancient pagan religions, but also in our contemporary pagan mythologies. This includes the mythology of the CGI-animated village of Berk, an artifact of human culture generated by another artifact of culture (the computer).
In HTTYD we see many such fingerprints of the divine. For example, the most Christian element of any story, the element of personal sacrifice for the sake of others, lies at the heart of the HTTYD films. One would be foolish to fail to point this out. Also, breaking down boundaries between natural enemies is central to Christianity. After all, it is Christ who breaks down the boundaries between God and man. It is Christ who teaches us to break down social boundaries, like those of race or class or sex. Hiccup’s reaching out to try to understand the dragons is exactly the kind of moral action Christians should want to see on screen. None of these are targets for criticism.
Good Dragons, Bad God
However, in spite of this one must ask the question, what happens when a central biblical symbol, the symbol of the dragon, is adopted and given an entirely new cultural meaning? And, it is not just given a new meaning, but a meaning antithetical to the one conveyed in the Bible. What happens if an entire generation brought up on stories like HTTYD, where dragons are represented as good, innocent creatures, is then confronted with the imagery of the dragon as presented, say, in the book of Isaiah:
On that day the Lord will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent,
With His fierce and great and mighty sword,
Even Leviathan the twisted serpent;
And He will kill the dragon who lives in the sea.
Isaiah 27:1 (NASB)
In the symbolic world of HTTYD, it is the Lord who would be in the wrong for slaying the dragon with His mighty sword. Dragons in HTTYD are virtuous and, as I pointed out above, their homeland under the sea is a realm of edenic peace and harmony. They are not symbols for chaos and destruction as they were in almost every ancient, near-Eastern culture and the subsequent cultures that followed them. In reversing the meaning of the dragon, the films have the potential to warp the image of YHWH as righteous hero who subdues chaos and conquers the disorder of a world locked in sin. YHWH in the world of HTTYD would be analogous to the villains in the second (Drago Bludvist) and third (Grimmel the Grisly) films, evil men looking to abuse peace loving dragons.
Moreover, Church tradition has historically understood Jesus as the crusher of the serpent’s head in what is often called the “proto-evangelium” of Genesis 3:15. Here, God puts enmity between man and the serpent promising that a man of Eve’s offspring will strike the serpent with some kind of deadly blow. Even Jewish tradition, which clearly does not view Jesus as the conqueror of Satan, understands Genesis 3:15 to be a proclamation of God’s undermining of pagan meanings attributed to the serpent. Nahum Sarna explains this biblical correction to pagan myth:
The imprecation [against the serpent] may also carry anti pagan undertones, as if to say that the serpent is neither a fertility symbol, as in Canaan, nor a protective emblem, as among Egyptian royalty, but a hostile object of aversion.
Sarna, “Genesis” in the JPS Torah Commentary Series (27)
While the serpent in Genesis 3, or dragon in Isaiah 27, is not the personification of evil in the Hebrew Bible, by the time of John’s Revelation the progressive unveiling of God’s Word has made Satan’s true nature more transparent. According to John, the ancient serpent is indeed the evil one:
And the great dragon was thrown down, the serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world; he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.
In the Bible, there is nothing good about dragons. At best, the serpent/dragon is a symbol of chaos or pagan ungodliness, worthy of prophetic denunciation. Worse still, the dragon is Satan, the arch-enemy of God in Christ who seeks to kill, steal and destroy all that is good in God’s world, most especially those that bear His image.
What To Think About Cultural Images?
I am well aware of the critique that might follow an essay like this. It will come in this form, “C’mon, it’s just a kids’ movie! Aren’t you stretching this whole idea a bit too far? Does anyone really think that a cartoon will have this kind of impact. Clearly you are overreacting!”
And perhaps I am. Nevertheless, that images and the mythologies built around them impact us greatly is not a controversial idea. That the Star Wars franchise, for example, generated in American culture a renewed interest in spirituality, and engender a broader acceptance of metaphysical monism as opposed to biblical dualism (not to be confused with Greek dualism), is a fairly established fact of recent, mythological history. In addition, the concept of a powerful, yet impersonal force that we all can “tap into” is far more in line with 19th century German pantheism than with anything resembling the biblical revelation of a personal God with whom we can “enter into” a relationship. There is even reason to think that the Star Wars “force” has impacted Christian views of the Holy Spirt, who is often seen as a kind of vague energy to access rather than a divine Person to petition.
I doubt that How To Train Your Dragon will achieve the kind of cultural influence that Star Wars has, or that the Marvel universe is currently achieving. And again, my aim is not to disparage or reject in toto the mythologies of our times. I have a more modest goal, namely, to motivate critical thinking about the images they use and the narratives they weave. To not think critically about them, might lead us astray from the meaning given us in Scripture.
In the end, God chose a book as His primary instrument of personal disclosure (barring the incarnation itself). He choose to tell us a story. Of course, that story includes universally valid and applicable propositional content, for example “God so loved the world that He sent His only Son,” as well as “Do not be deceived: no sexually immoral people, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, homosexuals, thieves, greedy people, drunkards, revilers, or swindlers will inherit God’s kingdom.” However, the Bible includes more than just true propositional content, it includes imagery that, while having facets of meaning, nevertheless points us to truth. It is in this sense that some cultural rehashing of old images may be more conducive to knowing that truth than others. We should be aware of which have the ring of truth and which ring hollow.
Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven with the key to the abyss and a great chain in hand. He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for 1,000 years. He threw him into the abyss, closed it, and put a seal on it so that he would no longer deceive the nations until the 1,000 years were complete.
‘The King under the Mountain is dead and where are his kin that dare seek revenge? Girion Lord of Dale is dead, and I have eaten his people like a wolf among sheep, and where are his sons’ sons that dare approach me? I kill where I wish and none dare resist. I laid low the warriors of old and their like is not in the world today. Then I was but young and tender. Now I am old and strong, strong, strong, Thief in the Shadows!’ he gloated. ‘My armour is like tenfold shields, my teeth are swords, my claws spears, the shock of my tail a thunderbolt, my wings a hurricane, and my breath death!’
Tolkien, The Hobbit (Smaug addressing Bilbo)
Featured Image: Cornelis van Haarlem, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons