On Dragons and Ideals: An Examination of the HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON Franchise and the Aspects of Ideology

Film theory is a subject made fascinating by its layers; for what the methods of analysis reveal about the film to which they are applied. A film—as with any other form of media—can be viewed from multiple angles based on one’s perspective and learning, and with each refraction that results another layer to the film is peeled away, leading to greater understanding of the film as a whole. In some cases, the film in question is not a film, but a series, and the layers that are revealed have layers of their own, and the interactions between concept and film become a microcosm of a larger picture, even as they themselves are created of supporting threads. This in turn allows for surprising depth in the most unlikely of films and film franchises, such as the one examined within this paper. After all, who would expect a beloved animated franchise such as DreamWorks’s How To Train Your Dragon—inspired by Cressida Cowell’s twelve-volume children’s series of the same name—to reflect the concepts of ideology, cultural hegemony, and the sub-concepts that bind the two together?

Let us start with ideology and cultural hegemony, the co-dominant themes that can be found within the How To Train Your Dragon films. Ideology refers to the basic beliefs and ideas that structure and shape a given culture, and that bind various components (goods, products, behaviors, etc.) into a meaningful system of shared or relatable experiences. Cultural hegemony, on the other hand, refers to the struggle of a culture’s dominant ideology to stay the primary set of ideals for that society, as it must constantly re-win its dominance against other ideals that seek to take its place. This involves negotiating with subcultural artifacts, ideas, and social movements that may run in opposing veins to its own.[1]

Within the first few minutes of How To Train Your Dragon, the viewer is introduced to the Viking village of Berk and its inhabitants…and to the dragon raids that the village faces on a regular basis. In fact, these raids are so common that they are treated as business as usual, and Berk has dedicated itself to fighting and killing dragons, with the ultimate goal of Chief Stoick the Vast to find and eradicate the dragon’s nest. Enter Hiccup Horrendous Haddock the Third, protagonist, village misfit, and Stoick’s son, who wants nothing more than to kill a dragon for himself and prove he is a Viking. However, when he downs one of the dragons with a bola—the elusive Night Fury that it the ultimate prize for a dragonslayer—he finds that he cannot kill the dragon, and instead frees it. As time passes, he eventually befriends the Night Fury, dubbing him “Toothless” for his retractable teeth, and building a prosthetic tail-fin to replace the one torn off by the bola. Through Toothless, Hiccup also begins to learn that dragons are more than the vicious beasts that he was taught that they were, and that they can be befriended and trained. However, even as he learns more about the true natures of the various species that are usually considered only as far as how dangerous their attacks are and the “kill on sight” rule, Hiccup must hide his growing realizations, for he has been enrolled in “dragon training”—classes to teach young Vikings the best ways to kill dragons.[2]

Hiccup quickly decides to put his discoveries to use in order to pass each test without harming the dragons he face, but although this subterfuge quickly boosts his popularity, it puts additional pressure on the situation, which comes to a head when Hiccup must take his “final exam” and slay a Monstrous Nightmare. He decides to instead prove to the village that the dragons can be trained, but when Stoick realizes what is going on and tries to interrupt, things quickly take a turn for the worse and the situation ends with Toothless captured and Hiccup disowned. Hiccup also accidentally reveals that only a dragon can find the dragon’s nest, and Stoick takes a war-fleet out to find and eliminate it, using Toothless as a compass and unaware of the monstrous Red Death—ruler of the dragons and the true threat—that awaits within the island’s core. The Vikings quickly find themselves outmatched against this nightmarish beast, and it is only the timely arrival of Hiccup and his classmates on the backs of dragons that turn the tide, climaxing in Hiccup and Toothless challenging the Red Death and defeating it in combat, though at the cost of Hiccup’s leg and nearly his life. It is this battle, and Toothless’s miraculous rescue of Hiccup when the teen was knocked from the saddle in the immediate aftermath and nearly fell to his fiery death, that finally changes the hearts and minds of the rest of the village, and dragons come to be accepted on Berk[3]—although not without some bumps along the way (including but not limited to exploding eggs) as they adjust.[4]

Thus, in the first film, ideologies shift as dragons change from enemies to allies. However, in the second film, this new dominant ideology is challenged, as a new threat rises five years after the events of the first film. During an encounter with a band of dragon trappers, Hiccup learns of a man named Drago Bludvist, who is building a dragon army and threatens the peace. Hiccup decides to hear off the oncoming storm by meeting with Drago, but is stopped by his father, who years before had met Drago when he arrived at a gathering held by the various Viking chiefs to discuss the issue of the dragon raids. Drago told them that he alone could control and rid the Vikings of the dragons, so long as they agreed to let him rule them. When met with derision, Drago set armored dragons upon the unsuspecting gathering, killing all but one of the chiefs. That survivor was Stoick, and he knows that Drago cannot be reasoned with.[5]

Hiccup takes Toothless and flies off to think, but quickly encounters and is kidnapped by a mysterious dragon rider. This rider is revealed to be his long-lost mother Valka, who for twenty years has been protecting a dragon sanctuary ruled over and nurtured by a white Bewilderbeast known as the Alpha. However, the sanctuary is the very target Drago is after, and he brings his army to it, even as the other riders, seeking Hiccup, come to fight against him. Drago has brought another Bewilderbeast to challenge the Alpha, and although the Alpha fights valiantly, he is killed by the black-scaled newcomer, who then takes control of all the dragons present. With Drago now able to control any dragon he wishes through the Dark Alpha, he attempts to use Toothless to eliminate Hiccup, whom he sees as the main threat to his ideals. Stoick sacrifices himself to save his son, and as the riders deal with the aftermath of the battle Drago sets his sights upon Berk, the first island he plans to conquer with his newly-bolstered army. Only with the aid of a group of baby dragons—the only ones unable to be controlled by the Dark Alpha—are the riders able to return to Berk before it is completely destroyed, and it takes their combined effort to distract the Dark Alpha long enough for Hiccup to free Toothless from the Bewilderbeast’s control. The pair then challenge the Dark Alpha and Drago to a battle, but just when it looks like they have won, the Dark Alpha freezes them in a block of ice. This catalyzes an unlocking of previously-unseen power from Toothless, and upon breaking free the Night Fury challenges the Dark Alpha for dominance, winning back the freedom of the controlled dragons and with their help, defeating the Dark Alpha once and for all. After the battle, Hiccup is recognized as Berk’s new chief, while Toothless is selected as the new Alpha of the dragons.[6]

Two very similar lines can be drawn from the films and the characters and dragons involved in their conflicts. In the first film, Toothless and the Red Death come to be the ultimate avatars of the conflict—Toothless representing Hiccup’s ideal that dragons can be trained, and the Red Death embodying that of dragons being beasts to be destroyed. In the second, it is both Toothless and the Alpha that represent the positive ideal, while the Dark Alpha stands opposed to it. Such can be said for the humans, as well—it was the “enemies vs allies” clash between Hiccup and his father that preluded the finale of the first film, and it is a variant of this same ideal that creates conflict between the riders and Drago, ultimately embodied in the latter and in Hiccup. Taking both films as a whole, the viewer can see the shift in ideologies as outlined by the principle of cultural hegemony, with the germination of Hiccup’s ideal in the first film and its eventual replacement of the Berkian ideology. In the second film, Drago’s ideology is the challenger, and though it briefly overtakes the now established and accepted ideal regarding dragons, the latter is able to regain its place. The shift is highlighted at key moments; beginning with the introduction to Berk, they include Hiccup’s choice to free Toothless, his befriending and subsequent training of the dragon (shown in a montage that parallels his training of Toothless with the dragon training classes he is enrolled in), the revelations following Hiccup’s final exam, the battle with the Red Death and its aftermath, and the final minutes of the film, when Hiccup learns of the changes his actions have wrought.[7] In the second, these again begin with an introduction to Berk, and continue from there: the encounter with the dragon trappers and Stoick’s reveal of Drago’s nature, the introduction of Valka, the Alpha, and Drago’s arrival, and most notably the battle of the Bewilderbeasts, which was paralleled by both the brief conflict between Stoick and Drago and the confrontation between Hiccup and Drago immediately after, which ended with Stoick’s demise.[8] These parallels are particularly of note because of Stoick and Drago’s positions as chief and warlord, which are opposite views of the same position—likewise, the Dark Alpha rules by force while his white counterpart exists primarily as a guardian. Thus, the deaths of Stoick and the Alpha are particularly meaningful, given the ideals they embody.

This is also what brings the following confrontation between Drago and the Dark Alpha, and Hiccup and Toothless, into such importance. The latter pair now must embody the ideals that have been defeated, and are coming up against opponents both older and more experienced (in the case of Drago and Hiccup, who must now take his father’s place as chief) and of greater stature and strength (Primarily in the case of the Dark Alpha and Toothless, but also in the case of Drago and Hiccup). Also of note is the fact that the confrontation between Hiccup and Drago can be read in the same way as the battle of the Bewilderbeasts, but for a different reason: both Hiccup and Drago have been shaped by dragons, losing both limbs and kin to them—indeed, they and their ideals are the light and dark mirrors of an individual who has faced trial by dragonfire. A similar parallel arises amidst the confrontation of Tootles and the Dark Alpha: Toothless breaks off one of the Dark Alpha’s tusks, matching his own missing tailfin. Finally, there is the moment in which both Hiccup and Toothless are selected for their new roles, which is the moment that a once-defeated ideology is returned to its rightful place.

As mentioned, although ideology and cultural hegemony are the dominant themes within these films about a boy and his dragon and their coming of age, there are many facets below the surface that support these themes. First is the concept of culture industry, which refer to the institutions that mass-produce cultural artefacts.[9] We can see a shift in this aspect to the changing ideals, both responding to the transformation and helping to cement it into place. One of the more obvious examples of this is Gobber’s smithy, which in the first film is dedicated to forging the weapons needed to battle dragons, and where Hiccup is apprenticed.[10] In the second film, quite the change has been made, as the smithy has now become a producer of dragon saddles and a site for dragon dentistry![11] This evolution can be mapped during the animated TV series that was made to bridge the gap between the films, with an entire episode early on in the program’s run dedicated to what was to be done with Gobber’s shop now that dragons and Vikings were at peace.[12] Another major example is the change in the use of Berk’s arena: Once known as the “kill ring” because of its use as the setting for Viking-style ‘dragon training’,[13] it soon became known simply as the arena—it is still used for dragon training, but this time in the vein of training dragons rather than training Vikings to kill dragons.[14] A third example lies in the evolution of the Book of Dragons: Although it was still an informative guidebook to the many species that inhabit the archipelago in which the films and tv series take place, it only listed a dragon’s description, abilities, and the note “kill on sight.”[15] After the events of the first film, it was updated with the new discoveries made as dragons were integrated into the lives of Berk’s inhabitants, and became a reference work for dragon encounters and solving issues that may arise. In fact, by the second film, one of the Riders, Fishlegs, had adapted the Book into a set of stat cards he carried with him in order to quickly identify various species.[16] In addition, the animated series featured a device known as the Dragoneye, which functioned like a projector when unlocked by the tooth of a Snow Wraith and powered by the light of a dragon’s flame, and which contained enough long-lost knowledge about elusive species of dragons to make it and its interchangeable lenses a highly sought-after prize, both for the dragon riders and the dragon trappers who served as antagonists for several seasons.[17]

Another such sub-facet that both reflects and encourages cultural hegemony in the How To Train Your Dragon franchise is that of over-determination, when similar ideological goals are shared and endorsed by multiple texts and social institutions, thus becoming viewed as ‘natural’ or ‘normal.’[18] Culture industry plays a very large part in this aspect of ideology, so many of the same elements play out here, such as dragon training classes versus actual dragon training, and the Book of Dragons before and after its re-writing, with additional supplementation from the Dragoneye. However, there are specific events that could also fall under this category, because of their enforcement of the ideals of the time of their happening. Two such events occurred prior to the first film (though were told in flashback from in the second), and can be seen as influencing the “kill on sight” ideal of the past Berk.

The first of these two, chronologically told first in the film, is Drago’s attack on the gathering of chiefs. The gathering was, of course, to discuss what to do about the dragon menace, and the absolute last thing that was to be expected was a dragon attack then and there.[19] Although it does not serve to quite as solidly cement the “dragons are evil” ideal as the second example does, particularly because of the timing of the attack in relation to Drago’s rejection and because the dragons were armored and thus not wild, it still reinforces Stoick’s view that they are dangerous, as having come out of such an experience as the only survivor no doubt left a traumatic mark.

The second is the dragon raid to which Stoick lost Valka. During that fateful night, a dragon broke into the Haddock’s house, and when Stoick realized what had happened, attempted to slay it, not knowing that Valka had already confronted the Stormcutter, who had done nothing more than attempt to play with the child it found within the cradle, and who had only studied Valka when it realized she was watching it, sword drawn for defense. Seeing only a dangerous beast ready to attack, Stoick charged, provoking the Stormcutter into setting the house alight, and while Stoick was busy rescuing Hiccup and getting them both out alive, the dragon flew off with Valka—not to eat, as Stoick and the rest of the village assumed, but to take back to the sanctuary, perhaps realizing a kindred spirit.[20] Unable to know this, however, Stoick assumed the worst, and this would have only furthered the idea that the dragons must be killed and the raids stopped at all costs.

The final sub-facet woven into the tapestry of the How To Train Your Dragon franchise is that of interpellation, which occurs when a person accepts that he or she is being addressed and therefore assumes an identity not their own.[21] Interestingly enough, three major examples of this theme are actually subversions of aspects of this facet, although they are no less important because of it.

In fact, the first subversion actually plays a major role in the plot of the first film—or at the very least, in setting off the fateful chain of events. This is because it centers on Hiccup—the most un-Viking-like inhabitant of Berk. The element that makes this a subversion is the fact that Hiccup actually wants to accept the foreign identity—he wants to be considered a proper Viking by both his village and his father, and this means killing dragons, never mind the fact that—as various characters point out, including himself—he is not really built for it, and the inventions he builds to make up for this lack of physical strength usually backfire and end up causing more trouble. In addition, this subversion reverts as his views are changed through his interactions with the dragon he shot down, and he soon realizes that he does not want to accept the foreign identity—it being a Viking means killing dragons, then he does not want to be a Viking—but he must continue to accept it, both because he has to protect Toothless, and because circumstances find a way to prevent him from trying to address the issue at hand (in one case, “circumstances” involve a very one-sided conversation with his father, including a now-familiar “stop being all of this” lecture, “this” referencing everything about Hiccup that makes him unlike the rest of Berk). At one point Hiccup outright denounces the identity he has longed for; ironic both in the fact that is it not long after this that he is disowned, and because it is everything about his ‘true’ identity that, “as it turns out, all Berk needed was a little bit of this” (as usual, this is followed by “you just gestured to all of me” to complete what has been a running gag throughout the film, although at the film’s conclusion it is used in a far more positive light).[22] At the beginning of the second film, the viewer will notice a sort of reversal in regard to interpellation and Hiccup; in this case, regarding his eventual inheritance of the position of Chief of Berk. Although his actions and hard work have paid off to shape Berk into a paradise for Vikings and dragons alike, Hiccup is reluctant to step up and begin to take on the duties of being chief, feeling that he would be unable to adequately follow in his father’s footsteps, and he would rather avoid the issue no matter how often it comes up (often with the refrain, “a chief protects his own”, or some variance on it.) By the conclusion of the film Hiccup has accepted his new role—not without hesitance, but with new understanding of what lies ahead.[23]

The other subversion, likewise, occurs when a character accepts an identity not their own, by recognizing and accepting that they are being addressed by it. In this case, however, the subversion is so effective because the character in question takes a concept with negative connotations and uses it to their advantage, and because no one knows that interpellation is actually in play. It is the setup for the ultimate betrayal, and it is played for all it is worth in the later seasons of the animated series that accompanies the films. Early on in the animated series, we are introduced to Trader Johann, an intrepid sailor with exotic goods, long-winded stories, and the absolute worst luck imaginable. He is a friendly face well-known to Berk, as he often brings his wares to trade to the island, finds himself in need of the assistance of the dragon riders on a fairly regular basis, and has delivered everything from food in a famine to a stuffed toy that Hiccup threw into the sea as a small child and that Johann tracked down because it was all he had left of his mother.[24] He is the one person in the series that you would ever expect to be an enemy of Berk… but as is revealed as DreamWorks Dragons: Race to the Edge begins to approach its climax, Johann has been spying upon Berk and the Riders, trying to find information about the “King of Dragons.” It is also he who has been behind the dragon hunters who have served as the antagonists through much of the series. Johan eventually gets his just rewards but the betrayal nonetheless cuts deep—even though it is unknown exactly how long he has been an ally of Berk, it is nonetheless implied to have been quite some time, and as such the trust placed in the eccentric trader ran quite deep. Not only that, by the audience themselves feel betrayed, long-time fans in particular—DreamWorks Dragons first began its run in 2012, so fans who followed the series as its episodes aired have known the character for six years,[25] which is plenty of time to cement an image in their mind of who Johann is, and that image does not even hint at his evil ways.

The third and final instance subverts interpellation in the same way as the second, but for a far less sinister reason. Like in the first case, it is used to introduce the plot of the film—in this case the animated short Book of Dragons, which places the viewer into the film as a new dragon trainer being taught the basics by the main cast of the first film. This particular instance is perhaps the most unique of all, not only because of what it does, but because of how it accomplishes it: the viewer is placed into a first-person view from the very beginning, and as such are directly addressed and interacted with by Hiccup and the other riders—at one point, Gobber even places a Viking’s helmet on the “viewer’s” head.[26]

This is, of course, only a taste of how the How To Train Your Dragon franchise and the concepts explored within this essay interact; with a franchise that spans two feature-length films, a television series that ran for over half a decade, and several short films, there are many examples, from the obvious to the subtle, to choose from. Nonetheless, exploring the world built by the franchise, and how its evolution is shaped and supported by ideology and its facets, provides valuable insight, not just to the films and concepts themselves, but through them, the world around us.

[1] Benshoff, Concepts of Ideology.

[2] How To Train Your Dragon. DVD. 2010.

[3] How To Train Your Dragon. DVD. 2010.

[4] Gift of the Night Fury. 2011.

[5] How To Train Your Dragon 2. DVD. 2014.

[6] How To Train Your Dragon 2. DVD. 2014.

[7] How To Train Your Dragon. DVD. 2010.

[8] How To Train Your Dragon 2. DVD. 2014.

[9] Benshoff, Concepts of Ideology.

[10] How To Train Your Dragon. DVD. 2010.

[11] How To Train Your Dragon 2. DVD. 2014.

[12] DreamWorks Dragons (Dragons: Riders of Berk. 2012-2013.)

[13] How To Train Your Dragon. DVD. 2010.

[14] DreamWorks Dragons., 2012-2018

[15] How To Train Your Dragon. DVD. 2010.

[16] How To Train Your Dragon 2. DVD. 2014.

[17] DreamWorks Dragons (Dragons: Race to the Edge. 2015-2018.)

[18] Benshoff, Concepts of Ideology.

[19] How To Train Your Dragon 2. DVD. 2014.

[20] How To Train Your Dragon 2. DVD. 2014.

[21]Nichols, Bill. Ideology and the image: social representation in the cinema and other media. 1981.

[22] How To Train Your Dragon. DVD. 2010.

[23] How To Train Your Dragon 2. DVD. 2014.

[24] DreamWorks Dragons (Dragons: Riders of Berk. 2012-2013.)

[25] DreamWorks Dragons (Dragons: Race to the Edge. 2015-2018.)

[26] Book of Dragons. 2011.