I loved the movie How to Train Your Dragon immensely. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but it felt very complete, very satisfying as an overall story, even if it was originally made for children. It wasn’t until about a week after watching it that it hit me — How to Train Your Dragon is the classic archetypical hero’s journey, more than you would originally think.
Spoiler Alert: There’s a lot of spoilers in this post, so watch the movie if you haven’t already and stop reading.
"And so it happens that if anyone -- in whatever society -- undertakes for himself the perilous journey into the darkness by descending, either intentionally or unintentionally, into the crooked lanes of his spiritual labyrinth, he soon finds himself in a landscape of symbolical figures (any one of which may swallow him) which is no less marvelous than the wild Siberian world of the pudak and sacred mountains." --Joseph Campbell
HTYD starts out by introducing the hero of the story — Hiccup, son of the Viking chief. It turns out that Vikings spent a lot of their days building up a seaside pastoral/horticultural/fishing community that fell prey to constant dragon attacks. Like the archetypical hero, his father is famous and strong. He’s a powerful man who leads his people with ferocity and ambition. Yet, the Viking community is in a state of constant siege and, most importantly, decay. Their never ending battles with dragons wears them down. Hiccup’s father continually seeks for a solution, some form of attack that will cease the dragon attacks once and for all, yet finds himself frustratingly impotent in doing so. While the Viking community is not teetering on the edge of total collapse, the edges are beginning to fray. Tensions are mounting, and something must give in order for there to be renewal in the land.
Hiccup is not strong at all; he’s downright puny. Yet he is endowed with a special gift that sets him apart from the other Vikings, and that is critical thinking and technical knowledge. He stumbles upon a dragon (one of the most powerful, in fact) who is injured; Hiccup befriends the dragon and trains him in a very symbiotic way. The dragon (of Night Fury species), whom Hiccup dubs Toothless, has torn his tail which it uses for flying. Hiccup studies the dragon’s abortive flight attempts and builds a replacement wing which Hiccup controls. Only by working together in a state of union can the two achieve their goals.
During his training sessions, Toothless flies him into the very den of dragons itself, an elusive island Hiccup’s father has sought his entire life. There, he enters the maw of Hell and the underworld, a realm of suffering, death, and decay. He learns the dragons themselves are slaves to a Master Dragon, one Dragon to rule them all and in the darkness bind them. It forces the dragons to raid the Vikings so that they may plunder their lands to bring tribute back to the Great Beast. To disobey is certain death. Hiccup discovers in his venture to the Underworld the source of the Problem itself, a corruption that has thrown the entire world out of balance. Dragons, representative of the forces of nature, need not fight against and destroy Vikings, or humanity. Hiccup sees a vision of a world where man and nature unite in harmony; he intends to see it happen.
Still, the Viking community is very suspicious of dragons and Hiccup must keep this relationship a secret. Eventually, others are drawn into the circle of trust, and eventually he must marshall his allies and directly oppose his father, who has now begun to show signs of hubris (and even madness). After betraying his son’s trust and using him to find the dragons’ homeland, he hurtles towards oblivion with the rest of his followers. Hiccup understands this to be certain death; such an invasion will only end in bloodbath and the complete and inevitable annihilation of the Viking race. Hiccup’s father, the chief, has effectively lost his kingship, his right to rule, and Hiccup must take the crown by violence to save the kingdom now toppling into destruction.
In the midst of the war, he opposes his father and strips him of his authority to lead. He takes the reins of kingship and leads his people in battle. He is victorious; yet, the victory comes not without a price. Hiccup is caught in the dying throes of the corrupted Great Serpent, a now corpulent and bloated mockery of dragonship, and plummets to the earth. It is at this point that he dies, Hiccup son of Stoik the Vast. He is literally swallowed up by the dragon Toothless. Representative of nature’s relationship with man, you could say that the earth itself, Mother Gaia, swallows the lifeless body of Hiccup. However, when the crowd gathers about to mourn the loss of their hero, Hiccup emerges from the dragon’s mouth and is reborn, hero of the Vikings and new chief of the Viking tribe. Still, he has not emerged unscathed — he has lost a leg, symbolic of the atoning price the king must pay in order to renew the land and bring new prosperity to its people. Just as how Toothless (nature) lost its limbs, throwing herself (and the world as a whole) off balance, so Hiccup must also undergo the ritual of sacrificing the king in order to bring about renewing power.
And that he does. Hiccup has brought about rebirth to the land. Dragons and Vikings now live together in harmony, a symbiotic relationship built upon mutual trust and cooperation rather than competition and death. Hiccup has literally restored the paradisaical Garden of Eden, the perfect marriage of man back into his place within the vibrant web of life. Though his father still lives, Hiccup is the de facto new king of the Vikings, revered by his followers and subjects, with a new queen by his side.
What makes HTYD so Campbellian, however, is not the simple Hero Outcast -> Adventures -> Gaining/Realization of New Powers -> Plunge into the Underworld -> Battle -> Death -> Rebirth narrative. Almost every Disney movie has this narrative. Heck, even Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (which is another great movie) has this basic narrative. What makes HTYOD Campbellian is its attention to kingship, decay, and renewal. Here, we are shown a society literally falling apart. The king is helpless, weak despite his physical strength, even slightly mad. The Viking civilization is in a death spiral because the very land itself (the dragons) is rebelling against them. Here sets the stage for a hero to emerge, one of kingly blood himself who will bring renewal to his people but through sacrifice in order to re-establish balance in a world that has gone off-kilter.
Even more Campbellian is Hiccup’s “death.” Many children’s movies have an implied “death(?)” scene where the fate of the hero is in question. Not only does it build climactic tension right before the denouement, but it is essential in order to establish that the hero is no longer the same person; he has been reborn into a new creature. Hiccup’s “death” is even more dramatic and symbolic. Toothless, the symbol of nature, literally swallows up Hiccup, just as the earth swallows the hero’s body as a grave. This grave, ironically, is what saves Hiccup and brings about the means for his resurrection as the hero. And when he emerges, though he has mastered nature and dragons and claimed the rightful throne from his ailing father to lead his people (and thus uniting them as one and overcoming dualistic thinking), he has sacrificed himself to bring about this restoration.
And this is why HTYD is so ultimately more satisfying of an ending, more rich of a conclusion, than a movie like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. Flint emerges from his implied “death(?)” scene basically the same as before — he’s the same lovable, goofy inventor, except validated by his peers and (most importantly) by his father. But other than that, nothing internally has essentially changed. The ending is self-gratifying, almost to the point of a Mary Sue — the “moral” of the story is simple; all of us are geniuses waiting to bloom and be validated by those around us, and we are to project this narcissism onto Flint himself.
Hiccup’s death, in contrast, is entirely opposite. Hiccup emerges changed, not only physically, but internally as well. He has suffered and made the blood sacrifice necessary to bring restoration to his people. He emerges the master of two worlds — both the social world he emerged from and eventually tamed as chief, but the dragon/nature world as well, which he also has tamed. His is not a self-indulgent victory in which he narrowly averts crisis brought about by his own hubris (like Flint), but one where he stops the madness of the king from plunging his people into destruction and pays the atoning burden for his people.
In short, this is the difference between HTYD and other hero’s journey stories like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. Another great comparison example (last one, I promise!) is Harry Potter and Twilight. Both are archetypical hero journeys (Yes, Twilight! Though, in reality, it’s more of like an anti-hero’s journey. But that’s for another day). But in one story, the hero suffers loss and undergoes a fundamental change within himself to find mastery over the world he lives in and overcome death. In the other story, the heroine is a narcissistic egomaniac who also finds mastery over the world and overcomes death, but only through sniveling passivity and dithering, vapid cowardice. In the former, the mastery over death is preceded by volunteering to become a sacrifice, and this sacrifice enables the hero to overcome the Problem or the Corruption in order to bring balance, peace, and renewal to his people. In the latter, the mastery over death is preceded by satiating selfish desires, abandonment of previous obligations, and this mastery over death enables the heroine to continue living this selfish lifestyle. Thankfully, HTYD falls into the former category, though unfortunately, many hero journey stories nowadays fall into the latter, a self-indulgent attempt to justify counterfeit heroism — that is, heroism without obligation and sacrifice, yet replete with all of the unearned accolades and laurels of victory.