Whenever I watch Hiccup’s first flight, my eyes get misty. There he is, a pseudo-viking, risking the wrath of his father and his whole clan to go fly a fucking dragon. It’s unbelievably inspiring. So below, I’ll try to articulate why I find HTTYD so inspiring, and why it makes me so emotional. I’ve boiled it down to two reasons: the movie is archetypally balanced, and Hiccup is an exemplary rebel.
Identity and Perfect Contrarianism:
Let’s start with how Hiccup is a perfect rebel. By showing that a person can redefine what a Viking is, the film suggests that just because a person does not conform to a specific standard does not mean that they are an inauthentic instantiation of the standard. This idea is explored in this video essay about Newt Scamander’s masculinity, and I think the same could be said about Hiccup. But I will focus on Viking identity and courage instead.
A big part of the film’s dialogue focuses on Viking identity. Nobody thinks Hiccup is a Viking when the film starts. He is scrawny, annoying, and can’t kill dragons. In fact, that’s all being a Viking is made to be. When he goes to kill Toothless, Hiccup tries to amp himself up by saying “I am a Viking!”
Later in the film though, we see that Hiccup is a Viking. Why? It’s because Hiccup changes the definition of a Viking.
A Viking is no longer someone who kills dragons.
A Viking instead is someone who is courageous, stubborn, and protective.
These traits explain why Vikings kill dragons, and also why Vikings befriend them. These traits explain why Stoic the Great is a Viking, but also why Hiccup is too.
The film’s end mirrors the film’s beginning. Hiccup narrates both. In the beginning, he says that “this is Berk — place of Vikings, and we have a pest problem.” In the end, he says “this is Berk — place of Vikings, and we have a pet problem.”
There is both continuity and discontinuity between Berk the former and Berk the latter. And after watching this film, I believe that whoever is courageous, stubborn, and protective enough to change their identity will redefine it.
How to Train Your Dragon is also archetypally balanced. In case you don’t know what this means, I’ll explain it below:
What are the archetypes?
There are three main archetypes in all mythologies, according to Dr. Jordan B. Peterson:
- The great mother
- The great father
- The son
You can also see them as chaos, order, and consciousness, respectively.
Each archetype has a positive and a negative side.
Take the great father. His positive side is the wise king, the personification of culture and order. He supports and protects you. His negative side is the tyrannical king: the corrupt king who eats his children because they threaten him (like Kronos).
There’s also the great mother. On the negative side, she is the devouring mother. She is the personification of floods and of anxiety. But on the positive side, she is the source of new things and the matrix from which we all come.
When are the archetypes balanced? It’s when both the positive and the negative sides of the archetypes are present.
Avatar (the blue fighters, not the guy with the arrow on his head) is not an archetypally balanced movie. Don’t get me wrong — it’s a beautiful film, and I do not think that it is so unbalanced that it is propaganda. But compared to HTTYD, it is indeed archetypally unbalanced.
In Avatar, we only see the great mother’s positive aspect, and the great father’s tyrannical aspect. Eywa and the aboriginal people personify the great mother. The selfish, ruthless, colonizing humans personify the great father. For it to be truly archetypally balanced, there needs to be the great mother’s negative aspect and the great father’s benevolent aspect.
The Archetypes in How to Train Your Dragon
In HTTYD, you have the tyrannical and the wise father, and the chaotic and the nurturing mother. Both sides of both the archetypes.
Hiccup’s culture, personified by his father, Stoic the Great, is the archetypal tyrannical father. Stoic clamps down on Hiccup’s gadgetry and demands that he be a Viking. But Hiccup’s culture is also the archetypal benevolent father. Hiccup’s Viking stubbornness is what leads him to persist with his gadgetry, and eventually lets him domesticate dragons.
Hiccup’s father too is benevolent. After all, Stoic protects Hiccup from dragons throughout the whole film, like the big long-snout red one at the beginning of the film, and from mind-controlled Toothless in the movie’s sequel.
Both sides of the archetypal mother are present here too. The great mother’s negative side appears in the form of dragons and their raids. The dragons steal livestock. Near the end of the film, the great mother shows up in the great big dragon, who threatens to kill dragons and Vikings alike.
But there’s also the positive side of the great mother, in the form of Toothless. Hiccup dares to initiate a relationship with the Night Fury, a dragon whose nature he cannot predict. Hiccup befriends chaos, and it turns into a fruitful relationship. He frees the dragons from slavery and brings dragon and Viking together.
See how both aspects of the archetypes are present? Stoic both clamps down on his son’s potential and also protects him by pushing him to become a Viking. Dragons are both dangerous thieves and beings which we can befriend. Both nature and culture are fairly represented. And that makes this movie archetypally balanced.
I think there’s two important takeaways from this film.
One: keep your eyes open to the other side of the archetype. By confronting the things you are most afraid of, you could be opening up a new world of possibility. Hiccup chose to not kill a dragon and ended up solving Berk’s pest problem, making his dad proud of him, and freeing all of the other dragons from slavery. If you’re dealing with a tyrant in your life, or if you’ve just lost your job and are anxious, try to look for what new could come out of it.
Two: that a rebel is not someone who *defines* himself as being the opposite of others. A rebel is someone who pursues an authentic vision of himself without caring about what other people think. Hiccup pursued his whole dragon riding scheme, not because he wanted to be different from everyone else, but because that was what interested him. So — if you want to stand out, pursue what you find meaningful; don’t define yourself as the opposite of the crowd.