How to Train Your Soul: Storytelling Alchemy in How to Train Your Dragon
“Our story changed the world forever.”
– How to Train Your Dragon 3: The Hidden World
I am a die hard fan of many large, respected fandoms. I’m usually the person with red yarn and thumbtacks who corners strangers on the street to talk with them about my theories. I’ve written my fair share of fanfiction and my tumblr account has been active since “before it was cool.” But the series that I have stuck with the longest is not one of the usual household names like Harry Potter or Star Trek. Rather, it is Cressida Cowell’s humble How to Train Your Dragon series that I’ve been a captive fan of for almost fourteen straight years. I’ve read every book, seen every film, and watched every special/episode of the television series. So, to say I had an investment in seeing the trilogy ended “properly” is a bit of an understatement.
You may rightly ask, what makes this series so special? Isn’t it just a kid’s movie with some flashy graphics? To the critics of the franchise, I argue that How to Train Your Dragon edifies the soul for the Good just as much as any other great fantasy work.
To be clear, the book series and film franchise are nothing like each other in terms of plot. However, the spirit of the novels is completely, masterfully, and beautifully captured in the movies. This is because, in both cases, each medium celebrates the themes of unity and compassion, of freedom and kinship beyond blood, of reconciliation and hope, and a desire for a world where love and peace are triumphant over hate and war through Hiccup Haddock the Third’s coming-of-age journey.
But how exactly does a film trilogy prepare the soul (of both the audience and Hiccup) for the Good? Simply put, the How to Train Your Dragon movies utilize “alchemical storytelling”.
According to John Granger (in his book How Harry Cast His Spell), alchemical storytelling has its roots in every culture across the world because, traditionally, story is meant to instruct and change the audience for the better by listening to and spiritually participating in it. Good storytellers today use alchemical images to instigate this change because “the three stages of the alchemical process and the whole ‘Great Work’ of alchemy parallels the spiritual stages of transformation common to all the world’s revealed traditions.”
Therefore, alchemy in this context can be defined as the “transformation of something common into something special.” Specifically, that “something” is the heart of both protagonist and audience member, as the audience is spiritually transformed by participating in the external narrative and journey of the protagonist. As Granger states, “The magic of alchemy … is that through these external transformations, the alchemist’s metals, the audience, and the actors onstage are all purified and transformed from leaden to golden hearts.” But what exactly does this type of storytelling alchemy look like in How to Train Your Dragon?
The first stage, known as the nigredo or black stage, is the period in which the subject is broken down and stripped of everything but its essential qualities. This destruction is necessary in order to prepare for and move on to the next stage. It is also usually done through fire in order to break down the initial material in question. To quote Granger again:
“The beginning of spiritual realization is always accompanied by some kind of sacrifice or death, a dying to the old state of things, in order to make way for the new insight and creation […] turning away of the outer world to the inner to face the shadow of the psyche is frequently experienced … before the dawning of the new light of illumination. The nigredo is a difficult phase, but only through experiencing it can the adept gain the wisdom and humility necessary for illumination.”
In short, the black stage is the beginning of spiritual perfection for the soul. It is the period in which the spirit is stripped of any preconceived notions, previous ways of life, and in essence, of its old self entirely. It is only when the soul is laid bare and broken that it is properly humbled enough to finally receive the beginnings of illuminating wisdom. In alchemical storytelling, this process is done through the hero’s journey that the protagonist undertakes. It is this pilgrimage that edifies the soul of the hero and also, via the transitive properties of the external narrative, the hearts of the audience as they are taken along for the journey.
The first How to Train Your Dragon movie embodies this stage of alchemical storytelling. The film is filled with fire, and it is all about Hiccup preparing to meet his destiny as the hero of the tale. Hiccup’s notions about what it means to be a true viking hero are completely broken down. He goes from social outcast to a celebrity-hero under false pretenses to being a “True Hero” inside and out.
At the start of the movie, vikings and dragons have been at war with each other for centuries with no end in sight. Hiccup, meanwhile, is anything but the obvious choice for a hero to end the war. Despite being the only son and heir to the chief of the viking tribe, Stoick the Vast, Hiccup is the embarrassment of the isle of Berk with his crazy inventions, lack of musculature, and inability to stay out of trouble.
However, despite his inauspicious beginnings, Hiccup becomes the first to shoot down the elusive Night Fury dragon that has terrorized their village. But when he finds the creature injured in the woods, Hiccup is unable to kill him and ultimately decides to help heal the dragon he names Toothless. Eventually, a friendship is formed between the two as they learn from each other. Their “flight lesson” montage is a beautiful symbol of humility as Hiccup learns what it means to be free and gentle as a dragon, while Toothless learns to trust and rely on Hiccup for the power of flight. This relationship completely changes Hiccup’s entire internal and external points of view as he eloquently realizes, “Everything [vikings] know about [dragons] is wrong.” However, his new belief in the goodness of dragons, an identification with their plight, and strong desire to help them soon comes into violent conflict with his viking upbringing.
At the lowest point of the film, Hiccup has failed to kill a dragon (a mark of what he believes to be a “true viking”), been disowned by his father, witnessed his entire tribe going on a suicide mission to fight the queen of dragons, and lost Toothless due to his attempt to hide his allegiance to both viking and dragon kind. As Astrid (Hiccup’s love interest) sums up, “[This situation is] a mess. You must feel horrible. You’ve lost everything. Your father, your tribe, your best friend…” But rather than Hiccup giving up hope, Astrid’s pep talk motivates him to rise from the ashes of his internal and external worlds. It is because of her encouragement that Hiccup realizes he is the first viking in three hundred years who wouldn’t kill a dragon, “because [Toothless] looked as frightened as [he] was. [He] looked at [Toothless]… and [Hiccup] saw [him]self.” This epiphany of kinship between viking and dragon then motivates Hiccup to save his village and Toothless from the Red Death, the large, terrifying queen of all the dragons and the root cause of the war between the two races.
Indeed, soon after his pivotal moment of renunciation of his old self and the old ways, Hiccup’s inner courage and compassion enable him to become the True Hero of the film. The main battle takes place in the dragons’ land, and both the progress towards peace and Hiccup’s status as a worthy soul are truly forged in fire as the main antagonist of this film is a huge dragon with immense firepower. It is only after Hiccup falls through (the Red) Death’s (literal) flames that the new order in Berk can begin.
Hiccup’s journey throughout the first film is, essentially, the black stage of alchemical storytelling. Through his relationship with Toothless, Hiccup internally dies to his old self and the old world in which he believed “true” vikings could only be called such by killing “evil” dragons. Thus, the kinship between the two acts as a type of humiliation and illumination for Hiccup’s soul as he learns that dragons are majestic and peaceful, and that he does not have to kill the creatures his forefathers fought for centuries to be a true viking. This inner work then becomes the groundwork for Hiccup, after he loses every major thing of worth to him, to emerge externally victorious from literal flames in his battle with (the Red) Death.
Consequently, it is through this external adventure that Hiccup is able to prove his internal worth to his tribe (and to the dragons they used to battle), and it is this internal and external victory that allows him to rise above them (literally, as he is the first ever viking to become a dragon rider), and bring peace to the land through his illuminated soul.
What, then, does the second How to Train Your Dragon installment accomplish? It is a more nuanced middle act to the coming-of-age saga that is meant to purify Hiccup’s (and thereby the audience’s) soul.
After the black stage comes the albedo (or “white”) work. Here, the main object is purification of the recently illuminated and humbled subject from the previous phase. This is achieved through the means of ablution, a baptism or washing (and vigorous, usually painful, scrubbing) of the subject. It is only through this process that contraries in the subject (in this case Hiccup and the audience’s souls, as previously mentioned) can be dissolved and resolved, thereby “purifying” it in preparation for the perfection achieved in the final stage.
The second film, filled with ice and set five years later, is all about Hiccup struggling to find his identity as a hero apart from – and in – both of his parents. Hiccup is still the respected leader, the best dragon trainer, intelligent inventor, brilliant strategist, and soon-to-be-chief from the first film. However, all these external factors weigh on Hiccup as he attempts to discover his identity beyond merely being an echo of his father as viking chief or his mother as dragon master.
It is worth noting here that the white work is usually cold and moist in comparison to the black work which is hot and dry. This is due to the baptismal nature of the second stage, which is necessary to complete the purification process. In the second film, Hiccup is constantly submerged or drenched in water and snow. Most of the plot takes place on the sea or by water, and the main dragon Hiccup battles breathes ice rather than fire. But aside from his literal submersion, what figurative submersion does Hiccup partake in, in order to dissolve his soul’s contrary qualities?
In essence, his figurative submersion in cleansing waters is needed to resolve a continuation of the opposition set up in the first film – to choose to belong with vikings or dragons. Hiccup begins the second film determined to avoid the chiefly duties his father wants him to fulfill. He does this by flying beyond Berk’s borders in order to map the world. However, during one of his flights, Hiccup discovers mysterious attacks against dragon trapper fortresses and ships. The source of the destruction is revealed to be from a huge alpha dragon known as the bewilderbeast, who protects a secret sanctuary of dragons. It is there that Hiccup is also reconciled with his lost mother, Valka, who left Berk years ago to try and save dragons from the cruelty and greed of humans.
Meanwhile, Hiccup tries to convince both of his parents to try and peacefully persuade the main antagonist of the film, Drago Bludvist, that dragons and vikings do not have to be at war with one another. However, Stoick and Valka dismiss Hiccup’s belief that he can change Drago’s mind. Instead, they insist that a chief “protects his own,” and as such Hiccup should only be focused on protecting as many vikings or dragons that he can. It is only through the literal reunion of his father and mother with one another that Hiccup can start to find a way forward and unify the contraries of viking and dragon into one.
This unification is best embodied at the climax of the film. Drago Bludvist is revealed to have his own bewilderbeast at the height of the battle, and his alpha overpowers Valka’s before assuming mind control over all the other dragons. This includes Toothless, who is ordered to kill Stoick during the battle. Although tragic, this death is fitting for this middle act, as it literally and figuratively makes way for Hiccup to establish his new reign as the rightful chief of both vikings and dragons. Furthermore, Stoick’s death is at the height of Hiccup’s purification process, symbolized through Stoick’s ultimate submersion into the purifying (literal) waters during his viking funeral. Hiccup is the one to shoot the first arrow to set the boat ablaze, and in doing so he confirms his transition from quarreling contraries to unified essence. This is because, despite Stoick’s murder and best friend’s seeming betrayal weighing on his heart, Hiccup is still able to overcome his grief and doubt by uniting his compassion for both dragon and viking.
In turn, this allows him to form his own identity removed from both his parents’ shadows. As Valka says, Hiccup has the heart of a chief (like his father) and the soul of a dragon (like his mother). This union of heart and soul reaches fruition when Hiccup is able to break Drago’s bewilderbeast’s mind control over Toothless by reminding his friend of their kinship that transcends blood. In the ultimate act of faith, Toothless allows Hiccup to blindfold him to block out the bewilderbeast’s powers and Hiccup trusts Toothless to catch him and fly fast enough to escape being crushed by Drago’s dragon. The two then emerge triumphant – Hiccup as the new chief of Berk and Toothless as the new alpha dragon.
Thus, it is only after Hiccup finds his identity apart from his external world by delving deeper into his internal self that he ascends to be chief of his tribe, ready to lead his people into the final stage of the drama. He has dissolved (and resolved) the contraries inside and outside of himself regarding his identity as chief and peacemaker for viking and dragon alike. He, and also the audience, is now ready for the final transformation to a “gold” heart, or perfection, through the last work.
Enter now to the stage the third film. The Hidden World is gorgeously animated with a solid plot, a beautiful score, and great voice acting. It is also the final part of How to Train Your Dragon’s alchemical storytelling process. The rubedo, or red stage, is ultimately meant to perfect the purified subject from the previous phase. The figurative wedding of contraries from the white work is revealed victorious in the red stage, usually through a literal wedding. And in the perfection done by the red work, the subject is ready to be resurrected and transcend to eternal life. This perfection process is usually associated with an act (or acts) of selfless, sacrificial love similar to Christ’s death on the cross for humanity. So does The Hidden World meet these alchemical requirements of the red work? In short, yes.
The final installment of Hiccup’s coming of age saga is a fitting end to the trilogy. Structurally, the film is more like the first than the second. The first film follows a more linear, traditional structure that closely parallels the Hero’s Journey. In contrast, the second film is more circular, with ring compositions throughout the entire story. This final film also echoes the first in that the plot and conflicts are more straightforward. There are quite a few well executed callbacks to the original movie, both visually and narratively. The pivotal scenes between Hiccup and Toothless and between Hiccup and Astrid are paralleled perfectly. Additionally, there are also a few flashbacks between Stoick and Hiccup that are incorporated beautifully.
But unlike either of the previous installments, The Hidden World doesn’t start with an establishing shot of Berk or a voice over from Hiccup. Instead, it immediately introduces the audience to what Hiccup has been up to as chief for the past year – rescuing dragons from dragon trappers outside of Berk’s waters. Similarly, the final shot of the film doesn’t end on Berk like the first two installments. These bookend scenes clearly mark the final act as one that will transcend the first two.
The audience is no longer concerned with only Berk like in the first film – or even the immediate beyond outside of Berk’s waters like in the second. Instead, the finale leaves Berk entirely. As Hiccup says, Berk isn’t a physical location, but rather located within the hearts of its people. The obvious parallels here between his tribe and the nature of the True Church should be noted, as the third film also kicks off with a mass airborne exodus of dragon and viking alike fleeing from persecution of a vicious tyrant.
This new baddie, named Grimmel the Grisly, is similar to Drago from the second film. Both of them are a bit forgettable and their motivations for power are rather flat. But ultimately his role isn’t to be an interesting villain so much as it is to be Hiccup’s foil. Grimmel is simultaneously the person Hiccup could have become if he had killed Toothless years ago and the symbolic (and literal) source of conflict between vikings and dragons that has plagued the entire franchise. It is this outer threat that Hiccup needs to face in order to resolve his inner conflict.
This final installment is all about Hiccup (despite the marketing making it seem like Toothless’ story). Indeed, his beloved dragon plays somewhat of a second fiddle to the viking chief as the final act echoes the first in examining Hiccup’s worth as heir to Stoick and his ability to be a good chief. However, instead of exploring this through external validation from his tribe and dragons like in the original movie, the third installment examines Hiccup’s internal sense of worth and identity apart from Toothless. And this makes sense, as Toothless was a major component of Hiccup’s perceived worth as heir and hero in the first movie by both himself and others.
It’s clear from the outset that although Berk is now a dragon utopia where vikings and dragons coexist peacefully, there are still a lot of problems. The island is overcrowded, a bit chaotic, and fairly vulnerable to attack. Toothless is overly relied upon to solve any sort of problem, and Hiccup continues to struggle with his belief that he has to rule alone as an inadequate replacement for his father. In short, despite Hiccup and Toothless being the clear, established leaders of their respective domains, there’s still a status quo that needs to be changed and resolved. Once more, it is a question of viking versus dragon, despite the peace that Hiccup and Toothless have achieved on Berk.
This opposition is clearly evidenced by the fact that the biggest external conflict in the entire How to Train Your Dragon franchise is finally resolved in The Hidden World. Sure, at times the pacing and tone for the third film is a little off and the villain is a tad forgettable, but on the whole, the movie really works because The Hidden World is really about anything but the physical hidden world of dragons. This final film is Hiccup and Toothless’ last adventure together, and as such it is about their journey to finally resolve the question that has hung over the entire franchise: Will dragons ever be safe/find sanctuary from the all too greedy and corrupt humans/human world?
In the first film this major conflict is shown between the people of Berk and the dragons they were at war with for centuries. In the second film, it is seen through the clash between Hiccup and Drago’s opposing goals – of peace and co-existence with dragons versus war with and murder of dragons. Even in the television series, this is the question that drives the entire show as Hiccup tries to rescue dragons from Viggo Grimborn, the main antagonist, who is a greedy strategist set on profiting from their capture. And this final film is no exception, as it continues the trend with Grimmel the Grisly, who is also out to kill dragons for both personal gain and to keep humanity ‘safe’ from the creatures.
The Hidden World finally resolves this question perfectly in the same spirit of the books – one that is bittersweet and ultimately the only conclusion fitting to the series. It ends with a call to the purification of humanity that is currently unworthy to receive the divinity symbolized by the majesty of the dragons. The end of the film poignantly emphasizes this through a beautifully delivered and well-written final voiceover from Hiccup.
This is all fine and good, you might say, but how does this relate to the perfection Hiccup realizes through the red stage? If the first film is all about Hiccup’s journey to find his Worth and the second film is all about his Identity, then the third film is all about Hiccup’s ultimate strength (and victory) in Love. Hiccup’s love for his family, for his tribe, for dragons, for Astrid, and for Toothless are all challenged and re-defined in this last installment. In short, Hiccup is ascending Plato’s ladder of love from the Symposium in which the four rungs are described as: Storge (familial affection), Philia (friendship), Eros (sexual or romantic love) and Agape (selfless love).
The first two types of love have already been demonstrated in the series. In the first film, Hiccup’s love for his father and tribe are evident when he rescues everyone from the Red Death. And in the second movie, his love for his best friend overcomes the alpha dragon’s psychic control over Toothless.
Meanwhile, the “eros” love plotlines of Toothless and the light fury and of Hiccup and Astrid are major subplots in the third film. Both arcs are ultimately used as vehicles in which dragon and boy are able to realize their respective destinies as alpha of the hidden world and king of the wilderwest (note: although not stated in the film, this is the title Hiccup has at the end of the book series as king of the vikings and peacemaker between humans and dragons). Moreover, it is in the fruition of these relationships that the victory over contraries from the white work is revealed. As a nice bonus, this romantic plotline also gives Astrid a lot of screen time in the third film, which more than makes up for the conspicuous lack of it in the second.
But The Hidden World is more than merely a tale of “eros” love that culminates in the revelation of the literal (and symbolic) unification of contraries in an alchemical wedding. In fact, the film actually transcends to the final rung as it ends with Hiccup demonstrating “agape” love. This includes a sacrificial death (and resurrection) and ultimate selfless action by Hiccup at resolution’s end. It is through these final acts of love that he finally comes of age, thus proving that his soul has been perfected through its long, harrowing journey. This is specifically evident in the final scene of the film, which is only made possible through this alchemical perfection, as Hiccup and his family are granted a specific privilege that the rest of fallen humanity is not. It is also telling that this ending takes place in a setting that feels distinctly otherworldly, apart from any trace of human influence.
Finally, another thing of note about the third film is that most of the action is in the air, completing the elemental motifs of the series. The first film was primarily focused on earth and fire, and the second film on ice and water. Therefore, the final film being mainly focused on aerial battles and airborne conflict make a lot of sense as it is also about the ascension of spirit, soul, and body. Additionally, like any good conclusion, the film geographically heads west, which is a classic symbol for the direction of the afterlife, of beginning anew, and general spiritual reward. Thus, it’s a new world and a new era for both Hiccup and Toothless in this final act.
The Hidden World may not be perfect, but it is the perfect conclusion for a series which edifies its audience’s soul through Hiccup’s journey from boy to man. Through alchemical storytelling, Hiccup transforms leaden hearts to gold because you and I go with him through the flames of humiliation in order to reach illumination, take the plunge into icy depths of purification in order to dissolve inner conflict, and finally take on the trials of selfless sacrifice in order to emerge perfected in Love. In short:
“In my beginning is my end… There were dragons when I was a boy.”
– How to Fight a Dragon’s Fury
One Final Note (because I couldn’t fit it in anywhere else): As a bonus, if you’re a fan of the television series and other tie-ins, the final film continues to honor the franchise’s entire internal consistency. In The Hidden World, Hiccup gifts Toothless with a tail that allows the dragon to fly without human assistance. At first, I was curious if the film was going to “retcon” the events of “The Gift of the Night Fury”. This was a 2011 short film in which Hiccup gave Toothless an automatic tail as a Snoggletog present, but Toothless ultimately rejects it in favor of flying with Hiccup. However, instead of pretending like these events never happened, the film actually mentions that Hiccup tried to gift Toothless with an automatic tail before. Thus, the series ultimately stays consistent with the adventures and lessons its main characters have learned from other storylines. Keen eyed spotters will also see Drago’s bewilderbeast from the second film and the many dragon species from the television series (like the fireworms) amongst the dragons found living in the hidden world. And fans of the book will also spot a nice detail from the animation team in Hiccup, as he is clearly left handed like he is in the novels.