Becoming a Hero the Hard Way:
Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III as a Christ Figure
(This is an essay I wrote for school in March 2011)
The Christ metaphor has been a poignant part of western literary tradition for millennia. By reinterpreting the Christ story, a piece of literature can bring a new relevance to the ancient story and reveal new ideas within its meaning and mechanics. This is not a practice limited to any one genre, and can be found places where you'd least expect it to be. A great example would be the children's book How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell. By focusing on human dynamics in a fresh Christ metaphor, Cowell calls attention to aggression and intolerance present in our own society and attempts to realign our perception of heroism with peaceful communications and common sense. She does this by employing several common Biblical motifs in her plotline, carefully characterizing her protagonist, and developing a setting that satirizes the modern world.
The Christ metaphor in How to Train Your Dragon is largely evident through the dynamics of the story itself several scenarios in Hiccup's story correspond with scenarios in the Christ story. First, Hiccup, as son of the chief, is ultimately motivated by desire to please his father and do what's best for the sake of his tribe, even when it means self-sacrifice. Secondly, Hiccup represents a new way of thinking that goes against the old traditions of his tribe, and he is openly persecuted for it. Ultimately, Hiccup defeats a symbol of eternal death from the inside by sacrificing his ties to ancient Viking tradition he is swallowed by a dragon and regurgitated in a metaphorical cycle of death and resurrection.
From the very start, we know that Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III, "the Hope and Heir to the Tribe of the Hairy Hooligans" will one day be chief of the island (2). Though he is physically and mentally "not your natural Viking Hero" (14), and thus experiences humility unbefitting that of a future king, Hiccup carries the heavy burden of trying to live up to expectations particularly from his father, whom he struggles to please. Like Christ, Hiccup is touted as a great future king (with some crazy titles, to boot) and even has a couple prophesies working in his favor, but appears "just absolutely average" (15).
Hiccup's father, Stoick the Vast, expects great things from his son, but fundamentally is most concerned with the "good of the tribe" (124). Acknowledging that "a Chief cannot live like other people", Stoick is willing to sacrifice anything even banish his only son to uphold ancient law and ensure his tribe's safety (124). While Hiccup is not exactly willing, and openly questions the legitimacy of his father's law, he ultimately obeys out of loyalty to his father. It's important to note that while Hiccup remains Christ-like in his obedience, Stoick is by no means depicted as a perfect God, but as a misguided father adhering to the old law (and not long after, regretting it). This is one of several major ways Cowell humanizes the Christ story and makes it more relatable when Stoick isn't so stoic and worries for his son, Cowell instills the old story with a new sense of human drama.
Even though Hiccup is son of the chief, he does not belong among Vikings. His peers are gigantic, violent thugs, while he is physically weak and clumsy, "falling flat on his face in the snow" (33) and "admittedly, completely useless" (5). As such, even though his peers acknowledge his social status, they don't hesitate to mock him openly.
More subtly but also more importantly Hiccup lives in a society where illiteracy is something to brag about, conflicts are generally settled between "axes or fists" (50), and "YELL AT IT!" (57) is the sole solution to any problem. However, despite growing up surrounded by these ideals, Hiccup is a more civilized thinker; he is willing to make lists, learn new languages, and implement more "clever and
subtle" (83) solutions. Not only is he viewed as a "weirdo" for his dragonwatching and strange choice in friends (38), but by speaking Dragonese, he is breaking a law his own father wrote. His new way is a threat to the old way, and is not immediately seen as valuable and because no one, including his own dragon, recognizes its merits, Hiccup is ultimately banished as a consequence. Like Christ, Hiccup is sort of a separate breed from the people he was born to lead, and he fraternizes with the very far-out fringes of his society.
Of course, when the Vikings are faced with death incarnate in the Green Death, they quickly realize that yelling "has its limitations" (66), and Hiccup's new way might actually come in handy. Hiccup manages to amass a small group of desperate young Vikings, a sort of rag-tag group of disciples, if you will and they all use his expertise on dragons to indirectly combat the Green Death. On the brink of defeat, Death, acknowledging that it knew all along that it "recognized [Hiccup as its] doom" (182), attempts to take Hiccup down with it it swallows him whole. Soon Hiccup finds himself in this bizarre children's novel's metaphor for a crucifixion: he is stuck halfway down the throat of Death, dangling in limbo above the deadly stomach, hanging from a Roman spear stuck in the wall there (yes, a Roman implement of death), directly across from the dragon's fire-holes (of Hell).
If there's any way to sum up the old Viking philosophy in a single symbol, it would be, of course, that horned, oh-so-historically-inaccurate Viking helmet. Anyone wearing one is probably, symbolically, "a Viking" it doesn't really get much simpler than that.
By that logic, then, Hiccup enters Death as "a Viking", and leaves
as something else. Hiccup defeats Death by shedding his ties with the old Viking way he takes off his helmet and jams the horns into the hellish fire-holes, sabotaging the Green Death's next gust of flame, just as the new way, incarnated in his pet dragon, Toothless, comes along and entices the Green Death to regurgitate him.
So Hiccup's story, silly as it is, manages to have a fairly recognizable Gospel model. But what is Cowell trying to do with it? One thing to pay attention to is how Hiccup is characterized.
As protagonists go, Hiccup is fundamentally an incredibly moral character. Toward the beginning of the book, he displays a self-sacrificing streak right off the bat, when he goes against his better judgment and "intervene[s] between Fishlegs and his Fate," giving up his first dragon for Fishlegs, even though it's not a typical "act of a Viking Hero" (40). Later on, he intentionally takes the blame for Fishlegs' screw-up, knowingly subjecting himself to yet more ridicule and disappointment. He models the virtues of tolerance when he attempts to engage in peaceful communication with dragons as equals and tries to understand them, implementing "psychology" (as opposed to that "caveman yelling") (83) and consistently attempting to win his dragon over with love rather than aggression, even when it doesn't seem immediately effective. He even goes through the entire novel a pacifist he doesn't beat back on the bullies throwing him in the snow, he tells his little carnivorous beast that "it isn't kind to torture creatures" (95), and the massive dragons he defeats with his Fiendishly Clever Plans would never have been hurt at all if they had simply been able to drop their massive egos and check their tempers. It's actually really rare to see a protagonist with these particular types of peacekeeping virtues, perhaps because modern writers deem this level of morality too unrealistic.
Cowell, however, checks this effect by adding a sense of heavy reality back into Hiccup's character and experiences. Perpetually dominated by his surroundings (between bullies, his father, Gobber, the dragons, and Berk's harsh wilderness, it's a wonder there's anything left of him at all) and in a near-constant state of disappointment with his limited abilities and bad luck, Hiccup has adapted to be quite the little cynic, and nearly always sees things pessimistically, continually updating the "worst moment of [his] life SO FAR" (12) and insisting that all signs say "[he's] not meant to be [a] Hero" (44). The clincher is that even when we find him actually entertaining a little hope, it's always immediately shot down, such as when he opens his dragon basket, fully expecting "something marvelous" (41) and getting something "extraordinarily SMALL" (44). Even though he's virtually the only moral force in the novel, it doesn't really gain him any respect or reward (aside from his continued friendship with Fishlegs) until the miraculous fluke at the end, and many times he doubts his reasons for bothering in the first place.
By depicting the realities of Hiccup's selfless lifestyle often disappointing and without much rewardCowell moves the concept of a Christ figure, a real-life hero, down from a pedestal of unachievable perfection to something realistically within the reach of anyone stubborn enough to insist on it: "becoming a Hero the Hard Way" (1).
After establishing her Christ figure as this relatable, human character, Cowell brings her message to full impact by framing the story within a setting that satirizes the modern human experience. She does this in two major ways: by depicting Viking culture in such a way as to point out flaws in society's values, and by using a motif of characters who are defeated by forces greater than themselves.
Out of all the world's races and clans, living and dead, existing or mythical, Cowell opted for a caricature of one of the world's most reputedly violent cultures, a literal pack of barbarians. It bears noting that Hiccup's tribe resides on the Isle of Berk, "berk" being a British slang term for "idiot, in an affectionate sense" (Wiktionary.org). Through this simple name, Cowell begins to characterize her wildly violent, yet lovable Hairy Hooligan tribe. In this culture, "only the strong can belong" (123) you're either "heroes or exiles" (31), and if you're exiles, you're probably dead, since the wilderness is brutal and the Hooligans are the only flicker of civilization for miles around. Somehow Hiccup, quiet and sensible, is stuck surrounded by people who judge charisma by how loud one can yell, and who value the ability to burgle books far more highly than the ability to read them. This situation feeling like you are alone in a world populated by idiots is an almost universally relatable part of the human condition.
Notably, the Hooligans' militaristic culture, outward celebration of ignorance, and unwillingness to peacefully communicate with its enemies seems almost to be an open satire of western society's post-9/11 attitude toward the rest of the world. While Hiccup is told to "give up" (84) the unpatriotic concept of learning to understand "inferior creatures who we yell at" (142), the Viking mantra "yell at it" (57) is ultimately shown to be completely futile. Hiccup's dragon, trained with kindness, ends up as the most loyal dragon Berk has ever seen, sticking around to save his master's life when every other hunting dragon on the island has deserted (dragons are supposedly "never grateful" (93)) . Even when every single Viking on Berk yells at once, as loudly and terrifyingly as he possibly can, the Green Death pays them far less attention than he does the small, respectful questions of a single boy speaking Dragonese. In these ways, Cowell points out the follies of relying on aggression and intolerance and presents respect and peaceful communication as the ultimately more powerful options.
It's important to note that the Hooligans (and, really, most of the other antagonistic forces in the novel) are not depicted as inherently bad just woefully misguided. Even though Hiccup doesn't agree with his tribe on many terms, he never ceases to be completely loyal to them and wants the best for them. Though Toothless is openly rebellious and takes Hiccup for granted, Hiccup patiently tries to form a relationship with him. When he is forced to confront the Green Death on behalf of his tribe, Hiccup manages to stay alive by engaging the beast in peaceful, philosophical conversation. Through these relationships, Cowell seems to instill the theme that love and respect should transcend differences in philosophy.
This theme is solidified by the fact that virtually everyone who lives on Berk is helpless and vulnerable in the face of nature, and thus equally deserving of respect. At one of the most climactic points in the novel, Hiccup's banishment, there is a torrential downpour that soaks the entire tribe to the skin Stoick the Vast, Hiccup, and all the boys (including several of Hiccup's rivals) to be banished alongside him. Cowell continually uses Berk's forces of nature as a great equalizer in the face of nature, and especially in the face of Death, stature and status are all illusions and everyone is rendered equally helpless, "all snatching precious moments from the peaceful jaws of time" (151).
Ultimately, How to Train Your Dragon clarifies the Christ story by acknowledging that doing the right thing isn't always rewarding or easy, but it is possible for anyone to achieve. By satirizing modern attitudes and weaving them into her conceit, Cowell brings a new relevancy to the ancient story, while her characterization of Hiccup humanizes the concept of a "hero," so that through him, we easily identify with Christ's experiences. While Cowell's first novel is a light and lovely bedtime read, it is also a fresh, funny call for society to reexamine the values we uphold in our heroes.