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Mything in Action: How to Explain Your Dragon

Mything in Action: How to Explain Your Dragon

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As Halloween 2010 draws near, it's normal to expect to hear the sound of leathery wings flapping ominously in the night. But this year, those wings might belong to a dragon rather than a bat. Perhaps a Monstrous Nightmare...or maybe a Hideous Zippleback...or possibly the intelligent and incredibly stealthy Night Fury.

At least that's the hope of the honchos at DreamWorks Animation, who would like you to purchase a copy of How to Train Your Dragon following its October 15 release on DVD and Blu-Ray. If you've already seen the movie, you know that it gives the traditional dragon story a refreshing new spin. Yet, paradoxically, the movie's plot closely follows the mythic pattern of nearly every dragon story ever told. What's up with that? I thought you'd never ask.

The story in How to Train Your Dragon is fresh, yet in many ways it's also very
traditional. Copyright DreamWorks Animation LLC. All rights reserved

How to Train Your Dragon has a long and distinguished cinematic pedigree, with celluloid dragons (such as the one that hovers over the baron's bed in Georges Méliès' 1911 movie Les Hallucinations du Baron de Munchausen) dating back to nearly the earliest days of moviemaking. But dragons were popular subjects long before the invention of movies, figuring prominently in myths, fairy tales, and fables from Jason and the Argonauts, to Der Ring des Nibelungen, to the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, to the "Jabberwocky" sequence in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass .

Dragons have been a part of storytelling
for as long as stories have been told.
Illustration by Sir James Tenniel for
Lewis Carroll's "Through the
Looking Glass."

And of course, you can find dragons lurking in theme parks around the world: in the climax of the Fantasmic! show at Disneyland and Disney's Hollywood Studios...in the castle dungeon at Disneyland Paris...and in the form of their dinosaur surrogates in attractions such as DINOSAUR at Disney's Animal Kingdom and in the Jurassic Park River Adventure rides at Universal's theme parks in Hollywood, Orlando, Japan, and Singapore.

In modern myths, dinosaurs can serve the
same mythic function as dragons.
Copyright Universal Studios.
All rights reserved

So have you ever stopped to wonder why dragons occupy such a prominent and persistent place in the popular imagination? Okay, I didn't think so. But since I brought up the subject (and since this column is titled "Mything in Action," after all) you may be tempted to guess that the popularity of dragons has something to do with their inherent "mythic energy." And if that is indeed your guess...you are absolutely correct.

By the way, if you are new to our mythic conversation, it helps to know that myths are metaphorical expressions of the deep psychological processes that all humans experience in the course of their normal emotional development. Though we are usually not aware of these processes, they occasionally bubble up to the surface from the wellsprings of our subconscious minds as dreams...and as stories. And when we, as audiences, encounter these stories in books, movies, TV shows, stage works, or theme park attractions, they resonate with us in profound and satisfying ways-especially if those stories are well-told (You can read more about the fundamentals of mythic storytelling here).

As well-told stories go, How to Train Your Dragon (HTTYD) ranks high, with its strong emotional resonance reflected in its impressive box office performance: after a disappointing opening weekend, enthusiastic audience word-of-mouth soon attracted movie-goers in impressive numbers, eventually making HTTYD one of DreamWorks Animation's most successful releases in the United States and Canada (behind only the Shrek franchise and Kung Fu Panda).

While HTTYD's characters, story, and stunning visuals drew critical praise, the mythic
subtext gave the movie its emotional punch. Copyright DreamWorks Animation LLC.
All rights reserved

Like many DreamWorks Animation releases, HTTYD takes pleasure in defying familiar story conventions, applying a fresh, irreverent approach at every opportunity. Yet, in every meaningful sense, the filmmakers closely adhered to long-established mythic patterns and character archetypes-especially when it comes to the relationship between young Hiccup and Toothless the dragon.

In her excellent book Star Wars: The Magic of Myth, author Mary S. Henderson concisely explains the mythic role of dragons:

In myths and fairy tales, dragons guard treasure or maidens, yet they can use neither. Symbolically, this means that they hold the riches and creativity of life in bondage, while wreaking senseless destruction. The hero's force is always equal to that of the dragon; otherwise, he would not have the power to slay the beast. But his power is of a very different sort, and his use of this force "for right, not might" is what makes him a hero.

At its heart, Hiccup's quest to bring Toothless under control is really about our young hero discovering and harnessing his own passions and talents and overcoming his deep-seated personal prejudices, frustrations, inhibitions, and insecurities-a mission that has many precedents in dragon lore. Child psychiatrist Bruno Bettelheim, in his landmark book The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, frames it in Freudian terms:

Both dangerous and helpful animals stand for our animal nature, our instinctual drives. The dangerous ones symbolize the untamed id, not yet subjected to ego and superego control, in all its dangerous energy.

Perhaps the most familiar paradigm is one you could call the "Dragon Slayer" approach, in which the hero mercilessly slaughters the monster, thus metaphorically overcoming his immature "animal nature" and proving his readiness to join the company of mature, civilized adults. The archetypal example of this convention is, appropriately enough, the 1981 Disney / Paramount movie "Dragonslayer."

The 1981 movie Dragonslayer epitomizes the "kill the
dragon" convention of the dragon mythos. Copyright
1981 Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved

At the other end of the spectrum is Hiccup's story-an example of the "Dragon Tamer" approach, although HTTYD actually begins as a "Dragon Slayer" story. But after encountering Toothless the Night Fury, Hiccup realizes that the "Dragon Slayer" narrative is completely off base, exclaiming: "Everything we know about them is wrong!" Thus, rather than metaphorically slaying his primitive impulses, Hiccup instead learns how to master them, control them, and integrate them into his personality to become a mature, fully-rounded adult. His success is most vividly demonstrated by his newfound ability to ride the dragon...a convention found in nearly all "Dragon Tamer" stories, from the Eragon novels, to James Cameron's Avatar, to the movies of the Shrek franchise (which add a cross-species romantic twist to the convention).

To ride a dragon is to prove the hero's mastery over his or her primitive impulses.
Copyright 2009 Fox. All rights reserved

A different direction is indicated in the book version of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, in which Harry neither slays nor subdues the dreaded Hungarian Horntail in completing his first challenge in the Triwizard Tournament. Instead, he dexterously confounds it by relying on his broom piloting skills and his experience playing Quidditch. In this case, the challenge of defeating the dragon is merely one of the many "tests and trials" that every hero must face on the way to the Inmost Cave of the Hero's Journey, giving the hero the opportunity to prepare for his or her Supreme Ordeal while separating the true heroes from the pretenders and wannabes.

Then we have Asian dragons, which are a different beast altogether. They are traditionally seen as protective and benevolent, as is the case with Haku in Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away and Mushu in Disney's Mulan. Yet in Western mythology, not all dragons are portrayed negatively, with some cast in a more positive light. Likewise, Asian dragons are not uniformly positive: think of Godzilla's persistent nemesis, the ill-tempered, triple-headed space dragon King Ghidorah. Nasty.

Asian dragons are typically "nicer" than Western
dragons...but not always. Copyright Toho
Company Ltd. All rights reserved

Finally, we come to "Murphy" (AKA "The Reluctant Dragon")-the notoriously balky star villain of Disneyland's Fantasmic! show. I guess you could say that particular dragon has become a metaphor symbolizing the challenges of highly ambitious mechanical engineering as applied to the format of a live nighttime spectacular. Talk about your "Monstrous Nightmare"! But that's a dragon tale for another time....

Dragons are a familiar presence at the Disney theme parks
... and sometimes a challenge for the park's  engineers.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Adam M. Berger is president and senior writer at Berger Creative Associates, Inc., an Orlando, Florida-based creative writing and consulting firm serving the themed entertainment and attraction design industry. You can read more of Adam's thoughts on mythic storytelling in popular entertainment at his blogsite: www.TheMythingLink.com.

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  • Very good article.  I always learn new things and how to connect that information to the stories we read and see in the movie theatre.  I enjoy Adam's writing and look forward to the next article.

  • Adam has a unique way of making his word pictures spring to life and draw the reader into the 'themed environment'. His typical subject research and factual references makes this piece fantastic yet believeable!

  • Enjoyed the article and look forward to watching the movie with a child.

  • As always, your article gave me a different insight into something I thought I was familiar with. Also, as always, I love the illustrationsw you chose.

  • Your expressive, imaginary writing style takes one on a fantastic and well explained  journey. I loved being swept away into a magical world of words and illustrations .

  • Just a quick point of clarification: While I indicated the illustrations I wanted to accompany this article and composed the captions, it was Nancy and/or Jim Hill who actually selected the images and added them to the text. And I agree--they did a terrific job!

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