The Hopeful Environmentalism of How To Train Your Dragon

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This article delves into major spoilers for all the How To Train Your Dragon films Below the image

How To Train Your Dragon

Most, if not all, inspirational hero journeys are about hope. The How To Train Your Dragon films(HTTYD) franchise is no different, but its message of hope is one specifically applicable to the real struggle we face today with confronting natural degradation and climate change.

The How To Train Your Dragon films can serve as an environmentalist allegory to encourage us to work actively to fix the problems we’ve caused to our planet. The heart of the conflicts in each of the films is the struggle between humans and nature, with the latter represented in the dragons. Clearly, nature has long been on the losing side in our world, but maybe, as HTTYD suggests, it isn’t too late to work to atone for our generational mistakes.

Both human societies in our world and those of HTTYD have historically taken from and decimated the natural world, with ours growing increasingly unsustainable through the centuries, especially in the West. The How To Train Your Dragon films show how we can at least start to reverse our unsustainable ways. Through investing in technology and innovative methods, as Berk does, we can work to mitigate the disastrous effects of climate change and natural degradation.

In the first film, Berk has been warring with the dragons for decades, if not centuries. They never understood the dragons and were not interested in doing so. They saw them only as monsters they had to kill and subdue. Hiccup, in contrast, is the environmentalist who is interested in understanding the natural world rather than combatting it.

Granted, he is partially in this role because his father and village had deemed him “weak” to combat the dragons, but it is also because his heart was never in it to combat them. He never had the traditional “warrior spirit”. He had a scientific and inquisitive mind, more interested in physics, chemistry, and biology.

After he accidentally injures and traps Toothless, the last Night Fury, he has the opportunity to “triumphantly” vanquish him, and earn the respect of his father and people. However, looking into the magnificent creature’s eyes, and realizing how scared he is and  in that finding evidence of his sentience, Hiccup instead released him.

He felt empathy and compassion toward a wild, and powerful, animal. Instead of buying into the generational lie that the dragons (i.e. nature) should be feared and controlled, he realizes they are both living and complexly smart creatures deserving of respect and dignity.

Likewise in our reality, we’re understanding more of the complexities and inherent dignity of nature. We are also realizing how incredibly reliant we are on its climate and natural resources, and the respect and dignity we need to give them.

As his bond with Toothless grows through the film, Hiccup learns more about dragons, the natural world, and how much humans and dragons have to gain by working together. Astrid is the first of the humans to understand this as well after him.

Even though he and Astrid encounter great resistance from their tribe in introducing these ideas, they eventually win them over including his stubborn father Stoick, leading to the first-ever society based on human and dragon partnership. They become, effectively, a society of biologists who take care of the natural world.

The mission of maintaining harmony with nature proves to be much more difficult than anticipated. This is mainly because of other human societies stubbornly only seeing the dragons as enemies and resources. Five years later in the second film, this philosophy of living in tandem with nature has not spread beyond Berk.

Instead, we meet dragon-trappers like Eret, who would join Berk and take up their peaceful ways with dragons. Other human societies besides Berk have continued viewing nature and dragons as not only enemies but a resource to be exploited. Presented here, Berk is only one society that cannot convince others to treat dragons and nature as they do.

How To Train Your Dragon

Hiccup also meets his mother, Valka, who lived with and protected dragons for 20 years. She is the first known case of a human treating a dragon and nature with dignity. She discovered the various ways the species could live and learn from each other.

Valka shows how not only is it not too late to make up for the mistakes of humanity but also how to work actively in tandem with nature. When her son is at his lowest point after losing his father, struck down by a mind-controlled Toothless no less, she is the who encourages him to press forward. She encourages him to save their captured dragons from the main villain Drago, and continue the mission of uniting human and dragon.

The third film, of the How To Train Your Dragon films, profoundly tests Berk’s dream of maintaining this harmony between human and dragon. The result is intensely bittersweet. He realizes the emotional requirements of the long-term responsibly he and Berk have for the dragons.

After taking in more dragons than they can manage, and becoming the target of the dragon-hunter Grimmel, they decide to take their entire society to the fabled “Hidden World,” thinking they can just create a new society away from the rest. However, it proves to not be that simple.

The “Light Fury” they encounter is not simply a love interest for Toothless. She represents the necessary return to nature for Toothless and the rest of the dragons. Several times in the film she rebuffs Toothless when Hiccup is present. Hiccup’s journey in this film is letting his beloved partner go back to nature.

He understands he needs to sacrifice his own relationship with Toothless so the dragons may have a leader in him, and so that leader can have his own fulfillment. Nature ultimately is not our or the Berkians’ plaything. For the latter especially, the rest of humanity continues to demonize the dragons, putting them at extreme risk if they stayed with Berk. At the end of the film, the Berkians fully realize this, and wisely let all the dragons go wild into the safety of the Hidden World. That said, Hiccup, Astrid, and the rest of Berk don’t give up the dream of making the world safe for dragons.

At the end of the film Hiccup directly says that humanity still has a chance to better their world for the dragons to come back. I saw this as the filmmakers telling us, the audience, that it isn’t too late for us to make up for our many mistakes and transgressions toward nature and our planet. Even if the odds are overwhelmingly against us, the good we can achieve out of pursuing the goal still makes it worth it.

I’m not saying we’re going to end or reverse climate change in any easy way. Scientists have given us just a ten-year window to reverse catastrophic climate change. However, none of that means we shouldn’t attempt to mitigate or even stop the damage. Some of the world’s largest economies are continuing to make progress on their renewable energy goals.

The problem is many others are lagging behind, and, more importantly, powerful corporate barriers refuse to let the necessary innovations unfurl. Like in HTTYD, it is the extreme greed and selfishness of our fellow humans (albeit those who are far richer and powerful above us) that we need to address to fix our planet-wide problem.

Of course, one could easily argue that HTTYD is a fantasy with a resolution we can’t achieve. But that’s the thing at the end of the third film. The Berkians pointedly have not resolved the problem. Human society at large continues to hunt the dragons and refuses to adapt their philosophy of harmony with nature. The best Hiccup, Astrid, and their society can do is return the dragons to their ancestral space to keep them safe.

However, the film still ends with a message of hope. If we can get our act together, the natural majesty of the dragons can come back. Likewise in our own world, if we can solve climate change and other forms of environmental damage, we can recover at least some of what we’ve lost.

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