Note: Before you read this, you might want to find out How to Read, “How To Train Your Dragon”.
You’re right. How to Train Your Dragon might be good, but is it good for your children to read if your desire is to have them grow up in a home characterised by Christian values?
Well, there are a number of reasons you may have some reservations, or even downright objections to your kids picking up these books. And there are some good reasons for your kids to get lost in them. So this is how we’ll do it. First, the bad. Then, the good. Then decision time for you and yours.
The BAD! – Norse Gods.
There are Norse gods. Vikings worshipped them. And, historically inaccurate though the book is at many points (consciously so), all the characters, Hiccup included, talk about and humorously blaspheme Woden, Odin, Thor and so on, as if they are a given.
Now, I don’t know how the Vikings related to their deities in reality, but in the How to Train Your Dragon books there is a definite similarity to a nominally Christian way of relating to God. He’s there, you refer to him but don’t really expect him to do much. And I admit it freely – the backdrop of Norse deities made me very uncomfortable about giving the books to my daughter. Not because I thought she’d become a Norse theist, but because I’m scared that our family may have more in common with the way the characters in the book treat their deities than I’d normally like to admit (blaspheming aside).
So why let her read it?
I hadn’t come to any conclusions about this before my daughter began reading the books, but I did have a (naive?) belief in her ability to ask questions and distinguish between the fiction of the story and our strongly held belief in a God who is and who acted in history, and acts today. I still do. But thinking about it further, I also think it’s a valuable to let her encounter worldviews very different from her own and even get a few shocks along the way. I don’t think she’s at the point of asking questions an older kid would ask – Why are Vikings beliefs wrong and ours right? How is our worship different from theirs? and so on – but those questions will come, and I’m happy-ish that she is surrounded by people who can not only talk about these things, but also, at the very least, encounter the same challenges to the worldview she holds and come out still convinced that it holds water.
Besides, the book is so obviously fictional, I doubt she takes that part of it seriously at all.
Also BAD – There are supernatural elements but these are quite minimal.
Let’s see. From memory, there is soothsaying, which is only sometimes accurate and does not seem to be connected to any deity, and a witch who is by the 11th book, quite unmagical. She deals in poisons rather than magic and follows the same prophecies from hundreds of years before of which other characters slowly become aware.
And that’s it.
Of course, there are the dragons who live hundreds of years, some of whom can look into the future through a mixture of forseeing ability and the weighing up of all possible options. Some are also eventually seen to be able to communicate telepathically. But I guess I see that as part of the dragon mythology built up in the story.
Some parents will be concerned about such elements and should take them into consideration. I personally see the soothsaying more as a storytelling device, almost equivalent to the modern “this is what I was made to do”. And the witch is so blatantly evil that there is no glorification of her or her title. With everything else, these are presented as over-the-top and left-of-reality and so lose any serious consideration outside of the books.
BAD, too – It can be quite frightening.
There are some frightening scenes, less at the beginning but more and more as the series goes on. People and personalised dragons are hurt and killed. Nano-dragons get eaten alive.
Also, among the vast array of dragons Cowell creates are some very disturbing ones. When they were introduced and Hiccup was faced with some of them, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how he’d get away from them alive. (Spoiler alert: He always does, though in a later book one of the main characters does not).
I’m not one of those people who try to sanitise books for children, (I side with Professor Dumbledore on this one – see “Albus Dumbledore on ‘The Wizard and the Hopping Pot’ in The Tales of Beedle the Bard by J.K. Rowling) but I am often on the lookout for things that might frighten our children and try to discuss their fears with them and pray with and for them. So, while for me the frightening scenes and concepts are not at a level to warrant my keeping these books away from my daughter, I think it’s good to be aware of them.
I also thought it important to prepare my daughter for the fact that from book 9 onwards, the stories do not end positively, whereas all the previous books in the series do. It would seem that originally Cowell intended for the last two books of the series (9 & 10) to be two parts of the final story of Hiccup’s adventures, but things clearly got out of hand. Two more books have been added and the final story now spans four books (9, 10, 11 & the yet incomplete 12), leaving the young reader with three negative endings that have yet to be resolved. That can scar a child! Well, maybe not, but I thought it best for my daughter to be prepared.
Another BAD – Boorish behaviour, crude jokes and toilet humour.
If names like Baggybum, Gobber the Belch, and Big-Boobied Bertha (whose breasts killed many an enemy in battle) horrify you, perhaps these books are not for you. Such jokes are not the main thrust of the story, but the characters they refer to are constant throughout the series, so they don’t go away.
Hiccup is constantly very badly bullied by his cousin Snotlout and slightly less so by others.
Toothless poos in someone’s helmet at one point.
Fighting, shouting and insults are indulged in by the characters with joyful abandon. Cowell writes as if this is a characteristic of the Viking culture. Hiccup disappoints his father, Stoick the Vast, because he fails in these important areas. But this sets up a stark contrast between the boorish, unthinking tradition of the Viking tribes and the more thoughtful, sensible, and polite Hiccup. It’s an over-the-top portrayal, but it is a central theme in the books which I’ll come back to below.
And another BAD? – Masculinity is all pervasive – even in the women.
Notice the question mark people! I guess I just like women to be women, but in these books there is a definite lack of femininity. This is deliberate, as seen in this quote from the unlabelled introduction of Book 3:
Imagine a time of VIKING HEROES, in which men were men and women were sort of men too and even some little babies had chest hair.
Ha ha ha… I mean, it is definitely a man’s world. There are women, but like the quote above says, they are sort of men. The only character that is portrayed as feminine is the evil witch, and it’s a negative femininity shown in her devotion to her evil son.
Every now and then as I read the books, this did bug me, especially since our world suffers from such gender confusion. I have no time for the idea that this is a deliberate push against femininity by the female author (an idea I have heard from no one, but it is an interpretation I would not be surprised to hear eventually), but it does jar, and I wonder sometimes at my daughter’s enjoyment of a book so overwhelmingly masculine… (It does help explain the boorishness mentioned above, though).
The GOOD – Is there any?
If any of the above BAD points about the book strike a chord, you may be wondering what could possibly outweigh them to the point where you would ever let your child read these books! Fair question. The answer depends on your relationship to the rest of the world.
Do you see life as divided into categories of clean and unclean and never the twain shall meet? I doubt many will use the words “clean” and it’s evil twin “unclean” but we Christians can get very confused about the way we are to relate to a world of sin. Often our approach is exactly what those words describe – there is “clean” and there is “unclean”, and we treat them in an Old Testament manner, i.e. DON’T TOUCH THE UNCLEAN.
The coming of Jesus, however, changes that. Instead of avoiding what is unclean, we see Jesus touching them and making them clean. We see Jesus eating with sinners and drinking with them. We see Paul in 1 Corinthians speak about how it’s alright to eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols. All of this not to deny that there are bad things in the world, but rather to say when we are joined to Christ, we do not need to fear “contamination” from them.
Yes, I know. There is more to this equation. Wisdom must be employed. Where there is weakness – and we’d be stupid to deny we have many weaknesses – avoiding things that would cause us to stumble is the smartest move you could make. And if you think you or your child would stumble over the above BAD points in these books, the best thing is to avoid them.
If, however, you believe you can develop discernment in your child to the point where they can read books that contain a mixture of GOOD and BAD and rejoice in the GOOD, there are gems in this book that shine through everything that has previously been written about it that make this book not just entertaining, but GOOD in a very biblical way.
So, yes, there is GOOD. Some VERY GOOD.
SPOILER ALERT! Ah, yes. There are some spoilers in the content below. But if you want to find out what is so good about these books, you’ll just have to put up with that.
GOOD – Over-the-top story-telling allows the reader to remember this is a STORY
I’ve mentioned this a couple of times already, but it’s worth repeating. This story is so plainly a story and not fact, that even children who have trouble telling the difference between fantasy and reality will have clue after clue that this is not the real world. And this characteristic of the story negates a whole lot of the BAD points above.
Another GOOD – Weakness wins out.
I don’t know of the author’s religious affiliation – if she has any at all – but the backbone of the story is that weakness wins out. What a Christian concept (one that we have difficulty accepting ourselves)!
Hiccup is seen as the weakest of the tribal boys (perhaps with the exception of his friend Fishlegs) and yet those things that cause others to label him weak are the very traits that make him come out victorious time and again. The contrast couldn’t be clearer. The things Hiccup’s world consider strength turn out to be weak, and those things that they consider weakness turn out to be strength. (1 Corinthians 1:27)
An awesome GOOD – Hiccup is the unexpected King.
As the books progress, it turns out that Hiccup is destined to be King over all of the Viking Tribes. However, no one would believe it even if he made that public. Hiccup vacillates between believing it and not believing it, wanting it and not wanting it. One thing’s for sure, however, no one wants him to be King – good guys or bad guys. Too bad for them, Hiccup is clearly destined for the crown.
But the obstacles are enormous. He has the Slavemark, a mark that tradition says puts him out of the running for King. He calls for the freeing of the dragons, which no one wants (except the dragons). He has a witch and an arch-enemy who are doing their best to kill him and grab the crown for themselves. And when he finally garners the support of “the good guys”, all of the “Things” which mark him out as the future King are stolen from him and misses the all important moment where to be accepted for the coronation where he could be crowned.
Hiccup’s likeness to Christ is increased by being betrayed by someone close to him, being thought dead at the end of book 11, and being in a totally hopeless situation before his eventual victory (yet to be detailed in book 12. Of course, the author could pull a swifty and completely change the story in the last book, do away with the King idea and set up a constitutional democracy…but I don’t think so).
A wonderfully moving GOOD – There is a powerful conversion allegory.
In keeping with Cowell’s oft-used narrative ploy of making things impossibly black before the dawn, one of the characters becomes so irredeemable that the reader holds no hope out for him. Except Hiccup.
Hiccup forgives this person again and again despite having them betray him again and again. Hiccup forgives even when forgiveness is rejected. The character then goes through a process of confessing his wrong-doings, hatred and betrayals, and then is stunned when Hiccup asks this enemy to follow him.
The words that are then addressed to Hiccup are very profound and very Christian: “You are not the King we want, but you are the King we need.” And the character follows Hiccup.
My summary of that whole episode is very weak. In the book it is incredibly powerful. I could not help comparing it to the conversion of a sinner into a follower of Christ.
A parallel GOOD – There is a passing away of the old world and a coming of the new.
Again, this can be compared to the Christian doctrine of the coming Kingdom of God. In both the Bible and these books, the new world comes with a new King, and in each the change is gradual until the unveiling of the King (and depending on your eschatology, sped up but still incomplete after that event aswell).
The differences here, though, are that the while what is considered weak in the old world becomes strength in the new, the dragons begin to disappear. Why, we have not yet been told, but it seems there is no room for such creatures in the new administration. This is far from Hiccup’s desire. As the narrator of each of these books, he speaks with great sadness of the disappearance of the dragons from the perspective of an old man who has seen them go.
In Christian theology, of course, there will be no sadness in Christ’s Kingdom when all is complete.
Now, these GOOD points within these books are powerfully present, especially as the series nears its end. However, the observant reader will note that some of my observations about Christian parallels depend on the series finishing with Hiccup actually becoming King. And, truth be told, Old Hiccup, as narrator of these stories, does not once allude to his royalty. In fact, while there are comments throughout that he is the author of various books, there is a general understanding that he, along with other heroes, are no longer seen as important in the world. So, there is a possibility that the parallels I am drawing may not all turn out to be completely accurate once book 12 is in the public’s hot little hands.
Does that mean these books should not be read? No, not at all. Quite apart from all the other GOOD points, there remains one very important one…
A very important GOOD – These books are hugely entertaining and funny!
They just are. Read them – to yourself, to your kids, to your spouse.
Of course, just because they are good entertainment is no foolproof guide to their benefit, (that’s what this whole post is about) but I am a great believer in enjoying books. I can’t help but see that joy as a God-given gift. So, if you are in doubt, read one yourself first. And if you decide they are not the type of thing for your family, at least you know what you’re talking about.
The fact that anyone may have actually made it to the end of this very long post shows just how important these decisions are to us parents, especially as Christians. We don’t want to just allow our kids to gulp up anything, but at the same time we don’t want to unnecessarily limit them or their enjoyment of God’s good gifts. So, I totally respect anyone who takes time to think through these issues with the good of their children in mind. I just hope what I have provided here is helpful.
So that’s it. The bad, the good, and now it’s up to you to make your decision.