When the boys got their World Book Day book tokens a few months back we set off to our lovely local bookshop to spend them. Fils aîné settled on How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell (Hodder Children’s Books, 2003). After getting over his initial confusion over the fact that it was actually a story and not instructions on dragon training, he loved it. As this particular bedtime story was read by daddy and not me, here are mari‘s thoughts on the subject.
How to Train Your Dragon is yet another iteration of that well-known cliché of a young Viking and his dragon taking on the world. Oh all right, that’s putting it a bit strongly, but despite the exotic combination of Vikings and dragons, the premise of an unremarkable boy making a journey from weed to hero isn’t exactly novel. It’s just done extremely well in this case.
If there’s one thing you can say about Cressida Cowell, it’s that she knows her audience. Young children are always going to be interested in dragons, and they’re always going to be interested in Vikings. Put them both in the same book, and it’s hard to see how you could do much better, short of adding dinosaurs to the mix. But obviously, Vikings riding dinosaurs would be ridiculous!
Both fils aîné and I had brief moments of uncertainty, but for very different reasons. I took a moment to connect the real-life (ish) Vikings with the fantasy world implied by the dragons, while he stumbled over the idea of Vikings being nice. His initial reaction that “Vikings are baddies” isn’t without historical justification, but it represented a significant barrier to his enjoyment of the story, and needed to be dealt with before we could get on with it.
The story follows the fate of Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III, who surprisingly might not be the owner of the silliest name in the book. The son of a Viking chief, Hiccup is expected to live up to his ancestry and grow up to be a great, heroic leader, but feels entirely inadequate, is taunted by bullies, and lives in constant dread of being found out as just an ordinary and entirely unheroic boy.
As is traditional in stories of this type, Hiccup shows remarkable bravery and heroism, despite believing that such things are beyond him, but doesn’t trumpet that fact. He even tries to avoid attention when saving his friend Fishlegs’s life, in contrast to the bragging and exaggeration of bullies like Snotlout (see what I mean about the names?). But as is similarly traditional, his intelligence, cunning and understated, almost fatalistic bravery ultimately win the day.
Not that it would be fair to portray the book as a predictable rehash of the age-old story of “school loser comes good” – although that’s the obvious core of the plot, there’s much more going on here. Cowell isn’t afraid of subverting elements of that storyline, with unmistakable hints that the story will take a particular path being quickly contradicted by events, and the marriage of Vikings and dragons really works, combining just the right quantities of detail and mystery, and providing a highly atmospheric background.
There’s a degree of disrespect in the book, if not outright cynicism, towards adults and the things they do. More than once, Hiccup is outraged at the stupidity of people going along with something because it’s how things are done, or everyone else does and they don’t want to make a fuss. I wouldn’t expect anything less, given the target age group, but the book on dragon-training, the ultimate reference work on the subject, is understated yet brilliantly conceived.
Often, I find that fils aîné‘s interest in a book begins to wane after a few nights of bedtime reading. When that doesn’t happen, I usually start to dread bedtimes myself, being worn down by the sort of stories that appeal to, and can hold the attention of a 6-year-old. The highest compliment I can give this book is that we were both gripped from start to finish, and that I had to fight the temptation to read just one more chapter after he’d gone to bed.
- Cressida Cowell: my real-life dragon island (telegraph.co.uk)