But then there is the comfort of knowing there are other artists who understand the very essential value of the alchemical message, especially as pertains to adolescents and young adults. Though the animated film How To Train Your Dragon is essentially kidvid due to its animated format, animation these days often carries messages folks of all ages are seeking. And kids/youth are often the only ones that get to imbibe the wisdom stories these days, from transformational fairy tales to myths to YA fantasy.
This state of affairs is entirely due to the fact that adults have lost the ability to recognize, let alone interpret, symbolic story wisdom. Fairy tales come in many genres, and some do indeed hold very practical instruction. But the alchemical stories, which lay the groundwork for inner development, are the ones I'm talking about here. Myths of all kinds, from Adam and Eve to Narcissus, are the same; maps of the human psyche. Greco-Roman and Norse myth have entered into the American psyche in the form of video entertainment recently, so that's good.
However, the very blessing of symbolic story can be its curse; it is open to interpretation. There are obviously limits to what might make symbolic sense- a snail doesn't symbolize fierceness, for instance. And the largely heroic myths that are currently portrayed on the screen have oversimplified the wisdom we might have gleaned from the myth, such as the warning against ego driven heroics. Heroism that is completely focused on a need to always win, even at the price of any mercy or personal integrity, is a part of the story of Achilles, for example. That is his Achilles heel.
The feminist criticism of the fairy tales is, of course, a fundamentalist or literal interpretation (as opposed to symbolic/alchemical) which assumes the stories are meant to model social behavior.
Back to our featured film-
Like lots of these wonderful new stories being offered in animated form, it is a transformational tale of the sort which have come down to us as myths and fairy tales. Those older tales and the contemporary differ in one thing; in film actual characters are developed, many conversations are had, a particular place is created for the drama to unfold. Though I assume people have likely been expanding on fairy tales like this forever (not in video I realize), if you read the fairy tales as they were told, for example, the Grimms', details are sparse: costuming, physical appearance, emotions, setting, etc. are almost never there.
There's excellent cause for this. First, in symbolic story, we are not talking about the outer world! And focusing on the details of physicality ends up pulling us into our outer reality. Then our conditioned personality and our daily concerns tend to obscure our feeling-sense, the important, very individual, non-place where we implement inner change.
Second, the stories are meant to speak to everyone. Though Snow White and the Seven Dwarves seems entirely about a beautiful young woman, it also could be about an older woman, the woman who desires the life-changing birth of a daughter. It could be about an envious person of any gender, the aspect represented by the angry, competitive queen (see my interpretation of Snow White in Sept. 2013 blog archives). In fact the designation of "beautiful" symbolizes "gifted", human traits which are prized by the culture at large.
Third, for ease of interpretation of sometimes complex symbolic concepts, almost everything in the symbolic story is significant. If someone actually says something, it often supports another symbol which could be interpreted a few ways, and thus we symbolists can be assured of our conclusion (more or less- it's an art). The more complex the symbolism, the less extra information you can afford to have and still interpret.
Fourth, the stories are supposed to be compact, like poetry is, which is the whole purpose of symbolism, the "picture" that speaks 1,000 words, the language of the soul. And don't forget they were passed on orally for generations, and storytellers memorized them all. So they contain all they need, no more, quite the opposite of a big cinematic production.
So once again, HTTYD is one of those neat transformational stories like Shrek, which gathers up mythic and fairy tale elements and gives us the experience of moving from the valuations of the heroic, competitive culture I live in (and assume you do), into an inner focused, compassionate way of being in the world. The setting is technically a medieval Viking village, but the writers are smart enough to make it a very abnormal one, so our psyches can soar into inner space untethered by factual designations.
A young man named Hiccup is of the more introspective and creative sort than his peers. He's a blacksmith's apprentice; blacksmithing or any metalworking is symbolic in the olden days of the cocreative task of inner self development. He does yearn to kill a dragon, since that is the rite of passage, the only way to BE anybody, in his society. However, he ends up doing something quite different, as he learns who he really is, however that might diverge from his father's and his village's values.
Obviously he ends up "training" a dragon, though that's not really the proper word for it. The right word doesn't really exist in simple English, I suspect; a phrase is required, or a less simple word than "train". He learns how to partner with the dragon. And I will let you watch it to find out the rest of the story. Meantime, a quick essay on dragon symbolism.
If you know much at all about symbolism you know that this black dragon is a shadow dragon, using Jung's term for the inner psychic material that's feared, whether because it's unknown, or resisted due to conditioning. The film touches on both sources of fear. Black gets more complex, entering into the realm of creativity, the blacksmith's symbolism, but shadow is enough for this story. I was surprised to discover there is a whole separate category on Google Images for black dragons! Lots of them about these days!
Dragons are generally very popular in my culture, and with good cause. They are one of the most basic of "animal", technically monster, symbols. CGA has probably encouraged this explosion- what is more impressive on a big screen than a soaring, fire-breathing, tail-whipping monster of a dragon? Dragons have come to life through the medium, for sure. They are so much more alive than those semi-goofy stylized ones embroidered onto Chinese silk. We can feel their power.
For the truth is that dragons represent energy, power, beyond our everyday reckoning, power we don't understand (the dragon's wildness), power that is not really graspable by the intellectual mind- yet available if we want to learn about it. Being strange and wonderful enough to move beyond the rational is why dragons are in the realm of imagination, and why Hiccup's training program develops through a combination of creativity, deep connection (those dragon eyeballs), and hands on experience. He uses his imagination, and while he's at it, he discovers and develops.
At its most basic, a dragon is a snake. After that, you can do as you like in creating a dragon. From ancient lore and religion we can conclude that the snake has several important traits. It moves like a wave form, and back in the day this seems to have been more important than the concept of manifestation/physical reality as vibration. However, waves are intrinsic to vibration, a way to depict it. So the snake is a representative of the wave form that underlies manifestation. That wave form IS energy movement, in a sense, the energy behind all manifestation. If you think people weren't hip to this before the scientific age, you'd be, well,.. wrong.
So as I said, from "snake" we can create all kinds of dragons. For example, we have Smaug, who lies in a cave and guards treasure. In fact, just like HTTYD relates, the human relationship with dragons is all about reclaiming our most beautiful and cosmic and eternal personal power (the precious jewels and gold Smaug defends). This reclamation is most often depicted as slaying the dragon in heroic society, that's why I liked this anti-hero film that portrays the noncompetitive way with dragons.
Since I come from an alchemical perspective, I would then break the dragon symbolism down into the 4 elements (the Chinese tradition uses 5). The typical element for the snake is earth, since they live in it (usually- there are water snakes and tree snakes). So theoretically dragons come by the earth element honestly and implicitly. Earth dragons could live underground or in caves, walk on legs that are strong enough to carry them on earth, be relatively slow, be earth colors- brown, green, dark purple, even red, which is the color of the 1st chakra, the earth element chakra.
The wings on a dragon are air element, and contemporary American culture is very much an air element society. The color blue is used a lot for dragons, but it can mean either water or air (the sky). White dragons with wings would be more purely air element. Air dragons present challenges of the mind and of the spirit. For example, the uncontrollable mindstream that plagues most of my culture, or an egotistical desire for perfection, which is an ideal (idea).
In truth most dragons are these days a mixture of elements, what with the fire and air being so frequent (fire and air are the archetypally masculine elements, earth and water being female). The 4 elements are actually in the white dragon painting above. The white dragon with wings would be air, but it's sitting on a cliff- earth element. And it is obviously relaxing next to the water, so it probably loves water, the vastness of the ocean. And this love of water could be depicted in the clouds; vapor is the magical meeting of air and water, masculine and feminine. And since the color of the sun brightens the clouds, the fire element is included. Nice alchemical art!
So that's the very basic word from me on the symbolism of dragons! I'll let you take it from there.
Here's a song about the loss of imaginative relationship that signifies adulthood for my society. 1965! Wow.