My Facebook feed is filled with posts from people who identify with some circumstance of their life. It might be their religion, a diagnosis, a political or sexual or other orientation; whatever it is, it seems like most of their posts reinforce this definition of themselves, as if they need to insist on the rest of us seeing them that way.
I’ve never trusted people who have to tell me who I should think they are. Not because they are necessarily untrustworthy, but because they are not, in fact, all that sure of who they are. They don’t trust themselves. (And who they really are is usually quite obvious to others.)
This theme forms the subtext for “How to Train Your Dragon 3,” the last installment of the popular animated films. Hiccup, the protagonist, is a textbook hero: although he is the son of the king, he’s nobody’s idea of a heroic guy and pretty much a loser socially. But when he finds and tames a Nightwing, the most feared of all dragons, he becomes the leader of his people. Like all true heroes, he is the one who protects: he protects the dragons from those who fear and would kill them, and he protects his own people from attack by others.
The third movie starts out according to formula: once again, some outside force is threatening the happy community of Berk, where dragons and humans coexist peacefully, and it’s up to Hiccup and Toothless, his dragon, to save the day. But Hiccup slowly comes to realize that it’s not enough to keep winning the same battle. In the typical hero story, the hero only has to save the day once, and everyone lives happily after. That’s not proving true for Hiccup and Berk–just as it’s not true for any of our real-life problems. Problems are complicated and persistent, or they wouldn’t be problems. If we keep relying on heroes to fix things instead of opening our minds to new ideas and working together on issues, the same problems will keep on coming up.
Seeing this, Hiccup searches for another answer, and finds it. The dragons will never be safe, and nor will Berk, unless the community lets the dragons go back to the place they came from, a place humans cannot follow. Also, he has come to see that as much as he loves Toothless, both he and his dragon are ready to grow up and become the kings of their separate kingdoms: to marry (or mate with) the queen and become the fathers of their own children and their communities. And to do that, they need to separate.
This triggers a personal crisis for Hiccup. For years he has defined himself through Toothless. Both are crippled–Toothless lacks a tailfin, Hiccup has lost a foot–but together, they can soar and fight and lead. How will they do that, apart? Hiccup designs a new mechanical tailfin for Toothless that frees him from needing a rider, but before he can step into his new role, he has to redesign his own mental makeup.
“Who are you, alone, yourself and nameless?” Tom Bombadil challenges Frodo in The Lord of the Rings. Who are you without labels, outside the fold of a particular place, a particular group? What about you truly makes you unique, truly you? This is the question Hiccup has to answer: who is he, really? Is he still a hero, still a leader, without Toothless?
The answer is yes. Hiccup learns that heroism is innate to him. Thor learns the same lesson in “Thor: Ragnorak” when he realizes that the hammer Mjolnir is only a tool, a focus for his power, not the source of it: Thor himself is the source. Hiccup digs deep and finds the strength to let Toothless go and convince the rest of Berk to let their dragons follow their king. Having found that inner strength, he can step confidently into his own place as leader of Berk.