Decent Films Mail > Mailbag #20

Re: How to Train Your Dragon (2010)

Many friends and family members have spoken very highly of How to Train Your Dragon, but I have also read A Landscape with Dragons by Michael O’Brien which strongly cautions against books and movies which depict dragons as protagonists. I am curious, have you read this book?

Basically, the issue is that dragons in classic literature were always meant to symbolize evil or even the devil. In recent decades, the pagan culture has crept in and robbed these symbols of their meanings. To quote from the book’s preface:

This kind of reversal of symbolism constitutes an invasion of the imagination, undermining our ability to recognize truth. Good is no longer perceived as good, nor evil as evil; traditional Christian values are considered to be the product of a narrow-minded prejudice. This has led to a blend of human and diabolical concepts in the written word and, more recently, in cinema. A new world view is being propagated, one that attempts to convince the young that demons are friends or cuddly pets and that people can use evil means to achieve “good” ends.

I’ve always trusted your reviews to give us an alternative Christian lens through which to understand what is good and bad in movies. I often rely on your website when trying to decide whether to see a given movie. I respect your ability to differentiate between the artistic merit of a film and its moral value. I would be fascinated to hear your thoughts on this.

I have read Mr. O’Brien’s book, and find it quite helpful on many fronts, though I don’t agree with everything he says.

It’s true that in biblical literature and Christian culture dragons have long been symbols of satanic evil — and that reversals of this imagery can be deeply problematic. For example, in a recent blog post on a fantasy series featuring fictionalized versions of Tolkien and Lewis as heroes, I wrote:

Perhaps most troublingly, a dragon named Samaranth, described as the first dragon and possibly the oldest living creature, is said to advise and aid the heroes. I’ve defended the legitimacy of friendly dragons in certain contexts — but not all dragons are created equal, and I suspect that both Tolkien and Lewis would consider Owen’s Samaranth, as described, to tread too close for comfort to the traditional Christian iconography of Lucifer — particularly in a story predicated on the conceit of giving the imaginary back story supposedly inspiring Tolkien and Lewis’s faith-inflected fantasies.

Dragons are imaginary creatures that are found in the mythologies of cultures all over the world, not just in biblical and Christian literature. They vary widely from one context to another: whether they have wings or not, how many feet they have (or whether they have feet at all), whether they have fiery breath, whether they have intelligence and speech.

Whether they are evil is also not a constant. In Chinese tradition, for example, dragons are wise and benevolent. Even in biblical literature and Christian culture the general rule of dragons and serpents as evil is not absolute. Even in the Bible Christians have long read of a different sort of dragon that is simply one of God’s creatures and gives him praise and honor along with all creation: “Praise the LORD from the earth, ye dragons, and all deeps” (Psa 148:7 KJV); “The beast of the field shall honour me, the dragons and the owls” (Isa 43:20 KJV). In Revelation St. John calls the dragon “that ancient serpent,” but in the Gospels Jesus uses the same word “serpent” with no such negative overtones, telling us “Be wise as serpents” (Matt 10:16), which does not mean “be like the devil.”

Other creatures likewise appear as icons of evil in some biblical passages, but not others. Compare the use of wolves in Matt 7:15, 10:16, John 10:12, etc. with Isaiah 11:6, 65:25. This is how symbolism works: It is polyvalent, it admits of different uses and different interpretations for different purposes.

In How To Train Your Dragon, the dragon that the hero befriends is not an icon of age-old demonic evil. It is merely an animal — one of several species of animals, in fact. They may be clever, like dogs or horses in many a cartoon or TV show, but they are not talking beasts, not persons, like the dragon in Revelation. At the end of the movie, they’re the Vikings’ pets.

There is simply no plausible basis for implicating these dragons in an attempt to “convince the young that demons are friends or cuddly pets and that people can use evil means to achieve ’good’ ends.” That’s a leap that is not warranted in the film.

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