On Beowulf and How to Train Your Dragon: Creating a Fiction of the Past

Separated by over a thousand years Beowulf and How to Train your Dragon exist in very different mediums and in very different contexts. Beowulf is an epic poem written in Old English that traces the life of a monster killing hero as the moves from traveller to king to his ultimate demise at the hands of a dragon. It is a work that is debated by scholars on topics ranging the Christian topics to the date of composition with very few points of absolute agreement. On the other hand, How to Train Your Dragon is an animated film targeting children that spawned successful sequels and very little controversy. Despite the gap in time and genre these works do rely on very similar premises: the telling of a fictional story within the context of a verifiable past.

The establishment of the epic story of Beowulf begins with an origin story, naming Scyld Scefing the first of the Danes and imparting a sense of unbroken inheritance to the king of the Danes, Hrothgar, of the story. This is not a phenomenon that ends with the prologue but rather the entire poem is filled with digressions and tangents that continue to situate Beowulf within a long history of heroes, wars and adventures. How to Train Your Dragon echoes the opening genealogies of the Beowulf poem with narration that situates the fictional island in a vast sea and the hero in relation to his forebearers. The setting is a village the has been there for ‘seven generations’ and the hero Hiccup himself is placed as the son of the chief Stoic the Vast who is assigned his own monster killing feats which Hiccup emphasizes his belief in during his narration. As a children’s movie How to Train Your Dragon has less room for tangents into stories of the past, but it maintains its setting within the Viking history in ways which would be more recognizable to a modern audience. The Vikings sail off the fight the dragons in their strong ships, seeking a final defeat of their enemy that will be a legacy for future generations on their island. Beowulf is looking for much the same accomplishment when he goes out to fight his own dragon; he wants to put an end to the destruction of his kingdom and win enough gold to last into the rule of future kings. Hiccup defeats his dragon and shows his people the possibility of a new legacy of companionship with dragons. This is not a victory without cost, Hiccup loses his leg, but it is a world saving victory none the less. Beowulf also defeats the dragon, but the cost of his victory is the loss of his life and the winning of treasure is ultimately not enough to save his people from defeat at the hands of the Swedes. Regardless of these different outcomes the goal of these final battles are nearly identical as the heroes seek to continue the epic history of their people that was established earlier in their respective stories.

The monsters and settings of these works are not real in any meaningful way but by situating the stories in those contexts the creators are able to build upon the knowledge and imagination of their audience. For the original readers of Beowulf dragons and sons of Cain would have been well within their world view and the invocation of Scyld Scefing as the origin of the peoples in the tale would have held weight. History assures us that Denmark was not filled with monstrous decedents of Cain, nor was there a treasure hoarding dragon living underground in the Swedish peninsula, but records do indicate that the Geatish king Hygelac did invade the Frankish lands in the way the Beowulf poem describes. Similarly, there is no meridian of misery for a dragon plagued island to reside on, but the history of 8th and 9th century Europe is filled with tales of sea faring Viking raiders. The worlds of Beowulf and Hiccup are created through a combination of history and fiction making worlds that are rich in story, danger and adventure.

Just as the composers and transcribers of Beowulf looked to the history of the world they lived in to create their epic, so do creators of How to Train Your Dragon rest on the legacy of story telling and history. Most of the people who watched How To Train Your Dragon will never read Beowulf but they experienced the legacy of that work in the framing of the movie they did watch. The arts are a field constantly looking to the past and the echoes of stories like Beowulf will continue to peak through because the epic’s fasciation with history has not lapsed in modern culture. Rather it has simply become less explicit. We will continue to tell stories of the past that have been supplemented with imagination because creating a fiction of the past is also the creation of an immersive history that exists in parallel to our own.

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