I went to see How to Tame Your Dragon at the weekend – a beautiful and delightful film by Dreamworks Animation about Hiccup, a distinctly un-Viking-like young boy from a village of blood-thirsty Vikings. Hiccup discovers that creatures who are different from them are not necessarily the enemy a discovery that his marauding fellow Vikings are unlikely to believe easily. Differentiating foreign from invading is a difficult concept that mankind has long struggled to grasp. But do we really still live in an era where a social message like this is necessary – are we still as socially and politically sophisticated as animated Vikings?
The film doesnt give a huge amount of insight into the real day-to-day life of the Vikings theyre satisfyingly large, bearded and fierce, but historical fidelity ends there. For instance, the violent Vikings all have Scottish accents and the cute Vikings are American, the landscape would be impossible to sail in and out of, and they sit around campfires built on mountainous terraces of wobbly wooden scaffolding. Oh, and these Vikings are plagued by a host of multi-coloured dragons of many different breeds, which set themselves on fire and steal fish. Unlike the real Vikings.
Psychologically, however, there were many aspects of the film that resonated as authentic. The sight of a fleet of frightened, angry, determined, confused Vikings sailing out into the unknown determined to beat whatever threat lurked out there. The anxiety of the teen preparing to inherit her parents war. The ambivalence of the father torn between his son and his tribe. Especially, the general, all-encompassing sense of us and them that was the focal point of the story.
Divide and Conquer
How to Tame Your Dragon is really about the way in which we create divisions and make assumptions about little-known and different nations. This must have happened all the time, we think, back in the time of the Vikings, when cultures were still emerging from blinkered ignorance into an unknown world. Now were sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and armed with facts, images and the benefit of the worlds experience online and in the press. Weve come a long way since the Vikings, right?
Ancient cultures were often more cosmopolitan than we like to think. Humans have always roamed the world, and evidence of Siberians in China and an Asian in Roman Vagnari showed that even very early foreigners found a role, however inferior, in foreign cultures, or at least were allowed to exist alongside them.The famous Silk Road, stretching from China, through the Middle East, as far as Rome, represented a hugely effective trade route through which cultures learnt about each other.
In ancient Egypt, they sailed to the Land of Punt which was so other-worldly and resource-rich that they dubbed it the Land of the Gods. When the Egyptians discovered baboons in this magical land, they didnt catapult them to death like these movie Vikings they adopted them as pets, just as Hiccup would have done.
The active imperialism of the ancient world gave occupying and occupied states the kind of insights into foreign lifestyles that we dont experience today. Egypt was controlled by Rome and Greece at different points, leading to Antony and Cleopatra establishing the most celebrated ancient international love story of all time, and the emergence of Alexandria as the centre of Greek philosophy.
Half the world was taken over by Rome, who conquered through very grown-up strategies of interaction, assimilation and culture. Im not saying these were just cosy love-ins with occupying forces just that the immediacy of a different culture being able to take over your country completely is something that we dont experience to the same extent in the world today.
Then, as now, our default attitude towards foreign civilizations is often to either trade with them or wage war with them (or refuse to trade with them – a kind of semi-war). These days, surprisingly, we often still go in for unjust wars and attempt to wipe out cultures that we dont like. At the same time, we clearly have a strong interest in foreign civilizations. Unlike the colonised Egyptians and ancient Brits, we now view other cultures from a distance, as tourists, travellers, virtual explorers (click here to start), and consumers, and, of course, through films.
I asked my 4-year-old which character hed liked the most in the film. Without hesitation he replied The big Viking, because he was the best fighter. Not the boy who was the first Viking ever to make friends with a dragon and (minor spoiler alert) go on amazing dragon rides? Or the cool girl Viking?. No the big Viking, because he was the best fighter. Of course.
The desire to discover and learn from foreign cultures has always been there, as has the desire to whack them over the head with a big heavy club (after all, it’s in our genes). Weve definitely come some way since the Vikings, but theres still plenty more for us (some more than others) to learn. Luckily, we still have films like How to Train Your Dragon and history – to help or teach us how to behave. With an iPhone app and game also available, we should really be able to study hard.