Saturday, June 28, 2014

Weekly Book Review: How to Train Your Dragon

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How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell
Released: May 1, 2004
Genre: Juvenile Fiction / Fantasy


Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III was an awesome sword-fighter, a dragon-whisperer and the greatest Viking Hero who ever lived. But it wasn't always like that.

In fact, in the beginning, Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III was the most put upon Viking you'd ever seen. Not loud enough to make himself heard at dinner with his father, Stoick the Vast; not hard enough to beat his chief rival, Snotlout, at Bashyball, the number one school sport and CERTAINLY not stupid enough to go into a cave full of dragons to find a pet... It's time for Hiccup to learn how to be a Hero.

[From Cressida Cowell's official website.]


This first novel in Cressida Cowell's How to Train Your Dragon series might take those familiar with the movie by surprise. The novel and its film adaptation share only a few superficial qualities. Yes, the book stars a young Viking named Hiccup who happens to be the village punching bag, he is the son of Stoick the Vast, he's trained by a man named Gobber, and he "befriends" a dragon named Toothless, but aside from these and a few more shared names, the book and its adaptation couldn't be more different. In the movie, Viking society sees dragons as ruthless beasts to be slain for the good of their clan, while the dragons themselves are intelligent and gentle creatures who only fight back to defend themselves. In the book, Vikings have been training dragons for a long, long time. Their dragons differ from the movie's in that they are, for the most part, horrid little beasties, fond of insults and only willing to follow a human's orders out of fear or through some form of bribery.

Toothless in the films.

No character demonstrates the differences between book and movie more than Toothless. As you may have seen in my How to Train Your Dragon movie review, the film version of Toothless is jet black and large enough to be ridden. Toothless is scrappy when he needs to be, but in peaceful times he's a curious and playful companion. Though it takes time and patience for Hiccup to gain Toothless' trust, the dragon seems open to it from the start, and he's extremely protective of his human friend once that trust has been established.

The film's "Terrible Terror" was based on the original Toothless.

Book Toothless, on the other hand, is "extraordinarily small," far too small to fly on. In personality, he's more like a naughty child than an intelligent animal. He's cute, but he's also a bit of a handful, and though his antics can be endearing, for Hiccup, they're quite dangerous. If he can't get his dragon to obey him by the time Final Initiation rolls around, he'll be banished from his tribe. Luckily for readers, Toothless generally sways more toward endearing than annoying, but his whining (this Toothless can speak) grates at times.

Cowell's rendition of Toothless.

For much of How to Train Your Dragon, Toothless is more an obstacle than anything else. The book is more interested in Hiccup's evolution into a Viking Hero than in his relationship with his diminutive dragon. Still, the dragons are fun characters, and their interactions with each other and with their Viking handlers are entertaining.

How to Train Your Dragon the book and How to Train Your Dragon the film are ultimately two different beasts, and it's best to approach each as separate from the other. Both are good on their own merits. The book is lighter fare with lots of action and sprinklings of parody. It's primarily concerned with appealing to children, and I can confidently say that had it been out when I was still part of that age group, I would've read it and its sequels a hundred times over. The movie taps a larger (and older) audience. It's more reserved, though not entirely so, and its humor is more widely spaced. It's a lot less silly, but, again, this is just a symptom of a different audience.

As How to Train Your Dragon is a children's novel, you can expect a quick and simple read. The prose is quite good for its genre, especially in the frame narrative as told by an older and wiser Hiccup. This frame narrative is strangely melancholic in comparison to the boisterous action of the story within, which left me wanting to know what happens between the events of this book and that far off future to so alter its tone. Anyone who's read and enjoyed the first few entries of the Harry Potter series should feel right at home here.

Some of the best parts of the book are its illustrations. One stand-out example is the fictional book How to Train Your Dragon by Professor Yobbish (BA, MA Hons, Cantab. Etc.), reproduced in its entirety. This reproduction includes a cover, a copyright page, a library bar code, an "About the Author" section, the First (and Last) chapter of the book, and the back cover, complete with synopsis, price, and blurbs. It's a great little moment, especially for those of us who've spent a lot of time with academic texts, made even better by the single sentence content of the book itself (shorter even than the summary).

Leave any film-based expectations you might have aside and what you'll find is an enjoyable and often very funny romp through an imaginative world. If it skews too young for you, rest assured that the kids in your life will love its funny, witty antics.

You should also read:

Dealing With Dragons

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