This week, my husband and I took our kids to the dollar movie theater and watched How to Train Your Dragon 2. My aunt had treated us to the film when it first came out so this was our second time seeing it. I had also seen the first movie a few times as my kids loved it and we purchased it. Because of this, I was quite surprised it took me so long for the following symbolism to hit me, but it wasn't until walking out of the theater this last time that my eyes were opened to some pretty profound symbolism hiding in this little kids film. I guess I should warn you this likening post assumes you've already seen the movie so if you haven't... I'll try to write in such a way that reading it will hopefully only enhance your experience when you watch the movie.
How to Train Your Dragon, Option 1:
If you remember the first movie, the citizen's of the Viking city of Berk were often running into trouble with the dragons that would often visit their land to feed on their sheep and in the process would destroy buildings and sometimes harm their people in their wild raids, using each of their many unique abilities in self-defense against those attacking them. After seven generations of the Vikings trying this approach, no progress was made with this option - unless you count the often upgraded and rebuilt buildings replaced after old ones were burned or destroyed during the violent conflicts :-).
How to Train Your Dragon, Option 2:
In the second movie, the conqueror, Drago Bludvist, is amassing a dragon army. His approach to dragons is to force them into submission through the force of his will, violence or pain. He doesn't love the dragons, but uses them to rule over others - not caring if the dragons or others suffer pain or die in the process. In the city of Berk, many years before Hiccup is born, Drago met in council with the leaders of the city and said in essence, "I can control the dragons that harm you, let me be your leader and you'll never have to worry about harm from dragons again." This seemed so absurd, the leaders of the city laughed in his face. Drago retaliated by sicking his dragons on the group, and burning them alive. Only Stoick the Vast, who would be chief of the Vikings, survived.
By the end of the first movie, Hiccup, the slight-of-build yet inventive and adventurous son of the massive Viking chief, Stoick, finds out by accident that dragons aren't inherently evil. Instead, he learns that when befriended and loved, the dragons can become fiercely loyal, protective, and loving friends. Together, Hiccup and Toothless (his dragon), bring peace to Berk in the first movie and teach the members of his city to learn the great benefits of training their dragons, not fighting them.
In the second movie, where the world is now a much bigger place when able to fly upon the backs of dragons, Hiccup and Toothless, are more loyal and in tune with each other than ever. They experience great trials, but also great joy. They travel to lands they never would have reached alone (Toothless can't fly without Hiccup whose inventions are needed to compensate for injury to his tail). On these journeys, they both come to discover in deep ways who they are, the strength they have, and what their purpose and power is in building and leading in their kingdom.
How to Train your... Natural Man
If you haven't guessed, the symbolism I saw the other day in this movie is in the three ways I see the world has tried to approach training what is often called in the scriptures the "natural man" or the natural woman.
The first approach to the natural man is the gut reaction to fight against it. We experience what the untrained and wild potential of the natural self can do and the destruction it can cause when untamed and we are enraged. Curiously, when using this option, there are few (though there are those) who fight against their self. More commonly, we distract ourselves from our own dragons' destruction by focusing on fighting against other people's untamed dragons. Then we blind our eyes and numb ourselves to the guilt we feel for the fires we've lit and the cities we've destroyed with things as simple as entertainment or as complicated as addictive substances - all the while dwelling in ruins and spending our time rebuilding instead of progressing.
The second approach recorded over and over throughout history is to call that natural self inherently evil. To rely on other mortals ever-willing to tell us they will protect us from our natural tendencies because they have them under foot (like Drago symbolizes when he puts a dragon under his foot in the movie). In milder ways, this option presents itself in the belief that children would never want to learn unless forced, or that people would naturally want to hurt each other, steal, plunder etc. if not forced to be good. And I guess they have all the efforts of those trying option 1 to prove their point.
But, as I continue to find, it is the third alternative we need to seek. That is the alternative Hiccup finds in the movie. And it is the one that we can find when we come unto Christ with a prayer similar to this one uttered by the people of King Benjamin in the Book of Mormon:
And they had viewed themselves in their own carnal state... And they all cried aloud with one voice, saying: O have mercy, and apply the atoning blood of Christ that we may receive forgiveness of our sins, and our hearts may be purified; for we believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who created heaven and earth, and all things; who shall come down among the children of men. (Mosiah 4:2)
A wonderful description of what option 3 looks like is found in the Q&A on the companion DVD to the book, For Times of Trouble by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland:
Audience Question: It seems one of life's most difficult challenges is really becoming the kind of person who has the traits like patience and charity; someone who has overcome the natural man's tendencies toward anger etc. I'm just wondering what you think I can be doing daily to actively try to acquire these [character] traits and how I might begin to see my progress?
Elder Holland: What a sweet question with all the right motive and all the right theology. You mention the natural man or the natural woman. I think my answer would come in how I define who a natural man or a natural woman is... We do not see people as born inherently evil, we do not see people as despicable, so for us, I think “natural man” doesn’t mean inherently evil and really troublesome and a bad [person]. For me, the “natural man” means something like: natural resources. It’s kind of like a river. And until we shape it and until we disciplined it; until we kind of maybe dam it a little bit where it needs to be [dammed], or encourage it a little bit there where it might be a little more free flowing—but it is working with a wonderful resource and a potentially powerful and beautiful and terrifically constructive thing—that, for me, is what it means to deal with the natural man or the natural woman.
So, do that with yourself. Don't be too hard on yourself. Don’t beat yourself up. Don't think you're worse than you are. Don't think you're evil. Don't think every day, every hour of your life you're falling short because you are not. You've got this natural capability and you're supposed to shape it the way we tame rivers and timbers and the other natural [elements of this world].
... In this natural resource God has given you, it means something about your zest. It means something about your zeal. It means something about your desire to accomplish a lot, and do more and be more. So just don't be too hard on yourself and surely don't be hard on other people... but see it more positively. If you can see it constructively, then I think the quest day in and day out—and it will be a quest, you’ll have to work on this, or these or other kinds of things like anger etc. all of our lives— but find the virtue that is lurking in there somewhere. Channel it, restrict and restrain the damaging part or the bad parts; the destructive parts that wouldn’t bless people, and then steer that natural gift into a wonderful and very attractive aspect of a Latter-day Saint's life.
I think of people who are naturally happy. Well, you could be obnoxious about that, or you could be offensive, so you guard against the excess of that and you guard against light-mindedness and you guard against silliness, But you surely don't criticize yourself or berate yourself for the good part of that: that when you're happy you can make a whole room happy. When you’re happy you can make a whole family happy, or a ward happy etc. if we do this right.
So I am the eternal optimist. The glass isn’t just half-full with me, the glass is so full it is rolling down the hill and over and through the woods to grandmother's house. I would always encourage you even as you work on serious, truly challenging personality traits or natural inclinations you have, to see the good in yourself, see the potential good in the discipline of it. Work on the discipline part and then find that what was—like is recorded in the book of Ether (12:27)—what was a weakness and may have been given to us as a weakness, is there to be turned into a strength and will become a strength. The very thing you thought was a limitation lo and behold someday you’re wonderfully, constructively victorious in that category. I just would encourage you to be positive about it while you work on problems.
In other words, we will find the most purpose, power, and progress if we choose the option 3 Elder Holland describes. As I explored in my last post, there is a great and wise purpose for this natural world and natural self I am continually learning more about.
As the doctrine of the LDS faith teaches (as I understand it), the atonement of Christ was our Savior going through the required process to be intimately aware and familiar with each of us. His atonement wasn't just to "pay for our sins." It was to make him our Savior for every aspect and consequence of this natural world - so that he can help us train our "dragon" and progress and become like our Father in Heaven. Because of Christ willingly submitting to that process, He knows how to succor us in times of trial and trouble. Because of his at-one-ment with us, we can choose to come unto Christ and he has the power to heal us and help us.
If we choose him, he will "show unto [us our] weakness. [He] give[s] unto men weakness that they may be humble [the purpose of this natural world and the natural self is to teach us to depend on Christ]; and [his] grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before [him]; for if they humble themselves before [him], and have faith in [him], then will [he] make weak things become strong unto them" (Ether 12:27).
And let us not forget: part of that atonement was what he suffered on the cross, but he didn't just die for us. He rose again. And was given the knowledge and power to raise us all. In fact, the doctrine in the scriptures is that all those who chose to come to this mortal world - no matter if they choose faith in Christ while here or not - will be reunited with their natural man - their dragon - and gain immortality. Immortality being different than Eternal life (the kind of life God lives).
So. We are meant to keep our dragons - these mortal bodies and the natural self that comes with it. They will follow us, like it or not. What is ours to decide is:
How will we train our dragon?