Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Vikings, Dragons and Arabs

I wrote this probably over a month ago, but I intended it to go here so go here it will.


So I've just seen this film, and I'm kind of bowled over by how perfectly it seems to encapsulate my new general political attitude. Properly speaking, it is another one of these familiar exercises in bland, knee-jerk liberalism, but somehow it still managed to strike a chord with me, and even to seem to pertain specifically to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This is a really good film, and I hereby formally dispatch you to watch it, but I'm going to talk about it freely, without worrying about spoiling things. Mainly because this movie proceeds in precisely the way you'd expect it to - its plot's not the attraction - but here you are warned anyway. SPOILERS ahoy.

How to Train Your Dragon tells the story of Hiccup, young Viking boy in a village regularly ransacked by dragons. Hiccup can't quite get his Viking thing going. He's small and clumsy and generally inadequate in terms of dragon-hunting macho-macho-man-ness, and when he more or less accidentally comes across a wounded dragon and gradually makes his acquaintance, he begins to have second thoughts about the attitude he's supposed to have towards these creatures. 

So yeah, we've already seen this story anywhere from Pocahontas through Shrek to Avatar, and often in sharper terms, but this movie seemed to highlight for me in a much more powerful way the ideology, collective passion, and societal convention that facilitate and enflame this kind of stubborn, hate-filled, and mind-bogglingly blind aggression.

To reiterate the point I've been making and this film has been strongly implying possibly without fully realising it - nationalism is a disease. It poisons our psyche and corrupts our souls, divides us into tribes and has us see monsters where humans exist. Usually deeply flawed humans - often humans with whom we've shared a checkered past and that we have good cause to be wary of - but humans towards whom having a poisoned, hysterical and demonising attitude contributes absolutely nothing at all.

Before I go on conjecturing and allegorising this film out of all proportion, I want to mention a scene: Enraged Viking village leader Dad tells exposed-as-traitorous-dragon-fraterniser Hiccup "You are not a Viking. You are not my son."

Yes, unpleasant, and the pain is what this scene's mainly about. But, there's an obvious implication many (most?) people even in the genuinely advanced Western World don't see here; you don't have to continue being Jewish any more than you have to become a carbon copy of your father. These are things you are born into, and that your surroundings would be glad to see you carrying on, but, with respect, fuck the surroundings. Fact of the matter is I'm not my dad, and even less than that am I my "people" and their history. Nothing wrong with either of them, but contrary to popular confusion, they are quite simply entities that are distinct from me. They just are. I didn't promise anybody to be my dad and I didn't promise anybody to be Jewish. These things are too important to be determined at birth, and the fact is they aren't. They are artificially preserved by social constructs, because society is fucking stupid when it's not very carefully engineered not to be.

The truth is Hiccup isn't a Viking, and neither is he is father's son the way that marauding explosion of violence intends. The movie takes both these sentiments back later on in the proceedings, but it is a kids film after all. Part of the tragedy of real life is that sometimes your surroundings can't deal with who you are and what you're not. The confrontation can be ugly, but it's unavoidable if you ever want to truly "break out" - step out of the shadow of your predecessors and come into your own.

There's more to this, though, than just fulfilling your individuality. As bland as the message is, it's not really obvious, at least not in Israel. When you tell an Israeli we don't have to be at war with the Arabs you're likely to get much the same reaction as a Viking's when you tell him there could be peace with the dragons. Both of the conflicts didn't just spring out of thin air. In both it is somewhat counterintuitive to learn which of the parties is responsible for by far the greater amount of devastation and death. Both the Vikings and the Israelis are fighting what is at its core a war of self-defence, but they're doing it so zealously, so excessively, that they begin to lose both their moral compass and their ability to think straight about their own interests.

The most potent bit of symbolism in the movie, which appears to have been created more or less by accident and to serve for plot rather than thematic purposes, has to do with how the conflict was created:

The dragons live in a large cave. Down in its depths lives a kind of quasi-queen - a titanic, astronomical beast that makes all the others look like flies. When the dragons don't feed it stolen produce or livestock, it eats them. The movie implies that only together can the Vikings and dragons stop it, but before that it briefly toys with the idea (being a kids movie, again) of the catastrophical consequences the premature and frankly unnecessary rousing of this largely pacified giant might have.

This works for both sides of the long-going war. If we're not careful - if we keep on with these superfluous violent, repressive, and brutal adventures - we could awaken the rage of the humiliated post-colonialist Arab and Muslim world that originally started this conflict to such a level it will no longer be possible to hold it back and prevent a full-blown psychotic culture-war. The effort of "deterrence", though doubtless working, is also bringing the bad blood constantly closer to its boiling point. We are playing with fire.

Conversely - and this is more a dangerous musing than an actual opinion - the giant that is Israel has in many ways already been awakened. At the end of the movie the dragons join forces with the humans to kill this huge beast despite it being one of them, because (presumably), though just like them it is only acting in self-preservation, it is simply causing too much damage. Now, I am not disputing Israel's claim of always acting ultimately in the interests of self-defence, but as well as being a nuclear power Israel is the world's fourth largest exporter of arms, so what does that mean? I'd like to think that all of Israel's destructive international (non-Arab-related) behaviour is the result of evil, callous individuals whose actions weren't truly necessary for Israel, but what I'm worried about is this - what if they were? That's not a rhetorical question. I don't know what to think about this.

What I do know is that tribal identification is irrelevant. I don't think you can really start seriously thinking about these things without that.


  1. I like this post

  2. This movie crossed my path a little while ago, and while I too saw some very real and disturbing reflections of mankind's politics and morality, I was struck rather intensely by a point you just lightly grazed (in the sense of touching as opposed to grass-eating, of course).

    You mention that this is after all just a kids’ movie, as if to brush off the themes as unintended by its creators. But, as you are no doubt aware, the last decade of Pixaresque animated movies have seemingly intentionally had very raw and sure of themselves moral messages. That said, I often worry that these movies affect the population’s morality far greater than true explorations on the subject (such as Full Metal Jacket and the rest of that genre, and all the others that escape me now).

    The plot line as I saw it was:
    -Vikings hate dragons
    -Boy realises that the hatred is unfounded and the product of ignorance and misunderstanding.
    -Boy preaches his message.
    -Boy then unflinchingly kills giant dragon without trying to understand it as he did the others. (note how quickly the decision was made to kill the dragon. I can’t remember the idea even being thought over.)
    -Vikings from their new-found tolerance and understanding then make the dragons their pets.

    Personally, this is the most jarring movie I've seen this year. The movie tells not of the ignorance of the masses, but of the ignorant hypocrisy with which the 'enlightened' minority conduct themselves. Further, it shows how limited people are in understanding the messages of these 'enlightened' few. This is evident by the vikings' taking the message "the little dragons are not bad" but totally missing the core message of understanding and coexistence.

    I could expound more on this topic, but I I think I've made the point I intended.

    One more thing though. Notice the title “How to TRAIN YOUR dragon”. From understanding comes possession and mastery??!

  3. I just went to have a shower and realised that I hadn't said why this movie affected me so much.
    It's not the twisted message that it gives, because I was already aware of this disturbing reality. So here goes:

    Layer 1: The movie contains a moral message of 'dispelling of ignorance'.
    Layer 2: The movie contains the more realistic message that even moral guidance is ignorant of its own hypocrisy.
    LAYER 3: The people making the movie definitely intended only the the first layer.

    So what is really fucked up here is that Layer 2 packs a double punch. It shows how ignorant of the true moral message both the protagonist and the writers were.

    The writers tried to make a movie preaching an ideal morality, how things should be. Instead, they showed how things really are, they themselves becoming part of the ignorance.

    So the thing that freaked me out was the realisation that there is seemingly no end to the Layers of ignorance and self-righteousness.

  4. I disagree with you about the giant dragon. I think it's an unexpectedly shrewd observation. Sometimes you have to go to war against Nazi Germany, even if it means a world war, even if it means killing millions of their soldiers, who aren't SS men and in any case probably not evil. Instead of trying to understand them. Because they're doing too much damage.

    More problematically, though, as you say, the Jews taming the Arabs as their pets, say, is not exactly the ideal solution. Reading your response I'm reminded of the house elves in Harry Potter. There's this claim that it's a mutually beneficial arrangement, which is exposed as basically bullshit. But Harry Potter is for young adolescents - How to Train Your Dragon is for children. Kids of older ages still read and watch both, but I still think it's worth keeping in mind the demographic and considering it's a kind of אילוץ. I would have been much more comfortable with dragons that aren't at all cute. But it's a very effective way to convey to children that they're not actually essentially a threat. Turning them into the equivalent of the puppy or kitten they have at home is a logical extension of this, when using that very specific kind of logic.

    Bottom line is, maybe a kid will understand this as a neo-colonialist message - that we should go conquer the savages to save them from themselves. But I think it's far more likely that it will make the concept of a very general, vague tolerance more attractive to them.

    You can liken it to some kind of ancient Chinese story with a positive message about the way for peace of mind, or management of time, or patience, that mentions casually a woman as a man's property for all intents and purposes. Despite the feminist reservations, this could still be a worthwhile story to tell, among other reasons because here in the West it's such a bizarre aspect that nobody's likely to consider it as part of the message of the story.

    Also, it's worth considering that "owning" a dog, say, IS a mutually beneficial arrangement. Maybe similarly the dragons get more food and aren't too concerned about their capacity for self-expression. Just because humans can never be in a similar relationship doesn't mean it's automatically an abhorrent concept.

  5. I do have to say though that your plot synopsis is kind of awesome. I giggled in class and I think people looked at me.

  6. I’m not convinced, completely.

    I agree that the message I extracted would not really make its way into the minds of the kids watching it, at least not consciously. I was being a little melodramatic. None the less, I found it disturbing that the message was there, in a kids’ movie, without intention. Somehow, the writers saw no contradiction.

    Anyway, I have spent many hours of my life trying to work out war. A few people leading a few countries (most of whom are not the types of people you’d pick to give control over nuclear weapons and a army) have a disagreement (or one crazy guy who somehow got to lead a country goes nuts and invades another country for power? Control? Money? Respect? Land? Revenge?). Then these people send tens of thousands of 18 year olds to fight each other (often in a third country for some reason). The 18 year old for the most part are seeking adventure and some kind of glory stemming from a one-eyed view of good and evil. The more of their friends they see die, the more evil they think the enemy are or the more they hate war. Either way, in the end it ends up being a whole bunch of 18 year old trying not to die at the hands of other 18 year olds also trying not to die.

    You say that there sometime arises an Evil which needs to be exterminated despite the costs of these 18 year olds. I perhaps agree. But would I be able to be the one to send them to their deaths? Would I kill other 18 year olds?

    All I know is that ide think long and hard before making that decision. I would need to be certain that the “Hitler” of the scenario was truly an evil and that the greater good was sacrificing 2 (,5,20?) million lives to stop him.

    In the movie, there is no such reflection. Moreover, the dragon only arose due to the Vikings attacking his home. When do you stop and ask yourself “Am I the destructive force that need to be destroyed?”

    I feel a political comment brewing here, but I don’t like hearing myself speak politics. I’d much rather speak morality, truth.

    Veering sideways in my random thoughts, I think your analogy with the Chinese story is a little different since the chauvinist idea did not directly contradict the main message. I certainly would see something wrong if the story preached understanding, the equality of all people, human rights....and then had him slapping his wife when she burnt the cholent.

    Veering once again to the ownership/mutually beneficial relationship thingy...
    Maybe the dragons don’t care if they are owned, but it’s a little typical of man to assume what cognitive abilities other beings possess. For instance, many people for some reason think since cows are dumb, they are fair game for slaughter. When I ask them if that means I can eat a mentally disabled person, they are appalled by me...and still miraculously fail to see the hypocrisy.

    I think that was satisfactorily sporadic..