Definitions of Agency Applied to "Through Fire and Flames"

As a concept, agency has gone through many permutations in postmodern writing and conceptualization. My usage of it here combines the definition used in the field of development, namely "a person's ability to act on what he or she values and has reason to value" (Sen 6), and the definition used implicitly, though never stated outright, by Jan Kott in Shakespeare Our Contemporary. In the segment on Hamlet, Kott argues that the eponymous protagonist actually lacks agency in terms of moving the action forward. Claudius, he argues, ends up affecting the course of events in the play more than Hamlet, who wastes an inordinate amount of time contemplating various courses of action, doubting himself, arranging an elaborate performances that include staging his own madness, eventually allowing Claudius to send out messengers that ultimately bring about the play's tragic end.

From the above, it may follow that the protagonist is not always necessarily the character who moves the action forward, although their name may be in the title. As in the case of Hamlet, the protagonist may be 'infirm of purpose', weak-willed, or simply powerless to influence how events unfold. The question of 'who has influence on the action?' is significant in allowing us to intuit whether the 'time is out of joint' or whether justice, by and large, prevails in the fictional world being presented. Sticking with the example of Hamlet, we are never allowed to forget that a just king has been murdered and corruption rules – both literally and metaphorically – in the person of Claudius, in a series of visual and verbal metaphors ranging from "sick at heart" to the entire stage being transformed into a graveyard in arguably one of theater's most powerful visual images. It is this that Kott alluded to when he spoke of Hamlet's lack of agency, and the fact that a more sinister power holds the reins.

It may be safe to argue that both concepts of agency apply to "Through Fire and Flames," both Kott's – moving dramatic events forward – and the development-based one, the "ability to act on what [a character]… has reason to value." This brief analysis will attempt to trace the transfer of agency in both senses through the course of the story.

In the opening scene, Hiccup and Toothless are under attack – two protagonists, one representative of the dragon species, the other a human 'good guy' in the American melodramatic sense of good guy vs. bad guy that is so ubiquitous in Hollywood. (Interestingly, the bad guys confronting them are also cross-species team of human and dragon.) "Mistake," says Hiccup in the opening segment, of their assumption that they would not be attacked. The story opens with a reversal of desired agency: an error on the part of the protagonists allows the 'bad guy', Krogan, to wrest control, and therefore agency, from them. Hiccup and Toothless are literally chivvied and guided where the antagonist wants them to go, in a literal manifestation of their agency being wrested from them. This becomes even more literal when they are captured and matters are in Krogan'g hands.

Once Krogan is in control of events, he moves the story forward: he is the author, in more than one sense, of the events that follow. He literally physically removes both the protagonists from the starting location and transports them against their will to his home territory, after which he subjects Hiccup to torture. Literal actions parallel metaphorical actions here: The protagonist's agency is violently wrested from him, not by events but by the direct physical actions of his antagonist. The human 'good guy' is restrained and helpless, becoming unable to affect the course of events.

Now that the good guys are restrained and helpless – Toothless, the dragon good guy, is similarly under enemy control – Krogan is free to do what he pleases, which is force Hiccup to divulge information by means of violent torture. The fact that he resorts to torture is significant: In American good guy/bad guy dramas (and indeed in murder mysteries with more than one victim, where the audience is frequently shown the first crime before the drama even begins), torture scenes are not only shown for their shock value; often, they function to demonstrate to the audience what the world would be like if the antagonist were not vanquished. In this context, torture becomes the literal manifestation of what the protagonist is trying to prevent. This is not to say that these scenes can have no other function: for example, in the Hollywood blockbuster Rogue Nation, the initial torture scene performs an expository function, introducing the antagonist as someone to be feared, while in the 2017 tragedy-thriller Detroit the prolonged interrogation scene functions emotionally to evoke an oppressive atmosphere and historically to demonstrate to audiences what the Black community suffered at the hands of mostly White police. Still, what these films have in common with most dramas in the genre, and with "Through Fire and Flames" a fiction based on a television drama and following mainly dramatic rules of exposition – the essential function is to show the importance of the 'good guy's' struggle by the expedient of demonstrating a world ruled by violence, where the strong take from the weak unrestrained by compassion or human kindness.[1]

Having shown us the potential horrors of a world ruled by Krogan, the author then shifts the focus to where Toothless is attempting to wrest control – autonomy, and indirectly, agency – from his captors. The significant metaphor in the entire story is the close and direct parallel between literal liberty (and the constraint thereof) and ability to influence the plot. This may seem obvious until we compare a work like, for example, the classic referred to at the start of this paper: despite having 'a free hand' to act or do whatever he wishes, Hamlet (in keeping with his identity as an intellectual) engages in any number of activities rather than take physical action, and when he finally does, in a succession of swordfights, agency is still Claudius' – in other words, Hamlet is always forced into action, by circumstance or by the actions of other characters, and thus lacks agency. This is in stark contrast to the protagonist of a good guy/bad guy drama, who almost always embodies a number of tropes including determination, direct and usually physical action, stoicism, and compassion – the first three of these being part of the American ethos and the last a more universal human value.

The metaphorical link between physical autonomy and plot agency, manifested in physical action, is reinforced with Toothless' escape and his rescue of Hiccup. The moment when Toothless breaks free of his bonds and rushes toward the torture chamber is arguably when the 'good guy' takes the reins of the plot once again, after a period of allowing the antagonist to control events. (Incidentally, it could also be argued that Toothless takes the reins earlier, when he regains consciousness while being transported, and allows the enemy dragons to convey him closer to his goal. He is physically helpless still, but the plot side of agency has commenced: his mental capacity is permitting him to prepare to take the physical reins once more.)

Subsequent events establish Toothless as just as much of a good-guy protagonist as Hiccup. The moment he recovers his own autonomy, he asserts agency over the plot: he fights and wins, liberates Hiccup, and provides him with the assistance and compassion necessary to effect an escape. (It could be argued that Hiccup asserts a form of agency in resisting torture, since his capitulation would lead to his instant death and divert the course of events: more evidence that the protagonists' assertion of their will has a direct impact on the plot.) Their return to the Edge is a reversal of the torture scene in a sense: agency shifts to Toothless and Fishlegs in rapid succession (in the sense of being in control of events), and we can immediately see the compassion and empathy manifest in their frantic efforts to save Hiccup's life and alleviate his suffering, in direct contrast to Krogan's lack thereof in hurting him.[2]

It may therefore be argued that the shifting of agency in "Through Fire and Flames" demonstrates two things: The first of these is that physical agency parallels plot agency in a real and concrete way, not only metaphorically but directly. A corollary to this is the values represented by protagonist and antagonist, which are shown as a stark contrast. Being inside Krogan's space (even though Hiccup describes it as "a generic hut," it is still on Krogan's island and under his control) is to be within a space ruled by fear and pain, whereas being inside the space presided over by Toothless[3] and Fishlegs is to be in a space of healing, where even violent acts (such as holding Hiccup down) are performed out of compassion. The second is that agency in "Through Fire and Flames" is by no means distributed among the humans – both older and younger generation – and the dragons, much like the better episodes of Race to the Edge (but excluding the films, whose events are mainly human-driven, possibly in deference to the nature of the medium). This, I argue, grants depth to a story in a fandom where the non-human characters are frequently treated as pets with little to no real impact beyond following the humans. Granting a dragon agency – and agency not only in terms of affecting the plot, but in a manner distinct from his human partner – truly works towards the goal DreamWorks appears to have had in mind, avoiding species-centrism, and its real-world analogue, ethnocentrism.


Works Cited

Primary Sources

Thursday26. "Through Fire and Flames." Archive of our Own. /works/16390988 Accessed November 2018.

Secondary Sources

Alkire, Sabina. "Concepts and Measures of Agency." OPHI Working Paper Series. Multidimensional Poverty and Autonomy: Exploring Capability Measures. Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative, . /objects/uuid:cdecbaca-447c-43b7-8e3f-851517b5ff97/download_file?file_format=pdf&safe_filename=Concepts% &type_of_work=Working+paper Accessed Dec. 1, 2018.

Bigelow, Kathryn, director. Detroit. Annapurna Pictures, 2017.

DeBlois, Dean, director. How To Train Your Dragon. DreamWorks, 2010.

McQuarrie, Christopher, director. Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. Paramount Pictures & Skydance Media, 2015.

Sen, Amartya. Rationality and Freedom. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap, 2002.


[1] This in turn fulfills a common goal of the genre, namely to reaffirm prevailing mores and reinforce the social contract, but that is outside the scope of this paper.

[2] It is fascinating in an authorial sense to note that Hiccup being poisoned would appear to be an extension of Krogan's agency into the world of the Edge – and it is, in the sense that torment and pain have no place there – yet the plot reason for Hiccup being poisoned is that Toothless accidentally knocked over a vial of poison. In other words, this detail functions to reaffirm Toothless' agency in moving the plot forward from the moment he regains his physical freedom, and ensure that it is not compromised.

[3] It is again beyond the scope of this paper, but worth noting, to mention how Toothless has a ruthless streak that manifests both in his paranoia of the other dragons and riders, and earlier in how he states (in an internal monologue) that he will not hesitate to kill. This parallels the film canon of How To Train Your Dragon, where Hiccup prevents, or seeks to prevent, Toothless from killing Stoick on two notable occasions.