One of the axioms of literature is that if a story ends in death, it is a tragedy. As far as genre goes, this is not a bad guideline. Things, however, start to become more complicated when we ask: what is the tragic sensibility? And how do we gauge its presence, or alternatives, in a literary work?
One of the best definitions of true tragedy I have ever heard is spoken by Harriet Herriton of E.M. Forster's Where Angels Fear to Tread: she complains that a tragic situation is "like one of those horrible modern plays where no one is in the right." (44) Into the mouth of one of the most narrow-minded and unsympathetic characters is placed the line that perhaps most perfectly distils the crux of tragedy: no one is in the right. This is the litmus test, so to speak, of a tragic work. In "The Tragic Sensibility," Robert D. Kaplan makes two distinctions: first, the distinction mentioned above, that "tragedy is the beauty of intolerable truths, and that real tragedy is not the triumph of evil over good but the suffering caused by the triumph of one good over another…" Tragedy is distinct from melodrama, in other words, simply by being the sine qua non of living: "When the ancient Greeks realized that there is "something irremediably wrong in the world," while such a world must be judged "at the same time as beautiful," tragedy was born." Living must entail death, must entail unimaginable suffering. Life is tragic by its very nature. However, Kaplan is quick to point out that "tragedy is not cruelty or misery, per se. The Holocaust and Rwanda were certainly not tragedies: they were vast and vile crimes, period." The term I shall use for this is atrocity. The distinction between tragedy and atrocity seems to hinge on the definition of tragedy as inevitable suffering, as an inescapable consequence of the human condition.
"The Boy Who Loved a Dragon" is interesting to study in this context. The story, with its mythical background and gruesome dismemberment, occupies an unusual and somewhat ambiguous position because it stands on the borderline between tragedy and atrocity. I seek to explore where it lies on the spectrum between the one and the other. Kaplan's "vast and vile crimes" of genocide presumably fail to qualify as tragedy because they have a clear author (villain, in literature), and because they fail the litmus test of inevitability: had the perpetrators refrained from murdering and torturing people, these atrocities might not have occurred.
"The Boy Who Loved a Dragon" starts with a framing device that might be out of ancient Greek drama: the narrator, fulfilling the role of the Greek chorus, telling an audience on stage (the children gathered around a much older Astrid) the tale of the events that have led to the sad state of affairs in the present. This is not dissimilar to the narration of Oedipus Rex's murder of his father, an event that happened in the distant past. But then the scene becomes every bit as gruesome as Gloster having his eyes gouged out on stage in King Lear, as we experience the events through the eyes of the protagonists through the device of the flashback.
The flashback's exciting aspect is that it departs from the somber and myth-laced atmosphere of the introduction, using simple vocabulary and casual language to immerse the reader in the world of Hiccup and Toothless – the irritation at not getting enough sleep, the loving moment in the forest, the Easter egg. These little details, so close to a contemporary audience's awareness and sympathy, are so poignant because they contrast so starkly with the epic sensibility that manifests with the talk of Fate and curses and the Blood Eagle public execution. Herein lies the contrast: Fate appears to be manifest in almost Greek-tragedy proportions in the framing device, the execution, and the explicit mention of curses, which makes one think that "The Boy Who Loved a Dragon" is a straightforward tragedy – after all, tragedy is suffering that is fated.
However, the presence of a clear perpetrator complicates matters. In essence, tragedy is unavoidable suffering – suffering caused by events that are arranged in such a way that it must be accepted as an inescapable consequence of the business of living. It is for this reason that I recommend so highly the definition of tragedy where "no-one is in the right." This is not the case in "Loved," where the village council – spearheaded by Spitelout, but clearly all complicit in the act with their vengeful closed-mindedness and reversion to blood sacrifice – clearly commits a crime against innocent love, represented by the protagonists, and against nature, as shall be seen below. In this sense, can we say that Hiccup and Toothless' deaths are an inevitable tragedy? In fact, they are an atrocity – a crime that, like genocides, is of course tragic in the sense of sadness and grief, but which nonetheless has a clear perpetrator and is not a natural consequence of living in the world.
But if that is the case, why do we still feel so strongly that this tale is tragic? To answer this, we turn to the classicist Edith Hamilton's elaboration on the definition of tragedy, where she proposes that the power to understand and encompass the magnitude and horror of one's own suffering is the measure of greatness of a person's soul, and that only such a soul can be said to suffer tragedy. "It is by our power to suffer, after all," she says, "that we are of more value than the sparrows." In her view, "the small and shallow" suffering is classable as pathos, not tragedy:
One dark page of Roman history tells of a little seven-year-old girl, daughter of a man judged guilty of death and so herself condemned to die, and how she passed through the staring crowds sobbing and asking, "What had she done wrong! If they would tell her, she would never do it again"-and so on to the black prison and the executioner. That breaks the heart, but is not tragedy, it is pathos... Death is not tragic in itself, not the death of the beautiful and the young, the lovely and beloved. Death felt and suffered as Macbeth feels and suffers is tragic. Death felt as Lear feels Cordelia's death is tragic. ….The suffering of a soul that can suffer greatly – that, and only that, is tragedy.
If, indeed, "death felt as Lear feels Cordelia's death is tragic" – Lear is insane when Cordelia is presented to him, so it is doubtful that Edith Hamilton's definition of feeling encompasses clarity or orderliness or rationality – then it is the feeling, not the thoughts, that elevate a character's emotion to the plane of tragedy:
LEAR: And my poor fool is hang'd! No, no, no life!
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou'lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never! (V:iii)
By this criterion, "The Boy Who Loved a Dragon" definitely meets the requirements of tragedy. The profound sorrow of which Hamilton speaks is echoed in Hiccup's desperate cries to spare Toothless as he is mutilated and tortured to death before his eyes, held back by the father he has always loved. His final cry is haunting: "Toothless… I love you. Gods, I love you." He calls it while Toothless is still alive, trying to make it the final thing he hears while he still has hearing. (Also, the addition of 'Gods' in the context of a story which is already about divine retribution for a crime against innocent love makes Hiccup's avowal more than a declaration of earthly love, linking it with the divinity the Vikings are sinning against.) "There is no dignity," writes Hamilton, "like the dignity of a soul in agony." (176) Hiccup's grief and sorrow, and Toothless' refusal to allow the Vikings to spare him, are expressed in the writing from Hiccup's point of view very powerfully:
There's a moment of absolute stillness. Nothing happens for one, horrible moment that stretches for years. Then Toothless starts gasping, desperately trying to fill lungs that are no longer there. Hiccup watches in horror, his own breath hitching in his chest. He wishes he could give Toothless his breath, because watching Toothless struggle is more than Hiccup can bear.
Another element that elevates Hiccup's suffering to the level of tragedy is pathetic fallacy, used to great effect throughout. Normally frowned upon as somewhat cheap, here nature reflects his feelings as a kind of shorthand to indicate a deeper connection between the heroes and Nature, thus making the Vikings' sin against their love more plausibly a sin against the natural order and divine love. The introduction to the story (the framing device) is set in the Great Hall, the fighting outside like taking shelter from a storm. The time of day – or night – is not specified (the closest the introduction comes to it is one child saying "Why can't I sleep at home?"), but the overall atmosphere seems to indicate darkness outside, whether from night or from storm clouds. The storm here is the dragons' attack, playing the part of a force of nature. The element of fate is indivisible from pathetic fallacy in the story: the weather reflects the "sin against the gods" referenced by an older Astrid in the framing device.
When Toothless falls, Hiccup slumps in Stoick's hold, finally silent, limp. He can't tear his eyes away from what's happening to Toothless. There are no sounds beyond Spitelout's axe striking bone. The crowd is silent, the trees don't move. It doesn't even sound like the ocean is moving.
Once the execution starts, nature echoes closely the state of the two protagonists. Toothless falls; Hiccup falls; "the trees don't move" and "it doesn't even sound like the ocean is moving" – the qualification is a concession to realism, the author knowing that contemporary readers would find the ocean actually going still a bit much to swallow so conceding that it "sounds like" the ocean is not moving. The image, however, loses none of its power. The world hangs, silent, on the cusp of a great crime, which continues heedless of Nature's warning – "no sounds beyond… axe striking bone" – meant to indicate that the Vikings are as yet unaware of the horrific nature of their crime, and continue heedless of the warnings all around them.
When Toothless is finally dead,
The silence echoes around them. No one speaks, there's no breeze, the birds are silent, and the sun is covered by darkening clouds. Hiccup stares at the lump that was once his best friend, the love of his life. And he can't breathe. Everyone seems to be holding their breath, unsure of what to do next.
The universe stops breathing when Toothless does, followed by Hiccup: "he can't breathe" is echoed by "there's no breeze." Hiccup's stolen breath (and Toothless' cut-out lungs) are reflected and echoed in the wind dying down, the "darkening" (metaphorically, not just physically), the lack of birdsong, and the fact that even the humans "[seem] to be holding their breath." That last – the humans holding their breath – provides the link between the lack of air in the natural world and the wrath of (presumably) the Vikings' pagan gods manifesting.
Nature continues to reflect the emotions, specifically, of Hiccup, showing that he and Toothless were the only ones in harmony with nature (and thus deserving of the blessing of nature and the retribution of Fate):
Then, a scream, pulled from the deepest part inside Hiccup, shatters the silence. The trees sway with the force of Hiccup's sorrow, wind spinning and pushing grown men over. Everything hurts. There is no peace. Hiccup claws at his chest, but he can't feel anything there. Tears flow from Hiccup's eyes, dripping to the ground beneath him, the dirt lifted by the wind sticking to his wet cheeks.
"The trees sway with the force of Hiccup's sorrow" makes it explicit: the wind "push[es] grown men over." The "everything hurts" in Hiccup's view is reflected in the "there is no peace" in nature. The writing exalts Hiccup's grief, vindicates his suffering, by showing the wrath of nature paralleling exactly what he feels, referring the reader back to the 'wrath of the gods' introduced in the framing device. The storm of Hiccup's grief – "clawing" at his chest, tears "flowing", his sorrow a "force" that, like the storm winds, sways the trees – seems to set nature in motion, exalting his sorrow by making him one with it.
Edith Hamilton's criterion, of a soul great enough and aware enough to be capable of extreme suffering – exalted by the element of fate and the fact that Hiccup's suffering is borne of compassion and grief – is clearly filled here. But there is still a perpetrator, still the element of atrocity. While the emotions are tragic par excellence, the inevitability of the tragedy is in question. "No one is in the right" clearly does not apply here. This brings the element of fate into the equation and raises the question: is Hiccup and Toothless' tragedy fated? Or is it a terrible atrocity committed by the village, a crime against nature for which they are fated to pay?
The element of fate tends to refer us inevitably, rather as Edith Hamilton does, to Greek tragedy. The same question, in a slightly different form, could be asked about Oedipus in Oedipus Rex. Oedipus, we learn (from a chorus, somewhat like the framing device in "The Boy Who Loved a Dragon"), is fated to murder his father and marry his mother. He has no choice in the matter: it is his fate to commit a terrible crime against nature. However he may struggle against it, there is no escape. His ruin is predestined, his free will rendered almost irrelevant. The issue of free will in Oedipus is a discussion for another time; however the question remains: is Hiccup and Toothless' destruction in "The Boy Who Loved a Dragon" fated in the Greek sense? Is their ruin portrayed as inevitable? Clearly not, as "no one" is decisively not "in the right": there is a clear, almost melodramatic, distinction between good and evil, between what is right and what is wrong. Yet the sense of Fate persists. Why?
A closer look at the framing device may yield an answer to this question. As mentioned above, the pathetic fallacy plays a part in evoking destiny, but two elements make the public execution and closer to a fated or destined event: First, it is told in flashback. Flashback makes an event inevitable, since we are not experiencing it as it happened, but being told the history of things as they are today. Second, the framing device is not merely a flashback, but a tale told to children. Stories that are passed on from generation to generation are inscribed in the collective memory, making them seem immutable as historical facts. If we recall the definition of an atrocity – a terrible act that is preventable, with a clear villain or error that causes the death or deaths, and which may or may not be tragic – versus a tragedy – a spectacle of terrible human suffering, fated or not – there may seem to be a contradiction.
To resolve this contradiction, what I would like to postulate is that whereas the crime committed is an atrocity, the result is a tragedy. The tragedy here is twofold: the destruction of the lovers Hiccup and Toothless is an atrocity that leads to Hiccup and Toothless' tragic suffering (and Toothless' heroism – he refuses to allow the other dragons to help him of his own free will, to die in Hiccup's stead), but also to a collective tragedy, namely the doom of the village to endless, irreconcilable strife with the dragons, and through them, with nature. The actual tragedy where "no one is in the right" takes place as a consequence of this long-ago crime, where there is no way to reverse the crime once committed, no way to make amends, no way to raise the dead. All that remains is "a place where the grass doesn't grow… [and] the dagger is stuck in the ground, black spreading around the embedded blade". What exists now is inevitable, fated, the result of a choice made before – a homage, surely, to the American origins of the film version of How to Train your Dragon, where humans are in control of their destiny via the choices they make. Thus, the choice made long before the framing device starts is what plunges the village into its new and inexorable fate: to be always at war with nature.
This is accomplished by a device, namely that the dragons in this story are closely aligned with natural forces of good. From Toothless presenting Hiccup with a naturally colored stone (its relation to nature is stressed in the description: "…natural, earthy tones wrapped around it… not as polished as the eggs Hiccup has received in the past, but… so much more meaningful") to the idyllic forest setting where Toothless insists on giving Hiccup his gift instead of in the house, to the long history of dragons being mythical and awe-inspiring creatures, the dragons are symbolically aligned with all that is benevolent about nature. To destroy a dragon in such a torturous manner, with such deliberate cruelty, and thus to destroy, by corollary, the "boy who loved a dragon" – the human who makes this liaison with benevolent, quasi-mythical creatures – is an act that, while not fated, creates its own fate: namely, for the village to be cursed eternally, plunged into endless strife and suffering.
Is it foretold, like the fate of Oedipus? Is the crime of dragon-slaying in "The Boy Who Loved a Dragon" the symbolic equivalent of patricide and incest in Oedipus Rex? It may well be, in which case, the fate that befalls Oedipus corresponds, not to the atrocity perpetrated on Toothless, but to the never-ending war between human and dragon, the "Macbeth shall sleep no more" of eternal strife in the village, the alignment of the forces of nature against the Vikings who dared commit such an atrocity. It is for this reason that Astrid tells the children the village is "cursed," for, while the atrocity was a choice and not fated, once it occurred, it was inevitable that the vengeance of the forces of nature would descend upon the Vikings. Hiccup and Toothless' position in this tragedy is more like the father whom Oedipus murdered: their tragedy, the transcendent suffering we witness and experience the 'pity and horror' of the Greeks, is in a way only a step toward the real, unending and destined tragedy: the death of peace.
Thursday26. "The Boy Who Loved A Dragon." Archive of our Own. /works/17069219 Accessed December 23, 2018.
Forster, E. M. Where Angels Fear to Tread. London: Dover, 1993. First published 1905.
Shakespeare, William. King Lear. views/plays/play_ ?WorkID=kinglear&Act=5&Scene=3&Scope=scene
Hamilton, Edith. The Greek Way. New York: Norton, 2010.
Kaplan, Robert D. "The Tragic Sensibility." The New Criterion. Vol. 37, No. 4: December 2018. issues/2017/5/the-tragic-sensibility