‘How to Train Your Dragon’ author talks Vikings and wilderness

Ahead of the Indian TV premiere of ‘How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World’, the series’ author Cressida Cowell recalls the real-life Isle of Berk

“It’s been an odd year,” British author Cressida Cowell remarks in a phone call from France; a jovial understatement.

Presently on holiday, the author, best known for the How to Train Your Dragon series, has spent most of 2020 in a “writing shed” in her garden in London, compiling the last book in her series, The Wizards of Once. “It is always a bit difficult ending a series. It’s a bittersweet moment. Just like it was for this last film,” she says, referring to How to Train Your Dragon: Hidden World, the final movie that brought the imaginative animated franchise to an end, and which premieres on Indian television end of August.

The trilogy from Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Animation was spread over a decade. It all started with Crowell’s book, How to Train Your Dragon, published in 2003. The adventures of young Viking Hiccup Horrendous Haddock the Third and his pet ‘Night Fury’ dragon, dubbed Toothless, was charted across 12 books, ending in 2015 with How to Fight a Dragon’s Fury.

The movies are all inspired by the first book and go on to develop their own storyline (even giving Toothless a partner, ‘Light Fury’, in the final movie). “They were never going to make 12 movies but they were always faithful to the underlying themes of parent-child relationships, that of Hiccup being a new kind of hero: a creator who thinks his way out of troubles, and of an appreciation for the wilderness,” she says.

Island dreams

The latter is an important subject for Crowell given how living in wilderness germinated the idea for the first Dragon book. The Isle of Berk, home to Hiccup and the Vikings, she reveals, is based on a real uninhabited island near Staffa, of the Inner Hebrides in Argyll and Bute, in Scotland. “These islands were the first place that Vikings came to when they invaded the UK, and the last place they left,” she says.

She recalls the summers she spent as a nine-year-old on this island on her father’s insistence. “We would be dropped off on the island by fishermen and picked up two weeks later. It has no electricity, no gas, and it was the 1970s… so no mobile phones and no connectivity to the outside world.” With no television, their only form of entertainment was storytelling beside the campfire — stories of dragons from Viking folklore. “It would rain a lot in Scotland, and the island was full of caves. As a little girl, I would go about exploring caves looking for dragons,” she says.

Cressida Cowell at her writing shed in London
 
| Photo Credit:
Debra Hurford Brown

This tradition of storytelling, passed on to her by her father, brought her into writing. Explaining how Viking folklore was an important part of British culture, she says that she tries to incorporate whatever she learnt of them and their beliefs, into her books. “For example, Vikings are believed to have discovered America, well before Columbus did. So that becomes part of the plot in one of the books, where Hiccup travels to America.”

As a children’s author, she doesn’t believe in dumbing down plots to make them palatable. “At the same time, I am fully aware of their attention slabs, and I won’t put in long descriptions that I wouldn’t want to read when I was a child. It’s an interesting balancing act,” she says.

In fact, her own love for Roman history arose thanks to Asterix and Obelisk. “And that is why it is so important to read aloud to your children, or to even watch a movie together. It is the shared experience of enjoying stories together that we need,” she says.

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World premieres August 30 at 1 pm and 9 pm on Sony PIX

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