I love How to Train Your Dragon. You might have figured that out based on my favorable comparison of it to James Cameron’s Avatar and my list of 10 cool details you may have missed in it.
It turns out that How to Train Your Dragon is an even deeper film than I originally thought. Its message of Vikings and dragons coming together to live in peace and harmony is complemented by the very way its story is told.
How to Train Your Dragon is another example of Cinematic Chiasmus. Chiasmus is a story structure that has existed for thousands of years. In it, the first half of a story is repeated in reverse order in the second half so that the whole story begins and ends in the same way.
It’s a breathtaking sight to behold, so let’s get right to it and witness the beautiful story structure of How to Train Your Dragon.
Here are all of the events in How to Train Your Dragon, showing how (with one exception) they conform to a chiasmus structure:
A. Hiccup describes his village Berk and the dragons that attack it
B. Berk is under siege by dragons attacking Vikings and sheep
C. Hiccup strikes Toothless, cutting off half of his tail
D. Stoick tells Hiccup he’s not a dragon slayer
E. Stoick tries to convince his fellow Vikings to fight dragons
F. Hiccup frees Toothless
G. Hiccup sneaks behind Stoick, and they engage in a one-sided conversation
H. The Viking teens get their first introduction to dragon training
I. Hiccup wonders why Toothless didn’t kill him
J. Hiccup looks down on Toothless who is trapped in a valley
K. Hiccup learns about dragons from a book in the mess hall
L. Stoick tells his men to steer their ships closer to the dragons’ island
M. Astrid protects Hiccup from a looming dragon attack
N. Hiccup enters the valley to feed Toothless
O. Hiccup throws away his blade and tries to touch Toothless
P. Gobber describes the honor one of the Viking teens will receive of killing their first dragon
Q. Toothless takes Hiccup for an unexpected ride after receiving a new tail
R. The Vikings-in-training have to work in pairs to stop a dragon attack
S. Hiccup runs off to Toothless’s valley
T. Hiccup defeats a Gronckle dragon with a trick he learned from Toothless
U. Hiccup sneaks Toothless into Berk and tries to keep the dragon hidden
V. Stoick is shocked to learn that everything he knew about Hiccup is wrong
W. Hiccup struggles to fly on Toothless, crashes into rocks, and falls off the dragon to save his cheat sheet
W. Hiccup reconnects with Toothless, throws away his cheat sheet, and perfectly navigates through dangerous rocks
V. Hiccup is shocked to learn that everything he knew about dragons is wrong
U. Stoick sneaks up on Hiccup who tries to hide the work he’s been doing on dragons
T. Hiccup defeats a Gronckle and wins the right to kill a dragon
S. Astrid follows Hiccup to Toothless’s valley
R. Toothless and Hiccup work together to convince Astrid that dragons aren’t all bad
Q. Toothless takes Hiccup and Astrid for an unexpected ride to meet the Green Death
P. Astrid asks Hiccup what he’s going to do about killing a dragon
O. Hiccup throws away his blade and shield and tries to touch a dragon in front of his village
N. Toothless escapes the valley to help Hiccup
M. Astrid and Toothless defend Hiccup from a dragon attack
L. Stoick tells his men to ready their ships for another attack on the dragon’s island (Note: L and K take place out of order)
K. Stoick learns a secret about dragons from Hiccup in the mess hall
J. Hiccup looks down on Toothless who is trapped on a Viking boat
I. Astrid asks Hiccup why he didn’t kill Toothless
H. Hiccup introduces his friends to a new kind of dragon training
G. Hiccup surprises the Green Death from behind and then gives his friends orders
F. Stoick frees Toothless
E. Stoick tries to convince Hiccup not to fight the Green Death dragon
D. Hiccup kills the Green Death
C. Toothless saves Hiccup, though Hiccup loses a foot
B. Berk is full of dragons peacefully coexisting with Vikings
A. Hiccup describes Berk again and the dragons that live in it
Pretty amazing. Now let’s explore each of these parallel points even further to see how they match up in many amazing ways.
A. “This Is Berk”
Hiccup’s monologues at the start and end of the film mirror each other. In one, he describes the good qualities of living in Berk, and then he notes, “The only problems are the pests. You see, most places have mice or mosquitoes. We have… dragons.”
In the other, he describes the difficulties of living in Berk, and he ends by saying, “The only upsides are the pets. While other places have ponies or parrots, we have… dragons.” The negatives have turned into positives, going from pests to pets.
B. Dragons in Berk
The film opens with Berk besieged by all sorts of dragons stealing food and setting fire to homes. No one is happy to see Hiccup as he leaves his home in search of adventure. Gobber tells Hiccup that if he wants to fit in he needs to, “Stop being all this,” gesturing to all of Hiccup. And when a Night Fury dragon shows up, people yell, “Night Fury! Get down!” because it’s so dangerous.
At the end of the film, Berk is brimming with all sorts of dragons peacefully living with Vikings and eating food from old war machines. Everyone is happy to see Hiccup when he emerges from his home. Hiccup’s father Stoick tells Hiccup that in order for his fellow Vikings to live in peace, “Turns out all we needed was a little more of this,” gesturing to all of Hiccup. And when Toothless shows up, people yell, “Night Fury! Get down!” because he’s so playfully aggressive.
C. Toothless and Hiccup Maimed
Hiccup shoots bolas at Toothless and knocks him out of the air. We later learn that the shot cut off Toothless’s left tail fin. Hiccup is then attacked by another dragon who would have killed him, but Hiccup was saved by Stoick.
During a climactic fight, a giant Green Death dragon smashes into Toothless and Hiccup, making Hiccup fall into a fiery inferno. We later learn that Hiccup lost his left foot in the fall. He would have died, but he was saved by Toothless.
D. Hiccup the Dragon Slayer
Stoick says, “You’re many things, Hiccup, but a dragon slayer is not one of them.”
Hiccup proves him wrong when he and Toothless kill the Green Death. This is the only time we see a Viking kill a dragon on screen.
E. “Occupational Hazard”
During a village-wide meeting, Stoick tries to persuade everyone to go on a dangerous mission to destroy the dragons’ nest. When they say it’s a suicide mission, he retorts, “We’re Vikings. It’s an occupational hazard.”
When Stoick tries to dissuade Hiccup from going on a dangerous mission to destroy the Green Death, Hiccup wryly repeats Stoick’s own words, “We’re Vikings. It’s an occupational hazard.”
F. Freeing Toothless
After Hiccup fails to kill Toothless, he instead decides to cut the dragon loose. Once free, Toothless pounces on Hiccup and angrily screeches at him before running away.
After Hiccup fails to free Toothless from his bonds underwater, Stoick steps in and breaks the dragon’s chains. Once free, Toothless pulls Stoick to the surface and invites Hiccup to climb on his back.
G. Sneaky Hiccup
Hiccup shows up late at his home and tries to sneak into his room behind Stoick’s back. But Stoick notices him and he proceeds to tell Hiccup he’s going to start dragon training, without listening to his son’s protests.
Hiccup and his friends show up late to the battle with the Green Death. They sneak up behind the giant dragon and surprise attack him. Hiccup listens to his friends’ advice and then directs them on how to put their dragon training to good use against the Green Death.
H. “Welcome to Dragon Training”
Hiccup and five other Viking teenagers go into the dragon training ring for their first lesson on fighting dragons.
Hiccup brings his five Viking friends back to the ring for a different kind of dragon training. This time, they learn to treat the dragons as allies rather than enemies.
I. “So Why Didn’t You?”
Gobber tells Hiccup, “Dragons will always, always go for the kill.” This inspires Hiccup to examine the ropes he cut off of Toothless and ask, “So why didn’t you?”
Hiccup points out that everything would have been simpler if he had killed Toothless. Astrid agrees that any other Viking would have done that and then asks, “So why didn’t you?” Thus, Hiccup and Toothless are linked in this crucial way, showing that dragons and Vikings share something in common and they can coexist.
J. Toothless Imprisoned
Hiccup is surprised to find Toothless struggling in vain to escape a valley he’s fallen into. Hiccup doesn’t understand why Toothless doesn’t just fly away, not realizing he’s responsible for the dragon’s predicament.
Later, Hiccup watches sadly as Toothless struggles in vain to escape his chains on a Viking boat. Hiccup knows perfectly well that he’s responsible for Toothless’s dilemma.
K. Dragon Insights in the Mess Hall
Hiccup is ostracized by his Viking peers in the mess hall. They leave him behind with the dragon book, which he reads to gain insights into all that Vikings have learned about dragons over the years.
Hiccup is shoved into the mess hall by an angry Stoick. He inadvertently reveals a secret about dragons that no Viking had known before. Stoick leaves Hiccup behind in the mess hall.
L. “Take Us in”
Stoick commands his fellow Vikings to steer their fleet into the fog surrounding the dragons’ island with the simple order, “Take us in.”
Stoick tells his men to ready the ships for a new journey to the dragons’ island. This time, he has Toothless as his guide. He tells the dragon, “Take us home, devil.”
M. Protecting Hiccup from Dragon Attacks
During their first training session on how to attack dragons, Astrid winds up accidentally defending Hiccup against an attacking dragon.
During what was meant to be Hiccup’s first dragon kill, Hiccup winds up running for his life and being defended by Astrid and Toothless.
N. Entering and Escaping the Valley
Hiccup cautiously makes his way down into Toothless’s valley in order to give the dragon some much-needed food.
Later, Toothless desperately claws his way up out of the valley in order to save Hiccup from certain death.
O. Hiccup Tries to Connect with Dragons
Hiccup loses his shield during his descent into the valley. And when he reaches out to Toothless, the dragon reacts angrily at the sight of Hiccup’s small blade on his belt. Hiccup carefully drops the blade and kicks it away to show he’s not a threat. Eventually, he gets through to Toothless and manages to touch him gently.
In the kill ring, Hiccup drops his shield and blade as he approaches a big dragon. He also throws away his helmet when the dragon continues to act hostilely. He is just about to touch the dragon and show his whole village what he managed to accomplish earlier with Toothless, but Stoick makes a loud noise, jerking the dragon back into attack mode.
P. The “Honor” of Killing Their First Dragon
The Viking trainees have dinner with Gobber one night. Gobber tells them that the one who does best in dragon training will win the honor of killing their first dragon in front of the whole village. He then explains the usefulness of disabling dragons’ ability to fly because a down dragon is as good as dead.
Hiccup and Astrid worry about what to do when Hiccup is forced to face off with a dragon the next day. Hiccup’s main priority is keeping Toothless safe, and he asks Astrid to protect his wounded dragon, no matter what might happen to himself.
Q. Toothless’s Unexpected Rides
After Hiccup builds a new tail fin for Toothless and puts it on him, Toothless takes Hiccup on an unexpected ride through the air. They end up splashing down in a lake.
After Hiccup and Toothless create a new ally out of Astrid, Toothless takes Hiccup and Astrid for an unexpected ride to meet the Green Death in a fiery lair.
During dragon training, the teens are separated into pairs in order to learn the value of teamwork.
Hiccup and Toothless work together to convince Astrid to join their cause. Hiccup acts like Toothless is out of control, but the dragon can’t maneuver without Hiccup putting his artificial tail fin into certain positions, so it’s clear that they’re working together to first scare and then dazzle Astrid.
S. Going to Toothless’s Valley
Hiccup is eager to return to Toothless’s valley to continue ironing out issues with the new tail fin and see if he can find a way to safely ride through the air on Toothless’s back.
Hiccup hurries back to the valley in order to take Toothless to safety. But this time Astrid follows him and winds up getting taken for a frightening flight.
T. Killing Dragons with Kindness
Hiccup defeats a Gronckle using some blades of grass that he recently learned dragons go crazy for. And later, right before Astrid violently attacks another dragon, he scratches it in a special spot on its neck to make it pass out in ecstasy. This baffles Astrid.
For his final test, Hiccup makes the Gronckle pass out with his scratching technique right before Astrid can attack it with an axe. At this point she is completely flabbergasted and angry.
U. Hiccup Hides His Handiwork
During one of Hiccup’s test runs with Toothless, he accidentally gets stuck to the dragon. So he has to sneak Toothless into Berk to get his tools. He has an awkward conversation with Astrid along the way.
During one of Hiccup’s late nights in his workshop, he gets surprised by his father and has to quickly hide all of his sketches of the work he’s been doing with Toothless. Stoick and Hiccup then have an awkward conversation.
V. “Everything We Know About You Is Wrong”
Stoick and his men return to Berk in an extremely scorched ship after their failed attack on the dragons’ island. Stoick is surprised when he hears that Hiccup has done the opposite of what he has come to expect from him.
Hiccup sports scorched hair as he rests after his successful test flight with Toothless. Hiccup is amazed when he sees firsthand how gentle the dragons are, contradicting everything he has been taught about them his whole life.
W. The Test Flight
The turning point of the film comes during Hiccup’s epic test flight with Toothless. At first, Hiccup wants to take things slow, clumsily relying on a cheat sheet to guide his gear shifts on the tail fin. He winds up crashing into a couple of rock structures, and Toothless slaps Hiccup with his ear for his carelessness. Then Hiccup climbs high into the air and accidentally gets unhooked from Toothless as he struggles to keep his cheat sheet from drifting away.
Hiccup manages to hold onto his cheat sheet as he and Toothless plummet through the air. Toothless accidentally slaps Hiccup with his tail before Hiccup manages to gain purchase on Toothless’s saddle. Moving at breakneck speed toward more rock formations, Hiccup doesn’t have time to rely on his cheat sheet. He throws it away and acts on instinct, safely guiding Toothless through a maze of dangerous rocks and emerging unscathed, until Toothless shoots off his fiery breath in celebration.
“Thank You for Summing That Up”
It never ceases to amaze me when I discover the chiasmus in films, especially when they’re ones I didn’t think I could love any more than I already do.
How to Train Your Dragon is one of my favorite films. I have watched it many times and I never tire of it. I continue to discover new things to love about it, especially with the addition of its excellent sequel.
I love that How to Train Your Dragon is a chiasmus because Hiccup and Toothless are so clearly two halves of a whole. They need each other and their beautiful friendship is at the heart of the film.
Hiccup and Stoick seem to have irreconcilable differences until Stoick realizes that he’s been looking at the world all wrong and he just needed to listen to his son for once.
The Vikings and dragons start the film as the bitterest of enemies and end it as inseparable allies.
Hiccup goes from being the most reviled person in Berk to its most celebrated hero.
So much dichotomy in the characters and themes. Is it any wonder that the filmmakers organized the story in such a seemingly deliberate chiasmus? If other filmmakers want to know how to make an amazing film using a chiasmus structure, they need look no further than How to Train Your Dragon. And yes, I just gestured to all of it.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
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Awesome post, Robert! I love this break down and the Chiasmus format. Very entertaining, thank you for that 🙂
You are very welcome! This one was a lot of fun to write. Such an awesome movie.
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Hi Robert, I’ve not had chance to read this particular post, but I just wanted to say that I thoroughly enjoy your work, especially your chiasmus insights, and I hope that you continue for a long time to come as you’ve been a great source of inspiration. Thanks!
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Thank you so much. Your words really touched me. I started this website as an outlet for my creative thoughts about movies, and I’m amazed by how some of those ideas have resonated with people.
Thank you for the encouragement to keep going. I am pleased to say that I have plenty of articles in the works that will keep this site going for many years to come. And I have quite a few surprising examples of cinematic chiasmus that I can’t wait to share.
You really made my day. I’m actually a pretty shy man, but I feel like I’ve got a lot to share with the world through my writing, so I’ll definitely keep giving.
I´ve always thought about this but focused on a different central point. I love how when Hiccup is introducing Toothless to Astrid, she nods negatively and walks away and then Toothless moves his head in a similar way and walks exactly the opposite direction.
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