Hiccup’s Memoires Review
A Couch Potato’s review of How to Train Your Dragon and the Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III Memoires. (2007)
This is another set of books that I had been curious about after seeing the movies How to Train Your Dragon and How to Train Your Dragon 2. I admit I had more than a little trepidation when it came to submerging myself once again into a child and/or young-adult book series. Most of the reason has to do with the vapid (and oftentimes bland) approach to world building that seems to be the trend of most books written in the last 30 years that have been aimed at children and young-adults and Hollywood is converting for the money-making monster that it is. Some of the reason is because the heroes of these books seem to rely too much on some magical quality that they’ve been blessed with to enable the development of the story as well as “heroic quality” of the protagonist. After all, we have Harry Potter and his being affected by Vordermort’s spell that killed his parents. Percy Jackson being the bastard son of the Greek god Zeus, Tris being a Divergent, Thomas being a telepath (Maze Runners), and so on. (And no, I’m not mentioning anything to do with that set of movies with Robert Pattinson in it. I agree with Jack Whitehall’s monologue on him and that movie franchise).
Instead of taking the traditional approach to such a book series in e-book format, I took to them instead as audio book format… Partially to pass the time during my daily 2.5 mile (4 kilometer) walks through the neighborhood, partially as my winding down as I want to fall asleep at night as a substitute to my listening to various radio plays I’ve picked up from Relic Radio.
Let me start by saying the books are practically nothing like the movies. While Hollywood maintained the nerdiness of Hiccup and some of the more basic elements of the books — like Hiccup being the son of the village chief Stoic the Vast. The rest? Well there are similar names, character references and some light similarities to some of the jobs they did, Hollywood as it would appear changed things around sufficiently to make the movies more a spectacle of its own choosing rather than the over-all lessons Cowell chose to tell in these books. The biggest surprise was discovering that Hiccup could speak to the dragons and the dragons did in fact spoke back. First there were no girls in the class… These were Vikings! And while when women were included and were just as hardy as the men — other than one tribe — were just filler for the stories (including Hiccup’s mother). None of Hollywood’s BS of equal opportunity and equal presence.
Gobber for example while being the trainer, wasn’t the peg-legged smithy of the town. He was the trainer of the young adults of Berk (known in the books as the Tribe of Hairy Hooligans) yes, but was a towering man at 6’5″ (almost 2 meters). And seems most of the adults were that tall (and taller), but I let it slide a bit because 1. I like my men that tall and 2. To a pre-teen everyone will seem to be that tall when they’re that short. Snoutlout was instead of the woman-chasing member of Hiccup’s class, but was in fact the class bully bucking for being the chief of the tribe. Fishlegs was more nerdy as Hiccup (and just as picked on) who had asthma and couldn’t swim (and for Vikings was unheard of). Although Fishlegs’ redeeming quality was in fact being a Berserker. Hiccup never lost his mother as hinted in the first movie and reunited in the second and was a minor character throughout the books also known as Valhallarama. Hiccup’s true arch-nemesis was Alvin the Treacherous who had an artificial hand, leg (much like what Gobber had in the movies) and was also missing an eye along the way. And finally most surprising at all was Hiccup’s dragon: Toothless. A smaller than usual dragon (of common variety) with no teeth and as conniving and wily as Gollum in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogy without any hint of the treachery.
First positive mark was that Cressida Cowell didn’t try to make up her own world per se, but instead relied on the sketchy period of classical antiquity somewhere near the fall of the Roman Empire. The books didn’t really cover the Roman Empire but instead of the area far north where the Roman Empire really didn’t have all that much control over. The stories in fact seem to feel as though they’re happening around 300 AD when legends of wyrms and dragons were quite prevalent. Toward the fourth book — How to Beat a Dragon’s Curse — there’s reference to the Americas and Potatoes, but at the time I was too lazy to reference the information on when Vikings did make it to the Americas, but given I’ve been sufficiently entertained that I gave the book a free pass on this revelation. The next positive mark is converting the dragons collected by the Viking teens from being huge and ungainly (and definitely something one could ride) to about the size of medium-sized dogs with fire and wings. The truly massive dragons — like the Green Death — were aquatic and lived under the seas instead of living in volcanoes or in caves like their smaller and more land-born relatives. There’s also references to smaller dragons — Nano-Dragons — about the size of grasshoppers. Toward the later books, there’s references to riding dragons — dragons large enough to be ridden by adults and about the size of scaly horses. Seems that these dragons weren’t really as talkative as so many of the other dragons, so I just considered them animals more than selfish (and self-centered) pets.
Ms. Cowell approached the psychology of the dragons in a more classical sense — being selfish and self-centered — although I found it particularly amusing that when she got into details of many of the dragons that inhabited this world, she gave them a sort of arbitrary point system, like reading off stat cards in a Pokémon Deck. While it personally went over my head other than the basic statistics and characteristics, I’m sure children having these books read to them would have their minds wheeling as to how to use these cards in some game of their liking.
Another plus is actually for the performer chosen for the audio books: David Tennant. While it’s clear that he has a limited amount of voice characterizations (and most of them regional Scottish), I found myself amused (and more importantly entertained) that he tried them all, often together for the same scenes. I might have groaned a little when he tried his hand at the voice characterizations for the Romans (being akin to really bad Italian Commercials of the 60s), but overall it reminded me of the times in Fifth Grade (Primary School) where for the English Literature portion of the class, my teacher (Mrs. Tedeschi) used to read books to us like Charlotte’s Web, The Ransom of Red Chief and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
The best part were the lessons that Ms. Cowell was trying to tell throughout all the books. Most of all was “Use your head” and “Do the Right Thing” over “might makes right”. There’s also elements of courage, truthfulness, problem-solving, observation and so on. There were serious moments, moments of humor, grim moments and even moments of wonder. The sort if bemused wondering that left me visualizing parts of Hiccup’s world and how he fit in. Overall, books that left me liking not only the morals of the story but also the delivery of those messages.
Bottom Line: While it makes many modern like references based on the settings of the story (like glowing reviews from newspapers like the Viking Times, or the Hooligan Hollerer), the game card references for the statistics for the dragons in the story, occasional technological usage that didn’t exist in that period of time) or even the British lingo that I readily recognize (and would leave many Americans confused and scrambling for Google or Urban Dictionary)… It’s the sort of stories I wished I had read to me when I was growing up. For they taught being smart will get you far in life, regardless of the fact of being the scrawny kid in class that was always picked on by the bullies. It allows for distractions and adventures to imaginary parts of the world never truly far and away (everything was near to Hiccup’s home area of Berk). It talked about pirates and dragons and secret buried treasures. About the only thing that was unusual about Hiccup was that he was the chieftain’s son… He isn’t some genetic anomaly, he doesn’t have telepathy, he isn’t made special by magic… He’s just a scrawny kid with red hair that sticks straight up with freckles dotting his face who was encouraged by his grandfather to do his own thing (learn languages, study dragons, etc.). It teaches being true to yourself will get you far in life… Something I recommend for those struggling through school or those that remember being bullied in school to remind them: being true to yourself is far more fulfilling than being what’s expected of you.