Toothless, Intelligence, and Agency: Did Toothless Willingly Betray Green Death?

Nine years after How To Train Your Dragon was released, people still like to argue about just how intelligent Toothless (or other draconids of the franchise) really are. Some people argue that they’re intelligent and sapient, other argue against with mostly dumb excuses (the most retarded ones to date are vague fog of “but they aren’t human” and “they don’t believe in gods”).

One of the big ticket items in discussions about how intelligent draconids are — especially Toothless — is the ‘Astrid goes for a spin’ scene, in which Toothless ignores Hiccup and proceeds to give Astrid the Guantanamo Bay package. Right after that, there’s also the incident where Toothless takes Hiccup and Astrid to see Green Death1And yes, Dreamworks. Green. That last minute script change is a load of bullshit. Expense some Enchroma glasses on Dreamworks’ credit card.. The rationale for Toothless’ intelligence in that scene goes like this: When Astrid mentions that Hiccup will “have to kill a dragon,” Toothless gets a very bright idea. He understands what Astrid is saying. He understands the repercussions of what Astrid is saying. So he raises his ears, listens for Green Death’s noises and decides to submit his wishlist item. Green Death must die.

But of course, that point gets contested really quick.

I’ve never put in so much effort into making a reference to a game I neither own nor play. Fuck Overwatch, even, honestly — but that’s a rant for another time.

The two main counters to this theory are “no, Toothless was under the influence — or flat out mind controlled — by Green Death, he doesn’t do that out of his own free will” and “dragons aren’t humans, therefore they aren’t smart enough to do that.” Some may also object with “Toothless got alert before Astrid mentioned killing a dragon,” but we’ll come to that later. Let’s debunk the mind control issue first.

Green Death and Mind Control

Some people really like to point out that Green Death has some sort of control over the draconids, that Green Death can magically make dragons and wyverns return to the nest. Why else would anyone return to a home like that if they weren’t charmed?

The screenshot that proves that Green Death can mind control every dragon and wyvern nearby.

The oft-cited evidence in favour of some sort of mind control is that Toothless’ eyes narrow when he starts hearing the signal, but that’s really not what happens.

First of all: mind control is invention of the second movie. I’m somewhat reluctant about explaining things in the first movie with (or accepting explanations from) the subsequent movies. This is mostly because the second and third movie haven’t even made it to the idea stage when the first one was being produced. There was no plans — let alone specific ones — about what will transpire in sequels, which means that forward compatibility is not guaranteed at all. This means that arguments based on ‘this happened in the sequel, therefore it must hold true for the prequel’ kind of thinking are sorta invalid.

There is one trick that you can use to get around that, though. The sequels generally don’t contradict the original movies (although How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, contradicting the first two movies as well as itself, is a massive exception in that regard). This has one neat effect that we can exploit. Since the no-contradiction rule implies that if something exists in both the sequel and the original, it will work exactly the same way in both movies. With the case of How To Train Your Dragon, theorized mind control does not behave the same way as confirmed mind control in the sequel, therefore we can be sure it didn’t happen.

And we can see that rather clearly:

Mind control from the second movie causes different kind of eye narrowing than „»‘mind control’«“ in the first movie.

Note that if the result was the opposite — if mind control in the second movie exhibited similar properties as something in the first one — that still wouldn’t be a sure confirmation. As it turns out, it’s entirely possible that two different things share the appearance.

There’s further evidence against outright mind control that you can find using this so-called “rule of consistency.” In HTTYD2, Toothless pretty much can’t do anything while being mind-controlled. In HTTYD1, however, Toothless willfully and deliberately ignores Hiccup’s plea to turn back:

But if that’s still not enough to convince you, consider this: during the final confrontation, it takes a grand total of three rocks2Actually, the real number is probably around a dozen or so, but by not exaggerating I would lose some of the entertainment factor and one glowball to make every dragon and wyvern fly away instead of fight. This right here is the clearest evidence against the mind control.

The Nature of Green Death’s Signal

“So what is Green Death’s signal if not mind control, then?” one might ask, “and why do all dragons and wyverns follow it?”

No, it’s not any sort of hypnosis or charm or brainwash either. If the presence of the signal would be forcing Toothless to follow it, he wouldn’t have had the capacity to show any sort of resistance to Hiccup. Toothless wouldn’t reject Hiccup’s plea, he’d ignore it without a reaction.

Green Death’s signal is a beacon.

Nothing more, nothing less. It’s a signal that shows dragons the way home and not much more. Green Death obviously doesn’t treat her draconids too well, but if human victims of domestic violence can rationalize returning home to their abusers for unreasonably long amount of times, so can draconids.

Furthermore, it is entirely possible that dragons find safety in the nest. Sure, they might get eaten by the Green Death — that’s surely a con — but the nest provides many benefits. It’s a damn good shelter, for one, and contrary to what How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World and Ensiferum would have you believe, there is, in fact, strength in numbers. Sticking together makes dragons and wyverns safer from human raids — doubly so when you’ve got a dragon the size of a mountain defend the nest against the invaders, be it vikings or other dragon nests looking for new territory.

At this point it’s worth noting that the first movie never explicitly confirms or denies existence of other nests. However, much like there’s not just one anthill, it’s reasonable to expect that there are other nests like the one near Berk that exist in the world.

How To Train Your Dragon 2 seems to mildly agree with this notion by introducing us to Valka’s sanctuary and Drago’s army, both of which can be classified as a nest of sorts; but we said we’re not paying much worth on “evidence” from the second movie.

Meanwhile, if the draconids opted to live outside their nest, they would be vulnerable against vikings and against dragons that weren’t part of their group. Given that Vikings have supposedly killed ‘thousands of them,’ I reckon staying with the nest is a good idea.

Obviously, the movie ever so slightly contradict this point by draconids wussing out as soon as Vikings break out the superior siege engines, but that’s not the problem with this theory. That’s a minor plot issue/self-contradiction on the part of the first movie: namely, we know that dragons and wyverns will defend the island against vikings in the rocky labyrinth surrounding it. Why not once the vikings land?

Congratulations! You found pretty much the only problem the original movie has.

Actually, it’s not the only one, there’s a second problem that relates to Vikings just blasting the mountain with three rocks. But the point is this: you can trust that proponents of The Hidden World are just gonna take those two problems and throw them around with the zealotry of an anti-vaxx mom who found this one google hit agreeing that vaccines cause autism. Likewise, you can trust that they’ll start to engage in some blatant both-sides-ism, pretending that having two minor problems is the same as having two hundred (with twenty of those pretty major).

The problems with dragons wussing out can be partially handwaved away as “they’re just moving out of the way of the Green Death and allowing it to do it’s job” — but hey, we’ve derailed this post for long enough now.

The point is this: Green Death signal is a beacon, not mind control. Dragons and wyverns live at the nests because they want to. They live there because the nest is a net benefit, not because Green Death would want them to. Believe me: if you had to pick between a shit, run-down apartment and living under a bridge… Let’s just say that you wouldn’t pick a bridge, either.

I Looked Him in the Eyes and Saw …

Yes, I know. The ‘mind control’ counter-theory is pretty much dead by now. But we’ve got further ‘evidence’ that Toothless’ eyes and face don’t indicate mind control. Toothless has had such eyes at various points in the movie. Let’s see some screenshots.

My hosting provider is gonna kill me if I spam all of these as a separate pic, so here’s a collage instead. You can sorta point out the ‘angry’ one and a half out of the collage, as well.

So yeah: it turns out that Toothless’ eyes turn narrow every time he’s scared, guarded or angry.

‘Scared’ sounds just about right.

Long story short: mind control doesn’t seem likely.

“But Toothless isn’t Smart Enough”

I’ve seen some people try to argue that Toothless is closer to being a Jerry than he is to being a Rick (or even at least a Morty) … But that doesn’t hold up all that well, either. There are at least two scenes that require near- or even human-level intelligence.

The Case of Forbidden Friendship

Consider, for a moment, Forbidden Friendship, though this train probably starts some time before that.

This not the first time Hiccup and Toothless meet, but it’s the first time that Toothless notices that Hiccup is a bit of a nosey fucker.

In The Forbidden Friendship, Hiccup initially tries to buy Toothless’ friendship with a measly offering of one (1) fish. Throughout the scene, Hiccup tries to get closer to Toothless, but the dragon isn’t quite thrilled with the prospect. And not only thrilled: he was outright annoyed. But Hiccup stubbornly persisted, until this happens:

Bae caught me trippin’

At this point, Toothless knows that Hiccup is very interested in him. He is also perceptive to notice that of all places that Hiccup could choose unnoticed, he went straight for the tail.

Hmm, interesting, thought Toothless to himself as he noticed the young lad interested in his tail specifically. Thus, he decided to check what exactly the little annoyance is looking for.

He looked and looked, and soon discovered the problem: half his tail was gone.

In all fairness, though, Toothless probably already knew that half his tail is missing by that point. He not knowing that is a very hard sell at this point in the movie. It’s much more likely that Toothless knew that half his tail is missing, but:

  1. he didn’t make the connection between missing tail and his inability to fly until he examined the tail again, or
  2. he made the connection, but hoped he will manage to overcome it, or
  3. he made the connection, but hoped the tail will grow back
  4. he made the connection, knew he can’t overcome it, knew the tail won’t grow back, but he just wondered what the hell does Hiccup see on his tail

The last three seem to make decent amount of sense. After all, the power of denial is immense. It’s not obvious which of the three options is correct, but it’s pretty obvious that this is when Toothless realized that his hopes are unrealistic (assuming b or c are correct) and that there must be a reason for Hiccup’s interest (any option). If you think that the latter option doesn’t require human-level intelligence, just let me remind you that there’s many people who wouldn’t be able to deduce that.

It’s also pretty obvious that during that while inspecting his tail, he realized that — like it or not — Hiccup is the only chance for survival he has.

And just like that, Toothless goes and tries to do something to ensure Hiccup will keep bringing him food, maybe even something extra.

“Hey human, I’m sorry for that fit earlier … pay attention pls?”
“I dunno,” Hiccup replies, “maybe if you challenge me to a draw-off.”

The Case of Spinning Astrid

The second, even better example, is the Astrid Goes for a Spin scene and the events leading to it. To refresh your memory, that’s the point in the movie where Astrid discovers that Toothless exists and then runs off to warn the village.

Fast forward your memory to this point in the movie. I’m aware that this is technically not the ‘Astrid goes for a spin’ scene, but let’s avoid being overly nitpicky.
Yes I recognize the irony of me asking you to not be nitpicky on this post.

Toothless seemingly doesn’t think Astrid running away is a big issue at first, but after some encouragement from Hiccup, he does catch himself an Astrid. This tells us that again, Toothless must understand human language, because that’s the only way he could have known that Hiccup wants him to catch Astrid and coerce her into not tattiling. It’s also very likely (although movie doesn’t provide solid evidence in favour of this) that Toothless actually understood the ramifications of Astrid tattling on them after a brief off-screen chatter with Hiccup.

In any case, Toothless manages to catch Astrid. Hiccup convinces Astrid to give them a chance. Hiccup tells Toothless to give Astrid a gentle ride to the ground. And Toothless …

Hiccup: “This bad boy can fit so many fucking fish in him.”

… Toothless wilfully ignores Hiccup’s words.

Yes, Toothless waterboarded Astrid because he wanted to. It goes against what Hiccup had told him to do, and it ends when Astrid apologizes. While her apology was nothing too specific (🔊 note — this webm has sound):

Excuse the contrast/saturation issues, gfycat is messing that up for some reason.

we can deduce that Toothless very, very likely didn’t go against Hiccup’s words to make Astrid apologize for the axe thingy, but did his best to coerce into not saying a word to the tribe. This is suggested by the lack of Toothless’ eagerness to chase Astrid initially: Toothless seems to see Astrid taking off as a victory enough. She came at him with axe, she ran away, job   d o n e:

Notice how Toothless doesn’t seem to be particularly interested into preventing Astrid from reaching the village at this point.

This suggests that Hiccup did or said something off-screen which made Toothless realize the true danger of Astrid tattling on the tribe — an obvious sign of intelligence. Then, he ignored Toothless in favour of his own plan to keep Astrid quiet, which likewise indicates intelligence (and not just intelligence: it’s clear that Toothless both has his own agency and can plan at least to some extent).

All in all, preliminary data shows that Toothless is indeed smart enough in order to plan the entire thing.

What does the movie say?

Now that we know that Toothless is smart enough to have reacted to Astrid’s words and that mind control bit is a bunch of bullshit, that surely confirms the theory that Hiccup did, in fact, react to Astrid?

Well, no.

The movie makes that pretty clear (🔊):

So what happened?

Let’s take a closer look. When Toothless hears the Green Death’s beacon, he becomes afraid. And that’s probably exactly why Toothless took Hiccup to see her. Because he recognizes the danger she presents to Berk, and because he’s very concerned for Hiccup’s well being (if you need evidence that Toothless cares for Hiccup’s well-being, see his Leeroy Jenkins impression during Hiccup’s final exam the next day).

Toothless wasn’t using Hiccup as his personal Death Note. The trip to Green Death was a warning.

And when Toothless ignores Hiccup’s plea to return back to Berk here:

 

… he doesn’t do that because he was under Green Death’s influence. He refused because he deemed it important for Hiccup to see that.

Whether this means Toothless betrayed Green Death or not depends on your definition of betrayal.

TL;DR:

  • Toothless does seem to exibit near- or even human-level intelligence
  • Toothless wasn’t mind-controlled by Green Death into visiting the nest
  • Toothless likewise didn’t show Astrid and Hiccup the nest because he wanted to submit his suggestion to Astrid’s “you’ll have to kill a dragon.”
  • Toothless showed Hiccup and Astrid the way because he knew that Green Death was a danger to Berk and wanted to warn them.

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