WHEN she was a child there were dragons. Asleep outside, as the wind howled during the dark nights on the Scottish island where young Cressida Cowell spent her holidays, that black hump of a hill could easily be the back of a slumbering dragon. That’s what Cowell thought and the people who lived here before, the Vikings who once settled on this island, and whose tales her dad had retold on the long, TV-free nights, agreed.
The Vikings believed in dragons, and the more you talk to Cowell, the more you start to embrace the idea there might still be something in it, a slumbering beast lodged way down at the bottom of one of the trenches of the ocean we still haven’t managed to explore, perhaps.
It’s no wonder she’s so convincing. For the past 17 years Cowell has been immersed in a world of Vikings and dragons as she wrote the How To Train Your Dragon series of children’s books, which have sold seven million copies worldwide in 37 languages. Along the way she had three children – Maisie, Clementine and Alexander – starting the series after the birth of the first, who now comes of age as the series comes to a close. This week Cowell will be at an Edinburgh International Book Festival event and another at Mainstreet Trading Company in St Boswells in the Borders, ahead of the launch of the 12th and final instalment next month.
“The books have a huge link with Scotland because that was the inspiration and it’s all set in that landscape, so I love doing events in Scotland,” she says down the telephone from France, where she’s on holiday with her family.
If you don’t know how to train a dragon, your children will, as the books are massive – not to mention DreamWorks Animation’s film adaptations, the second of which took £619 million at the box office last year. The stories follow the adventures of Hiccup, a young Viking who is more of a thinker than a fighter, but must grow up to be leader of his tribe and train his dragon, Toothless, along the way.
Cowell loves talking about the island which inspired her, but won’t reveal its location – she’s promised her dad who bought his piece of uninhabited wilderness when she was four. It’s off the west coast, somewhere in the frilly bit of the map that we may as well refer to as “There Be Dragons” territory.
“The island was my father’s dream, his passion. He was chairman of the RSPB so for him this was paradise, with puffins, buzzards, sea eagles and storm petrels, which is where the idea of different dragon species came from. Each one is different, adapted to its environment, like the birds. There are fierce ones, inspired by wilder creatures, but a lot of the domestic dragons are inspired by cats and dogs, for example Toothless is inspired by my cat.”
It was on the island that Cowell and her sister and brother spent their holidays, roaming wild and free around its caves and ruins and messing about in boats.
“God it was dangerous, looking back. There were no rules, we were allowed to roam all over because it is a very small island. We would explore the caves and go out in rubber dinghies without life jackets and my brother would dive down to the bottom looking for pearls.
“I grew up in the centre of London without a garden so for me to go to that total wilderness was extraordinary and it completely inspired my imagination. There’s something about being by the sea that refreshes the soul and that part of the world enters the bones. It’s incredibly romantic and a proper wilderness. It’s very special.
“When we were very little we were camping and there were no other people, just little ruined houses all over the island where the Vikings and later communities once lived. We were dropped off and picked up by boat at the end of the holiday and there were no phones, no electricity, nothing. It was very Robinson Crusoe.
“Then by the time I was nine we had a house that was built on the tumbledown remains of the last surviving house and spent the whole summer holiday there. We fished and ate the seafood we caught; mackerel and lobster, cockles, winkles, mussels, and lived the way people lived when it was inhabited. The one thing we never ate was limpets. They are revolting, even with lots of garlic and butter.”
Dragon fans will know that limpets are served as a punishment to Viking children who step out of line, who aren’t wild or brave enough, that kind of thing.
“My dad was very gung-ho,” says Cowell. “We didn’t even have a walkie-talkie in case someone broke a leg. But my dad always says, ‘Nothing ever happened’.”
Did anyone ever break anything then? “One of the guys who was building the house did break an arm and had to steer a boat back to the mainland with one arm, so yes.”
Could it be these experiences that made Cowell a self-confessed anxious child and a bit of a worrier as an adult, despite her success? “Well, yes,” she says. “You take on worrying for parents when you sense they’re not worrying enough. Bless him, but my dad really did not know how to drive a boat, and that’s not the Mediterranean up there. They’re tricky waters and you need to know what you’re doing. I had a strong sense that he possibly did not.”
But along with any anxiety, the island life combined with the stories her father told of the people who had once inhabited it, sparked her imagination. “My dad would read folk tales, word of mouth collected stories, and one of them really stuck in my mind. It was about a dragon that had turned into a mountain. I used to imagine what if our little hill really was a dragon and woke up.”
With her childhood spent reading everything from Enid Blyton to Tolkien to Ursula Le Guin, Cowell began writing books when she was nine and went on to study English at Oxford University. It was there she met her husband Simon Cowell (not that one) who works for charities and is former head of International Save the Children Alliance. “You need a supportive partner,” she says. “That’s true of most families, but it’s not easy living with writers because they get very absorbed in a fantasy world. I always show my writing to him right from the beginning and he’s always made suggestions as it goes along.”
After university Cowell worked in publishing before returning to art school and studying illustration at Saint Martin’s School of Art and Brighton University. After graduation she began to produce children’s picture books, the first being Little Bo Peep’s Library Book, which was published in 1999. She went on to write the “Emily Brown” books, illustrated by Neal Layton, which won the 2006 Nestlé Children’s Book Prize, and with the 12 Dragon books, which she illustrates herself, she has now written more than 20 titles.
“People liked the picture books but they weren’t a huge success, and I was working two days a week when I wrote the first Dragon book. It was my first fiction book and I was just excited that it had been published. Success has come, but it’s been over a period of 12 years so it wasn’t like, boom! Because I was quite old when it happened, it’s been easier to deal with.”
Now that she’s 12 books in, Cowell has tasted financial success, but cautions against using it as an incentive. “You have to go into it for the love of it because you might not make anything and it’s insecure. If you want to make lots of money go into banking or accountancy.”
Why does 48-year-old Cowell, who lives in Chiswick, west London, with her family and writes in a hut in the garden, think there’s such a fascination with dragons?
“I think it is extraordinary that there’s such a belief that goes across the world. It wasn’t just the Vikings, it’s in China, Japan, and sea-faring nations in particular. For me they represent that force of nature that is bigger and wider than we are. Global warming, volcanoes and earthquakes show that we are not as in charge as we think.
“Dragons represent what we don’t know. We think we know everything and we are in charge of nature – there are a lot of myths about dragon riding and taming nature – but perhaps we are wrong, perhaps there are dragons. Perhaps the myths are there for a reason. We think we have explored everything, done everything but we have never been down to the bottom of the sea, to the trenches there. There’s a tantalising possibility that we don’t know everything and people are drawn to it, they want it.
“Vikings lived in a world in which everything wasn’t explored so they believed in them. They lived in a dangerous, adventurous world and that’s the appeal of these books to children growing up in cities: a world of adventure where you’re not always being told to be careful.”
Like many authors, Cowell has written what she knows: the island, what it’s like to be on a boat in a gale with someone who may not know what they’re doing and the ups and down of raising small, uncooperative creatures. The books could quite easily be retitled How To Train Your Child, as Hiccup’s relationship with his dragon, Toothless, is based on Cowell’s experience with recalcitrant toddlers.
“A lot of Hiccup dealing with Toothless is me talking to my two-year-old. A lot of it is about how to be a parent, how to train a child, which chimes with parents. It’s about not always knowing what you’re doing. It’s that moment when you leave hospital and look in the back of the car and wonder why they have let you out with a baby.”
If there’s a lot of Cowell in Hiccup, Stoick the Vast, Hiccup’s father, is based on her own, with his love of the wilderness and boats. Given that Stoick is well-intentioned and brave, but also a bit shouty and clueless, has the connection led to any family discord?
“No, my dad is very forgiving,” she says. “He isn’t completely Stoick, anyway. You base characters on someone and then they take on a life of their own. The relationship between father and son resonates for people because there has been a generational shift between what it means to be a man and manly for boys growing up today.
“Hiccup is a hero that wasn’t based on being the biggest, toughest. He’s a thinking hero who stands up for what he believes in. The books are quite anti-war, and when you go through the whole story arc, he questions the whole values of what his society is based on. Over the course of the books, it’s about him standing up and being a leader.”
Cowell is wary of banging drums in her books for fear of sounding worthy but points out the anti-war, anti-bullying, and environmental themes.
“I also want children to think about their responsibility, and what makes a good leader. Gandhi, Mandela, people who stand up for what they believe in against the prevailing tide, those are the people who stand out for me. That is a true hero and it takes incredible bravery. I’m trying to tell a funny adventure story that children will want to read, but it’s all there.”
An ambassador for the National Literacy Trust, the Children’s Media Foundation and the Reading Agency, Cowell’s motivation has always been to get children to read. “Film and TV are great, and I watch loads with my children, but I want books to survive as a medium because they offer something completely different. Films tell you everything, whereas books fill in the gaps. I want to get a generation of children reading for pleasure like I did. We need to stop libraries closing, but children’s book sales are holding up so I hope we are winning the battle. We have only had TV in the last century, but for thousands of years we have sat down and told each other stories.”
With all this talk of dragons and fantasy worlds, does she think she’s breeding a future generation of Game Of Thrones fans? “Oh, I do hope so. I want them to read fantasy for pleasure and find it as much fun as I do.”
With the final book done, it’s a bittersweet time for Cowell after so long spent in dragon territory. “In a way I don’t want to end it, I really love writing about this and have never been bored, but this series has to have an ending because that’s how I wrote it from the beginning, with Hiccup an old man looking back to the past, just as I looked back as a child on an island and thought about those communities.
“But I’m very sad because it’s so entangled in my own life and my past, with my relationships with my parents and children through the characters. Also because I started writing just after my first child was born and now she’s leaving home. It’s emotional because I have put so much of myself into it and cared so much.”
Usually Cowell writes a book a year, but this one has taken her longer, with complicated plot lines to be tied up. “I knew the ending from the beginning, I knew there was going to be a dragon rebellion and that it was going to be about how we should we be looking after the environment better.
“But I didn’t know everything from the beginning because that would feel manufactured and there would be no sense of discovery for me. For example, Hiccup’s mother Valhallarama of the White Arms and Chunky Thighs wasn’t really there for the first books and Stoick is a one-parent family. I didn’t know why, but I thought it would make an interesting plot line and that comes out in the fifth book when I wrote a whole backstory for her. She’s a working parent and is inspired by women in my family who were suffragettes. There’s a very strong streak of feminism in there, inspired by my very impressive but terrifying grandmother and aunts.”
There’s still something to look forward to for Cowell, however, in the shape of a third film, with Gerard Butler back as Stoick, which will be released in 2018, and more books.
“I will write more books, fantasy fiction for children. I love writing for children, I love the whole thing of getting children reading.”
The first Dragon book begins with a question: if dragons existed, what happened to them? So does the final one, How To Fight A Dragon’s Fury, answer it? Does Hiccup save the dragons from extinction?
She won’t say, but the clue is in her books: “the end is in the beginning”. There were dragons when Cressida Cowell was a girl, and as long as there are the books, there will always be dragons. You just might not be able to see them.
• Cressida Cowell, The End is Nigh! event at Edinburgh International Book Festival, Saturday, 10-11am. The event is sold out but check for returns; www.edbookfest.co.uk. Cowell will also be at Mainstreet Trading Company, Main Street, St Boswells, 30 August, talking and then signing from 12pm-1pm. Tickets £5, from [email protected]; www.mainstreetbooks.co.uk/events. How To Fight A Dragon’s Fury is published by Hodder Children’s Books at £12.99 on 8 September. The audio books of the Dragon series are read by David Tennant