This study will examine a number of nontraditional Gothic elements in the fan story "Out of Time". While it is a Gothic, explicitly written in accordance with that tradition and drawing on Gothic elements for inspiration, the story's contemporary authorship shows in its reflection of modern concepts and sensibilities. It is a fantasy, comprising a main element, dragons, that normally do not belong in Gothic literature (although the story's other fantasy elements, such as supernatural powers and immortality, do); however, the sensibility of the author, we know from their other works, is squarely contemporary/liberal insofar as the value system is concerned. Consent, homosexuality, free will, and other concepts that figure in our contemporary ethos are present – true, the Gothic regularly foregrounds romance as a theme and focuses on the happy ending with lovers united, or reunited, which privileges free will by implication, but the postmodern elements such as interspecies sex (with a sentient dragon, a clear fantasy element) are too powerful to allow one to comfortably classify "Out of Time" as a pure Gothic. Most importantly, it subverts the gender structure of the traditional Gothic. It certainly is a Gothic, but with contemporary modifications that revive and refresh a genre with the potential to be stilted and predictable and make it fresh and exciting.
The main change in the Gothic is the gender of the 'damsel in distress' protagonist and the nature of the antagonist. For the purposes of this segment, I shall use Robert Harris' definitions of various Gothic elements:
Women in distress. As an appeal to …pathos and sympathy…, the female characters often face events that leave them [distressed]. A lonely, pensive, and oppressed heroine is often the central figure of the novel, so her sufferings are even more pronounced and the focus of attention. The women suffer all the more because they are often abandoned, left alone (either on purpose or by accident), and have no protector at times.
While Thursday26 is always careful to avoid stereotypes pertaining to masculinity and femininity in their work, I would argue that male/female stereotypes apply, at least on the unconscious level, in the human/dragon romance that is the central relationship in "Out of Time" and in Hictooth fanfiction. In human/dragon fictional sexual interactions, the dragon is virtually always the party who penetrates, regardless of the gender of their partner, which makes the relationship analogous to the male/female sexual relationship that was a staple of the Gothic genre long before alternative sexualities were celebrated in fiction – at least mainstream fiction. Factors helping this analogy are the fact that the dragon partner is virtually always bigger and stronger than the human partner, and generally takes on the traditionally heterosexual/masculine role of protector. For the purposes of the Gothic template, therefore, Hiccup corresponds to the traditional 'woman in distress' facet.
However, this both corresponds to the Gothic stereotype and subverts it: Hiccup is cisgender and male, and in fact is married to a woman and produced progeny. Thus, the author takes a cisgender masculine protagonist and deliberately places him in the central role of the female who is missing a "protector" and is, for all intents and purposes, alone (it is clearly indicated in the timeline of the story that Hiccup and Toothless spend a great deal of time apart). He definitely corresponds to the "lonely, pensive and oppressed" facet of distressed womanhood: the story opens with his point of view of the situation, "This is everything that Hiccup feared" and goes on to detail the loneliness, injustice and oppression that he is forced to endure in the name of his duty to the community.
The "duty to the community" aspect leads me to the second facet of the Gothic that I believe this story modernizes. Not only does the story subvert the central figure of the damsel in distress and change it to a cisgender heterosexual man, it further subverts the traditions surrounding the antagonist:
Women threatened by a powerful, impulsive, tyrannical male. One or more male characters has the power, as king, lord of the manor, father, or guardian, to demand that one or more of the female characters do something intolerable. The woman may be commanded to marry someone she does not love (it may even be the powerful male himself) or commit a crime…
(Significantly, the summary of the story reads "Grounding Hiccup is a crime," but this is related to a central metaphor in "Out of Time" to which we shall return later.) Hiccup, the male protagonist, continues to personify the central, usually female, protagonist in the Gothic: he is indeed "threatened by… powerful… tyrannical male[s]" who do indeed demand he do "something intolerable" (not only marry someone with no love shared between them and who in fact also has another lover, but give up the sky) – but the powerful oppressors in "Out of Time" are a common enemy to millennials and young people in general, namely a staid, reactionary council with outdated ideas of how things should be done and the wherewithal to force the new generation to comply. Instead of the outdated lord of the manor or tyrannical father, the force of oppression in this updated Gothic is not an individual but the forces of outdated tradition. The fact that the council is comprised of older white males adds a very contemporary edge to events and shows that this type of power structure is what is dragging progress down.
'Down' brings us to the – perhaps not central metaphor, but certainly the overarching one – the theme of flight. Flight is a universal metaphor for a number of things, among them freedom and progress (think of concepts or plans 'taking flight'). It is this which situates Hiccup and Toothless' relationship as a positive element, more than anything else in the story. Naturally, being fan fiction, the story draws upon the original source material, in which flight played a central part and was a defining trait of the characters. "Out of Time" picks up on this centrality and uses flight as a metaphor for Hiccup and Toothless' – indeed all the characters' – freedom, and the council's denial of flight – as the main oppressive act in the story.
The Gothic element of the supernatural is picked up here as the "crime" mentioned above that the "damsel in distress" is required to commit is actually a transgression against the gods, which results in a curse (another supernatural element, of course) afflicting the village (the subtitle is, "Or The Tale of Hiccup and Toothless and the Curse of Berk." The nature of this curse is never specified, but it is clearly an affliction: when Hiccup leaves, breaking the curse, Astrid muses: "Things… have gotten better. Astrid didn't realize how dark Berk was, all those years ago. She never associated Berk with being a dark place, and she never thought she would… but the world lacked color." Also, "Hiccup leaving Berk… it shattered whatever curse was hanging over it. It's like Hiccup leaving was the first ray of sunlight that was able to finally hit Berk. And she hadn't realized how cold it had been until that moment." Later, the dragons all leave Berk – given that dragons are shown to represent a gift from the gods, bringing color and (f)light to the village, it appears that whatever curse was on Berk has lingering traces, even though Hiccup's departure has broken the worst of its effects. The Gothic vs. modernized sequence of events appears to be: 'Lord of the Manor' (a powerful patriarchal body of old white men) forces 'woman in distress' (cisgender male protagonist) to (a)part from their beloved and marry another (a standard Gothic element) and (b)commit a crime (c)against the gods, thus bringing together a number of Gothic elements in a manner that contemporary readers can recognize and identify with.
This is especially interesting in view of the fact that the source material for "Out of Time" (in other words, the canonical material of How to Train Your Dragon) is historical fantasy. Thursday26 deals with the theme of patriarchal oppression (of women and homosexuals in particular) in a number of stories, mostly unpublished as yet, and this is an extension of those. The author uses the historical context to spotlight abuses against women that would have been normalized in ancient cultures (though not in Old Norse culture specifically, as the author notes in their introductions) such as forced marriage, abuse, and marital rape, and marginalization and aggression against both male and female homosexuals. It would seem like a tall order to find contemporary parallels for Gothic tropes in a Viking world already established, but it is accomplished with great authorial sleight of hand. The concepts are contemporary. In a Viking setting, the author introduces a twist in the gender of the protagonist, a faceless antagonist in the form of a tyrannical patriarchal structure instead of an individual. And the "crime" the 'damsel' is forced to commit in this contemporary Gothic? Heterosexual marriage.
It is the fact that the real crime here is a heterosexual marriage (in a relationship that is adored by fans, no less) that makes this story contemporary, more than anything else. The relationships that 'take flight' are Hiccup's same-sex relationship with his cross-species dragon partner, and Astrid's same-sex relationship with another woman. The relationships seen as toxic are the heterosexual ones of Hiccup marrying Astrid and the offstage marriage between Snotlout and an unnamed female, which has driven a wedge between him and his dragon, again preventing him from 'taking flight'. The final line reinforces this, Hiccup saying "Out here, with his mate, he feels limitless." The metaphorical message is clear: Forcing heterosexual marriage as a sine qua non on people not so inclined limits people, blocks horizons, impedes 'flight', literally and metaphorically. It is no coincidence, when we view it this way, that the oppression is perpetrated by a patriarchal council. This conclusion, more than anything else, makes "Out of Time" contemporary, as such a subversive and, dare we say, millennial view would never have been espoused in the eighteenth century. It is this that keeps us reading and entertained, and deeply fulfilled at the conclusion, in a way we would not be if this Gothic rehashed an outdated tale of individual power acting oppressively and heterosexual love triumphing in the end. It is the nature of the love that triumphs in "Out of Time", the nature of its protagonists and the nature of the obstacles that face them, that make this work an updated and contemporary Gothic.
Thursday26. "Out of Time: Or the Tale of Hiccup and Toothless and the Curse of Berk." Archive of our Own. /works/17975954 Accessed March 26, 2019.
Harris, Robert. "Elements of the Gothic Novel." Virtual Salt. Accessed March 15, 2019.