The Dragon Prince is better than Avatar The Last Airbender. There, I said it. Don’t get me wrong, I love ATLA, it’s one of the best stories I’ve ever experienced. The Dragon Prince is simply that amazing. But it’s also darn good about getting a certain message across.
Messages, or morals, are one of the hardest things to get right in fiction. It’s so easy to be preachy, to let the message overpower the story rather than weave into it.
We Christians are especially bad at this. In our zeal to convert, comfort, or teach, we consistently put the message at the forefront of whatever book or movie we’re making, and the result is lackluster art that few can stand.
We could learn a lot from The Dragon Prince. It’s not a Christian series, but it tells a message Christians could flat-out copy and paste, it’s so close to our beliefs. Yet it does so better than we usually do. How? Let’s dive in.
HOW THE WORLD WORKS
The opening of The Dragon Prince narrates to us the six “primal” sources of magic: sun, moon, stars, sky, earth, and ocean. These are the world’s natural power sources. In the magical land of Xadia, the elves were all born in alignment with one of the six primal sources, and can perform magic accordingly. Humans, however, have no connection to any of the six sources, so they cannot do any magic.
But then one day, the humans discovered dark magic. Unlike the six primal sources, dark magic feeds on others. It kills living creatures, particularly magical ones, and uses their essence to cast spells. While the six primal sources are natural and do not hurt the world, dark magic does, so it’s seen as an abomination. In fact, when a dragon lord meets someone who uses dark magic, he says, “I smell death.”
True, spelling all this out in the opening narration seems to break the “Show, don’t tell” rule, but then the series shows us dozens of examples of just how bad dark magic is, and why The Dragon Prince is so masterful at subtle evil.
Note: From here on out we get into SPOILERS for Seasons 1-3. If you haven’t seen it, I can’t recommend it enough. I’ll leave out as much as I can, but you’ve been warned.
KING HARROW’S SHORTCUTS
When the human Harrow became king, he was immediately confronted with a problem: a neighboring kingdom was going to starve come winter. Harrow agreed to share his country’s food, but that meant his own people would starve. His rationale? “We shall share their suffering.” It’s a bold and noble move.
But then Lord Viren steps in. Viren, the high mage, says he’s found a “creative solution” to solve the problem. If they kill a magical beast in Xadia, they can use its heart to cast a spell that will bring bounty to both countries so nobody has to die. Except for the magical beast, who’s done nothing wrong. Harrow tragically agrees, which means crossing the border into Xadia. This angers the great Dragon King, who attacks them. Harrow and Viren succeed in casting the spell and saving the people, but the Dragon King kills Harrow’s wife in the process.
Grieved, Harrow tries to move on, and begins to heal. However, Viren once again offers a “creative solution.” He was able to capture the queen’s dying breath, and can use it as a spell to kill the Dragon King. Harrow is at first horrified, but vengeance gets the better of him. He and Viren not only kill the Dragon King, but also its only egg (sort of; go watch the show).
Once again, it comes with a cost. Elves from Xadia are enraged at the murder of the Dragon King and his egg, and so come to kill Harrow and his son. And once again, Veran comes up with a “creative solution.” This is when Harrow finally puts up a wall.
“It’s a shortcut,” he says. Harrow is beginning to realize that using dark magic solves his problems in the short run, but creates other problems, and the more he uses it, the worse it gets. Harrow decides that he won’t use dark magic this time; he’ll face the elves and accept death.
We see two different means of facing death here. Harrow’s way is one of acceptance and endurance, but Viren says that death should be avoided and avenged. His use of the queen’s last breath in a murder-spell is particularly chilling. Harrow dies a hero, and Viren goes on to be the main antagonist.
Seriously, kid’s shows are wasted on kids.
Speaking of children, let’s also look at Viren’s.
SOREN AND CLAUDIA
Viren’s children are almost too goofy to be his. Soren is a royal knight, and a bit of a dopey jock. When we first meet Claudia she’s so into her book that she nearly walks into a tree.
Yet both have their dark side. Soren is a bully who washes his hands of evil by pretending it’s not his fault. Claudia makes every justification for using dark magic, especially when her family is in danger.
Case in point: the dragon attack.
In season 2, Soren and Claudia see a dragon threatening a town. The city guards don’t attack it because the dragon hasn’t attacked; it’s just reminding the humans who is boss.
For Soren, that’s a crime. He launches an attack and the dragon retaliates, wrecking the down and breaking Soren’s back, paralyzing him.
Once more, we’re presented with two methods of dealing with disaster. Soren, the thoughtless jock, shows shocking introspection. When the dragon burns the town, Soren says, “I think I really messed up.” He realizes that if he’d left the dragon alone, nobody would have been hurt. And when he becomes paralyzed, Soren is oddly okay with it. He starts to daydream about a life as a poet instead of a knight. And if you listen to his lines carefully, Soren also sees his paralysis as freeing. Viren subtly asked Soren to kill the two princes, our main protagonists, which Soren isn’t comfortable doing. Now that he’s paralyzed, Soren doesn’t have to wrestle with doing something bad or disappointing his father. In his mind, being paralyzed is an opportunity.
Claudia refuses to hear it. She ransacks the hospital in a sobbing rage, trying to heal her brother. Even when she hears a touching speech about dealing with things you weren’t ready for, Claudia still choses to kill a baby deer and do damage to herself in order to heal her brother’s paralysis. It works, but the streak of gray that appears in Claudia’s black hair tells us something bad is happening to her.
Claudia’s choice is hinted at earlier in the season. When someone says that humans can’t use magic, Claudia says, “Yes we can.” She defends dark magic as the human’s only option. They weren’t blessed like other people, so they have to make do where they can.
Young prince Callum is one of our main heroes. At the beginning of the show, Callum has a magic relic that lets him use sky magic. This lets Callum feel useful, like he’s finally good at something. But at the end of season one, he has to sacrifice his relic to help the world.
So when season 2 starts, Callum is powerless. He begs the elves to teach him magic, but they say it’s impossible, that humans are not connected to any of the six primal sources. Callum tries to connect to the sky, as he did before, but can’t seem to make it work.
And yet, when Claudia offers to teach him dark magic, Callum refuses. He doesn’t want to use magic that has caused so much pain. But later on, he’s forced to use dark magic to stop the enemy, and when he does, Callum collapses, and his mind strays inward.
Callum sees a dark version of himself telling him to accept dark magic, to justify its use as his only option for magic, like Claudia did. But Callum turns the offer down.
And then he suffers for it. His mind goes on a nightmarish journey that ravishes his body, and in the end, stops him from breathing. Yet through this crucible, Callum is able to understand himself and sky magic, and as a result, gains the ability to use it again, theoretically becoming the first and only human to ever attain primal magic.
How did he do the impossible? By rejecting what Harrow called “a shortcut.” Callum is given many opportunities to choose the easy road of dark magic, to be useful again, but decides that his personal pride is not worth the cost of admission. Instead, Callum has to take the hard road of sacrifice and introspection. Forget depression, this trial nearly kills Callum. He’s forced to deeply and truly understand the world and himself in order to both survive and thrive.
That’s something neither Viren nor Claudia accepts. Even Soren only accepts it incidentally; he uses paralysis as an excuse to not wrestle with his own moral quandaries.
So Callum, the good guy, wins, while Viren and Claudia become more and more twisted, and Soren, while healed, still has a hard journey ahead of him.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
To summarize it in one line, the people who use dark magic refuse to accept the hardships of life. Viren refuses to let humanity be threatened in any way when he can exterminate all threats. Claudia refuses to let her brother be crippled when she can fix him.
Callum, on the other hand, accepts the hardship and pain. Primal magic (good magic) is natural, and uncontrollable. He must bend to it, not the other way around. And the great irony is that only by accepting his limitations can he truly be free of them.
What a great Christian message that we so desperately need right now. We live in the age of offense and control. We are so sure of our own greatness that we refuse to accept hardship, but minimize suffering with fast food, medication, drugs, sex, cheap art, and destructive laws. God requires something far greater: surrender to his ways. We must give up our “rights,” all the “but I could—” in our lives. We must accept that God is not “fair,” as we deem it. And when we surrender to his will, we find true life, true power, and true freedom, the likes of which this world, in all its dark grasping, in all its moral compromises, will never find. Callum learns to fly. Claudia and Viren never do.
Again, The Dragon Prince is not intended as a Christian show, and some Christians will find certain content objectionable, and yet how well this message lines up with Paul’s teaching in Philippians 4:11-13! “I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content. I know how to be abased and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, to both abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Paul didn’t have to grasp at the world’s offerings to have joy or power. Neither did Callum.
Or how about Mark 8:36, “What will it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?” Claudia saves her brother, but the magic is hurting her. Harrow avenged his wife, but wrecked the world’s balance and brought assassins after his son. Yet when he surrendered his life, Xadia stopped attacking.
Why does this moral work so well? Because they showed and never told? Not quite. They do flat-out say “this is right” and “that is wrong” several times. The difference is they wove the moral into the beats of the plot, the characters, and the world. It’s not a moral on top of a story, it’s a moral as a story.
Christian art on the other hand…
WHAT CHRISTIAN (AND OTHER) ARTISTS COULD LEARN
Remember Fireproof, that Christian film about marriage? Remember the tagline, “Never leave your partner behind?”
Now do you remember how nobody actually left their partner behind? We hear that someone did at the beginning of the movie, but we don’t see it. And the worst consequence is a stern rebuke. That’s it. That’s the consequence of “leaving your partner behind.” It doesn’t wreck things like the marriage metaphor seems to say. And later on, when Kirk Cameron’s character does his big heroic deed about the middle of the movie, does he have a partner? No. He goes alone.
The metaphor didn’t stick because it had no impact on the story.
And how about God’s Not Dead? This movie, and its first sequel, talk about defending the faith against a cruel, secular world. Yet that world is so cartoonish that you can’t possibly apply it to real life. Conservative Christians are good and moral, Left-Wing Atheists are foaming at the mouth. That’s not a film; that’s propaganda.
Neither film wove its message into its world. Fireproof just slapped a metaphor on top of the movie and said, “Done!” God’s Not Dead did better, but it was trying to represent the real world and instead twisted that world into a caricature of reality and thus shattered the message.
The Dragon Prince, meanwhile, said, “Shortcuts for comfort and safety that damage the world are immoral. So let’s build a world with a magic system that manifests that message, then give characters understandable motivations to use that magic, and tie it all together with plot points like dragon attacks to bring these things to a head.”
That’s how you write a moral. You can’t slap it on top or hide it in the back; you must weave it in with every other element of the story. It’s called presentation. You can’t just have a moral, you have to make it work. That’s why The Dragon Prince is so powerful, despite not being Christian, and why Fireproof and God’s Not Dead are forgettable at best and self-aggrandizing at worst.
I don’t say this to crush Christians. I’ve seen Christians do much better morals with films like Grace Card and To Save a Life. And we can’t forget C.S. Lewis’s or J.R.R.Tolkien’s powerful works which evoke good morals in great ways. But the common trend, especially in modern times, is to put the moral first and the story second. You cannot do that. Why not?
Because it’s a shortcut.