How Cressida Cowell captured the imagination of millions

Somewhere on the raggedy edge of the Hebrides – the kind of place that should be marked ‘Here Be Dragons’ – lies a tiny private island. Just a third of a mile square, it’s ravaged by the howling winds and wild waters of the Atlantic that long ago drove its human inhabitants to refuge on the mainland.

Yet this is the wilderness that inspired the How To Train Your Dragon phenomenon: 12 books with around eight million copies sold; two DreamWorks films, both with an Oscar nod; an animated TV series and a computer game. A third Dragon film, voiced by Hollywood A listers Gerard Butler and Cate Blanchett is due for release in 2019.

Writer and illustrator Cressida Cowell draws much of her inspiration from an island in the Hebrides, which her father bought half a century ago

All have flowed from the wellspring of childhood memories belonging to writer and illustrator Cressida Cowell, whose father bought the island as an antidote to London life half a century ago.

‘We’d be dropped off like castaways by local boatmen,’ she recalls. ‘There were no phones or electricity, it was very Robinson Crusoe. We didn’t even have a house for the first few years so we camped, sleeping in an inch of water with rain dripping down from the roof of the tent.

‘By the time I was nine we had a home built on the tumbledown remains of a crofter’s cottage so we could spend whole summers there. We fished and ate the seafood we caught; mackerel and lobster, cockles, winkles and mussels. We’d explore the caves and go out in rubber dinghies without life jackets. My brother would dive down to look for pearls.

‘God it was dangerous looking back. There really were no rules. There was an old bell my mother rang when it was time for lunch, otherwise we were not bothered by adult intervention.’

Cowell and her brother and sister made their own free range fun by day. It was their father who provided the evening entertainment.

‘At night, lit by candles, my father told us folk tales of the Vikings who had invaded this part of Scotland 1,200 years before, the quarrelsome tribes who fought and tricked each other and the dragons that were supposed to live in caves in the cliffs.

‘One of his stories stuck in my mind. It was about a dragon that had turned into a mountain. I used to lie in bed and imagine what would happen if the little hill by our house really was a dragon and woke up!’

Barf and Belch, the two-headed dragon;

Toothless and Hiccup in How To Train Your Dragon

Barf and Belch, the two-headed dragon; Toothless and Hiccup in How To Train Your Dragon

In 2003 the dragon did blaze into wakefulness – just not in the way Cowell expected. How To Train Your Dragon, the story of Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III, the skinny ginger boy who must grow up to be the leader of Viking tribe the Hairy Hooligans, and his loyal dragon Toothless, was published. Eleven more books followed until Cowell brought the saga to a close in 2015.

Even as she did so, her imagination was ranging across a new territory hundreds of miles south of the Hebrides – the chalk hills and woodlands of the Sussex South Downs. ‘That landscape is so old, it’s always felt haunted to me,’ she says. ‘I used to think little bumps were burial mounds for fairies…’ and then she’s off chattering about legends and giants and spells and all the other intoxicating elements found in her new book, The Wizards Of Once, which has already been snapped up by DreamWorks.

The Wizards Of Once is set at the dawn of the Iron Age in the wildwoods of old England and tells of a young boy wizard, Xar, and a young warrior princess, Wish, who must unite against the ancient peril of witches.

In the elegant first floor drawing room of the west London townhouse where she’s lived for the past 20 years with her husband Simon Cowell (not that one, as she is fond of saying), she shows me the idea books that have brought the story to life over the past five years.

In Cowell’s unmistakeable, scratchy pencil sketches, Xar and Wish leap from the pages with their snowcats and Hairy Fairies, their terrifying parents, ogres and enchanted objects. The books are crammed with the kind of maps, drawings and addendums (Cowell’s inspirations range from Shakespeare and Pan to Alexander McQueen and choreographer Matthew Bourne) that made the Dragon books a swallow dive into a different world.

‘It’s about heroism, the natural world and our part in it, death, love, spirituality and adventure. There are no themes you can’t tackle with children,’ says Cowell. ‘The world can be difficult, even scary and I want children to be able to deal with that and to know that it is also an awe-inspiring, magnificent place.’

It’s a sense of perspective she gained on the island where she had to be courageous and resourceful despite being a rather anxious child. She still goes there today with her own children, three teenagers aged 13 to 19. ‘They suffer withdrawal symptoms,’ she smiles. ‘It’s one of those rare places that still has no mobile phone connection, let alone any hope of Facebook. But once they are over that they play card games and acting games, watch otters and catch fish, paint and explore caves and get bored – just like we did.

‘These days we spend the whole time trying to entertain our children and trying to prevent boredom – but being bored is excellent for creativity.’

The proof of that is in the empire she has built since signing her first book deal back in 1998, when she and her husband were expecting their first baby. They’ve been together almost 30 years, since she was 22 and he was 23, and he is now Cowell’s full-time manager, leaving her free to do what she does best: writing, drawing and imagining.

It all happens in a wooden shed in her garden. There’s no heating, no phone line and until very recently, there was no broadband either. It’s a tiny creative space filled with towers of books, pots of pencils and a sturdy day bed covered in cushions and cosy quilts.

Cowell admits to taking the occasional tactical nap on it and you can’t help but think of her four decades ago as a little girl snuggling down while summer storms howled through the Hebrides, happy in the knowledge that dragons and magic are real, if you just know where to look. 

‘The Wizards Of Once’ is published on Tuesday (Hodder Children’s Books, £12.99)


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