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It is said that books are knowledge and that knowledge is power, but what happens when that power manifests into a physical form that you can actually wield as a weapon if you’re worthy, or kill you if you’re not? The Mystic Archives of Dantalian (Dantalian no Shoka or Bibliotheca Mystica de Dantalian) is a new anime this summer season that explores just that, and if you dig a little further, you will find that there’s much more to this show than your typical supernatural action series.
Dig a little further, and we learn that Lord Diswald’s property lies somewhere near London, in an area known as the Home Counties. The family crest atop the estate’s gates shows an open book at top with the words “Ask Seek Knock,” a reference to Matthew 7:7 from the Bible: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” (The crest on Wesley Diswald’s coffin shows the whole quote). A banner stretches across the bottom of the crest, which reads, “MORS SPECTATUM OMNES QUISQUE,” or, roughly, “Death Watched Each and Every One”.
When asked if he was a soldier, Huey claims that he was merely a pilot. Dig a little further, and you learn that he was stationed at RAF Cranwell near Sleaford, Lincolnshire (Interestingly, the address on the letter from his grandfather has “LAF Cranwell” written on it), a real air force base that was established during World War I. He is very well-trained with a revolver and is unnaturally calm in the face of adversity, carnage, and the fantastical, which strongly suggests that he may have experienced far more in life than that of a “mere” combat pilot. Huey carries with him a strange, golden key.
Dalian appears to be a young girl residing within the Diswald estate when Huey arrives. She has an odd manner of speech, addressing Huey as “Human” rather than by his name, and she reveals that she was very close to the former Lord Diswald, referring to him affectionately as Wes. She turns out to be the gatekeeper for Dantalian’s Mystic Archives, and she acknowledges Huey as her Keykeeper. With his strange, golden key, Huey is able to access the World inside the Gourd through the portal in her chest, and extract a Phantom Book from the archives within, handed to him by a mysterious, yet-to-be-named librarian whom he has memories of from his childhood.
When facing down the terror of a Phantom Book gone awry, Huey wields Phantom Books of his own. Huey and Dalian’s first task is to confront Henry Conrad, the man thought to be responsible for Wesley Diswald’s murder, just so that he could steal one of the Phantom Books for himself. When they arrive at Conrad’s mansion, the Phantom Book has already done its damage.
Faced with the improbability of having a dragon burn them to a crisp, Huey and Dalian form a contract, and Huey extracts the Liber de Nymphis, Sylphis, Pygmaeis et Salamandris et de Caeteris Spiritbus written by the alchemist, Paracelsus (born Phillippus von Hohenheim for you FMA fans), from the archives to do combat. Dig a little further, and you find that the title of Liber de Nymphis refers to the elemental creatures of nature: the Nymphs are borne of water, Sylphs from air, mountain people are known as Pygmies, and those of fire are the Salamanders. It is a book of philosophy that breaks down the metaphysical nature of spirits and the elements, while Dalian describes it as a grimoire. You should then see why, as a creature of fire, the dragon falls prey to the power of the Phantom Book.
The passage that Huey reads also makes references to Sheol, an ancient Hebrew term for the afterlife that predates the concept of Heaven and Hell. It is darkness, an abyss to which all the dead go.
The Phantom Book that they seek to seal is known as a turn-up book. Dalian helpfully provides a bit of a history lesson behind the turn-up books, stating that Robert Sayer is acknowledged to have created the first of these. Dig a little further and you’ll learn that he created them in the mid-to-late 18th century in a series called the Harlequinade. However, the book that they recover from Conrad’s estate, based on the paper it is printed on, is actually from the early 18th century, and was more likely the basis from which Sayer’s books were created. It is a literal pop-up book, in which the subjects depicted within actually pop out of the book.
Later, Huey and Dalian are invited to the home of the late Colonel Lilburn by his grand-daughter, Estella. While they are initially there to appraise the books from Col. Lilburn’s collection, they find themselves facing against a golem, created from the Book of Fetus, and controlled by the 72 Holy Letters of the Shem ha-Mephorash. Dig a little further and you will find that 72 is the same mystical number that has ties back to the 72 demons of Solomonic sorcery.
The Jewish Kabbalah, a branch of Judaism that teaches mysticism, derives the Shem ha-Mephorash (Hebrew for “Interpreted Name”) from Exodus 14: 19-21, which are three versus made up of 72 Hebrew letters each. When arranged in a certain way, these letters form the 72 names of angels (some say they are the names of God, which cannot be spoken and use it in reference to the tetragrammaton, the 4-letter name of God that should never be used). Some propose the idea that if the names are reversed, they then represent the 72 Demons of the Lesser Key of Solomon.
Also noteworthy is that there are some who associate the Shem ha-Mephorash with tarot. When Huey finally discovers the true form of the Shem ha-Mephorash, the scene with its destruction is vividly reminiscent of one of the tarot’s major arcana cards.
Huey and Dalian combat the golem with the Phantom Book equivalent of a spear and shield. In his left hand, Huey wielded Charon’s Book of Styx, said to produce a barrier that will repel a thousand spears. Dig a little further and you will learn that in Greek mythology, Achilles was dipped into the river Styx as an infant and granted immortal protection in all places that the water touched. Drawing upon this connection, the powers of the Book of Styx guarded Huey and Dalian from the golem’s attacks.
In Huey’s right hand, he wielded the Clay Tablet of Ugarit, which calls upon the Thunder God of Canaan, Ba’al (which simply translates to Lord). If you dig a little further, you will find that Ugarit is an ancient Mediterranean port city from around 6000 BC. Their literature was inscribed upon clay tablets, including poems depicting Ba’al, who is sometimes referred to as the Son of Dagan (as mentioned in the show) and as Ba’al Hadad, the god of storms with a voice of thunder. This Huey wielded as a spear of lightning to attack the golem and to destroy the Shem ha-Mephorash. Again, tying back to Solomonic sorcery, the name, Ba’al, was changed over time to Bael, who is listed as the 1st of the 72 Demons depicted in the Lesser Key of Solomon.
The original light novels and Gainax have put an incredible amount of detail and effort into formulating a plausible setting for The Mystic Archives of Dantalian. Just looking up the origins of the names of the Phantom Books uncovers a treasure trove of historic information that adds a whole new level to the enjoyment of the series (though I hope I haven’t unlocked some curse myself by looking into all of this!). It’s refreshing to see Gainax returning to a more traditional style for their character designs, and their use of realistic backgrounds is a fascinating approach for the series. And then there’s the ending – it’s a somewhat freakish experience that everyone has to watch at least once!
Another critical character in this anime is known as Madara, a mythical creature with two forms. To regular humans, he is most often mistaken for a “white, fat pig” but actually he is a well-fed cat. In his spiritual form, he is a fox-like creature, more powerful than regular youkai. Takashi accidentally breaks a barrier and releases Madara, and the two begin an unlikely friendship connected by “The Book of Friends”, a book that contains names of many youkai. The owner of such a book has the power to summon youkai to do his or her bidding by simply calling out its name.
Also explored in this series is the theme of loneliness. Takashi’s grandmother, Reiko, was the original creator and owner of “The Book of Friends”. She, too, had the ability to see youkai, but because of this ability, villagers shunned her. Consequently, she lived her life perpetually alone. Her only source of solace and company came from meeting youkai; she would challenge them to a “duel” (I use the term loosely because some of the duels were simple games such as rock-paper-scissors), stating that if she won, they would have to write their names on paper and become her slaves. Her great spiritual powers enabled her to easily win all her battles, and as the days passed by, the book accumulated many pages of youkai names.
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