How The Ancient Magus’ Bride’s magic distinguishes itself from its Hollywood and anime rivals
The flicker of a wand, the murmur of strange words, AND BANG. Sparks fly. Lights shine. Magic begins. It astounds. It’s exceptional. Or, at least, it’s supposed to be. Popular culture has been so saturated by examples of magical displays, from Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter, that our generation has become increasingly numb to its inclusion in their entertainment. Magic nowadays has to be even more exceptional to deserve our engagement. For some anime, exceptional means treating magic as a trigger for nostalgia (i.e. Little Witch Academia), as spectacle extraordinaire (i.e. Fate/stay night and Witch Craft Works), and/or as the butt of a joke (i.e. Witchcraft Works and Love, Chunibyo, & Other Delusions). By comparison, The Ancient Magus’ Bride is special.
Adapted from Kore Yamazaki’s best-selling manga series, The Ancient Magus’ Bride takes place mostly in the British Isles, with some scenes in Iceland and, more briefly, in Japan. The dull-eyed, red-haired Chise Hattori signs herself away to be sold as property at an auction, and the eccentric goat-skulled Elias Ainsworth places the highest bid for her self-occupied lot. The reasons for their actions are related: Chise is a Sleigh Beggy, an extraordinary magic being. Elias is a mage, a practicioner of a type of magic. Elias welcomes Chise into his world. He offers her food, drink, a warm bath, a comfortable bed. He then makes clear two things that he expects from her:
(1) that she apprentices under him to become a mage
(2) that she becomes his bride.
What is so special about the magic of The Ancient Magus’ Bride? The world that Elias introduces to Chise isn’t exclusive to his house or yard. It is also the world of the fairy folk. Known more simply as fairies, they are the source of a mage’s magic. But who are the fairies?
The many fairy denizens that Chise encounters throughout the story are characters borrowed from the ancient fairy folklore and fantastical literary traditions of the British Isles. Oberon and Titania of Shakespeare fame reign over a realm of Elemental Sprites, Brownies, Will-o’-the-Wisps, Black Grims, Leannán Sí, Banshees, and Changelings. Cordial, tricksy, whimsical, and arbitrary, fairies have an intelligence and agency independent of others, and their interactions with others are the product of their own self-interested goals and desires.
Having established what kinds of fairies there are, the question still stands. Who are the fairies? Why are they so crucial to understanding what’s so special about this story’s magic? To answer, I invite my readers to heed the following instructions.
Close your eyes. Imagine yourself alone, and realize you’re not. In a crowd or a room, in cacophony or silence, try to feel the air. Try to sense it. Imagine there’s a weight. A presence. It’s weaving. It’s bending. It’s always on the move, yet always there. It’s always been nearby, brushing up against us, influencing us in subtle ways. In The Ancient Magus’ Bride, that presence is real. It’s ancient, yet it’s eternal. It has a form, but it’s invisible to most. It’s hard to grasp, yet it affects lives all the same.Those presences are the fairy folk, who themselves prefer being called “Neighbors” or “Friends.” Neighbors are sentient and intelligent, power and magic. The mage only channels and refines the magics offered to them with their wands and words, rituals and gestures.
It is an offer of magic by the Neighbors that is given on condition. Thus, the mage must perform favors to obtain the Friends’ magical aid. The most solemn of these exchanges, contracts, bind mage and familiar in life and death. Contracts are an inherently trusting affair, and are an all-important step in becoming a full-fledged mage.
Thus, mage and Friend, independent and self-interested, become mutualistic partners. This dynamic is where The Ancient Magus’ Bride does magic special. The magic of magecraft isn’t something mages-in-training can realize individually with enough knowledge and effort like in Harry Potter. Nor is it something that’s fatefully bestowed to them by higher powers like in Lord of the Rings. Magecraft is the result of a successful negotiation between partners that respect and value each other. This relationship of cooperation bears strong thematic relevance to a story that doesn’t rely on nostalgia to engage -- a story that’s not especially flashy in its magical displays, and altogether treats its narrative with complete gravity. For how can someone who sees herself so poorly as to sell herself into slavery on a whim ever hope to become a full-fledged mage?
Chise can’t, not unless she changes.
A social scientist and history buff who dabbles in creative writing and anime analysis every now and again. If you’d like to get in touch with him or are interested in reading more of his works, ZeroReq011 has a Twitter you can follow and runs a blog called Therefore It Is.