We’re proud to present this guest post today from Matthew Gunn. He’s written a number of articles about anime and faith for Christ and Pop Culture and also posts musings on his own blog, Thought Disposal. Please let us know what you think of his article in the comment section below!
I need to make a confession on the front end: while I am certainly a nerd (and can provide credentials upon request), I had never actually played any Castlevania content before watching the Netflix exclusive series Castlevania. Therefore, since I am not knowledgeable with regard to game-vs-series distinctions, this is not going to be that kind of review. I can, however, offer you my love of stories and present to you my case that the Netflix adaption of Castlevania is largely influenced by a very specific and very old story, the narrative poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (SGGK). This story is particularly relevant to us Christian fans of anime since it is part of the Arthurian legend and, therefore, heavily influenced by Christianity. As we delve into how and in what ways Castlevania recycles the narrative elements of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, we will begin to see their thematic similarities of faith, trial, rebuke, and what it means to be Christ-like.
The plot and intricacies of SGGK are too many for one article and I don’t want to spoil any more of the poem than my explanation requires. Therefore, a general synopsis of the poem is that Gawain, considered by reputation to be the most faultless and faithful knight on earth, is honor-bound to face a trial which guarantees his death, but ends up dishonoring himself and the knightly code by trying to avoid it. The central thing at stake in SGGK is Gawain’s character as a Christian knight of Arthur’s court. Everything from his larger-than-life reputation to the religious symbols that adorn his armor (including even an image of the Virgin Mary on the inside of his shield) attests to his faith and his pious personal character.
Now compare Gawain to our protagonist in Castlevania, Trevor Belmont, who is an irreligious, irreverent, and all-around rough character with an effortless knack for getting on people’s bad sides. That knack is due, in no small part, to his being one of the last of the House of Belmont who were known for defending the city of Targovishte and the surrounding areas against vampires and monsters until the people turned against them, blaming the Belmonts for their inability to fully eradicated the vampires. Trevor, therefore, hides his identity as a Belmont from the people so that he might continue his drunken, itinerant lifestyle in peace and devil-may-care what happens to the people who persecuted his family. He holds a particular grudge against the church for not only convincing the people that the Belmonts were at fault, but for excommunicating him and his family as well. In all regards, Trevor is an inversion of our man Gawain.
When Trevor returns to the city of Targovishte, he finds the city in ruins, with evidence of death and poverty littered throughout the city. Things have not changed much either as, now, an ethnic group of historians, scholars, and medical workers known as Speakers are being made a scapegoat by the church, despite their being the last and greatest form of humanitarian aid in the city. Though part of him wants to refrain from involving himself in the situation, Trevor inadvertently becomes the Speakers’ champion. And when the church catches wind of this, they call Trevor on to the carpet in a way that imitates Gawain’s testing at the Bertilak castle.
In the poem, Gawain is put in quite a trying situation where the wife of his gracious host, Lord Bertilak, tries to seduce him over the course of three days. He resists nobly, but on the third day Lady Bertilak offers him a parting gift, a sash which she claims has magical properties to make its wearer invulnerable to evil intent. Being that Gawain fully expects he will die tomorrow at the hands of the Green Knight, he gives in and accepts the Lady’s sash. Trevor’s own seductive opponent is the church that excommunicated him. Trevor avoids or resists the church at all junctions, but, when he is forced into a private audience with the Bishop, he is tempted with an offer. The Bishop wants to gain power from the confidence of the people by making the Speaker’s his scapegoat, so he tells Trevor that If he refuses to leave town and turn a blind eye to the murder of the Speaker’s, the church promises to kill him. However, if he leaves town before the sun sets, the church will pardon him and remove his sentence of excommunication as a member of the allegedly-transgressive Belmont family.
When Trevor leaves the Bishop’s presence it seems he will begrudgingly take the offer, but not as the Bishop required. Trevor returns to the Speakers and tells them they must leave the city with him before sundown unless they want to face a lynch mob. But instead of following his direction, the Speakers do what they do best and give quite a convicting speech:
- “This feels wrong. To be driven out for a lie that will doom these people, it is not a Speaker thing. […] I don’t think it is a Belmont thing either. […] Does one run away when someone tells lies about them? What has the church said about the Belmont’s? That you have been corrupted by your dealings with the supernatural? That you mock God. That you are a threat to the common good and that evil follows wherever you go. And what did you do in the face of that?
- “You will lose.”
- “We might well lose. But, if nothing else, we might show someone that while battles are won and lost, their is a larger war at stake.”
- “With Dracula’s armies?”
- “No. A war for the soul of our people. Because if we really are the sort of people that will kill one another at the behest of a mad man’s fantasies, then perhaps it is right and proper that things from Hell should rise up and wipe us out.”
The Speakers are clearly rebuking Trevor for his failure of character here, claiming that the physical threat of death is less important than a person’s responsibility to stand for the truth. They make a particular point of the fact that Trevor is, in this instance, a man claiming defeat and unfit for the courageous family line of Belmonts to which he is a member. The exact same kind of rebuke happens to Gawain as well.
When Gawain finally arrives at the Green Chapel to confront the Green Knight, he expects that he will die, not that he’s about to receive a stern rebuking. The Green Knight explains how he knows Gawain took the protective sash from Lady Bertilak in a moment of personal cowardice because Gawain thought he might cheat the system. The symbolism is very important here because Gawain fastened the sash around himself before and beneath his armor. Gawain, the Christian knight of knights, with armor crafted for the purpose of battle and emblazoned with religious symbols meant to represent and remind him of his faith in times of trial, chose to place an untested piece of sheer fabric nearest to his heart because he wanted to trust its promises of protection more. The Green Knight does not kill Gawain but knicks him with his axe and rebukes him, not for his desire to live but for the way his cowardice in the face of death was unfit for a knight who claims to fight with full confidence in his Maker.
Gawain is understandably disgusted by the very sight of the sash once his cowardice is revealed, but he keeps it at the Green Knight’s request so that he might have a token of humility to remind him of their meeting at the Green Chapel and constantly recommit himself to being the God-fearing knight his reputation says he is. The same happens for Trevor Belmont but in an inverted fashion. The family crest he hides is the evidence of his heritage and the convictions he abandoned for a drunken ambling lifestyle characterized by the tattered cloak he wears over the crest on his tunic. Trevor’s problem is that he is actively repressing his convictions and cravenly wearing his surrender on the outside, the inverse of Gawain who wore a facade of convictions on the outside to hide his fear and cowardice underneath.
The concluding moral of both stories revolves around the idea of what it means to imitate Christ. Of course, Castlevania probably never intended that to be the moral of their story, but it was certainly the moral of the medieval religious poem they were riffing off of. Gawain learns that to be a knight for Christ means to fear God more than anything or anyone else (Matt. 10:28 ; Ps. 118:6 ; Dan. 3:16-18). And when Gawain comes to this realization, the green judge who would rebuke him is revealed as being his advocate all along, pushing him to be the man he is supposed to be. The same can be said for Trevor whose reconciliation to his calling and convictions leads him to stand up against the church,
- “What do you hope to achieve against us?”
- “Absolutely nothing.”
- “So you’re going to die for nothing? For people you don’t know?”
- “I don’t know any of you, but that doesn’t matter does it? My family, the family you excommunicated, has fought and died for generations defending this country. […] And it’s not the dying that frightens us; it’s never having stood up and fought for you,”
and stand firm even when he is about to be killed by Dracula’s vampire son Adrian:
- “You will still die.”
- “But I don’t care. Killing you was the point. Living through it was just a luxury.”
Just like the Green Knight, Adrian is then revealed as having been testing Trevor’s resolve of his convictions above his life. The one who held him in judgement was his biggest advocate all along. In this sense, the church as a villain in Castlevania is kind of beside the point. The takeaway for Christian anime fans should be to ask, “what challenge in my life is God using to point me toward Himself?” and “am I letting my failures push me away from or toward God?”
Matthew Gunn is A lover of words, stories, and song. Takes Shounen way too seriously. Spends his life trying to show the fear of God even (and especially) in a handful of dust. He has, on occasion, quoted T.S. Eliot to appear brooding and deep.