The anime which has been most on my mind lately is The Ancient Magus’ Bride. Which I find to be a tad unfortunate, as it has already gotten a rather thorough work-out on this site. So I want to step back a little bit and consider fantasy and fairy tales more generally – for part of the show’s appeal is how it scratches an itch for these things within the medium.
What are fairy tales? In his famous essay, “On Fairy-Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien critiques the notion that fairy tales are primarily about supernatural beings, instead claiming that they are more about place, or a kind of state:
The definition of a fairy-story…does not, then, depend on any definition or historical account of elf or fairy, but upon the nature of Faerie: the Perilous Realm itself, and the air that blows through that country. I will not attempt to define that, nor to describe it directly. It cannot be done. Faerie cannot be caught in a net of words; for it is one of its qualities to be indescribable, though not imperceptible….Fairie itself may perhaps most nearly be translated by Magic – but it is magic of a peculiar mood and power, at the furthest pole from the vulgar devices of the laborious, scientific, magician.
Tolkien later clarifies a bit what he means on this last point:
The magic of Faerie is not an end in itself, its virtue is in its operations: among these are the satisfaction of certain primordial human desires. One of these desires is to survey the depths of space and time. Another is (as will be seen) to hold communion with other living things.
In some respects, The Ancient Magus’ Bride matches this in its evocation of a world that exists somewhat slantwise to our own, separate but also somehow also intimately linked. Chise’s own personal journey at times almost feels a bit like a tour of fairyland, with various wonderful locales and persons popping in and out of the narrative.
But it also shows an interest in the “vulgar devices” of the magician, giving no small amount of time to explaining how maguses and sorcerers (and the two here are quite distinct) go about their business. In this regard, it comes closer to modern, Dungeons and Dragons-inflected fantasy; which is, at least in its non-morbid expressions, less a fascination with the occult than it is a kind of naturalistic thought experiment: imagining a world where the laws of nature function differently than our own.
Of course, it’s much more difficult to make this sort of fantasy enchanting, because the magic, and the world containing it, become rather schematically defined. Fairy tales often have rules and a logic of their own, but they always have an uncanny quality to them, suggesting a deeper unfathomability – the mystery remains.
I think there is another dimension to the fairy tale which could be summed up as confrontation. We’re often so used to bowdlerized and Disneyfied versions of these stories that we’re a little scandalized to turn to the originals and find that they don’t play nice. They can often be grim and grotesque, trading in the horrific as much as they do the wonderful.
But what fairy tales give us here is a kind of starkness, where the beautiful and terrible aspects of life can be directly seen for what they are. For children it acts as preparation for encountering these things in the wild, as it were. And for adults it functions as a reminder, a shock to the nervous system that we need from time to time; it becomes a sort of psychological arena where our fears and desires can work themselves out.
What I’ve seen of the show so far suggests that it has something of this, choosing as its protagonist a character who has seemingly been chewed and spit out by the modern world. Chise is estranged and alone, and the normal, humdrum everyday world has become a sort of evil enchantment cast upon her. Which is a state that all of us have found ourselves in from time to time.