Today’s guest post comes from The Varangian, a writer and podcaster who comes to us through his friend (and yours and ours), Medieval Otaku. I hope you enjoy his excellent reflections on the most recent episode of The Rising of the Shield Hero which, if you haven’t seen it yet, in turn demonstrates just how special this series may be.
The Rising of the Shield Hero has been a trial by fire both for our heroes and for the audience, as best shield boy Naofumi has endured betrayal, false accusation, slander, ostracism, and a good deal of bad manners. The only bright spot in this very dark place has been his relationship with Raphtalia, who might be the salvation of him yet—as long as she’s given the chance. In the fourth episode, “Lullaby at Dawn” they (and we) are subjected to an agonizingly severe test of their bonds, a test which Naofumi “fails” superficially, but which in the end leaves them stronger and more deeply united.
The ordeal results from the misguided white-knighting of Spear Hero Motoyasu, the most insufferably self-righteous of the trio of naïfs who came to this world along with Naofumi. Discovering that Raphtalia is Naofumi’s slave, he takes it on himself to challenge the Shield Hero to a duel in order to win her freedom—over the girl’s own vehement objections! This is completely typical of Motoyasu’s shallow chivalry, his fatuous conviction that he is the hero and Naofumi the villain, and that every woman is just waiting to be rescued and whisked off her feet by his dashing gallantry. That anyone would prefer the Shield Hero’s company to his own is an idea utterly incomprehensible to his vanity, so much so that he easily believes that Raphtalia only defends Naofumi because she is under a curse. Naturally he makes no attempt whatsoever to actually talk to the girl and attempt to understand her; she is merely a prize to be won, an occasion to vaunt his righteous might. Physically restrained and silenced, Raphtalia is reduced to a token, given less freedom and shown less respect by the people who claim to be rescuing her than she was by the man who is her supposedly her captor. Those who are blinded by self-righteousness often do more harm than good to others whom they conceive as merely the objects of their heroic charity.
Motoyasu goes into the duel cheered by the crowd, blessed by the crown, and supremely confident in victory. And for the first couple passes his confidence appears justified, and he draws first blood. But Naofumi has cards up his sleeve that come as a shock to a man who has never faced real adversity. Bringing out his pet balloon monsters, and employing every trick in his endlessly inventive arsenal, Naofumi actually manages to bring the Spear Hero to his knees, in spite of his own lack of straightforward offense. Not that this wins the Shield Hero the respect of the crowd, who immediately jump from confidence in Motoyasu’s victory to indignation at his ignominious thrashing. But Naofumi is hardened against public opprobrium, and is poised to hand down a humiliating defeat, when Myne (revealed to actually be the Princess Malty) interferes in the duel, cheating by blasting the Shield Hero with a spell from the sidelines, which gives the Spear Hero the opening he needs to deliver the winning blow. And of course Motoyasu takes his false victory without blinking an eye—because of course he would win, and of course Naofumi is lying when he claims foul play. As the king says, there is no need to listen to the words of scum. The brief glimpse the Spear Hero has had of not being the invincible center of everybody’s attention has been mercifully wiped away, and all is right with the world again.
Recognizing the relationship between Myne and the king, Naofumi’s spirits are even more deeply crushed (and how much more crushed can you get??) as he realizes just how rigged the whole game has been from the start, with himself inescapably cast in the role of the villain. All he can do is fall to his knees and curse the crowd, the king, and this whole rotten world that has used him so cruelly. He sees, dimly, as if in a vision, Raphtalia, once again in child form, being cleansed of the curse of slavery that bound her to him. She turns away, leaving him totally alone. The one bond he has managed to forge in this world, however strange and imperfect, has been severed. His private hell, his rejection by everything and everyone, is complete.
And a new shield is born. The Curse Series unlocks.
While Naofumi suffers in the prison of his mind, the audience is snapped back to reality. Raphtalia, in her adult form, gives Motoyasu a hearty slap, angrily accuses him of cheating, and gives him a thorough dressing-down. Naofumi rescued her, a starving orphaned slave, from a cage. He gave her clothes, food, medicine, care—and the strength and resolve to fight demons, both in the world and in her own heart. What good has the Spear Hero ever done for anyone wretched, anyone downtrodden, anyone but flattering kings and adoring princesses? If he is so righteous, then where is the uplifted slave by his side? True courage, and charity, and heroism, is not found at royal banquets, and is not lauded by adoring crowds. It happens in slums and back alleys and slave markets, when one soul who has a spark of decency in him reaches out his hand to another.
And the illusion built up by Myne and the king, and played so expertly on the incredibly stupid Spear Hero, begins ever so slightly to totter. The other two heroes were not fooled—they plainly saw Myne’s interference in the duel. They plainly see Naofumi and Raphtalia’s genuine love for each other. Even Motoyasu’s seemingly invincible self-conceit takes a hard knock. The charade is not over, but the cracks have begun to show.
Raphtalia goes to Naofumi’s side. She reaches out to him, as he once reached out to her. She takes him in her arms. She tells him that she knows he is innocent, that he is a good man. And he looks up, and sees her for who she truly is, no longer a frightened child, but a grown woman, one with the strength to rescue him from his darkness.
I think the most fascinating takeaway from this episode is that Naofumi and Motoyasu actually have something in common. They are both victims of a blinding self-absorption, one crafted for them by the puppet-masters who have cast them in their respective roles. Their shared blindness is shown by the fact that neither of them see Raphtalia with clear eyes. Naofumi still thinks of her as a child. Motoyasu sees only an abused slave. They are both too wrapped up in themselves to perceive her as she really is—a strong, courageous, and capable young woman, more mature and in control than either of them. And it is she who takes matters into her hands, slaps the Spear Hero half-sensible, and hauls the Shield Hero out of the pit of despair. Far from either of them saving her, she might be the one to save them—and with them, the whole world.
The Varangian is an Eastern Orthodox Christian, semi-librarian, and father of two. He’s been in love with anime ever since catching a glimpse of The Vision of Escaflowne when he was a kid in the 90’s. Sometimes he writes.