The Wandering Witch Pays Court to the Ancient Magus’ Bride

Posted on Oct 18 2017

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Welcome, all, again. Today’s discussion will focus upon The Ancient Magus’ Bride, one of those rare offerings which immediately scream “instant classic!” Indeed, from its first appearance in manga form in November, 2013, The Ancient Magus’ Bride has captivated audiences with its gorgeous and inviting artwork and rather gentle character development (contrasting an aggressive tendency in character exposition). The story is well-imagined and absorbing, and the anime it becomes is a quietly bracing slice-of-life masterpiece both bucolic and fantastical. We watch enthralled as our protagonist Chise tries to find her place in the world, even if that means withdrawing herself from it. Chise was abandoned by her family–her mother committed suicide while she watched–as they sought to escape the girl’s continual interactions with the supernatural. Indeed, she is unaware of being a so-called Sleigh Beggy (or Slay Vega), a rare human with direct access to hidden realms and beings. All she knows is that misfortune dogs her and those around her; resigning herself to fate, she offers herself up for auction in hope of finding some sort of resultant stability. And she gets it, being purchased by English mage Elias Ainsworth to become his apprentice and future bride. Ainsworth knows the nature of the Sleigh Beggy, including their unnaturally short lifespans, and sets out to help Chise overcome her situation.

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And this is one of the most ambitious accomplishments of this story, its relocation to England. As a Westerner, when I watch anime that attempts to incorporate or portray Western society, culture, or cultural belief systems, I allow great leeway for artistic license and simple missteps. After all, the people preparing the anime are probably not intimately familiar with what they are attempting to portray (a trait common throughout the cinematic arts). Nor do I expect them to have a well-developed appreciation for the subtle nuances of what are to them obviously foreign situations and attitudes. A simple example of this is the naming of Western characters in anime. While first names are generally handled pretty well, there seems to be some oddly prevalent belief within anime production circles that Western surnames are created by opening a dictionary and just jamming random words together. It’s almost as cringe-worthy as the names of Native American characters in early TV shows and movies. But I usually just shrug it off and keep watching; after all, I’m here for the anime.

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At least, I shrug off the outlandish and uninformed. But this series gets so much right that it becomes a real shame when it stumbles. Moreover, being both a law enforcement officer and a practicing Wiccan and witch, I happen to have more than just a passing familiarity with several elements comprising this story. To begin with, I fear that some viewers might have difficulty accepting the idea of modern slavery, of people bought and sold. Sadly, I must assure my readers that human trafficking remains a very real and very profitable business, particularly the two areas of labor trafficking and [its subcategory] sex trafficking. In fact, one figure that repeatedly finds its way into recent statistics of various agencies and organizations–including some US government publications–is that there are roughly 21 million people worldwide currently enslaved through labor and sex trafficking. Furthermore, the preponderance of sex trafficking victims are young women and children, although with an increasing number of LGBT-identifying persons (particularly transgender). Given that Chise is a Sleigh Beggy sold to a mage, it is possible that her sale was more on the labor trafficking side of things. But she is also a young woman without family, so she might easily have been purchased for more carnal purposes (as an intended bride, perhaps?)

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Now, with that bit of ugliness addressed and behind us, let’s proceed to what I really want to talk about: this show’s interest in the Western arcana. Somebody did their homework; probably author Kore Yamazaki, who revealed her love of fairies during an interview at Crunchyroll Expo this August. But this franchise covers much more! Probably what intrigued me most with this show was its stilted but earnest attempts to distinguish amongst several arcane traditions. The results were better than expected, if not as good as desired. To wit, they got it right that there are different types of Fae folk–look at the difference between Silky and the Aerials. Likewise they got it right that animals and spirits have their own unique roles as they interact with Fae and humans. Where they get a bit dodgy is trying to differentiate between classes of practitioners of the arcane arts. For example, the explanation about sorcery as opposed to magic began well-enough but wandered off-track, as many modern practitioners use the term magic to describe the energy [as change] with which and through which they work. I would have used the term witchcraft rather than magic in that discussion, but then, I’m a witch. Followers of other arcane traditions might prefer other terminology. But the point remains that sorcery is an artificial construct designed to develop and bind energy, then strengthen it for magical work, whereas witchcraft uses magical energies provided by environment. Nor did I say of witchcraft: energies provided by nature. While witchcraft is traditionally linked to nature and natural processes, it is animistic and actually draws from the native powers of the environment in which it occurs, being in that sense natural even if the specific environment is not. (Yes, Virginia, urban witches do exist.) If sorcery is a well, then witchcraft is a spring–both provide water, but one is a very deliberate construct. That being said, Magi tend to act as ritual magicians, identifying them primarily as sorcerers. It is probably Ainsworth’s Fae heritage that propels him beyond such simple classification.

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And the preceding paragraph only teases at the rich variety to explore. For example, when Angelica spoke of working with–and more particularly, through–the Fae, she very likely spoke of a specific tradition called Faerie Wicca. More importantly to this discussion, many modern magical and/or neopagan paths and traditions have originated in Britain, such as: Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wicca; Thelema; Druidry; and [the teachings of] the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. But it is the attentive presence and allegedly reluctant involvement of the Church that has captured my immediate attention! Interaction between Church and older faiths runs deep throughout the British Isles, with the Church having appropriated many sacred sites and personages. Ainsworth’s decision to train an apprentice, representing as it does the continuation of ancient beliefs and traditions outside of the Church’s control, will be most unwelcome to those of the Cross.

So, what do we have? Chise is a girl who has been abandoned by her family because of her constant and overwhelming connection with the supernatural world. Resigning herself to fate, she allows herself to be auctioned, only to be acquired by Elias Ainsworth as his apprentice and fiance. But Ainsworth, being of mixed human and Fae heritage, is shunned by both groups. So what will these unlikely companions learn from each other? Sounds about right. This is an entrancing story served as a visual feast–watch, and fall under its spell. And lastly, blessed be.

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