By Minjie Su
When we talk about post-medieval reception and recreation of the Middle Ages, or medievalism in contemporary media, what first comes to mind is probably medieval themed films, TV shows, and fantasy epics such as The Lord of the Rings and Game of the Thrones. Yet in the realm of Japanese animation, medievalism also blossoms and flourishes. Here are five animation series that are inspired by Medieval Europe and, out of its myth, legend, and literature, have created something new.
Saint Seiya: Knights of the Zodiac
Created by Masami Kurumada in 1985, the setting of Saint Seiya is mainly inspired by Greek mythology – Kurumada himself once said during an interview, that the idea was conceived after a trip to Athens and, of course, to the famed Acropolis. The story develops around the goddess Athena – reincarnated every 243 years – and her army of 88 knights, each representing a constellation. Based on their rank and power (and the material of their armour), these knights are divided into bronze, silver, and gold, an idea that perhaps finds its root in Hesiod’s Works and Days. Needless to say, the highest order are the 12 zodiacs, the most powerful guardians of Athena’s temple.
Although Athena’s archenemy is Hades, the god of the Underworld, she and her knights have to battle a few other enemies to build up the climax of the story. A mixture of mythological tales and traditions are found here: the chapter of Poseidon shows quite a few familiar names and background stories drawn from the Odyssey, while the chapter of Asgard centres, obviously, around a handful of characters from the Edda and the legendary sagas, who are portrayed as Odin’s einherjar and sworn protectors of Hilda, a Brynhildr figure. The structure of Tartarus, Hades’ territory, is directly derived from Dante’s Inferno, but the bleak image Kurumada creates also reminds one of the Old Norse Hel and the Christian Hell.
Recently this series has been rebooted as Knights of the Zodiac: Saint Seiya, which currently airs on Netflix.
Record of Lodoss War
Record of Lodoss War first appeared in 1988 as a high fantasy novel franchise written by Ryo Mizuno, who first conceived of the idea of a role play game. Forcelia, the world that Lodoss belongs to, is born from the body of a primeval giant, but unlike the Old Norse Ymir, whose body parts form the world, it is the lonely giant’s emotions that gives birth to Forcelia: his sorrow turns into water, his rage into fire, his breath into air, and his life force into the mana, magical beings representing the eight elements. The island of Lodoss, divided into seven kingdoms, is full of supernatural creatures and, therefore, believed to be cursed – just like a good marginal place on a medieval T-in-O map.
The central story in the animated series is very much a Lord of the Rings type of tale, developing around a fellowship composed of the (human) swordsman Parn, the High Elf maid Deedlit, the priest Etoh, the magician Slayn, Ghim the dwarf (whom, unsurprisingly, Deedlit hates), and the thief Woodchuch. In addition to their adventures and quests through the accursed land, the love between Parn and Deedlit is also the highlight of the series.
The Heroic Legend of Arslan
The Heroic Legend of Arslan first appeared as a 15-volume fantasy novel franchise written by Yoshiki Tanaka from 1986 to 1996. A 6-episode OVA (original video animation) was made in the early 1990s, but the story was open-ended. Another animation adoption started in 2015 and is still ongoing today.
Set in pre-Islamic Persia, the story develops around the adventure of Arslan, heir to the throne of the kingdom of Pars.
Pars, though a powerful and extremely wealthy empire, faces enemies on both sides. From within, the royal succession is shrouded in mystery, as Andragoras III, Arslan’s father, is believed to have murdered his elder brother Osiris and usurped the throne; now Osiris’s son, known as the Silvermask, has allied with Pars’ enemy to avenge his father’s death and claim the throne for himself. From without, Lusitania has waged war against Pars and invaded its capital city. Although the story is largely drawn on Persian legends and the Byzantine-Sassanian wars, the reference to the Crusades is strong, not least in the portrayal of Lusitanian armours and their apparent French names. Other social issues such as slavery and religious conflicts are also addressed in the story.
Berserk is a dark fantasy manga series written and illustrated by Kentaro Miura. Launched in 1989, the story is still going today. At first sight, the world of Berserk seems a mash-up of the High Middle Ages and the Renaissance: the blossoming flower of chivalry, the dazzling palazzos, the witch-hunting Inquisition, two powerful kingdoms locked in a hundred-year war. Yet at its core, Berserk largely draws from Norse mythology with modifications made based on Miura’s own imagination.
The influence of legends from other eras and cultures can be seen especially in Miura’s depiction of Elfhelm, an Avalon kind of faerie land. The title, Berserk, comes from the Norse word berserkr (pl. berserkir), referring to warriors who fight in bear or wolf skins in a frenzy. In the manga, the word clearly refers to Guts, the protagonist, who acquires a suit of magical armour from Flora, a witch and guardian of The Spirit Tree. The armour allows Guts to fight on without feeling pain and fatigue – a handy tool when Guts battles with his demonic enemies, but quite the opposite when Guts has to battle his own demons.
Faithful to the berserkr tradition, the armour lures the wearer into madness and wakens his deepest, darkest, thoughts. Whenever Guts wears it, he is in the danger of losing his consciousness and self-identity; each battle is a struggle on both physical and mental levels.
Originally an adult video game, the Fate series became so exceedingly successful that it was turned into several light novels, and eventually, an animated series. The role playing game, allowing gamers to follow a number of characters, naturally lead to several different storylines that could be freely adopted and elaborated upon. The most striking – and certainly the most controversial – character, however, is King Arthur, reintroduced in Fate/Zero as Artoria Pendragon, a young maid whose image is frequently sexualised in fanart. Artoria’s quest, as befitting for any Arthurian hero, is to seek the mysterious Grail, which is said to be able to grant any wish. To fight in the Grail War, seven heroes are summoned from the mythical past: Artoria, Alexander the Great, Gilgamesh, Lancelot, Diarmuid Ua Duibhne, Hassan-i-Sabbah or the ‘Old Man of the Mountains’, and Gilles de Reis, the original Bluebeard.
The presence of Lancelot raises interesting questions concerning the anime’s changing of Arthur’s gender, since Guinevere is indeed mentioned as Arthur-Artoria’s queen. The triangle relationship is only glossed over; instead, the reader/audience is redirected to Lancelot’s interest in Artoria.
Another interesting aspect about Lancelot is that, in Fate/Zero, he plays the role of berserkr, an ‘add-on item’ forced upon him by his summoner (i.e. master). The externalisation of the berserkr nature certainly goes against the tradition meaning of the word and the creature it represents, but its occurrence in both Berserk and Fate/Zero should not be dismissed as merely coincidental.
Both Guts and Lancelot wear full body armour that hide their face (thus their identity), which is the very opposite to the bareness of the Old Norse battle maniacs. Just why and how this change comes about is certainly worth some further thought.
You can follow Minjie Su on Twitter @minjie_su
This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.