Although The Legend of the Galactic Heroes is an anime I greatly enjoy, its immense scope (110 episodes, detailing the rise and fall of immense superpowers through the lens of two men who emerge as their figureheads) makes it a challenging prospect to write about. It is not just epic in terms of its plot – epic in the sense of scale, with planets and star systems changing hands and yet also in the sense of character, talking about the rise of charismatic leaders of men with ambitions to bring down political entities centuries old – but in terms of ambition as a piece of fiction. It presents two entire ideologies embodied by its warring factions, in a sense – monarchy (and a quasi-respectable monarchy under an “enlightened” ruler at that) versus democracy (a corrupt, self-serving democracy that is no more enlightened than the monarchy it fights againt) with capital – the private sector and corporate interests represented by Phezzan – and religion, via both the spirituality of the Empire and the mysterious, destabilising Earth Cult – as third-parties who play both sides. This scale makes discussion of the series as a whole less fruitful than character studies or discussion of individual plot arcs – but these are still articles I have trouble beginning to write. More accessible is the creator of The Legend‘s, Yoshiki Tanaka’s, more recently adapted work, The Heroic Legend of Arslan. Currently two episodes into its 2015 adaptation, Arslan presents the same thematic intent as Galactic Heroes but within a different context.
Arslan is what is popularly considered “low” fantasy in a quasi-Middle Eastern setting, beginning with the fall of a king via his defeat in battle and the effect this has on his son, the titular Arslan. The scenes surrounding this defeat – of a wise general disgraced by an arrogant king – are stock fantasy, and similarly stock-in-trade for Galactic Heroes. What this battle does is both establish the enemy as a worthy one, and cement an idea established in the first episode that Arslan’s kingdom is rotten and weak. The king will not tolerate criticism of his strategies even when a trap is self-evident – and his advisors, even the avuncular mentor of Arslan who at first sight seems to be a reasonable and kindly man – will happily placate him even when it results in massive human cost. The kingdom of Pars may be the focal nation, the home of the protagonist, but it is not a good nation – much like how in Galactic Heroes the democratic Alliance of Free Planets are set up from the start as having a good and noble officer in Yang Wenli surrounded by glory-hungry careerists and politicians. This is grey-area fantasy arguably similar to the popular Game of Thrones novels, where heroism is in short supply and no nation is wholly free of bloody hands or bad decisions. Yet comparing Tanaka and George RR Martin’s fantasy worlds – and their definitions of what grey morality is in a fantasy setting – sets Arslan up interestingly. Pars and its enemy Lusitania are not perfect states, and the rottenness in Pars seems ideological and ingrained – but they do not manifest this through gratituous brutality and excess. Pars is fairly typical of an historical empire; it is an absolute monarchy, its nobility holds slaves and it wages war against its religious enemies. Lusitania is depicted as a fiercely theocratic state which holds “all men” as equal (thus rejecting slavery) yet will happily wage holy war on unbelievers.
Episode 1 of Arslan has the prince visit a child taken prisoner in the war with Lusitania; the prisoner escapes and holds the prince hostage, and during their time together the prince learns a little about his world. Arslan is not specifically depicted as a Candide figure, although he is blind to the injusticians of Pars society. Instead, he is the product of teaching which ingrains prejudice – slavery is intrinsic to the upkeep of society and so he cannot see it as any hypocrisy to say that a slave-holding society is a fair one. It is an adept depiction of privilege and naivete; unsympathetic, in many ways. Because Arslan, and the prisoner he is with, are both children their lack of perspective and ingrained prejudices become reflections of the societies being depicted; both parties repeat dogma they have been told and believe as truth. In the same way as Arslan has apparently no trouble rationalising the oppression of slaves with a “fair” society the Lusitanian prisoner cannot understand why a religion that holds all men as equal would not wage war against unbeliever for the sin of disbelief. Echoes are raised of the rationalisations central to Galactic Heroes‘ nations; the Alliance believes itself to be democratic and can rationalise illiberal measures as necessary for the greater good, while the Empire believes its current ruler to be an enlightened good king (because he is better than the old one) while to an outside perspective he is not a particularly shining example of fair leadership. In Galactic Heroes, the focal characters from each empire are not, as in Arslan, people who begin by unquestioningly swallowing this dogma; Yang is well aware of the corruption in the Alliance and does his best, in his matter-of-fact way, to do his part to fix it. Reinhard, his counterpart in the Empire, states from the beginning his intent to bring down the unfair monarchy (albeit by initially becoming monarch, providing the Empire with a good king by his own estimation). But they are both adults, established military officers of some renown with interstellar political aims. Arslan and his Lusitanian companion are powerless children; Arslan may be privileged but he has no power and is not even respected by his parents. This really makes the child leads of Arslan perfect for establishing the problems with society. They happily accept things an audience sees as innately unjust, and this gives them room to mature. The defeat of Pars in episode 2 thus is the seed for this maturation – Arslan must become king, in time, and the hope is his experience of the “enemy” will help him become a good king.
The very existence of hope that a “good king” will emerge from a rotten state sets Arslan very much apart from Game of Thrones. It posits that although there is grey morality now there is the chance that the status quo will improve and peace is possible if a more enlightened leader emerges. It is fair to say that fantasy fiction holds closely to the idea that a “good” monarchy can exist if a “fair” king rules. Enlightenment within a feudal system relies on the absolute power being held by someone who knows what to do with it – usually someone who learns why this attitude is necessary. Game of Thrones‘ attitude – more nihilistic and yet from a republican perspective more credible – is that a “good king” is probably a weak king and one who will be overthrown or defeated. That the whole model of absolute hierarchical power is untenable. Yet does this optimistic fantasy that one can extrapolate from the first episode of Arslan devalue it as a piece of fiction? I do not think so. The maturation of a prince as he takes power – and his learning of the value of other perspectives to his own ingrained national identity – is a fundamentally reasonable story, and I have faith that Tanaka’s adeptness with political fiction will make something interesting of it.