Will to (Magical) Power

I learned yesterday that there’s a new Slayers series airing right now.  I hadn’t heard anything about it, as I get most of my news from fellow bloggers, and I seem to be the only person who cares about the weapons-grade awesome of Lina Inverse, et al.  At any rate, I watched the first two episodes today, and decided to make a post that’s actually been in the back of my mind for a while now.  I’ll pose a question to you:  where does power come from?

In the Slayers world it comes from a lot of places.  Zelgadis is one-third demon, and seems to draw a lot of power from that part of himself (a semi-popular fandom trope is that he’ll be left behind if he’s ever cured of his chimerical status, as he wouldn’t then be on the same epic-tier as the other party members, to borrow some DnD terminology — appropriate, as Slayers supposedly began as an idea planted by a DnD campaign).  Gourry has a magic sword doodad.  Lina, Amelia, and all the other spellcasters draw their powers from prayers, basically.  They are spells, but they call upon the power of certain gods, demons, and so on.

There’s a significance here that I think a lot of people overlook.  Lina is a good character at her core.  In DnD terms, again, she would be considered Chaotic Good (wanting, sometimes desperately, to be Chaotic Neutral).  She helps people, generally, even though she also demands payment or, famously, preys on bandits to get lots of cash while still doing good deeds.  Amelia is definitely good — paladin material, if she weren’t a cleric already.  Lawful Good, in fact.  She’s a healer, a do-gooder, and a bit of a power ranger (she’s fond of high ground).  And yet, her reason, originally, for following Lina around was to learn the Dragon Slave, the rare spell that Lina mastered at some point before the story begins.  It’s devastating, the magical equivalent of a small nuclear bomb.  It’s also evil — the spell draws its power quite specifically from Ruby-Eye Shabranigdo, the demon that almost destroyed the earth in the Slayers setting’s ancient past.  Lina fights Shabranigdo at one point, and she can’t use the Dragon Slave, as it’s trying to hit him with himself.  This is (roughly) the equivalent of drawing power from Satan — though, as usual with media from Japan, there’s not just a binary set of gods out there, but the comparison is valid.  Shabranigdo is evil, the show never makes any bones about that.  Lina uses his power to fuel her most famous (though not most powerful) spell.  Where does that leave us, exactly?  Most media of the same ilk tells us that evil power is evil, and good power is good.  Star Wars makes a good comparison — it doesn’t matter what one’s goal is, if one uses the Dark Side, one is evil.  Light Side?  Good.

Lina is…  uh, well.  Lina.

Amelia isn’t the only person to take lessons in the Dragon Slave from Lina.  Sylphiel (your spelling may vary, I think this is what the American novel translations use) learns it too, and as we see in Slayers R, mastered it finally (along with Flare Arrow, a spell she couldn’t use for diddly beforehand).  Sylphiel is a shrine maiden, a magical miko, and knows no spells other than healing spells when she enters the story.  She’s fine with the Dragon Slave as well.

Slayers leaves us with one impression:  the source of power is completely unimportant.  This isn’t all that new, other shows, comics, and novels have posited the same thing, but it’s not the most popular view in fiction such as this.  The trope is that corruption leads only to corruption.  Gandalf must refuse the One Ring, even to the point of death or failure.  One point of view isn’t better than the other, mind; Slayers is just taking an interesting route, given that it’s also a show that features a main character who’s willing to destroy the only hint for a quest because the hint reminds her of someone she doesn’t like.

If you haven’t already grokked the title, I’m building to a Nietzsche reference here.  I really like Nietzsche, even though I still haven’t read a whole lot of his stuff.  In many of his works, including Will to Power, he posits that power is a construct essentially in the mold of Lina Inverse:  it’s just power, who cares where it came from?  What are you going to do with it?  Nietzsche goes so far, I believe, as to say if one has the power, whatever one does is okay.  That might be an overgeneralization, but it wouldn’t be the first time Nietzsche has suffered such (certain language, his association with Wagner, and his sister’s political inclinations after his death have been enough to brand Nietzsche both an anti-Semite and a Nazi sympathizer).  We can see, at least, why Hitler might like Nietzsche, but I suspect Nietzsche would think Hitler a buffoon, using power to do stupid, quotidian things rather than altering the paradigms (to borrow phrasing from other philosophers).

Does this have any significance to reading Slayers itself?  I feel that it does.  I have always wondered, when I wasn’t laughing at it, why Lina’s name is so widely feared and wrongly interpreted.  She’s saved the world several times now, and yet it’s perfectly okay, socially, for the inspector, at the beginning of Revolution, to arrest her simply for being Lina Inverse.  One gets the sense, from her companions’ reactions, that it would be enough for a conviction.  I suspect that the world of Slayers has two layers to its power aquisition — one is the purely utilitarian, which we have been dealing with so far.  The other is the social picture painted of it, and I believe stories probably lean, in the world of Slayers, toward the Star Wars side of things, that power comes from good and bad places, and thus shares nature with its origins, rather than its use and purpose.  To this day, after nearly destroying the world, Rezo the Red Priest is regarded with awe and respect, though we know all his terrible history.  His public magic came from healing sources, and thus he was good.  Lina’s public magic comes from destructive sources, and thus she is evil.  That’s the press for you.

It’s remarkably medieval, actually, which makes sense given the setting.  Medieval Europeans believed the exterior of a person reflected the interior, so a beautiful woman was saintly, an ugly man was devilish, and a beautiful person randomly scarred (probably by pox) did something immoral and their inner nature has changed.  As I’ve told my students, all that description of how someone looks in a medieval romance, that you might think would be better as some kind of characterization, is both.  External appearance was characterization for readers back then.  So Lina looks evil, because of her spells (along with her temper and so on) so she is evil, despite what we know about her.  Her friends do the same thing as the villagers they run into, despite knowing everything we do about what she’s been doing the past few years.

In Slayers, it’s pretty clear that where power comes from doesn’t matter.  You can summon the devil himself, so long as he doesn’t go berserk and you use the power he lends you to save a town.  However, the town is likely to misinterpret things just a bit.

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15 Comments

  1. Turambar

     /  21 February 2009

    Not having watched Slayers, one question that I have to ask is why Shabranigdo simply allows his power to be used for whatever whims of the caster? The reason the One Ring, as well as the 9 rings of men (and the 7 rings of the Dwarves to a certain extent I guess since they supposedly fed the Dwarven thirst for riches) are seen as dangerous not simply because they contained Sauron’s powers, but because Sauron is capable of actively influencing the user through the rings. On the other hand, Shabranigdo seems to pay no attention to those that use his power, even if one has challenged him to battle in the past.

    I remember you guys previously discussed in a voice mod (I think it was the Maria Holic one?) how anime producers will make fact any particular message they try to say through the show. Perhaps this is another case of it?

    Reply
    • Cuchlann

       /  21 February 2009

      The impression I have from what I’ve seen/read (all the shows save Next [and some of that], the OVAs, and seven of the novels) is that the god/demon/whatever is basically a kind of power source, like an electrical outlet. They’re so big and powerful that their magic just infiltrates the world, like a conveniently-invisible and harmless form of radiation. So anyone can tap into it. I figure that’s basically true because Shabranigdo makes no attempt to stop Lina from using the Dragon Slave, it simply has no effect on him. Now, at one point Lina uses a Giga Slave, which draws on the Lord of Nightmares, and L-Sama ends up possessing Lina’s body, claiming the equivalent that the power is L-Sama’s identity, so when Lina pulled the power in, she pulled L-Sama in as well — this is the end of Next).

      You’re right that Sauron exerts an influence on the One Ring to try to get it back, but Gandalf’s fear, specifically, isn’t taking it to Sauron, it’s that he’ll become a new dark lord — which Galadriel states pretty plainly in “The Mirror of Galadriel” and in the analogous scene of the movie. There’s a corrupting influence in the power aside from Sauron’s active intervention, because it was forged of evil magic and Sauron’s original will to rule over all — which seems, in turn, to make everyone who comes in contact with it, or even lore about it (in Saruman’s case) want to rule as well. Which is why little Samwise Gamgee would have fantasies of ruling the world when he takes the ring from Frodo.

      And yeah, I, at least, am a proponent of the idea that a lot of anime/manga/whatever seems to take some driving idea and just quietly let it make the world, rather than making the idea a plot point to worry over. I usually cite Ouran as my example; Bisco Hatori’s ideas of gender, or at least those she wanted to use for Ouran, aren’t talking points for the characters, they’re simply the truths of the world in which they live.

      Reply
  2. Interesting post, though like Turambar I’m unfamiliar with Slayers.

    Looking back, it occurs to me that the campaigns of DnD (and other similar games) that I played at school tended to foster a kind of contempt for the characters’ community. This community usually interacted with the players’ characters by either buying loot or asking them to kill things. The characters and the villains were the powerful agents, and the characters’ behaviour often seemed to be based on something like ‘if one has the power, whatever one does is okay’.

    Whether this was a natural product of a bunch of antisocial fifteen-year-olds getting together to do escapist things in an out-of-the-way room, or the result of something inherent in the DnD idea of ‘adventuring’, I don’t know. Has anyone done any research into roleplaying and morality (morality both within the game and around the table)?

    Also, a minor question: did all medieval Europeans really extrapolate from appearance to character? Do we have evidence for that beyond its use as a device in romance?

    Reply
    • Cuchlann

       /  21 February 2009

      First, good call on the last point. So far as I know — which isn’t the same as saying something is true or false — it’s simply a device in writing. I do think I recall reading a few things of people thinking that way, at least in certain circumstances — it’s one of the explanations for people being taken for werewolves or witches, that they simply looked the part. In terms of the post I think the idea is still valid, as it’s characterization in a romance here as well.

      Also, I’m not sure how much proper research has been done. I know someone, in the past month or so, was writing about how there’s a quest in WoW now that requires the PC to torture someone, and it’s not a quest that’s specific to the “bad” side of things (Horde, I think?). Everyone can do it, and there’s no “my character thinks this is immoral” option. However, I would argue — based pretty much on my personal experiences and a few things I’ve read — that what you’ve noticed is prevalent, but a result of sloppy “writing” from the DM and players rather than anything inherent in the game. Though I can see it being easier to be immoral/socially-stunted when everything’s broken down into numbers, but not all of us play for the numbers. :D

      Reply
      • Yeah, I’ve no problem with the idea of romance characterisation as it’s used in the post. It seems to me to fit Slayers, as you describe it, well, and it reflects what (little) I’ve read in the romance genre.

        I’m never sure how far to trust literature as evidence for the reading population’s actual beliefs. There are probably studies by historians, but my teachers have suggested that historians tend to be too trusting when reading literature as that kind of evidence. Then again, that could just be the traditional belief among literary academics that they’re the only people who read closely enough to detect a text’s real meaning(s). (And who’s to blame them? Can’t let all the funding go to the History Department.)

      • Turambar

         /  22 February 2009

        I say my school should give more funding to the history department. :D *History major’s bias*

      • Cuchlann

         /  22 February 2009

        All I could say, definitely, is that it’s sometimes still useful to consider that, but I’m not sure how useful literature is as a documentation of life, right. Beowulf, until Tolkien wrote “The Monsters and the Critics,” was used *only* as a source for how people lived, and not as literature at all.

        Historical criticism, of course, is biggest when you deal with Shakespeare, right now. Luckily the times were well documented enough in stuff other than fiction so people do know what they’re talking about when they do it. I’ve read Shakespeare articles that only mention the play in question at the end; the rest is a survey of historical data.

      • That sounds familiar. Some of Greenblatt’s stuff seems to me to boil down to fascinating digression with some cursory acknowledgement that literature is involved, somewhere, somehow. I’m probably not reading it in the right way, or something.

      • Cuchlann

         /  22 February 2009

        Actually, Greenblatt was who I was thinking of particularly. Not all his articles do it, but I’ve read two, I think, that hardly mention Shakespeare at all.

      • Ah, great minds, alike &c. I have a feeling the Greenblatt approach may be pretty big in the upper regions of our English department, because there are several big-noise historians who’ve crossed into literary studies knocking around in this weird interdisciplinary space up there. Not much of the rarefied air from their research penetrates down to the undergraduate level, though, so I’m just guessing.

      • Cuchlann

         /  24 February 2009

        Well, my first Shakespeare professor said New Historicism is so widespread among Elizabethan/Jacobean scholars that they no longer have to bother telling readers that’s what they’re doing — it’s all the other schools of thought that have to explain themselves. It’s one reason I didn’t more seriously consider doing Shakespeare professionally: I like NH well enough to read (alongside other things), but I wouldn’t want to do it myself.

  3. I liked reading that Cuchlann :)

    Really nice portrait of morality as presented in Slayers. Regarding the friction between Lina’s mode of thought and the medieval population’s, could we conclude that it is also an illustration of how the overman does not and cannot arise in a judeo-christian mode of morality?

    Consider the warrant, “You are under arrest BECAUSE you are Lina Inverse.”. It is basically a charge of acting beyond the Judeo-Christian imperatives, even if the charge is clearly against their utilitarian interest. If we cannot overcome those imperatives, if we cannot undertake the revaluation all values, we can never overcome man in the wide sense. An individual in these circumstances cannot do away with man so easily.

    (To take aboard that last point, maybe you will have to make abstraction of SOME of Lina’s traits :D )

    It’s an open question, I’m not all that familiar with Slayers. Only watched about half a dozen episodes.

    Reply
  4. Will to power can be read not only as the use of power over others, but also in terms of survival, imo.

    For example, I have a self-identity of being ‘intellectual’ and ‘cultured’ (and a fan of Nietzche, even without reading relatively few of his works) – I cannot not read and respond to this post. To not read nor respond is a legitimate threat to my self-identity, which is a source of my ‘power in the world’ (making people interested in what I have to say, etc.). So despite my lack of recent reading of Nitetzche and my minimal exposure to Slayers I feel compelled to take this post on (regardless of its merits, of which there are).

    The product is, a means to write a comment despite a lack of depth in my involvement in the direct subject matter.

    Reply
    • Cuchlann

       /  23 February 2009

      Well, you’ve illustrated in the past (and continue to do so) that your power in the world is stronger than mine. Also, your kung-fu.

      Reply

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