Fate/stay night – A Narrative Retrospective [PART 1 – Fate]

Oneself as an ideal.

The Fate route in Fate/stay night is the first route available when you begin the game, and it’s purposes are the following:

  • To introduce the player to the world of Fate, the Holy Grail War, and the history that preludes the events of the Holy Grail War that takes place in the timeline of the game.
  • To introduce the key players in the story, their superficial personalities (with the exception of some), their stances on the nature of the war, and some of their ideals and wishes for the future, and most importantly, for the Holy Grail itself.
  • To explore Saber and Shirou as a character duo, their stories, desires, opinions, and relationship, and how they blend together to form one cohesive thematic structure.

We’ll start by introducing the main characters, all of whom play a pivotal role in the development of the story’s themes and serve as narrative vehicles in which to explore them. These are:

  • Rin Tohsaka
  • Emiya Shirou
  • Saber
  • Sakura Matou

Let’s start with Rin Tohsaka, twintail “tsundere” princess of the 21st century. Her no-nonsense and rather expressive personality is apparent from moment one, as we learn about her position as a mage, her relationship with those around her, as well as the summoning of her Servant, Archer. Certain subtle elements of her summoning particularly illustrate how she behaves in certain situations, often treating moments of objective negativity as non-impactful or otherwise reacting with an air of palpable positive charisma, despite her ability to make mistakes often and sometimes at the worst of times. She’s not very melodramatic, is what I’m trying to say, and she maintains a competent state of level-headedness even when accidentally summoning the wrong Servant, when getting grabbed by Berserker, or even when being nearly gored by Kotomine near the end of the game. She’s carefully prepared and always has something ready to get her out of a sticky situation, even if she is already a supremely capable mage. Regarding her social life, more so than just being “tsundere” towards other people, she shows herself to be a very emotionally disconnected person, with the exception of a few closer friends whom she spends time with occasionally. As she herself explained, her existence as a mage conflicts with her social life (since exposing herself as a mage to the public might not only cause outrage and controversy, but also allow herself to become the target of unwanted attention from the often violent and ruthless Mages Association) to such an extent that she has chosen to sacrifice human connections in order to preserve the Tohsaka name and to honor not only her own self-imposed pride and skill, but also the memory of her perished father. This adds an extra layer to her character, as she has a personal burden that she has placed on herself as a result of the situation she’s found herself in, in order to maintain her ideals untouched and to not falter from her goals as a mage as well as her outlook on the world. She hopes for the best, but prepares for the worst, and always tries to reach logical and strategic compromises whenever possible. All of this is apparent from these first three days, and all of this is delivered through inner monologue and through her dialogue, especially with her conversation with Archer upon their meeting.

Her stance regarding the Holy Grail War isn’t expanded on completely until her more in-depth exploration in Unlimited Blade Works, but we get the gist of who she is from this route enough to where we can understand her motivations and her basic personality.

If you remember from the beginning of this post, you’d recall that Sakura Matou also was one of our leads, on the same breadth as Shirou, Rin, and Saber. Sakura herself is almost completely absent during the first route, but that has a purpose in and of itself.

Sakura is a dependent and brittle girl, who is more like a ghost than anything else. Firstly, she constantly gets treated like utter garbage by her “brother” Shinji, is physically weak and unfocused, strangely quiet and not very apparent. I say “brother” because Shinji isn’t actually Sakura’s brother; she’s in fact a younger sister to Rin. Ever since she was small, she’s been not only abused by a complete stranger for coming into his house and taking the attention away from him, but also has been cowering under the shadow of her older, much more socially respected sister, who perpetually shines her blinding light down on her fragile eyes. She’s a see-through girl, almost completely transient and unnoticeable. She blends into the background, and during the story of the first route, her existence disappears completely. This is done to instill a nagging in one’s brain, a feeling that there was something there which was left without signal, something that simply evaporated; a tingly feeling of a human presence, yet nothing but fog when you reach. Sakura herself is the main love interest during Heaven’s Feel, and we’ll explore her more during her route, but don’t forget her yourself. She’s perhaps the most important player in this game in the long run.

Returning to Shirou’s personality, how does he fair out?

The idea behind Shirou is that he’s initially portrayed as a flabby, uninspired and hazy person, without much motivations or any weight to his opinions, but it’s the journey of the routes themselves that inform the player of his deeper reasons and ideals. Each route focuses on a potential outcome of his actions and how that reflects on his established personality, and form a narrative progression throughout the entire novel. I won’t point it out right now, seeing as we first need to explore the other two routes in order to comprehend it fully, so just bear with me here. It’s our job as the players to get to know him after following his actions throughout the routes.

So, after that has been established, let’s explore Shirou just during the prologue alone. He’s demonstrated as being a very nice guy (and all the connotations of the phrase), adept with mechanical constructions, and often behaving nonchalantly and absentmindedly towards most things around him. He might become overly anal or erratic in certain situations (like accidentally coming into physical contact with a pretty girl) but this is all due to him being a very hormonal kid despite having a relatively clear head and self-aware attitude. Being a mage himself, he tends to be very accustomed to pain (due to his nightly training sessions), even if his abilities are vastly inferior to possibly every mage around him. He holds his “father” Kiritsugu as his perfect role model and aims to be just like him, possessing a rather vague but nonetheless passionate goal of “becoming a superhero”.

If you haven’t noticed, my description of his personality doesn’t seem to give light to any particular reasons as to why he’s the way that he is (in contrast to Tohsaka’s reasons for being the way she is), but that was all intended. The journey that Shirou takes in the Fate route is to not only show to us, the audience, what caused those ideals and opinions of life that he has, but also to make him realize why those reasons are as flawed and as broken as the ideals themselves. It all returns to that one central theme, “oneself as an ideal”. Shirou himself is just a vessel with which to explore that theme.

We are still a long way away from revealing why Shirou is the way that he is, though, so be patient.

And with that, we can jump straight into Saber herself and her character throughout the story, from beginning to end. Let’s go.

Saber is, more than anything else, the embodiment of self-sacrifice and of youthful idealism. She was born as Arturia Pendragon, the daughter of the King Uther Pendragon, who himself was looking for a male son to make his descendant. Disappointed with Arturia being born a woman, he separated her from the royalty, giving her away to the mage Merlin’s care, enlisting her instead as a knight, taught to fight from a young age. Uther did this mostly because Saber was a woman, but Merlin cared not about this, and foretold that she would become a King in due time. Because of this, and her training as a warrior, she developed a concrete set of morals and ethics, all fueled by her desire to protect her country. “Only a king can save a ruined country headed for death”, she would say, motivated from her own pure sense of righteous abandon.

Hence the day came that the next King was to be chosen, she faced the mythical sword in the stone. As she stood there watching it, Merlin spoke words of warning: “Becoming a King means no longer being human”. With her own mental and physical strength, she succeeded in pulling out the sword Caliburn from the stone it was placed at, becoming King Arthur and ruling for 10 years before her death in combat.

To heavily summarize, she not only unified her people under her banner, but eventually, also caused it’s destruction.

During her rule, she was seen as something not human, unemotional, and almost deity-like. By her mere existence as a King, her constant self-imposed isolation and the fact that she was hiding her gender, the men serving below her turned against her, conspiring and eventually dethroning her by force after a series of idealistic disconnects. Her closest knights slowly lost their sense of agreement toward her, leading to what would be the end of her kingdom. Those last few men still loyal to her faced off against the subordinates which had betrayed her, and in one bloody battle known as the Battle of Camlann, only she remained, with a fatal would and with the men she called comrades laying dead by the hundreds. This tore Arturia apart, her spotless ideals now stained with the blood of her people. In her mind, she had been the sole reason for the destruction of her country, since according to her, if she had not pulled that sword out from the stone, none of this would have happened. All she wished for was another chance, an opportunity to turn back time and prevent her decision, to let another take the throne from her. She appealed to the world itself, and the world heard her. She would become a “Heroic Spirit” (an in-universe term for the souls of humans who have achieved impossible deeds during their life, becoming historical icons that are remembered across all of time as legends), and give her services to the universe in exchange for her wish. The universe told her that in order to fulfill her wish, she had to find the Holy Grail, or be stuck perpetually in her state of near death for eternity. When the Holy Grail Wars began occurring, she would be transported to the future, where the Holy Grail would appear, and where she could use it to achieve her desire.

That was pretty complicated in and of itself, and very heavily redacted for time, but what this boils down to in a narrative sense, is that Saber desired to escape from the decision she took on that day in which she chose to abandon her previous life and become king. Her ideals as a king had turned her into a figure of inhumanity, of righteous holiness that had become separated from mankind. She had stuck with her ideals for so long, that they permeated her emotions and became something essential to her very existence. She was treated as a king and made to live her life disconnected to humanity’s pleasures. Her dissonance with the feelings she felt against her kingship as well as her idealistic view of the world made her feel guilty, unable to accept the eventual tragic results that her actions had caused and was stuck in a mental loop of self-inflicted cause and effect. In her desperation, she failed to understand the error in her ideals and sought to change the past instead of changing herself for the future.

When she was summoned accidentally almost a century later, she came across a young man who, for the first time in her life, actively conflicted with her ideals and challenged her every step of the way. Her inexperience with any sort of emotion meant that she was susceptible to them in a way she’d never been before, and interacting with a man who fell in love with her and treated her first as a woman and second as a warrior was mind-blowing to her. She firstly disproved of it, stating her nature as a Servant (A Heroic Spirit summoned by mages to fight in the Holy Grail War) and closing herself off to him emotionally. But, as she spent more time with him, learning about his determination to always jump to save her, his endless devotion to helping people, and most importantly, his personal and romantic affection towards her ultimately proved challenging for her on a deeply impactful and psychological level. Her newly formed and confusing emotions regarding Shirou clashed intensely with her lifelong adherence to her strict and immovable ideals. Ultimately, she learned from him that oneself is not stuck absolutely to one’s own ideals, and forgives herself for the mistakes that she made during her life. She destroys the Holy Grail (after discovering that it was in fact a lie all along), confesses her love to Shirou, and disappears back into the past, having escaped from her loop, and finally dying the peaceful death that she desired for so long.

Saber’s story is one of coming to terms with the distinction between oneself and oneself’s ideals, and how following one’s ideals can lead to a path of never-ending conflict and inability to change.

[Hard Mode: The H-Scenes. Many people use the fact that the visual novel was originally an eroge to refute much of the thematic power that the series actually contains. I will agree that the actual inner monologue and dialogue used in the H-scenes themselves are extremely ridiculous and exaggerated (my favorite line being “her anus is defenseless”), but I believe that aside from inserting them there for marketing reasons and for a broader appeal, that they serve as major moments of development for the character of Saber. In the context of the story, Saber cannot absorb magical energy from Shirou since he is an inferior mage and does not have much magical energy of his own. She has used up a majority of hers in order to fight Berseker, another Servant, and now needs magical energy desperately or she runs into the risk of disappearing due to lack of energy. Because of this, during her first sexual encounter (which also features Tohsaka), she is in need of Shirou’s alternative source of magical energy, which is stored in his semen (The reason for this being that since Heroic Spirits are human souls, and they require consumption of other souls for magical energy, that semen is basically a pool of life juice, as human beings are formed out of semen in the first place. Genius, I know).

Anyway, this moment represents for her her first sexual experience, as she was too young to ever go through it before the took up the sword and became king. She’s deeply flustered during all of it, and basically has a meltdown because of it. She tries to justify to herself that her reason for having sex with Shirou is for her own wellbeing, but in the end, she is receiving so much pleasure that she simply gives in. After this point in the story, Saber develops a very obvious affection for Shirou, one that appears here and there in various moments, particularly during her date with him. That same day, when they argue about each other’s ideals, she ponders for five whole hours about what she feels for him, about his opinion of her, and about her own past. In the second sexual encounter, it’s only her and Shirou, and the lustful hunger is palpable. She tries to justify to herself again that it’s because she needs to recharge her magical energy, but ends up giving in to her desires and accepting her feelings for Shirou. It all culminates in the final moment right before she vanishes after defeating the Grail, when she tells Shirou that she loves him. It’s actually an integral part of her development as a character, and while the literal portrayal of the scenes is over-sexualized in over-the-top ways, the subtext of those scenes is still important for the overarching plot of Saber’s route.]

And that’s basically Saber’s character. In the 24-30 hours it takes to finish this route, it’s apparent that she is a layered, complex, and evolving character that has actual reasons for her actions, a meaningful emotional progression that has relation to her character and to those around her, and a solid, appropriate conclusion that marks the end of her journey in a satisfying way. But wait, there’s more.

We’ve been talking so much about Saber that we’ve skimmed over Shirou himself. And before we reach our final point, we need to talk about his development during the route.

As I’ve explained before in this endless post, Shirou is (superficially) a person with stubborn ideals. Now let’s take a look at the reason behind those ideals.

He was born in a family that has been lost to the passage of time, but in a more thematic sense, Shirou’s life doesn’t officially start until the great fire that destroyed his hometown 10 years prior to the events of the visual novel (the one that was caused by the Holy Grail War during Fate/Zero). This fire killed his entire family and all of the people in his town. He alone survived, walking aimlessly through the brimstone-laden remains of his life, the screams of the burned piercing his ears and branding themselves into his memory. He wanted to help all of them, but in the end, helped no one, because of fear and self-preservation. He was certain he was going to die, and when his body could not muster it anymore, he laid down and prepared for death. In the last moment, the mage Emiya Kiritsugu found him, the two sole survivors of the horrid massacre that occurred. Kiritsugu cried when he found him, giving thanks to the heavens that he could at least save one person from the disaster which he himself helped to cause. In this moment, Shirou found a reason to live again, to be able to do what Kiritsugu could not: To save everyone.

This is his primary ideal, but something that is left open to interpretation until the very end of the story is that Shirou is suffering through many of the psychological symptoms of a person with Survivor’s Guilt. He spends his time looking up to the figure that saved his life, yet always regrets the fact that he was the only one who survived that blazing night. He values other’s lives far more than he does his own, always aiming to save everyone, yet subconsciously sacrificing his own life (and humanity) for the potential safety of those whom he loves. Does this remind you of anybody else?

His reasons for his ideals are all rooted in an underlying sense of guilt that pushes him to disregard his own life; the ultimate “nice guy”. It’s rather sad, really, knowing that his good intentions are all due to a feeling of existential hatred.

It’s that propensity to act selflessly that also conflicts with Saber’s view of the Holy Grail War and of herself as a Servant. She knows that her purpose as a Servant is to die for her Master, but Shirou’s persistent resistance to that idea is what causes her to begin to think more deeply about her own ideals, and wether or not they are as different from Shirou’s as she thinks they are. Remember the fact that they argue restlessly throughout the whole story about what the best course of action is, about each other’s safety and how they matter to each other, and engage in awkward, emotionally charged scenes that make them spark and react chemically, something which they are not used to normally.

In the end, when the false priest Kotomine Kirei gives Shirou the chance to use the Holy Grail to reverse the events of the past, he refuses. By falling in love with a gorgeous girl, discovering her outlook on life and how much it reflects his own, he has surpassed his ideals and rejected them, realizing that the past cannot be changed and opening the doors for a brighter tomorrow.

In the end, this shows that both of them share the same childish ideal and spiral thinking. They both begin the story regretting the actions that they were thrust into doing, and they both want to (consciously or subconsciously) return to the moment it happened and do it differently, if even do it at all. After spending time with each other and sacrificing themselves for the sake of the other, their romantic love for each other and their eventual mutual understanding makes them realize the mistakes in their thinking and ultimately learn to move on from the burden of the past and become new people. It’s a message about compromise, opening yourself to the people around you, seeking salvation outside of your own repetitive mind. It’s about learning to accept and embrace the opinions and ideals of others, and for not only coming to terms with those of your own, but of those of the people you love. For Saber, it’s the end of her journey, and for Shirou, it’s the beginning of his.

And that is the story of the Fate route in Fate/stay night. The theme of “oneself as an ideal” blends perfectly into it’s two primary characters and uses their relationship as a device for the progression and completion of the theme. It’s a very optimistic story, as it starts with despair, becomes filled with love, and ends as a song of self-realization.

The overarching narrative strength of the novel is far from over, though, as there are still not only two more routes to explore, but also the entire story put together. Stay tuned for next week, as we will be diving waist deep into the neutral realism of Unlimited Blade Works.

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