What time is it? It’s time to think unreasonably deeply about Little Witch Academia’s worldbuilding and how it contributes to an ingrained trend of making heroic magical stories all about capitalism vs class structures!
So. Little Witch Academia follows the shenanigans of Akko Kagari at Luna Nova magical academy where she, inspired by an idol-style illusionist she’s been a fan of since childhood, is learning to become a witch. Naturally every Harry Potter story of hallowed halls, pointy hats and potion classes needs a Draco Malfoy, and this comes in the form of top student Diana Cavendish, who makes an intriguing remark in the second movie about how she is from a historic magic family and Akko is a nobody from some faraway place, and she’s making everybody look bad with her impudent ineptitude.
What we glean from this is that there’s a hierarchy, if not a straight up class system, in the world of witches—whether or not magical talent is actually passed down through the bloodline (a la Fate, which I’ll get to in a bit), there’s definitely an accepted social thing that families where multiple generations (the further back they go the better) have been practicing magic hold themselves in higher regard to first generation witches. But, as Akko shows by getting into the school in the first place, magical talent doesn’t seem to be something you are or are not born with in this universe. Supposedly if she, an ordinary girl from nowhere, can learn it, so can any pleb from the town… except that the townspeople hold a historic dislike for witches, to the point where they happily re-enact witch hunts as part of a parade every year. Perhaps, kicked down the social hierarchy by regular society, magic society formed their own social hierarchy to alienate those who represented the regular humans who spurned them?
Or, maybe they just felt like being snobs. The snobbish instinct is held in every human pursuit: from eating to wearing clothes to saying you enjoy a TV show on the internet, someone will no doubt rise out of the woodwork and tell you you’re doing it wrong. This is true for Diana Cavendish, who informs Akko that the performing witch she idolised was tacky for how she displayed magic so openly to the unwashed public… something that no doubt reflects the sort of code of secrecy witches would have needed when they were actively being hunted. The same way that ordinary people are, at this point, mostly throwing tomatoes at witches as part of festival fun simply because it’s part of their history—it’s newcomer Akko, who wasn’t raised in a magical family or taught these deep traditions, who asks why shouldn’t we share magic with the world and show everyone how great it is, and try to change this arrangement? Why shouldn’t we bridge this ancient gap with modern thinking?
This kind of naive but progressive vision of sharing magic with everyone—a vision of a world where people like Akko, with no magic in her family, can practice it and it isn’t just reserved for the Dianas of the world—reminded me of the intellectual conflict in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, where Norrell represents the fuddy-duddy old guard who believes magic is A Gentlemanly Practice and information about it should be either kept from the public entirely or only given out in small, manageable and heavily censored (by him) doses, and Strange represented the egalitarian ideal that magic should be available to everyone so that new ideas can start being discovered. Sorcerer to the Crown takes Strange and Norrell’s vague suggestion that one day maybe people who aren’t rich white men could one day learn magic (preposterous!) and runs with it, giving magic to both an African man and a young woman, both of whom shock the wigs off the men of pre-existing magical society, which has, until now, been stagnant and strongly tied to rank and title.
Magic, after all, is a Gentlemanly Pursuit, or at least it appears this way in so many works of fiction—you have magic that operates within the clutches of an aristocracy, literally or otherwise, and by contrast you have a protagonist naïve to and/or disgusted by their traditions and their prejudices who challenges the system. Fate/Zero plays heavily on this, with True and Proper Mages like Kayneth appearing as True and Proper Gentlemen carrying all the coding of the upper classes (complete with the arranged marriages), resting on the laurels of the blue-blooded status granted to them by the generations (again, the more the better) of magic users that came before them… until they are invariably defeated by modern weapons and sneaky tactics of a mage who doesn’t play by their Gentlemanly Codes and has also modernised, crossing the gulf between magic and technology. Why didn’t they just shoot Voldemort? Emiya Kiritsugu would’ve.
His son Shirou also becomes an interesting (and more traditional, heroic) version of this trope by simply being adopted in a magical society that prizes bloodline above all else—it’s literally how knowledge and power are passed down. This feeds into a nice motif about how the family you choose is incredibly valuable, a shocking idea for the heritage-obsessed mages, but also makes him the scrappy nobody with determination and new ideas who comes to challenge the bloodthirsty traditions of this magical universe: a more hardcore version of Akko, as it were. The Hero With No Innate Talent vs The Old Guard is a recurring narrative in magical worlds, and in most cases the audience is never asked to side with The Old Guard or those representing magical aristocracy. It’s more of an underdog story, sure, to follow the Nobody who strives hard and achieves their dreams and challenges the traditions of a ruling body that refuses to move or grow with changing times, but it’s also a weirdly American Dream-y kind of story. To Hell with a pre-established nobility—anyone can make it here if they work hard enough!
Of course, things like Harry Potter do spoil this a bit by giving the underdog protagonist a great and marvellous destiny, but it still forms an interesting allegory. Was Little Witch Academia trying to get across a deep message about capitalism vs power being in the hands of ingrained nobility? Hard to say, and I’d doubt it; simply because this trope is so prevalent it’s only natural that it pops up in any story about a magic school whether the writers are thinking politically or not. Maybe it’s that a lot of fantasy is still very Euro-centric and so the Feudal System slots nicely into the traditional fantastical framework, maybe it’s just that we all hate rich people and delight in the idea that they’d be more despicable if they had magic on their side. A very clear Power of the Individual and Hard Work narrative runs like a river through a lot of this genre, inviting the audience to agree that new blood is often good for an ancient system.
A friendship between your Akko and your Diana (or an alliance between your Strange and your Norrell) often eventually occurs, which in itself signifies a blending of the usual social boundaries and a hopeful step forward by the next generation—an important symbol that reverberates nicely into the real world. Magic very rarely wants to modernise (see again that gulf between magic and any technology beyond what Medieval Europe could come up with) and it can form a neat metaphor for all sorts of different things, be they political statements or just a nod to the need for diversity and new voices in a world ruled in one way for so long. Or, as in Fate/Stay Night’s case, a bonus message about bloodline being less important than the people who love and support you—it doesn’t matter where you come from, it’s all about where you go.
And you get to have magic in there, so it’s all fun!