Fate is a story where a bunch of retellings of myths are jammed together and sent to bounce off each other like pinballs—where would be the fun if it didn’t get meta about the nature of retelling myth? Obviously you can see a lot of examples of this in the Heroic Spirits themselves: heroes reflecting on the way their story has been passed down, what impact they’ve had on the world, and all sorts of fun themes to do with legacy, tradition, and the nature of transformative storytelling. A Heroic Spirit, after all, is a myth given form and agency. Would they do things differently, if they could, with their new knowledge? Challenge the patterns of their past? Or would they stick to the “canon”?
I love when Fate plays around with this, but it doesn’t just happen with the kings and knights and monster-slayers: one of the best embodiments of this theme is Shirou, the original protagonist who started all of this, and who burst into the scene ready to break and remake the patterns embedded in the worldbuilding around him.
Shirou is an ordinary(ish) high school student who learned to summon swords out of thin air. When I say that, you have to understand that there are a couple of odd things about that sentence, even in the context of a fantasy series. The biggest is that ordinary boy part. The world of Fate is populated by ancient lineages of mages who have been practicing magic for generations, the heirs to which physically inherit the knowledge and power from the previous family head in the form of the magic crest. The longer the crest is passed down, the more magic—and prestige—it contains. Someone like Kayneth, from a long-running family, will naturally sneer at someone like Waver, who only got magic in his family in his grandmother’s generation. There is a very literal element to the way power is associated with lineage.
These families also have a lot of aristocratic energy, complete with big heritage houses, classical educations, snobby rivalries, and the practice of arranging marriages based on the best results for their magical bloodline. The whole thing is very… pragmatic. Mages raised to compete in the Grail War, particularly, are taught that The Family Name and the legacy and reputation matter far more than any individual. Mage parenting is, from what we can tell, typically very detached, with children more as a means to continuing the bloodline and improving on past work than, well, children. As we see with what happens with Sakura and Rin, in a Mage Mindset, shipping one child off to a life of magical suffering is all worth it if she ends up being a high achiever and bringing the family name some points… even if she is never treated as a member of your family.
With all this as the norm, you can see why the mages who encounter Shirou—a kid with no bloodline to speak of, who learned magic in a shed rather than in a fancy old institution—would find him baffling and infuriating. He’s the opposite to almost everything that mage culture considers Right and Proper, from the sideways method through which he entered the world of magecraft to that fact that he constructs family very differently.
I used to wonder about Shirou’s biological family, his parents and maybe siblings and general life before Kiritsugu adopted him. The more I tuned into the themes playing out in the story, though, the more I realised the lack of this information was a very deliberate move on the writers’ part. It’s a vital part of the story that we have no idea who Shirou’s bio family is, because it leaves the emphasis on his non-biological, non-traditional family—Kiritsugu, who voluntarily took him in out of compassion and care, and also other characters like Sakura who get brought into the fold because Shirou chooses them. Family being defined as who you love and who you spend time with because they enrich your life is a direct and stark contrast with mage society’s obsession with bloodlines and inheritance.
Shirou is not a Chosen One by any means. You could say he was “destined” to fall into the whole Grail War business because of the bits and pieces of it his father left behind, but I see that as a neat cause and effect rather than, say, any kind of providence or prophecy. It’s never revealed that Shirou is Super Special because he secretly had magic in his genes all along, and the narrative never wrangles its mythos around him to hold him up as a Once and Future Hero who was uniquely placed to fight and win and end this cruel system. His power comes from practice rather than latent potential, and the narrative’s priorities lie with his found family. He “inherits” his heroism from his father only in that he chooses to take up the mantle and follow in Kiritsugu’s footsteps—Shirou is a hero because he wants to be, and is working to become one out of sheer stubbornness, with no help at all from his genetics. How did this rando pull swords out of nowhere and save the day, people like Rin keep asking throughout the narrative? Sheer will, that’s how.
And there is another metaphor, I think, hidden in those swords themselves: he doesn’t teleport the originals into his hands, but he makes a copy of weapons he’s seen before. This works just fine in battle, but is another thing that earns him derision from the established powers in the story, both mages and Heroic Spirits. Gilgamesh, especially, has beef with Shirou’s methods. Gil, after all, boasts that he carries the original of all the greatest weapons from myth and history. Not just the original Excalibur, pah! He’s got the first sword ever pulled from a natural formation in recorded storytelling! He’s got the archetype, baby. How can Shirou’s modern remakes compare?
When it comes to the study of myths, an obsession with The Original has never really sat right with me. For one thing, it’s ridiculously hard to pin down one original version—one “canon” version that is truer and better than all others—of a lot of tales, since they were most often products of oral history and quite naturally changed a little each time in the telling, and evolved to suit the needs of the listeners. For example, you could wave your hand and say Marie Heaney’s retelling of the Ulster Cycle from the 1990s is not the original and thus no good, and you’d be much better reading Thomas Kinsella’s translation from the 1960s.
But, well, Kinsella was retelling previous works too. If we want “authenticity” do we look further back to translators like Lady Gregory or Eleanor Hull? Oh, but the Celtic Revival translations and retellings weren’t the originals either, since they were drawing on previous work with a specific agenda and audience in mind! Even going back to the medieval manuscripts where monks first wrote down the saga won’t give you the original, since those were just transcripts of, again, oral tales from local tradition, which had by this point been in circulation for generations… and were filtered through the monks’ own ideology and point of view as they retold them.
Essentially, people who get pedantic about people not reading The Original Version of a given myth are often just being book snobs, clinging to an idea of The Canon that is tenuous enough in literature, and really just can’t exist in the field of mythology. They probably loathe retellings that contextualise the stories through a modern lens, get them across with a more nuanced contemporary translation, or play with the story itself to modernise the ideas. And lord, if they’re total purists, they probably hate the very idea of Fate as a franchise—no one tell them about it. But the thing is, myth is meant to be played with, recreated, melted down and forged into something new and different in the hands of each new storyteller. And that metallurgy analogy brings us nicely back to swords.
Some fans, apparently, lament that Shirou beats Gilgamesh in that final fight in Unlimited Blade Works, because of course the ancient king is much more powerful than this random kid who, as we’ve established, doesn’t even have a Classical Education in magecraft. If you’re looking at their base power levels, of course Gil is the one slated to win. But this isn’t about maths, it’s about literature: Shirou represents a breaking of the old order, a transformation of things that have come before, and a raised middle finger to the concept of tradition for tradition’s sake, particularly the cruel traditions that keep mage children like Sakura in places where they’ll suffer, and keep bastards like Gil in unquestioned positions of revered power.
Shirou comes into this world where mages are obsessed with bloodlines to the point of not seeing their children as people and the magic system is obsessed with The Original Version. Here he is instead, this guy who defines family by affection and who mastered magic out of determination and hard work alone, and who is here to finally break apart the myth of the Grail War itself: this story they keep telling over and over, trying to get to the most ancient Original power that there is. He’s there to say “hey, no. This sucks, actually. We can take this into our own hands and have this version play out differently”.
Shirou is a walking metaphor for retelling and remaking. He’s even a living retelling of his own story, if we consider his whole conflict with Archer (who we could consider a different “edition” of Shirou). He’s new blood, he’s new ideas, and the established powers—the mages, and figures like Gilgamesh—can’t stand it. But that arrogant reaction to his departure from tradition is also ultimately their undoing. In Unlimited Blade Works, Gilgamesh underestimates Shirou and has a lethal moment of hesitation, and in Heaven’s Feel Shirou (and other young mages who want to help him) successfully takes apart the Grail War and rescues Sakura, one of Stay Night’s clearest victims of mage culture. He comes in with an alternative, he comes in with new blood and a new mindset, and he’s the one who sets the spark to burn the whole ugly system down.
Well, the Grail War, at least… the mages are still going strong, but hey, that’s for other, even newer and more impossible heroes like the Fate/Grand Order guys to deal with, following in Shirou’s footprints. Fate is a series all about playing with myth, with tradition, and with these big ideas of legacy and history and how we remember and repeat the past. This leads to plenty of fun as it takes a flexible approach to its mythos, but it also gives you great character-based themes like this: retell the tale. Question the tragedy and the tradition. Challenge the gatekeepers and the reverence for The Old Days, and hell, change the ending.