“The weight of my sword is the weight of my pride. The wound from my battle with you is an honor, not a fetter.” – Fate/Zero
SPOILERS for Fate/Zero and all of Fate/Stay Night. Also, I tend to use Saber and Artoria interchangeably to describe our King of Knights, sorry if that’s confusing haha
Everyone knows the story of King Arthur, right? The peasant boy who pulled a legendary sword out of a stone and became king of England? Had a friend named Lancelot who was in love with his wife? Brought down by his illegitimate son, Mordred? Oh yeah, and it turned out that the real King Arthur was a petit, bisexual anime girl with magical powers and an obsession with food?
The story of King Arthur has been told countless times in all manner of media, but the Fate series of anime and games is the first to cast the legendary British hero as a woman. I mean, turning famous historical or mythological figures into anime girls is kind of their thing! It can be easy to write this off as mere fanservice, especially considering the original Fate/Stay Night was a visual novel with several explicit sex scenes in it. But I think by making King Arthur female, author and creator Kinoko Nasu puts a unique twist on the classic mythos, gives her a more interesting and dynamic character arc, and makes her character a more inspiring figure for female viewers.
To understand why, let’s do some history. We don’t know for sure if King Arthur was a real person, but he’s said to be based on a Celtic general named Artorius who would have lived shortly after the fall of the Roman Empire. Britain was politically unstable and constantly being sacked, but Artorious drove off the invading Anglo-Saxons and kept British hegemony for over 100 years. As the centuries went by, the legends expanded, as authors added new characters and stories which reflected the values of their time. There are tons of different ways to interpret the legends – earlier medieval accounts were mostly about Arthur’s Christian morality, while later authors focused on the scandalous love triangle between him, Lancelot, and Guinevere – but they all ask one important question: “What does it mean to be a good king?”
Throughout history, Arthur has always been portrayed as a kind but powerful ruler who put the needs of his people above his own. That’s why he and his knights sat at the round table: so they would be seen and treated as equals. Fate/Zero illustrates this beautifully in the “Banquet of Kings” episode. Artoria sits down with her rivals, Gilgamesh and Iskandar (Alexander the Great), to discuss philosophy and what makes an effective ruler. The dictatorial Gilgamesh believes that the king must use his subjects for his own benefit, while the adventurous Iskandar believes a king must be strong and brave to inspire his people to do better. But Artoria argues that a king must serve his people – even at the cost of his own life. It’s a powerful sentiment, but the others dismiss it as hopeless idealism that can only end in tragedy.
Fate/Zero is all about the struggle between Saber’s ideals of justice and self-sacrifice, and the cruel reality that governs her world. But it’s only in Fate/Stay Night that her backstory is revealed in full. Saber knew that her people would never accept a female ruler, so she presented male for her entire life to avoid public scrutiny. She became distant, preoccupied with her enormous responsibility and the horrors of war, and unaware of her daughter Mordred’s inner turmoil. And though her people initially welcomed Saber with open arms, they soon resented her for being too gracious, too authoritative, too perfect to be human. Eventually, Mordred led a revolt, and Artoria Pendragon died having lost everything. The thing she wishes for – what she hopes to win in the Holy Grail War – is that she could go back in time and never become King.
By telling the story of King Arthur from a female perspective, the Fate series offers a surprisingly progressive take on gender issues, while also making its legendary hero a more nuanced and tragic figure. As a trans woman, I can definitely to Saber’s anguish at having to disguise herself as a man for fear that the world would not accept her as she truly is. You have to constantly watch everything that you say and do, and put on a steely macho facade so that you don’t look weak or effeminate. Combine that with the responsibility of ruling an entire country in a period of political upheaval and constant warfare, and it’s easy to see why Saber felt the need to suppress her emotions and distance herself from other people.
Nevertheless, she persisted. In spite of her guilt and self-doubt, she resolved to be a powerful warrior and king. She vowed to protect her people, even when they hated her for it. As a Heroic Spirit, she struggled tirelessly to win the Holy Grail War according to her ideals, even when everyone else was mercilessly backstabbing each other. She is so fucking Lawful Good that she sacrifices her identity, her privacy, her mental health, and her own life multiple times over to save people.
And what ultimately saves her, as cheesy as it sounds, is love. When she meets Shirou Emiya, someone who shares her idealism (though not her combat ability or tactical prowess), she finds someone she can genuinely open up to for the first time. And through Shirou’s friendship with Rin Tohsaka, Saber finally realizes that she doesn’t have to carry her enormous burdens alone. She starts going out on the town and pigging out on Shirou’s home-cooked meals, and looks adorably happy doing it. For the first time, Saber is given a chance to live not just as a king or a knight, but as an ordinary woman. Even though she retains her role as a tragic hero, ultimately dying in all three routes in the Fate/Stay Night anime series, it is nice to see a character who’s suffered so much finally get some closure in the end.
The Fate series is not without its problems, but I think one of its biggest strengths is the way it makes its all of its mythological heroes complex and unique characters in its world. Every character has a rich history behind them, and they way they play with the source material keeps these classic stories rich and relevant for modern day audiences. After watching Saber kick so much ass in the anime, I’ve been reading up on Arthurian legend, starting with The Once and Future King by T.H. White and even digging into some of those dusty medieval texts. And I always end up mentally picturing Arthur as Artoria, my favorite anime swordfighter.