I complained in the last two posts that Shirou doesn’t seem to have a character arc in this route, in that he ends up more or less where he started, and normally you’d expect a main character to change over the course of the story.
But I think there’s a very good reason for this, and I think it’s that he’s not the protagonist.
I said this in passing last route because it was a funny thing to think about, that if you looked at the story from Saber’s point of view, Shirou was actually the femme fatale whose affect she had to resist to succeed. But that’s not a really valid reading, I don’t think, as much as a funny headcanon. As you all pointed out, the whole idea of Fate in a larger sense is in fact to introduce us to Shirou and who he is.
However, this route, I think you can make an extremely persuasive case that Archer is the true protagonist. I don’t think it’s any accident the last scene of the story proper is between Archer and Rin, with Shirou not involved in any way. Hell, Shirou even lampshades it, saying Rin is the one who should be in the final scene, as he has nothing to say. I also mentioned in the Character Roundup that I think the romance is founded on the Rin/Archer relationship more than the Rin/Shirou one. Shirou is our window into the events, lacking a real character arc himself, and ultimately is not so much a full character as he is the representation of the actual hero’s inner turmoil.I mentioned on the second-to-last day that it was interesting to have Archer at his lowest point in a basement. The proverbial descent to the underworld is a huge part of the prototypical Hero’s Journey, and that got me wondering if you could fit Archer’s story into the journey cycle, and if you could at all Shirou’s. So what I’m going to do is go step by step through the points of the circle and talk about if and how they each are represented here.
For the record, if you haven’t read The Hero with a Thousand Faces, you really should. It covers every mythology basically ever, and it’s just really amazing to see how there are some things that are quintessentially human, you know? If you like myth, if you like story, or if you just like people, it’s a really important text. It’s got for-its-time Freudian crap, but that doesn’t really take away from the overall impact. And that’s my plug.
(The other thing people like to do is complain that it doesn’t take enough ~cultural context~ into account, because people are idiots. The whole damn point is that when you strip away context, the bare bones of major stories are really, really similar. I don’t know what this attachment is to having everyone be a special snowflake, as if it’s some kind of insult to have things in common. Your favorite book isn’t ~unique~ just because you like it. Anyway.)
God knows over the years people have fiddled with the cycle, decided certain things are more important, added and removed, etc etc, so there’s not like a definitive journey cycle out there, but here’s a graphical representation that I think pares things down well.
Before we start, one more recommendation: if you haven’t watched the Star Wars Reviews, you should for like a billion reasons. They’re like career porn to me. But he also has a very, very good breakdown of the Hero’s Journey near the beginning of the first review, and he’s smarter than me, so you should check it out!
1. Ordinary World
Shirou is the prototypical hero who is going about his everyday life in mediocrity, wanting more than he has and with great aspirations.Archer’s “ordinary world” is odd, though, in that it’s not our ordinary world. The ordinary for him is extraordinary, but nonetheless he’s called upon and ends up catapulted into something even more out there. However, he’s still unhappy with how his life is and is looking to change it. That’s an important point– almost every Hero starts unhappy with their situation.
2. Call to Adventure
For Shirou, this would be the summoning of Saber and getting thrown headfirst into the Grail War.
For Archer, it’s much more literal– he is “called” by the Grail, summoned, and pulled into the War.
3. Refusal of the Call
Shirou is overwhelmed by everything and doesn’t want to participate in a murder game.
Archer tells Rin to GTFO and that he won’t listen to anything she says or does.
4. Meeting the Mentor
The mentor for both characters, interestingly, is Rin. It does kind of make sense that they’d have the same mentor in that they’re technically the same person. Her advice and approach to life is what they both need to hear because their past is the same one, so she’s the guidance they get through their ordeals.
5. Crossing the Threshold
The Hero concedes to partaking in the adventure. Shirou decides to participate in the War to prevent another tragedy, and Archer gains respect for Rin and agrees to work with her.
The first arc gets the story started, and the second arc is, suitably, the rising action. You get 6. Tests, Allies, Enemies, all of which 7. Approach and build to the climax.
8. Ordeal, Death, and Rebirth
Worth noting is that whoever wrote this wasn’t paying attention. The Rebirth should happen later in the cycle, and just the Death happens here. And, indeed, the Resurrection is a point that comes up later. Not sure what they were thinking, but like I said, this is the best visual representation I found.
The climax– the Ordeal– of UBW is obvious; it’s the battle between Archer and Shirou.
The Death, though is where things start to break down for Shirou, which kind of makes sense with my complaints about his character arc– this is where something big happens to a character, so big that it could even be a metaphorical “death and rebirth,” and that leads into the second half of the cycle, which is the learning from the Big Thing and bringing that knowledge back home.
But Shirou doesn’t really have a death– I’d say he has more a second refusal. To have a Death is to lose something of who you were before and gain something new, but Shirou ends the story very much the same person he begins as. Shirou doesn’t lose anything in this fight. Sure, what he believes is challenged, but he doesn’t really even seem to consider the challenge so much as brace against it and refuse to acknowledge it. It’s like he reaches the top of the arc and just kind of evens out, but it’s called a character arc and not a character linear relationship precisely because the character is expected to lose something and grow from it and end up in a different place, not the same one but better.Now, there’s the obvious caveat here that the intent in Fate as a whole was to have Shirou grow over the three arcs, and I think there’s a degree to which is this a valid counterargument, but I also think the stories should really be able to stand on their own. I think this one can, but Shirou’s non-arc is the biggest strike against it as a standalone story (that I think gets solved by shifting the protago-focus to Archer).
Speaking of Archer. Often, particularly in classical literature, the “death” is accomplished metaphorically via a trip to the underworld. It can also just be the “lowest” point in the story for a character, the one in which they completely despair or come near giving up. Often the mentor character will show up to offer guidance and pull them out of the hole.
Obviously there’s no way to know if this was intentional, but that’s why it was so interesting to me that Archer’s lowest point– where he’s threatening and abandoning Rin, who he cares deeply about– also takes place in a basement, the lowest physical point, and occurs right before an actual “death.” It’s hard to chalk up to coincidence, and I have enough faith in Nasu that I’m willing to say it was on purpose. Nonetheless, this is exactly what the lowest point on the cycle is supposed to look like: despair, regression, the underworld, and death.
Archer’s defeat at the hands of Shirou, the smashing of his worldview and everything he was fighting for, and his being presumed dead at the end come to together to create basically the ideal encapsulation for what this point in the Journey should look like.
When a Hero sets off on a quest, they’re usually out to accomplish something. Almost always, the Hero brings something back. Sometimes, it’s a literal elixir; maybe they’re trying to save someone at home. Sometimes it’s a literal sword, as Saber would know. Very often, though, it’s not a tangible reward, but knowledge and answers that change the way the Hero’s world works.
What does Shirou bring back? I don’t know. Reaffirmation of his goals? That’s not what’s meant here; the reward is specifically something that inspires change and the hero didn’t have before. A relationship with Rin and the support he needs? You could kind of swing that, I guess, but it doesn’t really work. While the Hero very often Gets the Girl, she herself is almost always a bonus prize and not the actual reward (except in instances where her rescue was the goal, and that’s not the case here).
I think the biggest thing Shirou potentially gets from the whole experience is in fact Rin’s support and the chance to not lose himself in pursuit of his ideal, but it’s more something he’s given and not really something he actively brings back himself, as he doesn’t seem to realize he needs it. Archer tells Rin to take care of him, but not Shirou to take care of himself, and I think that matters: the Hero’s boon has to be something they earn and strive for, and that’s just not true of Rin’s support. All Shirou strives for is something he already has, and that’s the complete antithesis of a Journey.
What Archer brings back, as we learn in the final epilogue, is an Answer. A beautiful one, the refinding of himself. The remembrance of why he set out in the first place. And at the end of the day, a thing that saves his world, even though the world is just himself. This is the essence of he hero’s Reward: something they could only have accomplished by going through the Journey, something they bring back with them, and something that changes things forever.
In more not-paying-attention notes, 10 and 11 on the wheel should be switched. Not least because it’s not possible to make the journey back before you’ve been reborn. The resurrection is the completion of the third arc and the start of the falling action and resolution. Sometimes the resurrection is the final push the Hero needs to finish off his foes. Sometimes it’s what allows them to go home after the battle is won.
Shirou, not having had a death, obviously can’t be resurrected from anything. I’m pretty sure we don’t even find out about the sheath this route, so you can’t swing that his being injured and recovering all the time is a kind of rebirth, because we never go into the mechanisms behind it. And besides, the final battle between him and Gilgamesh is never really something he’s going to lose– in fact, we’re explicitly told he has everything it takes to win. On top of that, his involvement in the final defeat of the evil is minimal– he’s off to the side, playing support to Rin and Saber, but in the end has no contact with the Grail. You can’t be a Hero if you don’t actually beat the final boss, so to speak.
Once again, though, Archer has the quintessential Resurrection, especially in the literal sense as we think he’s died and he comes back. Not only that, he comes back, defeats the evil, and then the denounment starts. It’s exactly how a Resurrection is supposed to go. You think the Hero is gone, you mourn, and then they badass their way back into the story just in time to save the day.
It’s also worth noting that Archer saves Shirou. A hero saves people; they’re not supposed to be saved themselves, at least not this late in the game. Without Shirou, they may very well have still accomplished the same things. Without Archer, there’s no way.
11. The Road Back
The journey home is one of those things that always happens but isn’t always shown. Sometimes it’s a long thing, where the Hero reunites with friends made along the way and they celebrate (Lord of the Rings, despite not really being a typical Journey, fits this part perfectly). Sometimes, there’s some minor evil to defeat on the way back home as a last nail in the coffin (again, LOtR). A lot of the time though, especially in modern stories, the actual road home is a small part or even skipped all together.
Shirou’s Road Back is the return to normalcy after the War. This is something we skip– it’s been several months when we revist him in the epilogue, though obviously it happened and even went off without a hitch. This isn’t unusual nor really a strike against Shirou, though I did always find the assumption everyone just reverts back with no problems to be a bit fluffy and sparse.
We actually do see Archer’s Road Back though, at least in some ways. His return begins with his conversation with Rin after the battle and his Road Back to the person he once was. He then further elaborates on it in retrospect in the final epilogue in the moments before he actually returns to wherever spirits reside.
12. Return with the Elixir
The Elixir is just the reward gained from the completion of the journey. The arrival back home with the reward changes things forever and, usually, restores peace and prosperity. The Elixir is sometimes what the Hero set out for in the first place, sometimes something they happened to acquire along the way.
As discussed, it’s hard to come up with an Elixir for Shirou. His return with Rin’s relationship does change things for him in a big way and hopefully set him off on a different path than he would have been otherwise, but it’s not something he seems to realize he has or will happen, which is a really important component. He doesn’t set out to change his life, it just happens, and even in the epilogue, she’s calling the shots and his biggest decisions are to agree with her. A Hero doesn’t go with the flow. By definition they seek change. And as much as Rin changes Shirou, it’s too passive on his part.
Archer’s Elixir is the Answer, but how much impact is has on him back home is left open. As I said while going over the scene, I really think it has one, even if only a small one that aggregates over time. I think it will matter. And in the way being summoned and seeing horrors changed him slowly for the worst, I think this will change him slowly for the better. I think it will be the elixir he needs to cure his illness; the remedy he requires to regain himself. I’m a Romantic and I won’t apologize for it, dammit.
I’ve always thought there was something beautiful about the Hero’s Journey, in that the idea that we all, at the end of the day, strive to defeat our dragons and return home to joy is something that touches me. I spent a lot of time during my formative years struggling with the idea of being alone. I had a chronic illness that left me isolated, and on top of that I was a weird kid (and continue to be a weird adult). That there are constants about the human condition always spoke to me on a really deep level, and it’s always been one of the things I love about stories in general.
I think, to a degree, that’s why this route affected me so much on an emotional level. When you lay it out like this and see how perfect it is, you kind of just have to love it. Well, I do, anyway. It’s also one of the reasons I hate Fault in Our Stars so damn much, and I intend to do a big, personally-driven post about this, but it’s because the idea that being different and isolated is something a bettering thing that puts you above the people around you is so antithetical to my own life experience with a disease that left me at 16 with a huge chasm between myself and everyone else. Not being alone is great! 10/10, would recommend human interaction and also dogs and hamsters.
I’m glad I found this story, is my point.