History Comes Alive with Fate/stay night

by Gabriella Ekens,

Sick of scouring wikis and disparate fan materials for the stories behind the myths featured in Type-Moon's hit Fate franchise? Well, I've got you covered with an exhaustive guide on the heroic (and not-so-heroic) spirits summoned to be servants in a war between wizards, starting with the original Fate story: Fate/stay night.

This article presumes familiarity with both Fate/stay night and Fate/Zero, so that's your one and only SPOILER WARNING. They're both solid entertainment for general audiences, so you can check them out first or even read along while watching. There's also some overlap between the servants in Fate/stay night and its prequel, Fate/Zero. I'll only be covering F/SN's “main seven” here, while the extra two will have entries in the following Fate/Zero article. In other words, all mongrel fans of the "blond-haired man" will have to hold out for next time. (I'm sure he would appreciate the buildup.)

Let's kick things off with the biggest hero in terms of size (and the smallest in terms of dialogue).

BERSERKER: Herakles

Despite what the Disney movie might have taught you, Herakles was one of Zeus's many, many, many illegitimate offspring. Hera, Zeus's wife, hated him more than any of the others, perhaps because of his name. (It was an attempt to appease her, and boy did it backfire.) As such, Herakles's life was basically a parade of torments from Hera. When he was a young man, Hera inflicted him with a madness that caused him to kill his wife, Megara. (Maybe that's why we haven't gotten any Hercules sequels?)

When the madness wears off, he runs to the Oracle of Delphi, a famous seer, in grief. She turns out to be Hera's agent and tells Herakles to serve King Eurystheus, for whom he performs his famous Twelve Labors. In the Fate franchise, the Twelve Labors are embodied in Herakles' Noble Phantasm, God Hand, which allows his body to recover from mortal injury twelve times before dying. After his death, the Gods made Herakles fully immortal and brought him to live in Olympus.

While he is kind of a brute, the Greeks didn't consider Herakles a bad guy. He just had an unfortunate habit of falling into a blind, murderous rage every once in a while. Not all of his tantrums were Hera-induced, either. As a young man, he was infamous for beating his music teacher to death with a lyre. After the Twelve Labors, he went berserk a few more times in his life, killing his lovers and children, and had to redeem himself by working for yet more royals. In light of all this, it's no wonder that he was summoned as Berserker. Even under the Madness Enchantment, he manages to form a sweet, protective relationship with Ilya. I wonder what he'd be like sane?

RIDER: Medusa

Unlike the rest of the Servants, Medusa is more famous as a monster than a person. Specifically, she was the beast slain by the Greek hero Perseus to prevent some guy from marrying his mother. She's known for her hideous appearance – snakes sprout from her head instead of hair, and looking at her directly will turn a person to stone. In order to get around this, Perseus watches Medusa through her reflection in a polished shield given to him by the Goddess of Wisdom, Athena.

Of course, this isn't reflected in F/SN's Medusa, who is acknowledged in-game as a very attractive woman. That's because F/SN pulls Medusa from an earlier point in her life, when she was a beautiful woman living alongside her two sisters, Stheno and Euryale. Although they weren't gods themselves, their parents were the primordial gods Phorcys and Ceto, so they had magical blood. While Stheno and Euryale were immortal, this gene skipped over Medusa, which is why Perseus went after her specifically. When he cuts her head off, a magical winged horse – known as Pegasus – springs out of her neck stump. Riding Pegasus, Perseus evades Medusa's sisters and makes his way to safety. He uses Medusa's head to turn his mother's suitor to stone and then gives it to Athena, who mounts it onto her shield. The Perseus myth is reminiscent of modern video games in that it's basically just a layered sequence of fetch quests.

Since Medusa's legend is fairly straightforward, some of her Noble Phantasms are derived from the Perseus and Pegasus myths. Blood Fort Andromeda, the magic circle that she uses to extract energy from the school, is named after Perseus's wife, who he rescued from a sea monster. Since she's lacking in snake-hair, Medusa's petrification powers are instead tied to her eyes, which she usually keeps covered. The bridle that she uses to control Pegasus, Bellerophon, is named after one of the beast's later riders, who tried to fly up to Mount Olympus. However, the strangest mythical connection of them all is Pegasus itself: that flying horse is actually Medusa's child. She was pregnant with the Sea God (and God of Horses) Poseidon's spawn when Perseus killed her.

This opens up a new can of worms for Fate's Medusa and her relationship with her master. Medusa was likely selected as Sakura's servant because both of their stories stem from sexual assault. In the legend, Medusa was turned into a monster because Poseidon raped her in the temple of Athena, and Athena exacted her revenge on Medusa. In Sakura's story, she's eventually driven crazy by the intense abuse she endures in the Matou household. In the Heaven's Feel route, this turns her into Dark Sakura, where she unlocks her true capabilities as a magus and goes on a spree of destruction. Due to their similar pasts, Medusa forms an unexpected bond with Sakura and tries to protect her, even while Shinji is her active master. So even though Sakura desires death, Shirou and Medusa work together to save her with love instead.

As reward for her loyalty, Rider is the only servant who can potentially survive past the Grail War. In Heaven's Feel's true ending, Sakura's rampant consumption of enemy servants lands her a massive mana pool that allows Medusa to hang around. In the game's follow-up, Fate/Hollow Ataraxia, Medusa reveals that Perseus bore a startling resemblance to everyone's least favorite character, Shinji Matou. Now I feel bad for Andromeda. She might've been better off chained to a rock in the ocean.

Interestingly, Perseus was supposed to be Rider in Nasu's original plans for Fate/stay night, back when it was an otome game with (male) King Arthur, Cú Chulainn, and Gilgamesh as planned love interests. That now exists as an animated short and a series of light novels (not penned by Nasu).

CASTER: Medea

Before she was summoned into the modern world and hooked up with an assassin/Buddhist monk/schoolteacher, Medea was the princess of Colchis, most known for her relationship with Jason of the Argonauts. In myth, Jason would be disinherited unless he could obtain the legendary Golden Fleece, which was kept under heavy guard near the barbarian city of Colchis. In order to help Jason's cause, Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love, made Medea, the Princess of Colchis, fall in love with him. Medea uses her knowledge of potions to help Jason bypass the tasks required to obtain the Fleece. Eventually, Jason acquires it, and Medea betrays her own homeland to help him escape Colchis. In exchange for her help, Jason marries her.

This lasts until Jason is offered another politically advantageous marriage with the princess of Corinth. He takes up this offer and leaves Medea. In retribution, Medea kills Jason's betrothed and her father, the king, by setting them on fire with enchanted robes. She then escapes on a chariot of dragons provided by her grandfather, the Sun God Helios. Jason also loses his protection from the Goddess of Marriage, Hera, who rebukes him for abandoning his wife, and he dies soon after by being crushed under the rotting stern of his famous ship, the Argo. Medea, meanwhile, lives on to take part in many other adventures. She was even friends with Herakles and cured him of his madness once!

The Fate universe has a decidedly sympathetic take on the character. While modern readers often interpret Medea's story as an expression of rage against an injustice, the character may not have been intended as sympathetic. The original Greeks would have been against her as a foreigner to begin with, and she also commits the taboo of filicide, murdering her own child. This part of the myth is eliminated in the Type-Moon version, but Medea was originally most famous for killing her children after Jason's betrayal. It's unknown if she did this as retribution towards Jason or as a mercy towards her children, who would've been sold into slavery or murdered for their mother's actions. (The Greeks were very strict about what you do with a dead body, and the vengeful Corinthians would've fed her children's bodies to wild animals to ensure that their souls land in a bad part of the Underworld.) By scrubbing that out, Fate emphasizes Medea's victimhood. She's a pure maiden who was “corrupted” into a witch by Jason.

Fate/stay night plays up the tension between Medea's tragic past and her horrible actions. The 2014 anime adaptation elaborates on her original master – he's a jerk whose style of magic relies on human sacrifices. Disgusted by this, Medea eventually betrays him and releases his captives. She then meets her second master, Souichirou Kuzuki. They fall in love, and Medea resolves to win the Grail and start a new life with him. We're first introduced to her as a monstrous figure who endangers bystanders and tortures Saber, but in the end, we learn that her motives come from a place of pain, and that she's genuinely in love with Souichirou. Although she loses the war (ironically due to an act of betrayal), the narrative rewards her with time spend happily alongside a decent man.

ASSASSIN: Kojiro Sasaki

Throughout all Grail Wars, Assassins are known for drawing the short end of the stick. Kojiro Sasaki is the original assassin, and he may be the best example of this. He can't leave the entrance to Ryuudou Temple, his appearances are limited to several brief encounters over the first two routes, and the third route kills him off early to summon the real Assassin. That's right, he's not even the Grail War's official Assassin, just some sort of botched exception in the ritual.

You see, this fake Assassin was summoned by Medea, another servant. This broke the Grail's vaguely-defined rules, so she wasn't given a historic noble spirit, but rather the magical approximation of a fictional character: Kojiro Sasaki. Nasu is quoted as saying: “If a Master wished to summon Kojiro Sasaki, he would be unable to because Kojiro Sasaki did not exist.” Of course, this is a bizarre statement because most cursory research points to Kojiro Sasaki having been an actual person that really existed, and at the same time, F/SN treats entirely unsubstantiated figures like Medea, Herakles, and Medusa as legitimate servants. No matter how much I try, I can't wrap my head around this. Maybe myth and history got an opposite-day swap for the Fate universe?

If you can provide a conclusive source towards the existence/nonexistence of Schrödinger's bishonen, please tell me. Ultimately, it doesn't really matter, because now we get servants based on the anthropomorphic personification of fairy tales. In the Fate universe, Frankenstein's monster was real, Hans Christian Andersen was a techno-hipster, and approximately half of all famous swordsmen were secretly adolescent girls.

Historically or legendarily, Kojiro is most known for his 1612 duel against the legendary Japanese swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi. At the time, Kojiro was the other greatest swordsman in Japan, famed for his “turning swallow cut” technique. Kojiro was the more established warrior in this fight, while Musashi was the up-and-comer. Musashi chose to arrive three hours late to the duel so he could time his attack to the setting sun. It worked, and Musashi won by striking Kojiro with a wooden blade while he was blinded. The blow punctured Kojiro's lungs, and he died on the scene.

So yeah, F/SN's Assassin is a guy who's famous for losing a fight. Seems fitting.

LANCER: Cú Chulainn

Featured in JRPGs since time immemorial, he's the most famous guy to ever hold a pointy stick: Cú Chulainn! Before Japan got ahold of him, Cú was an Irish mythological hero who appeared in a ton of different stories. He's famous for killing a bunch of dudes (and some ladies) and having sex with a bunch of ladies (and some dudes). He's kind of like the Herakles of Irish mythology, due to his penchant for going temporarily insane and murdering his loved ones. (It's theorized that both figures originate from the same proto-myth.) He's by far the hardest guy on this list to discuss because he did so much in legend, but so little of it is relevant to his Fate/stay night counterpart, who's most known for wearing blue spandex and dying.

Like Herakles, Cú Chulainn was the son of a god (Lugh) and a human woman. His birth name is Sétanta, but people began calling him Cú Chulainn after an incident in his childhood. When our hero was a kid, he was attacked by a guard dog that belonged to a dude named Chulainn. Sétanta killed it in self-defense, but Chulainn was left distraught over the loss of his favorite murderbeast. As compensation, Sétanta promises to raise him a new dog and guard Chulainn's house himself in the meantime. So he became known as CúChulainn, which means Chulainn's hound. This is appropriate to his character in Fate/stay night, who is forced to follow a master he despises out of his honor as a servant. (More like CúKotomine, am I right?) His original master was Bazett Fraga McRemitz, an Irish magus and a bit of a CúChulainn fangirl. Bazett summons him using his original pair of dangly earrings (and wears them herself), but she's betrayed by Kirei and has Lancer stolen from her before the story begins.

Lancer's iconic weapon, the Gáe Bolg (which translates to spear of mortal pain/death), was given to him by his teacher, the warrior woman Scáthach. It lives up to its name. Unlike in F/SN, where it's his default weapon, Cú only uses it as a last resort in the legends. That's because when the spear hits its target, it spreads barbs throughout the rest of the victim's body, turning their insides to mincemeat. You need to cut away chunks of the body to get the spear back out. Cú Chulainn killed both his best friend, Ferdiad, and his son, Connla, in this horrible way. So he was really stabbing himself in the heart with that weapon, if you know what I mean.

To be fair, the child murder was an accident on his part. At one point, he impregnated Scáthach's sister, Aífe, and he told her to send the kid to him when he grew up. Eight years later, a boy named Connla finds his way to Cú Chulainn's house. Thinking that he's an intruder, Cú Chulainn challenges this boy to a duel. Despite several indications that Connla is his son, Cú Chulainn kills him with Gáe Bulg. As the boy lays dying, Cú Chulainn realizes who he is and is instantly struck with remorse. Accident or not, I fail to see how this is much worse than Medea. At least Medea knew who she was killing and why; she didn't just assault random children who wandered near her house. Connla must have been a pretty tough seven-year-old to push Cú Chulainn into a corner, though. Either way, the moral of the story is clear: do not attack children because they may be your secret offspring.

When Irish Herakles is eventually slain, he uses his final moments to tie himself to a rock so that he'll die standing up, facing his enemies. In Fate/stay night's Unlimited Blade Works route, he literally goes up in flames.

ARCHER: (unknown)

This hero's origins are shrouded in mystery. However, based on his white-and-red color scheme, high mobility, and Noble Phantasm containing an enormous factory, I believe it's reasonable to conclude that there is only one person he could possibly be.

That's right. He's Santa Claus.

Oh fine, google the real answer and spoil my fun if you must.

SABER: Arthur Pendragon

While there are many different versions of this legend, most of Fate's version of King Arthur comes from a specific account: Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morted'Arthur (1485). While Arthur's origins aren't all that important in the Type-Mooniverse, the circumstances surrounding his death play a role in both F/SN and F/Z. So here's a quick rundown of the legend:

Arthur was born to King Uther Pendragon as the heir to the British throne. Since Arthur was born from an adulterous relationship, the wizard Merlin whisked the baby away for his own protection. The wizard then pulled his famous “sword in the stone” routine, declaring that whoever pulled it out will be the next king. Arthur does so on the behalf of his foster brother, Kay, whose own sword had broken right before a tournament. Arthur is declared king and starts building his Round Table of knights. The sword in the stone wasn't Excalibur, Arthur's most famous blade, but Caliburn. Arthur receives Excalibur later on from the Lady of the Lake. Over time, Arthur would repel the Saxon invaders and unite all of Britain.

This is where Lancelot comes in. He was Arthur's most renowned knight and closest friend. At the same time, he was in love with Arthur's wife, Guinevere. Guinevere couldn't love her husband because he was too inapproachably perfect, so she entered into a longstanding affair with Lancelot. While Arthur always knew about it, he didn't do anything about the affair until he was forced to address it due to a conspiracy. Guinevere is sentenced to death, and Lancelot declares war against Arthur by stopping the execution. They escape to Lancelot's foreign keep while Arthur chases after him.

Arthur has a son, Mordred, by his half-sister Morgan Le Fey. (In the Fate universe, this son's conception involves Merlin and a “temporary, magical pseudophallus,” which results in Mordred being a clone of Arthur and therefore female.) While Arthur is off chasing Lancelot, Mordred usurps the throne. Arthur is forced to head back and deal with the situation, leaving his business with Lancelot unfinished. Nasu specifically borrows from the Malory version when depicting Arthur's death. He (she) impales his (her) son (homunculus-clone) with a spear, only for the usurper to drag their body up the shaft and land their own killing blow. After the battle, Arthur's last remaining knight Bedivere nurses his dying king, who commands him to throw Excalibur back into the lake. He does so, and Arthur is ushered off to the enchanted, paradisal island of Avalon.

The Arturia from Fate was pulled from the moment between her final battle and her ascent to Avalon. She's an exceptional heroic spirit because she hasn't actually died yet – she makes a deal with otherworldly forces to act as a heroic spirit in exchange for an opportunity to find the Grail and fix her past mistakes before death. That's why she can't turn intangible like other Servants and retains her memories between Grail Wars. (Normally, servants lose their memories when they “die” in the war so that they can be summoned into another one “fresh.”) At the end of the Fate route in Fate/stay night, Arturia finds peace and heads off to the afterlife in Avalon. Eventually, Shirou joins her, and they spend eternity together. The epilogue to ufotable's recent anime adaptation of the Unlimited Blade Works route sees Shirou and Rin visiting King Arthur's alleged tomb in Glastonbury, England. It's a nice capstone to their experiences with her, even if this route doesn't give her emotional conflict a resolution.

Although a million other things happen to Arthur, that's the long and short of their importance to Fate, and the Type-Moon version of Arthur isn't that far from the source material, gender difference aside. (If anything, changing Arthur's sex only made his incest-cum-fratricide story crazier.) Like the canonical Arthur, Arturia's “flaw” is that she's too dedicated to her role as King and too proper in her chivalrous conduct. Her self-righteousness kills Guinevere, disillusions Lancelot, and lets Britain fall to ruin the moment Arturia leaves the throne unwatched. Her ideals were based on maintaining an eternal, authoritarian vigil over her kingdom herself. Her people became reliant on her for moral guidance because she didn't try to teach them how to govern themselves. This is the core of Iskandar's criticism of Saber during Fate/Zero's pivotal “Feast of Kings” scene, and her belief that a king shouldn't display weakness like a normal person ends up wrecking her. After the events of Fate/Zero emotionally throttle Arturia, Shirou Emiya teaches her how to live as a person and not the human representation of chivalry. This involves getting her in touch with her gender, her own likes/dislikes, and of course sexual desires. (In the DEEN anime, the teens exorcise their sexual frustration through chaste communion with a CG spirit dragon.)

All in all, Fate/stay night's intimate relationship with the legends it borrows is impressive, marking itself as a fascinating work of mythic revisionism like Neil Gaiman's Sandman. I've criticized aspects of its storytelling in the past, but I'm always drawn back into the intricate world that Nasu has built. Next time, I'll talk about Gen Urobuchi's contribution to the Fate mythos, Fate/Zero. There will be more kings, more devils, and yet another tragic, spandex-clad Irishman.


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