House of 1000 Manga The Earl and the Fairy
by Shaenon Garrity,
I admit it: I feel like I'm behind on the shojo manga these days. The most popular shonen series make enough noise in fandom that even an old Dirty Pair-reading fart like myself knows more or less what's up, and anyway right now it's mostly Attack on Titan spinoffs. But shojo is a slightly smaller and considerably more private genre, maybe because it doesn't have as many elaborate character designs for fan art and cosplay. (I've seriously seen someone dressed as a fifteen-foot-tall Titan, but if I saw the two Nanas from NANA together, that's when I'd really plotz.)
So when I'm choosing shojo for this column I go to the experts, specifically manga guru Deb Aoki, who provides me with many of my House fixes, and Viz editor Pancha Diaz, who specializes in shojo. So, with their guidance, here I am reading The Earl and the Fairy, the manga adaptation of an as-yet-untranslated light novel series by Mizue Tani. I'm wary of light novel adaptations, or really manga adaptations of almost anything except Neon Genesis Evangelion, and even then I'm mostly reading for the wack dialects Carl Horn gives the characters. I like my manga pure and uncut. But hey, even Dirty Pair was originally a light novel. So what the hell.
Scotland, 19th century. Cheerful young redhead Lydia is a “fairy doctor,” an expert on fairy lore, with the ability to communicate with supernatural creatures no one else can see. In past eras fairy doctors were respected professionals, but nowadays hardly anyone believes in fairies, not even in quaint Scottish villages like the one where Lydia lives. Her father, a professor of folklore, is off in London, and inevitably her mother, who taught Lydia fairy doctoring, is dead, so she hangs out in the family cottage with her BFF, Nico, a sardonic fairy who takes the form of a cat in a little ascot. All the humans in town think she's weird, and, in the kind of assessment that only happens in romance fiction and the less agreeable online forums, she's considered unattractive for her green eyes and “rust-colored” hair.
Lydia is a heroine in the Disney mold, albeit more gainfully employed than most. She's got the outcast status (“I'm not ashamed of my ability. I don't care if they think I'm strange!”), the animal sidekick, the upbeat attitude, even a little bit of pixie dust. All she needs is a handsome prince. And so, on the way to London to meet up with her father, Lydia crosses paths with Edgar, who is…not a prince, but The Blue Knight Earl, a legendary link between the human and fairy worlds. Actually he's not the earl either, but he does a pretty good impression. In fact Edgar lies a lot, hence the subtitle of the first volume of the light novel, Hakushaku to Yōsei Aitsu Wa Yaga Na Daiakuto (The Earl and the Fairy: He Is an Elegant Scoundrel).
By shojo manga standards, Edgar is a pretty mild level of scoundrel. He always has a noble reason for his schemes, like needing to help his ass-kicking, butler-clad attendants Raven and Ermine. And sexually, he's a perfect gentleman; by Volume 3 he's sending Lydia flowers and pledging eternal devotion in the face of her ongoing skepticism. (Raven sometimes fills in as the dangerous dude, casually threatening to kill Lydia out of devotion to his boss.) For her part, Lydia is smart and strong-willed enough to call Edgar on his sneaky behavior, making them a cute couple. The manga doesn't get around to introducing any of Edgar's romantic rivals from the light novels, like an asshole kelpie who stalks Lydia, so their relationship develops, over the course of magical adventures, without too much in the way of serious challenges.
In fact the manga doesn't get around to a lot of material from the novels. The light novel series ran for 33 volumes, whereas the manga only lasted for four, and inevitably a lot of threads are left dangling. Edgar's shadowy arch-nemesis, Prince, who enslaved him as a child and seems to be behind every fairy crisis Edgar and Lydia investigate, is frequently mentioned but never explained, and the manga ends without him making an appearance. (Viz's decision to translate Prince's name without an article—just “Prince” rather than “the Prince”—allows me to envision him as The Purple One. “I am still Prince's slave.” After “When Doves Cry,” aren't we all, Edgar?) The first story arc covers the first novel in two volumes, which doesn't allow a lot of room to send the characters across Britain and Ireland in search of a magic sword as conflicting plots and prophesies spin around them. The action is hard to follow, and I'm still not sure if that damn prophesy got fulfilled or not.
The second story arc is more straightforward, as Edgar hooks Lydia up with a fairy case to investigate in London. As the characters settle into their roles, the manga seems to be setting up a formula for endless adventures: Lydia and Edgar solving supernatural mysteries in Victorian England. Instead, it ends just as things get promising. Oh, Margaret magazine, why must you taunt me?
Despite the choppiness that often comes from a novel-to-manga adaptation, I'd like to see more of The Earl and the Fairy. Ayuko's artwork doesn't do much beyond faithfully copy the style of the illustrations in the novels, but it's attractive and effective, with merry-faced women, Handsome Men, gnarly gnomes and boggarts, and picturesque Victorian settings. And it's interesting to see a Japanese take on Western folklore, especially when it's as well-researched as this. Lydia leaves out bread for the fair folk, fakes crying to attract curious fairies, and follows other practices of traditional lore from the British Isles. She doesn't really have any powers beyond knowing a lot about fairies, so when she gets into danger (for example, getting her soul separated from her body and sucked into a bottle) there's real tension. If the manga ever comes back, I'm up for another shot of fairy dust.
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