The Stories Behind the Servants of Fate/Zero

by Gabriella Ekens,

Welcome back to our compendium on the legends behind Type-Moon's hit Fate franchise! Part one was all about Fate/stay Night, and you can read it here. This time, I'll be covering F/SN's prequel series, Fate/Zero. Based on a series of light novels by Gen Urobuchi, Fate/Zero blends his distinct voice into Kinoku Nasu's greater vision. Keep in mind that I'll be talking about both series from top-to-bottom, so this is your one and only SPOILER WARNING.

ASSASSIN: Hassan-i Sabbah

If Lancers exist to die sexy and dramatic deaths, Assassins exist to be forgotten about as soon as they're out of the picture. While FSN's Kojiro Sasaki at least has a reputation for comical unimportance, Hassan-i Sabbah is mostly just a narrative tool. Before he teams up with Gilgamesh, Kirei Kotomine needs to be in the war, so he needs to have a servant, but that servant can't actually matter very much.

The original Hassan-i Sabbah was a 12th century Persian missionary and rebel, most known for founding the Hashshashin. Historically, the Hashshashin were a Shiite Islamic sect who fought against Turkish and Christian invasions of Persia during the 12th century. Lacking a sizable army, their agents instead became proficient at espionage, infiltration, and assassination (of course). The word “assassin” famously derives from “Hashshashin.” Despite their enduring reputation as a faction of killers, only the lowest rung in the Hashashin performed assassinations. These members were proficient in psychological warfare and could often intimidate their targets into compliance without killing them. For example, their targets would often return home to find a threatening note and dagger on their pillows. If they had to kill someone, it would often happen in a public place, in order to maximize the terror inflicted.

When Marco Polo came back from his Eastern journeys, he reported that Hassan-i Sabbah would inspire fearsome loyalty in his troops by drugging them with hashish – a form of cannabis. Under its influence, they'd have a vision of the afterlife – a secret garden of paradise – that they would be rewarded with for committing themselves to the Nizari cause. While this has been disputed by historians, the Hashshashin's legend is now indelibly associated with marijuana. I can't wait to see that Noble Phantasm.

Oh wait, I have.

The Fate universe's Hashshashin takes more from their folkloric reputation than the historic reality. In Fate, there are apparently 19 different Hassan-i Sabbahs – the name was made into a pseudonym for the fictional Hashshashin's various leaders and master assassins.

That means F/Z and F/SN's Hassan-i Sabbahs are distinct characters with different abilities who happen to share the same name, vague appearance, and organizational affiliations. F/SN's is known as “Hassan of the Cursed Arm” while F/Z's is “The Hundred-Faced Hassan.” These refer to their Noble Phantasms. F/SN's Hassan has a demonic arm that can remotely crush the target's heart. He's also more plot device than character, even compared to F/Z's Hassan, so I'll leave him at that for now. All you need to know is that F/Z's Assassin is a completely different servant.

F/Z Hassan, by contrast, has the superpower of multiple personality disorder. This allows them to manifest as up to 80 distinct bodies, each with a different demeanor and specialty. Lady-Hassan handles delegation, child-Hassan is a sleeper agent, and voiced-by-Vic-Mignogna-Hassan gets sacrificed immediately. Assassin doesn't die until all of the bodies are gone, so Kirei sacrifices a bunch of them to do reconnaissance duties for Tokiomi. This reflects the assassination branch of the historical Hashashin, who were taught to consider themselves disposable agents fighting in service of a divine cause.

Hassan may be the least developed character in Fate/Zero's cast of dozens, but that doesn't mean he's totally vacuous. There are revealing similarities between this servant and his master, Kirei Kotomine. Like Assassin, Kirei is a killer trained in service of a religious cause. They both also lack an independent identity. Nobody cares about what either character wants – they're both just pawns to help another party win the war. They're both also plagued by a sense of dissatisfaction concerning who they are, looking to the Grail for answers. If Hassan-i Sabbah hadn't been wiped out, he would've eventually turned traitor and used the Grail to consolidate all of his identities into a single person. Kirei survives long enough to do this for himself, killing his mentor and forming a partnership with the all-powerful Gilgamesh. With that, the former tool is suddenly a front-runner in the war. While Kirei doesn't get his mitts on the Grail in this war, he ends up in an advantageous position for the next one.

CASTER: Gilles de Rais

Unlike most servants, Gilles de Rais was definitely a real person – and that's terrifying. He was born in France in 1405, inherited a Barony, and fought in the Hundred Years' War alongside Joan of Arc. Having completed his patriotic duty, Gilles dedicated the rest of his life to wasting his money, performing satanic rituals, and murdering children. He was responsible for lots of child murder. At an estimated 140 victims, he's one of the most prolific serial killers in history. He's believed to have inspired the 1697 fairy tale “Bluebeard,” about an aristocrat who marries women only to kill them and remarry.

His Noble Phantasm, Prelati's Spellbook, was inherited from Gilles' mentor, a supposedly powerful magus. It literally summons Lovecraftian monsters. The novels describe it as “the text of the sunken spiral city,” which is a reference to R'lyeh, the underwater city where Cthulhu lies sleeping. Historically, Francoise Prelati was a servant of Gilles, who used demon summoning as a pretense to scam him. Gilles was going broke at the time, so Prelati convinced him that contact with the demon Barron could ease his monetary woes. Although Gilles provided severed body parts from his victims as offerings to the demon, Barron never wanted to be in the room with Prelati while the summoning was going on, so it wasn't that tough for the conman to make a racket by pretending that the ritual had been unsuccessful. Gilles spent a year of his life doing this before he was captured, put on trial, and executed. However, it's suspected that this was motivated more by an effort to usurp his wealth before he squandered it all than any desire to punish his horrific crimes against humanity. (His victims were mostly lower-class citizens and peasants.) F/Z latches onto this theory and makes it central to his character.

The biggest fabrication in Fate/Zero is probably Gilles de Rais's attachment to Joan of Arc. While they did fight alongside each other (he was part of her personal guard and present for some of her most famous moments), he seems to have been disinterested in her death. In F/Z, this couldn't be further from the truth. Fate universe Gilles was deeply invested in Joan's spiritual campaign and probably in love with her. It broke his spirit when Joan was killed, and he succumbed to his darkest impulses. Gilles isn't an entirely two-dimensional madman if only because he has a point – it's messed up that a good person like Joan was killed while his own reign of terror was left unimpeded. Gilles wanted to believe in a benevolent God so much that he cast himself as a devil in order to bait divine retribution. According to Gilles's logic, if God doesn't get pissed at the stuff he enjoys doing, then there isn't one. So his repeated blasphemy is really a campaign to summon God's influence on Earth or prove his nonexistence, and as an added bonus, he loves killing people. Two birds with one stone!

This is why he and Ryuunosuke Uryuu are a match made in hell. As the more easygoing psychotic killer between them, Ryuunosuke teaches Gilles to chill. Mr. Cool has his own ideas about God. Instead of the just deity that Gilles wants to believe in, Ryuunosuke sees the eye-in-the-sky as a sadist just like them, which means it's their job to entertain him. This makes Bluebeard loosen up. Together, the two decide to put on a show for God by summoning a giant monster, killing as many people as possible, and just having a blast. Team Caster ain't here for a long time, but they're here for a good time.

Ryuunosuke's philosophy is also meant to be a commentary on what the audience (and author) wants out of the story. Gilles and Ryuunosuke do horrible things, and we don't condone those things, but we also don't want them to have acted differently. Why? Because it's entertaining! Sure, the notoriously brutal Urobuchi makes bad things happen to his characters, but we also eat it up. According to Fate/Zero, we can't criticize Team Caster's actions without criticizing ourselves, since we're complicit in the thirst for drama. We are part of Ryuunosuke's sadistic observer God, and all of the suffering in F/Z is meant for our enjoyment.

LANCER: Diarmuid Ua Duibhne

Ireland really does have a monopoly on Lancers, huh? Two in a row, and they're both pretty boys in skintight bodysuits. While Cú Chulainn remains my Type-Moon hunk of choice, Diarmuid has his charms. That is, if you're willing to wait in line for them.

Diarmuid was famous for his stunning good looks, but when it comes to wooing the ladies, he's technically cheating. One night during a hunt, Diarmuid was seduced by the mortal incarnation of Youth, in the form of a pretty lady. She put a "love spot" on his face that would make every woman who laid eye on it fall for him. Unsurprisingly, this would return to bite Diarmuid in his firmly toned butt.

The most extensive legend surrounding Diarmuid is The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne. In the story, Diarmuid is obligated to elope with his lord's betrothed, the princess Gráinne, after she falls for the love spot and places a geis on him. (Geis are vows that you're commanded to obey. Traditionally, the price of breaking one is dishonor or even death. They are usually placed by women upon men, and they were also key in Cú Chulainn's demise.) After a long chase, the lord pardons them, and the couple return to live happily for a short while. However, it turns out that this was all just a ruse, and the lord eventually kills Diarmuid in a more emotionally devastating fashion. Just like in F/Z, the mythical Diarmuid was a noble idealist torn in half by a world that doesn't abide by the spirit of chivalry. Like Arthur, he indentures himself to a code of conduct that few people actually practice, and this ethical inflexibility ends up destroying him.

This all has clear parallels to the relationship between Diarmuid, his master Kayneth, and Kayneth's fiancé Sola-Ui. Sola-Ui is unhappy with her arranged betrothal to Kayneth, but he's too caught up in himself to realize it, so she falls hard for his servant instead. Kayneth isn't quite dense enough not to notice, but he thinks that it's because of Diarmuid's love spot. (He's ignoring that Sola-Ui is immune to its effects as a born magus, which means that she's just dissatisfied with her engagement.) This means Diarmuid is once again torn between two contradictory obligations. Of all the servants featured in the Fate universe, Diarmuid's the one who really can't catch a break. Poor guy. He just wanted to chill with Saber and get praised by Kayneth, but he ends up being betrayed by Kayneth and cursing Saber with his dying breath instead. I guess you just can't dodge narrative karma.

BERSERKER: Lancelot du Lac

I mentioned this guy last time during the entry on Saber/Arthur Pendragon. Arturia reunites with Lancelot, her old friend and comrade, during the 4th Grail War, when he's summoned as the mindless Berserker.

Although Arthurian legends originate around the 7th or 8th century AD, Lancelot doesn't appear in them until around the 12th century. That's surprising, considering how central he is to those tales now. Many Arthurian legends feature Lancelot as the protagonist more than Arthur. It's theorized that Lancelot's story started out as a separate myth that was later inserted wholesale into Arthurian legend. (Some people even think that his romance with Guinevere was based on Diarmuid and Gráinne.) Like Arthur's story, there are a million different versions of Lancelot's legend. Type-Moon doesn't establish a specific version for his origins, but it does retain his title as “the Knight of the Lake.” This suggests that they're going with the version where he was raised by the Lady of the Lake. (You may remember her as the person who gave Arthur Excalibur.)

In this tale, Lancelot was born the son of a deposed king. As his family escaped from their former domain, he was spirited away by the Lady of the Lake, who raised him to be a knight. When he came of age, the Lady sent him to King Arthur's court. Lancelot grew up admiring Arthur, eager for the opportunity to prove himself to his idol. When Lancelot arrived, Arthur immediately recognized him as the ideal knight and accepted the young man as a member of the Round Table. As soon as he arrived, however, Lancelot fell in love with Guinevere, King Arthur's wife.

Like Arthur, Lancelot went on about a million adventures, but the only one that really matters to Fate is Arthur's death. Since I've already outlined that in the previous article, I'll just flesh out Lancelot's role this time. His affair with Queen Guinevere eventually led to Arthur's death and the downfall of the Round Table, because the king's pursuit of their elopement forced him outside Britain's borders. While they were madly in love, both Guinevere and Lancelot were also frustrated by Arthur's unreachable perfection as the embodiment of chivalry, pushing each of them further into the other's arms. In F/Z, it's further implied that Lancelot was actually in love with the female Arturia. Since Arturia had no concept of her own femininity, he tried to get close to the king through her wife, who was just part of the effort to maintain the façade that Arturia was a man.

Berserker's identity is left a mystery until near the end, which is easy because he's not in his right mind for most of the story. The class skill Mad Enhancement makes him an uncontrollable ball of rage when his head is covered. (Since he wears a suit of armor, that would be all the time.) Even in his madness, Lancelot kept going after Arturia because he wanted her to kill him as punishment for his affair with Guinevere. Her masquerade as the perfect, chivalric, nigh-divine King was a source of anguish for both him and Guinevere, and Lancelot wanted to see Arturia deviate from that in his last moments. He succeeds! At the end of F/Z, Arturia has a mental breakdown and decides that her life was one big mistake. She changes her wish for the Grail from a second chance to rule England to undo her reign as king entirely. Good job, Lancelot! You did it!

Berserker doesn't interact much with his master, Kariya Matou, although they do share some similarities. Kariya was also in love with an unreachable woman, Tokiomi's wife Aoi. This led to tragedy, as Kariya gave up his life in a futile attempt to save her children and impress her. My favorite F/Z “what if” is "what if Kariya and Lancelot had a real relationship?" They have plenty in common, like having melty faces and pining after women who aren't interested in them. Maybe they could have found some solace in each other?

RIDER: Alexander the Great

Alexander is straight-up one of the most influential people in recorded history. He's in the top ten alongside Muhammad, Jesus, and whoever invented pizza. He's such a big deal that almost two-and-a-half millennia later, we're still naming kids after him. (Is your name Alexander or Alexandra?) His story has fascinated people since the Roman Empire for good reason. His dad, Philip, was the previous hero-king. His mom, Olympias, was a devout member of a heretical snake cult. They didn't like each other. At one point, Olympias had another one of Philip's wives burned to death alongside her infant daughter. This behavior isn't too beyond the pale for the Macedonian royal family. It turns out that Game of Thrones really happened, and it was Alexander the Great's childhood.

In about twelve years, Alexander the Great established one of the ancient world's most extensive empires. When he inherited the crown in 336 BC, the Macedonian empire was about the size of modern-day Greece. When he died in 323 BC, it extended down into Egypt, all the way to India's western edge. He controlled 30% of the world's population. It's difficult to understate his accomplishments or pick out just a few incidents from his life to sum him up. You could read a book about his legacy, but if you're strapped for time, there's always Reign: the Conqueror.

F/Z's take on Alexander accentuated all of his positive traits while eliminating all of the negative ones. Yes, he was charismatic, magnanimous, and a tactical genius, but he was also responsible for way more human suffering than even the ultimate creeper Gilles. He was ruthless. After ascending to the throne, he had many of his rivals executed, and most of them were his relatives. While the anime makes Alexander's military campaigns look like one giant party, the reality was probably closer to a parade of calculated subjugation. He had to kill and enslave hundreds of thousands of people to do what he did. In Fate/Zero, Alexander's Noble Phantasm is based on the combined powers of everyone who followed him in life, but the historical Alexander wasn't all that popular during his time. The Greeks considered him a tyrant. Alexander only managed to quell a rebellion in the Greek city-state of Athens by burning down the equally ornery Thebes. (That's why Thebes, one of the most prominent locations in Greek mythology and a dominant cultural center, basically doesn't exist anymore.) Persian literature refers to him as “the accursed” and depicts him subjugating followers of Zoroastrianism. Sure, the Romans loved him, but they went on to produce their own set of egotistical murder-dictators. (Julius Caesar, anyone?) Beyond that, Alexander was solely motivated by his own reputation. He just wanted to be like one of his heroes from the Iliad.That's like waiting in the jungle to attack people because you want to be like Rambo.

I don't think any of this stains Alexander's character in F/Z though. After several thousand years, there's no negative impact it can have on the actual people who were victimized by the historical Alexander, and the story relies more on his mythologized deeds than his military campaigns. Fate's Alexander is a symbol for his own ideals. He's a person who recognizes his limitations but accepts them to live life to the fullest. He's joie de vivre incarnate, and his military campaigns were a mission to spread this feeling across the known world. This is reflected in his Noble Phantasm, Ionioi Hetairoi, which summons his massive army of loyal followers to beat down the enemy. This includes his loyal steed, Bucephalus. When Alexander was ten years old, he supposedly tamed the wild beast by teaching it not to fear its own shadow. That's right – Alexander was so charismatic that he taught a horse to believe in itself. He rode Bucephalus during most of his military campaigns, and he named a city in its honor after it died. Of course, my favorite Ionioi Hetairoi cameo is definitely this one. Can you guess who it is?

Alexander and Waver have the most heartwarming master/servant relationship in the entire war. At the beginning of the story, Waver's on the path to becoming yet another conniving, bitter magus until Alexander teaches his charge that he's valuable for his quality as a person and not just his skills in magic. Inspired by Alexander, an older Waver embraces his talents as a leader and becomes a force for good in the magical world. Waver's fate is the one ray of light at the end of a show where the bad guys almost totally win.

The historical Alexander died in Babylon, which is ironic considering who took him out in Fate/Zero. Speak of the devil...!

ARCHER: Gilgamesh

It's time for the main event. The “mysterious blond man,” the King of Kings, the man who makes a mongrel out of us all.

Kinoku Nasu supposedly chose Gilgamesh as the “strongest hero” because it was the oldest legend that he could find. Gilgamesh's story comes from one of the oldest known works of literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh, which is dated to around 2100 BC. If Gilgamesh actually existed (and there's some evidence to suggest that he did) he would've ruled territory in modern-day Iraq sometime between 2800 and 2500 BC.

Gilgamesh was a demigod (two-thirds God and one-third human), born to be the king of Uruk. In his youth, he mistreated his subjects, so the Gods created a man named Enkidu to tame him. After an epic brawl, the two become fast friends. They go on adventures together, like slaying the giant Humbaba. But things turn sour when Gilgamesh rejects the advances of the goddess Ishtar. In retaliation, she convinces her father, the high god Anu, to make the Bull of Heaven attack them. The heroes defeat it, but Enkidu commits an act of heresy by throwing the Bull's thigh at Ishtar. He's condemned to death for this, and Gilgamesh loses his best friend. Grief awakens Gilgamesh to his own mortality, so he goes on a quest to find the cure for death. This leads him to the bottom of the sea, where he obtains a plant that restores youth. It seems like he's triumphed in his quest, until he stops to bathe on his way home to Uruk. He leaves the plant by the side of the pool, where it's eaten by a snake. The snake learns to shed its skin, while Gilgamesh resigns himself to building a legacy that will live on beyond his death, having been denied true immortality due to his own carelessness.

The Fate version of Gilgamesh's story is mostly explored in side materials and takes a lot of the sex out. Originally, the prostitute Shamhat “tamed” Enkidu by having sex with him for a week and shaving him, since he was coated in hair from top to bottom. Part of Gilgamesh's tyranny was the practice of prima nocta, or the highborn right to have sex with a woman before her husband on their wedding night. These elements were removed. Enkidu and Gilgamesh were also originally described as being around eight feet tall, which certainly isn't true of their Fate versions. (Enkidu is actually summoned as a servant in a series of alternate universe Fate novels, Fate/strange fake. He's a Lancer and his master is a dog.)

Although Gil is known for his Noble Phantasm, the “Gate of Babylon,” he doesn't actually have anything to do with that city. Babylon is just where the oldest known version of Gilgamesh's legend originated. His ultimate weapon, the red magical drill sword Ea, is named after a Sumerian god associated with water, intelligence, and creation. To activate Ea, Gilgamesh uses the phrase enumaelish, which is how people refer to the Babylonian creation mythos.

Fate's Gilgamesh is an interesting reinterpretation of the myth. He's less evil and more ruled by a moral code that's incompatible with the modern world. His game bio even lists his alignment as “Chaotic Good," which is strange for a guy who keeps trying to destroy the world in cleansing fire. Still, it makes sense when you think about it. The Epic is from a time when some men were considered capital-G Great. Men like Gilgamesh were thought to have divine dominion over the Earth and humanity, and he was the cream of this crop – a version of his story has the alternate title “Surpassing All Other Kings.” Ultimately, Gilgamesh's myth is about his transformation from an irresponsible ruler into a responsible one, when he's forced to recognize his human side via his mortality. However, this just tempers him as a ruler; it doesn't put him on the same footing as the average person. This worldview doesn't fly today. Modern culture is more about the inherently equal value of all individuals. To us, a “benevolent tyrant” is an oxymoron.

It's no wonder that Gilgamesh resents Tokiomi. He's a nobody trying to lord over the King of Kings. Tokiomi is a classical patriarch, enforcing king-like authority over his household, and he expects Gilgamesh to conform to this relationship as his servant. This is a fatal mistake. Gilgamesh doesn't play by anyone's rules but his own, so he arranges Tokiomi's assassination through an apprentice, Kirei. After Gilgamesh becomes sort-of mortal again, Kirei enters into an inverted master/servant relationship with him, and the rest is history.

Gilgamesh's haughtiness is also his weakness. In F/SN, Gilgamesh loses because he refuses to use his full capabilities against Shirou until it's too late. He only uses his strongest Noble Phantasm, Ea, against enemies who he perceives as worthy – for example, his fellow king Alexander. Shirou/Archer is Gilgamesh's antithesis, as a person who rises to power and influence from humble origins. Shirou's ultimate victory over Gilgamesh represents an ideological struggle between two different value systems, where modern ideas about equality and social freedom triumph over an ancient regime of inherent class-based worth.

That's not to say that this took down Gil for good. As a fan-favorite, he's come back over and over in side materials like Fate/strange fake and Fate/Prototype. He was also a playable servant in Fate/Extra CCC, a game for the Playstation Portable. In the mobile game Fate/Grand Order, you can even collect different versions of Gilgamesh and create your own Pokemon team/harem out of the collector king himself!

It's interesting that there are far more master/servant parallels in Fate/Zero, and I attribute this to F/Z's status as a tragedy. Structurally, most legends are also tragedies, so they have more in common with F/Z than the more triumphant F/SN. Next week, we'll continue our journey into the mythologies behind these anime superheroes with the Black team of Servants from Fate/Apocrypha's Great Holy Grail War. There's still time to check it out on Netflix before then!


discuss this in the forum (4 posts) |
bookmark/share with:

Feature homepage / archives

Loading next article...