Catching Up With Fairy Tailby Rebecca Silverman,
At sixty-four volumes long, plus one prequel volume penned and illustrated by series creator Hiro Mashima himself, Fairy Tail is one of the more digestible shounen epics. I know, that sounds a little ridiculous with the volume count just mentioned, but both anime and manga are not only divided into convenient story arcs that feel nicely conclusive, but those arcs build on each other, all coming together in the grand finale whose anime adaptation begins in short while. As a creative writer myself, I know better than to assume that Mashima really did have each step of Natsu and Lucy's journey planned out meticulously, but the real master-of-his-craft aspect is how it all does manage to flow into a single, chaptered narrative that gives us not only the triumph of the good guys over the bad ones, but also a story that allows its characters to grow without ever losing the sense of good-natured fun that made them appealing in the first place.
Like many long-running stories, Fairy Tail has not only an abundance of characters, but also a number of themes that inform the various plot arcs, whether those are native to the manga or anime-only inventions. Chief among those is the idea of family. As a guild, Fairy Tail is initially run by Makarov, a grandfatherly man who not only ended up raising his grandson Laxus, but also made his guild a home for kids with no where else to go – Erza, Natsu, and Gray chief among them. Each of them came from a different difficult situation: Natsu was raised by a dragon who disappeared suddenly, Gray's master was killed by a monster (or rather, stopping the monster; trust me, it's different), and Erza was kidnapped and forced to work as a slave until she escaped during an uprising. For them, the Fairy Tail Guild is their family, and even when Natsu learns that he's still got a brother or Erza reconnects with some of the people from her past, the guild remains their source of strength and comfort. Lucy falls into this – prior to the death of her father, the guild helps her to get on her feet and gives her a place to belong, and once she returns from a plot arc to find herself an orphan, she is able to cope because of the people of Fairy Tail.
Of the specific plot arcs that truly delve into this theme, Galuna Island is the first, revealing Gray's past and what brought him to the guild. The Phantom Lord arc, which directly follows it, as well as the subsequent Loke arc, both deal with Lucy's past and the strength she's gained from coping with it, a strength she's able to use to rescue Loke, who has spent far too long feeling like he has to be alone. When the next three arcs, Tower of Heaven, Battle of Fairy Tail, and Oracion Seis, each also deal with the family circumstances of Erza, Laxus, and Wendy respectively, you could be forgiven for wondering if there's anyone who doesn't have a tragic family history that landed them at the guild. Perhaps that's why family takes a slight backseat as a theme until the final two arcs of the story, Alvarez Empire and the upcoming 100 Years' Quest, both of which tackle Natsu's past and question whether his true family is the one he was born to or the one he found for himself. And really, that's at the heart of this particular theme – almost without exception, everyone in Fairy Tail has something in their pasts that others had a difficult time dealing with. The guild, first founded by Mavis and later carried on by Makarov in line with her ideals, provides a home for them, a place and people they feel they can belong with. While other guilds offer something similar, none of them have the same force of feeling that Fairy Tail inspires. It isn't a home, it is home, the place where guild members can be themselves. In this series, your family is the one you choose because they're truly there for you.
Like many of its shounen brethren, Fairy Tail is divided into a number of clear-cut arcs, with a couple being exclusive to the anime. Impressively, they do often expand on the themes of the manga, particularly in the case of Lucy's relationship with her (by then deceased) father, and often the manga has more moments that feel like story padding than the anime. Probably the most notable difference between the two is that Fairy Tail Zero gets a stand-alone manga volume but is simply shoe-horned into the anime rather than getting its own spin-off series. Given the brevity of the book (only about two hundred pages, or thirteen chapters), this does make sense, but it can be confusing if you aren't expecting it. Throughout the series we meet many characters – an intimidating amount, really – but there's a core group who form the solid center. They are:
Lucy Heartfilia, the entry-point character. She's the main heroine of the series and has a close (albeit largely non-romantic) relationship with Natsu. The scion of a wealthy household, she's a celestial mage who forms contracts with spirits, notably those of the western zodiac. An aspiring writer and determined individual, Lucy often finds herself in a losing battle to keep Natsu on-track. While she has a lot of good moments, she really shines in the Loke Arc, which not only shows how powerful her magic is, but also how much she cares.
Her direct counterpart is Natsu Dragneel, the brash main hero of the story. He's a fire dragon mage, raised by Igneel, an actual fire dragon. Although Natsu follows the basic brainless hero trajectory of many shounen tales, there's a steely determination underneath it all, and he feels things very deeply. Igneel's vanishing when he was a child shaped his view of relationships, and Natsu will do just about anything to keep those he cares about together. He's got a troubled relationship with Zeref, the main bad guy of the series, stemming from many years in the past, far longer than anyone would expect. This is what's going to shape the final arc of the story, but it starts to have a major effect in the Alvarez Empire storyline.
Gray Fullbuster is the secondary male protagonist, an ice mage who was orphaned early and then basically again when his master was killed. His gimmick is that he keeps unconsciously undressing, but he's the straight man to Natsu's impulsiveness. Like Natsu, he learns that he's not the orphan he thought he was when his father resurfaces in the Tartaros Arc, and at this point Gray becomes an even more powerful wizard. Both anime and manga make a strong attempt to pair Gray off with Juvia after she appears in the story and falls madly in love with him, but I at least never get the feeling that he actually loves her the way she does him, which makes that particular subplot feel undercooked.
Erza Scarlet completes the main quartet as the secondary female protagonist. Erza is the most powerful wizard in Fairy Tail, a fierce woman filled with determination. A large part of that comes from her troubled childhood as a slave, which we learn about in the Tower of Heaven storyline. She eventually escaped, but her childhood sweetheart Jellal was left behind, and Zeref is able to manipulate him into doing some truly awful things. This sets Erza up as the tragic heroine of the piece as well as the strongest wizard – she and Jellal are clearly in love, but Jellal feels that he can't be with her because of his past wrongdoings. Erza doesn't agree, but she does respect his feelings, making them vaguely analogous to the Herd Boy and Weaving Maid of the Tanabata legend. Despite this, Erza does her absolute best to maintain order and even has a stint as the guild master in later arcs. She's the kind of person who gives her utmost in any situation, whether that's teaching little Natsu manners or leading the charge against a villain. You really need look no further for a strong female character who's more than just physical.
Finally, let's take a brief look at the basics of each of Fairy Tail's most important story arcs and films. There are too many to cover in any sort of depth in this article, but the watching or reading the highlights will get you ready for the upcoming Alvarez Empire and 100 Years' Quest.
Fairy Tale Zero is a standalone manga volume focusing on the founding of the guild by Mavis, who appears in the main story as a ghost. It's largely tragic but ultimately hopeful, with the relationship between Mavis and Zeref informing Mavis' ideals in starting the guild. This really shapes Zeref as a character we can understand, which is central to the upcoming story. (Anime episodes 266 – 275)
While the first three story arcs set up the guild and characters, things start to get meatier with the Galuna Island Arc, which begins when Natsu and Lucy take a job way above their pay grade. Ultimately it becomes the story of Gray's past, and how his master sacrificed herself in order to stop a demon. While the explanation of why Gray tends to strip adds some levity to the situation, this marks the series' first real turn towards darker material and the way that the guild truly functions as a family for its members. It directly informs who Gray is and his evolution as a character, and it covers volumes four – six of the manga and episodes 11 – 20 of the anime.
Although it is short, the Loke Arc, plays with the idea that what guild you belong to only helps to shape your allegiances to the forces of good or evil. Loke, we learn, is a celestial spirit, Leo the Lion, who was controlled by a less-than-scrupulous celestial wizard. In an effort to stop her, he refused to return to the spirit world, making it impossible for her to summon other spirits and ultimately resulting in her death. Even though changing her ways would have solved the problem, Loke still sees himself as responsible, and it is only through Lucy that he is able to regain his status as a spirit and his belief in himself. This arc, which is covered in volume 9 and episodes 30 – 32, is both one of the most compact and one of the strongest with its focus on the series' greater themes and the strength of its heroine.
Its general hopefulness also provides a good counterpoint to The Tower of Heaven Arc which follows it. This storyline focuses on Erza's bleak past and her tortured romance with Jellal, the first true victim of Zeref we see in the story. This is another one the manga does a bit more justice to, with three manga volumes (10 – 13) and only eight anime episodes (33 – 40). What's key here is Erza and Jellal's relationship, because apart from being romantic, it also foreshadows (or perhaps “mimics”) that of Mavis and Zeref in the Zero arc, giving us a base to begin to understand Zeref from.
The Battle of Fairy Tail brings back Laxus to the fold, but more importantly builds on the sense of guild pride that we saw in lesser proportion in the earlier Phantom Lord storyline. While Phantom Lord was important simply in that it introduced Gajeel and Juvia, ultimately the Battle of Fairy Tail (volumes 13 – 16 and episodes 41 – 51) takes its themes and ramps them up. If you want to understand what its members love about Fairy Tail as a guild, as well as begin to get an understanding of Makarov's adherence to Mavis' wishes, this is essential.
Although parts of the Oracion Seis Arc do drag – and it's one of the longest, covering volumes 16 – 20 and episodes 52 – 68 – it's most important in that it introduces the other major “good” guilds in Fiore, with whom Fairy Tail often finds themselves allying. Wendy's backstory is also brought to the fore, which becomes important later on, so this is really an arc that's key in terms of setup for what comes later, rather than important in and of itself.
Tenrou Island (volumes 24 – 30, episodes 96 – 122) is the next major piece of the story. It sets up a major time-skip for the characters when guild members looking to advance to S-Class and their chosen partners all find themselves attacked during their trials on the eponymous island. They end up in stasis while the rest of the world assumes them to be dead, paving the way for them to see what a world without Fairy Tail's strongest mages looks like. It's a good mix of humor and darker moments, and we begin to see Gray's past come back to haunt him with the introduction of his master's daughter, Ultear, who blames him for her mother's death. It's also one of the better-handled time-skips in the genre, which makes it worthwhile as well.
The next major plot point comes in the end of the Grand Magic Games Arc, around volumes 36 – 40 and episodes 176 – 201. This is where we learn more about not only Zeref, but also the truth about the dragons who all mysteriously vanished one day and the nefarious forces working to end the world. The rest of the Grand Magic Games is a decent tournament story, but when the resting place of the dragons is discovered, that's when things really start to get good…and important to understanding what's on the menu for the newest arcs.
That begins to become truly apparent in the Tartaros Arc. This not only pits the guild against their most difficult foes to date, it also brings back Gray's past in a vicious way (although not as sad as the resolution of the Ultear storyline in the Grand Magic Games), and for the first time suggests that maybe Fairy Tail isn't really strong enough to defeat all evils. This arc sees the destruction of the ruling forces in Fairy Tail's world as Zeref begins to bring his plans to fruition…even as we begin to understand that he might not really want things to go as cruelly as they are. If, as the song goes, the darkest hours are just before dawn, this is Fairy Tail gearing up to spend a long time in the darkness, and the storyline contained in volumes 42 – 49 and episodes 234 – 265 is one of the strongest to date…even as it ends with Fairy Tail's dissolution.
Although this is directly followed by the Avatar Arc (volumes 49 – 51 and episodes 276 – 77; Fairy Tail Zero slips in-between), wherein Lucy and Natsu try to get the gang back together again, the more important piece to watch leading up to the new season is the second film, Dragon Cry. This directly leads up to the revelations of the Alvarez Empire storyline, bridging the gap between Zero and Alvarez and what we know about Natsu's origins. That it's gorgeously animated and feels like it could be part of Mashima's original manga is a major bonus.
Of course there's more to the world of Fairy Tail – the Priestess of the Phoenix film, spin-off manga about other characters such as Wendy, Gray, the Twin Dragons, and Gajeel, video games, and even a couple of light novels. But this should get you caught up for the final season, which manga readers already know is going to be a heavy one. Get your magic ready and buckle in – and be sure to stop by the forums to let us know how you're enjoying the new season so far!
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