Somali and the Forest Spirit
Episode 11

by Rebecca Silverman,

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Somali and the Forest Spirit ?

The golem of Vilna, in Poland, Joseph Buloff tells us, was formed by the gaon, or genius rabbi, in order to help and protect the Jews of that town. He helped with chores during the Sabbath (when no work could be done), brought food to the poor, and when the anti-Semites came, “how the golem used to crack their heads and break their arms and legs! There was no way they could escape from him.” The Vilna golem took his role of protector and provider seriously, and our Golem in Somali and the Forest Spirit this week more than proves himself equal to his mythologic roots. While he's been growing into an exemplary dad over the entire course of the season, this week really takes him back to where golems originated as Somali's existence is threatened more than it has ever been before.

That said, he and Shizuno are a little slow on the uptake, which is presumably intended to build tension. It does that, all right – I'm sure I'm not the only one who spent long moments of rage shrieking at the screen when they trusted Rose and followed her map. Seriously, you have folk songs, people, why do you not have fairy tales that taught you never to trust a wolf in aunt's clothing?? Golem may be excused from that, because as a forest guardian he's never really had much interaction with others, but Shizuno and Yabashira should have.

But for viewers, this is actually really effective. We all know what's going to happen to Little Red Riding Hood when she trusts the Big Bad Wolf, and part of the appeal of folklore is the hope that maybe this time, something will change in the darker stories. We watch this week's episode in the hopes that it won't go down like we think it might, all the while feeling at least moderately secure that Golem will save the day. And it seems like it might be headed in that direction…until it isn't. When Golem's arm breaks off under the weight of his clay armor and he collapses, it's the kind of horribly breathless moment when you can't quite believe what just happened. It's particularly ironic given the passage from “The Golem of Vilna” I quoted before – it's the bad guys' arms that are supposed to break, not the hero's.

This sort of pointed reference to golem myths helps to underline the theme that Somali and the Forest Spirit has been working with, and occasionally bringing up in a much less subtle way – systemic prejudice. Really, the story could have used anyone from the folklore of any historically marginalized people to be Somali's parent – I'd actually love to see one using John Henry – because what it needs is a folk hero created to stem the tide of oppression. What's interesting about the decision to use a golem is that all of the golem tales take care to say that the golem is not really human, and in this case, that sets him apart from the humans and the beastmen both. He has no horse in this race in terms of racial bias, and he loves Somali because she's herself - her status as a human has exactly nothing to do with it. In this sense, he's the ultimate figure of love overcoming hate, and if the hunters hadn't gone after Somali he would have left them alone, even if he knew what they had done to other humans.

That's not something Rose is capable of understanding. Her hatred for humans has become so ingrained in her based on her own culture and her experiences that she can't even see that her actions – being kind to Somali until she realized that she was Other and then making plans to eat her – make her no better than the humans she tells stories of. Rose and others like her define themselves by being “not like humans,” so that even when their behavior is just like humans', they can't believe it – because if they're just the same, then what does any of it mean?

Golem still has it in him to fight for his daughter, so this isn't over yet. He's obviously tapped into power reserves that even he didn't know he had, so Somali may very well be fine. But what will happen to Golem? Buloff ends his tale with “it will be much better if we never have need of the golem again.” His words mean that he hopes for a world where there is no race-based prejudice, a better one. But even if we never again need a golem, we'll still need fathers. It is my great hope that Somali will end the series with hers.


“The Golem of Vilna” can be found in Yiddish Folktales edited by Beatrice Silverman Weinreich.

Somali and the Forest Spirit is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.

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