Somali and the Forest Spirit
by Rebecca Silverman,
How would you rate episode 8 of
Somali and the Forest Spirit ?
One of the most interesting aspects of Somali and the Forest Spirit is the way it goes along like a bittersweet dream and then suddenly, almost casually, drops in a scene of unrelenting brutality. So, you know, just like a fairy tale. This week's episode mostly takes place in the distant past, when humans and so-called “grotesques” were just starting their war, so it perhaps isn't surprising to find one such instance. That doesn't make it any less horrible to watch even just the start and end of a village of humans beating a two-headed dragon to death and then to see children continue to pelt the corpse with stones. It's chilling and almost certainly intentionally reminiscent of any scene out of history where one group of people has decided that another is inferior and therefore less human than they are.
This has been a theme across the entire series, and it's driven home here because it's part of the tale of Haraiso that Golem and Somali were trying to read. It turns out that the volume in question was last read (and, in fact, written) by the ancient head librarian of the witches, a woman named Isolde who now lies dying in her chamber below the library. Despite Praline's help (yep, still hate her!), Golem and Somali are able to reach Isolde and hear the tale directly from her. It is the story of Isolde's ancestor Feodora, who, as a young witch, was blown off course and wound up in a small human village watched over by a golem named Haraiso. While there Haraiso advises Feodora to claim to be human for her own safety, something proved wise by the way the entire adult population of the village turns on her when she reveals her witch heritage by saving the life of one of their children. Haraiso allows her escape, but Feodora, and later Isolde, is haunted by the experience and the horrible revelation of humanity's boundless cruelty.
Haraiso maintains that humans are simply a fearful race, afraid of what they don't understand or that which is different. But what's more interesting is the way that they've all accepted Haraiso and decided that he's a god because of his differences. Presumably the first humans to meet him tried to kill him and part of his godhood is based on the fact that they couldn't, but it's still the one off-note in all of this. Feodora and perhaps Isolde both may see it as a small crack in the wall of humans' implacability, what Leonard Cohen referred to in his piece “Anthem” as “the crack in everything/that's how the light gets in.” We've seen that light in the oni and Haitora's relationship with his harpy companion and now in Isolde, where the fact that the girl Feodora saved, Miya, still wanted to call the witch her friend even after learning that she was a “grotesque” is the original bit of light.
This is where the names of the two witches prove interesting as well. Isolde is an anglicized version of the Irish Iseult, and the best-known bearer of that name is the Irish princess from the legend of Tristan and Iseult. While many things happen in the various versions of the tale, it is worth noting that Iseult heals Tristan, which is something that Isolde in the episode seeks to do – heal the rift between humans and others. She worries that she's done the opposite by putting Feodora's tale on paper (and things sure did go wrong for Tristan and Iseult), but it's still an interesting connection. Feodora, meanwhile, is the Russian form of “Theodora,” a name born by one of the most influential women in the Byzantine empire, a woman who rose to incredible power. That clearly happened with Feodora in the show, who became the head librarian, but she's also got a link to a German princess of the same name, who is notable for, among other things, her close relationship with her half-sister Victoria (yes, that Victoria), which we can see mirrored in the in-show relationship with Miya. Both names are unusual enough in modern usage that their appearances here don't feel all that coincidental.
Although we haven't seen much of Golem and Somali this week, this feels like a very important episode in the grand scheme of things. Not only does it definitively place the blame for poor relations on the humans (although it's probably much more equally distributed in reality), but it also gives us another golem who made his life's work taking care of people. (The fact that he has a name is more likely due to the humans he works with, like Somali calls Golem “dad.”) If there's any hope for this world, it may come down to Golem, Somali, and the friends they make along the way. Maybe they can take those little cracks where the light shines in and make them wider.
Somali and the Forest Spirit is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
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