Fate/Zero: The Paradox of Unbridled Idealism

Management: While my opinion of the show is generally positive overall, this essay, by no means, is meant to serve as a comprehensive review, but rather, as an articulation and analysis of some of what I feel is this series’ most integral and interesting themes. This essay was made addressing ideas from Episode 11 of Fate/Zero, “The Grail Dialogues.”  This essay is meant to take the place of a previous essay on the show.

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A temporary reprieve from this bloody business called battle is held as the three historically sovereign heroic spirits present in this age’s Holy Grail War, Saber, the King of Knights, Rider, the King of Conquerors, and Archer, the King of Heroes, sit down for drink and conversation, the conversation evolving from kingly courtesies to discussions about how each would use the grail to arguments about kingship in general. The centerfold tension of the entire discussion is Rider’s opposition to Saber’s view on proper kingliness. I’m not going to talk about proper kingliness per se.

The following words aren’t meant to answer the question of who is a true king. Saber, Rider, and Archer have different answers based on fundamentally different understandings of the position. They can argue all day without proving the other wrong, because “king” is an artificial, and thus subjective, construct. Rather, from their debate, I’ll talk about what the show thinks constitutes a good political leader.

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In political science, “power” is defined as the capacity an person, group, or state has to compel another person, group, or state to do something that the latter would otherwise not have done. These parties can do this by exercising their reserves of “hard power” and “soft power.”

“Hard power” is the power of force and coercion. “Soft power” is the power of attraction and persuasion. During the action segments of Fate/Zero, hard power among the three servant kings is based, more or less, on the combat abilities they possess and utilize during the show’s iteration of the 5th Holy Grail War. During the “The Grail Dialogues,” hard power factors heavily in how successful they were as monarchial rulers in their past lives. However, in the absence of being servants in their past lives, with the attendant superhuman physical capabilities and superpower noble phantasms of their present circumstances, they were people that, although skilled as fighters, drew most of the total power they needed to rule, protect, and conquer domains from the armies they commanded.

These armies were not insentient tools that these kings could wield like swords and axes however they please. These armies comprised of sentient men, living people whose allegiances to one liege could be stayed or broken if they so choose. Combined, armies possessed more hard power than these king alone. A king alone is little more, in his sole capacity, than a mere man among many. How does a king alone manage to obtain the allegiance of whole armies to bolster his relatively puny amount of hard power?

Soft power. What about these regal individuals, from their status, spoils, personality, and philosophy, is able to attract and persuade whole armies to bend the knee and buckle their weight for a particular king? It’s a combination of things, even in Fate/Zero, but each servant king sharing drink and conversation has his and her own soft power preferences.

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Now Fate/Zero, and the Fate series in general, isn’t entirely realistic in its portrayal of historical and legendary figures like Arthur Pendragon, Iskandar(Alexander) the Great, or Gilgamesh, least of all the genderbent Arthur, or Arturia. Knowing their history and legends might provide greater appreciation for their characters in the show than what might  otherwise be the case, but the show provides, more or less, what you need to understand about these characters to understand their positions. Substitute these three with three other kings with the same character traits that happen to be purely fictional, and their positions on power and kingship wouldn’t change.

1. The bulk of Saber’s soft power, in life as King Arturia Pendragon, resides in the moral fervor of her ideals. A servant king in both senses of the word in her past life on the British Isles and her current presence in Japan, she stands for justice, fairness, and righteousness. She attracts those vassals that believe in the same.

2. The bulk of Rider’s soft power, in life as Iskandar the Great, lies in his relationship with his vassals. He exhibits concern for their personal lives, pays attention to their interests, and celebrates with them when they triumph.  Those vassals exhibit concern, pay attention, celebrate, and follow him willingly as a result.

3. The bulk of Archer’s soft power, in life as Gilgamesh, lies in the aura of prestige he embodies. His presence exudes the extremes of charisma and confidence, and commands respect and the consequent splay of power. Vassals follow him because they are afraid of him, awed by him, grateful to him when, after loyal service, he would listen and perhaps do a favor for them or two. This splay of power, in turn, bequeaths him even more power.

“The Grail Dialogues,” and the notion of a true king in each servant king’s eyes is reflective of each servant king’s preference of soft power.

However, the philosophical discussion of kingship soon becomes flippant ridicule of Saber’s philosophy by Gilgamesh and heated criticism of the same by Rider.

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This criticism of words by Rider becomes a criticism of developments as the show progresses, as the fates of each of these three servant kings unfold.

Rider’s criticism of Saber is threefold.

1. First involves regret for how she ruled. Rider finds this personally offensive, seeing as how his pride as a king is intimately tied in his pride to his men. Doubting how he ruled would not only a betrayal to himself.  It would be betrayal to his dead but loyal vassals, akin to spitting on their graves after they have been pushed into them. He may mourn and grieve for them, but he would not sully his people’s sacrifices, whom he considers as important to him. Despite Saber claiming that her people are important, to Rider, she was desecrating their memory. It is a symptom of something problematic in Saber’s philosophy.

2. Second involves her blind idealism at the expense of grounded realism. That grounding is based on the relationships, or lack thereof, between Saber and her vassals. In life as king, she attracted some vassals to her cause because of the appeal of her ideals, but those idealists constituted only a fraction of her army’s might. The rest of her vassals prioritized other things, wanted other things besides loyalty. Many wanted privileges, riches, reprieves from the heaviness of their obligations duties, the magnanimity expected by loyal subjects from an understanding and generous lord. Saber would have none of it. She wouldn’t grant any spoils, because spoils is compromise, and compromise is corruption. She might be willing to live the austerities attached to her ideals herself, but many of her vassals didn’t. Not even Lancelot. The interrelationships between her and her non-idealistic vassals suffered.

3. Third involves these aforementioned interrelationships. Rather than repair these interrelationships or even engage with her non-idealistic vassals in even the most basic levels of pleasant social interaction, she neglected them because of her hyper-piety. She alienated them. Their concerns were selfish in her eyes. To them, she could care less if they protested. Rather than abide with their concerns unaddressed and their dignities sullied, they decided to rebel against her. When they got rid of her, they would replace her with a king who would be more willing to listen to them. Saber’s idealism created soft power that initially enhanced her hard power by some when idealistic vassals joined her court, but that idealism, turned blind, undercut her hard power by a lot when many aggrieved and self-interested vassals turned traitor.

If competent kings be competent politicians, then she was a no king at all, or, in terms less harshly than Rider, a terrible king in general. She failed to understand and respond accordingly to the people she dedicated herself to, and the price for that was, ironically enough, justice, fairness, righteousness, and the British Isles going up in smoke and fire. This contradiction of living up to ideals for her people and losing her people in the process, compounded by how she dishonored the memory of those who bled and died for her because she was king by declaring that her rule and their lives were for naught, both brought her doom. She is undeserving, in Rider’s eyes, of the respect due a sovereign.

Rider provides his philosophy as a counterpoint, with himself as an example: a king that lives for himself. It sounds counterintuitive on the surface, but when a king lives for himself or herself, he or she  has the capacity to live and rule for his or her people in the process. If Saber followed a flexible version of Rider’s philosophy to govern, then she that would have a better understanding of human nature and realize that people tend to live out of their own self-interest. To maintain her prestige and, thus, power as king, she would know she would have to cater to these self-interests where needed to maintain their favor of her if she wanted to get them to do anything. Her vassals, in turn, would remain loyal to her as their king. She would realize the necessity of engaging actively with her vassals and engage them with the self-interested knowledge of how. Rider and even Gilgamesh were generous to people who were loyal to them while maintaining themselves as the greater of them, and they in turn kept true to their extant loyalties out of respect to a king who embodies majesty to be inspired by and magnanimity to be grateful for.  Their soft power promoted, their hard power not only preserved, but enhanced.

Saber might have continued in her past life to advocate nevertheless on behalf of justice, fairness, and righteousness, maintaining her soft power and hard power all the while. She would do it with the notion guiding her that this kind of advocacy is something that she wants to accomplish personally rather than something everyone should simply be forced to swallow by fiat. Following Rider’s example, she might be able to convince vassals overtime through active engagement to adopt her views on how to rule as theirs. At that same time, she’d flexible enough to accommodate and compromise with those vassals, less in line with her values, whose service she needs.

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So what makes a true king? “The Grail Dialogues” poses this question. However, due to both the fact that different people offer different answers to the inquiry and absolute monarchical style rule has come out of fashion, I think trying to find an objectively correct answer isn’t the point. What is important is the thematic lesson of the episode, which is applicable to political leaders in general. The lesson is given context by Rider’s positive engagement with Waver Velvet, and Waver’s willing submission of loyalty to Rider’s service as a consequence; given caution by Saber and Kiritsugu’s inability to work well together despite their shared ideals.

However humane its aims, beware the paradox of unbridled idealism.


One thought on “Fate/Zero: The Paradox of Unbridled Idealism

  1. See, this is some lucid analysis, and I wish the show communicated its message as clearly as this essay. During my first watch, I remember not quite understanding the flaws in Saber’s philosophy, and how they led to her demise. Nor did I quite understand the relevance of the discussion of kingship to the rest of the show.

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