|It is the end.
But the moment has been prepared for.
This is the path from Crown to Kingdom.
It’s May 10, 2014. Pharrell Williams remains “Happy” to play us out. The top movie is the Seth Rogan comedy Neighbors. In the news, violence between pro-Russian and pro-European factions in the Ukraine continues, the World Health Organization announces that polio is once again a growing international health concern, and on the day this two-parter airs, Austrian recording artist and drag queen Conchita Wurst wins the Eurovision Song Contest with “Rise Like a Phoenix.”
Meanwhile, the fourth season of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, and My Little Po-Mo with it, end with the two-part finale “Twilight’s Kingdom” by Meghan McCarthy.
In the beginning, there was Light. God, the Universe, all things were One, and that One was Light. And God said “Let there be Dark,” and the Light retreated, retracted, creating a space that no longer held Light.
The Dark remembers it once held Light. It wants it back.
In many ways, this entire story is an extended riff on the original piece of pony animation, the My Little Pony TV special, originally untitled but called “Rescue at Midnight Castle” on DVD and streaming services. That special introduced Tirek, a demonic being who wielded the Rainbow of Darkness and had the power to transform and corrupt ponies, impressing them into his service as dragons. At the end, he tried to attack the (seemingly ineffectual) Rainbow of Light wielded by the ponies and their human friend, Megan, only to have it first absorb his Rainbow of Darkness and then destroy him.
Now he’s back–and, despite never having appeared in Friendship Is Magic before, it is explicitly a return within the episode. Celestia tells the story of his long-ago invasion of Equestria, and it is more or less the story of “Rescue at Midnight Castle,” if one replaces Megan and the ponies of that story with Celestia and Luna, cuts Spike and the Moochick, and makes a few other minor tweaks, with the biggest change being that it ends with Tirek being imprisoned rather than destroyed. (On the other hand, he’s imprisoned in Tartarus, part of the Greek afterlife, so even that is consistent with him being killed.)
And, interestingly, he believes that the magic of Equestria–all the magic, upon which the world itself depends–belongs to him, that he is not stealing it but reclaiming what’s rightfully his. Simply the greed and narcissism of a cartoon villain who believes that, because he wants something, it belongs to him? Or a memory of a time before the Dark?
And it gets, a little bit, what it wants. A little trickle of light into the darkness, swirling into a vessel, a fruit, the rind of which is necessary made of the Dark because it has to hold the Light, and Dark and Light are the only things that exist so far.
What is it for?
This is Keter, the Crown. It sits above the head, which is to say before inspiration even begins; it is the first stirrings of creative intent within the Infinite. It is the source of all form, and hence formless, an empty impulse to creation without any sense of what to create or why.
Twilight Sparkle has lost her sense of purpose. With the aid of her friends and her magic, after years as a student, she has attained enlightenment, the Crown of the princess. She has passed from student to teacher, brought together the shards of (the Rainbow of) Light, the Elements of Harmony, and restored them to their place in the Tree. She has ascended, attained apotheosis; she has climbed to the top of the tree.
Now what? Now she is filled with potential but devoid of purpose. The problem with being One with all things is that there is no room for anyone or anything else. To create and to connect, One must become many, must descend toward the world, the Kingdom.
The other three princesses have walked this path before her. They assure her that she has a purpose, and that she will find it. And by the end of the episode we see that she does: “That is the role I am meant to have in this world. The role I choose to have.”
“Meant to” is passive voice; it obscures who means her to have that destiny. But in the next sentence she answers: she does. She fulfilled one destiny, but her life continued and therefore she needed another, so she created it herself.
Just as all of the Mane Six did when they decided that they were destined to meet, based on the shared experience of getting their cutie marks from the first Sonic Rainboom. The Rainbow of Light is everywhere in Twilight’s life, right back to the beginning.
The Light trickles further. Chokhmah, the spark of creativity and inspiration that channels the pure potential above into the specific creation below, and Binah, the intuitive insight of how to apply that inspiration.
It is Discord that gives Twilight her key, literally and figuratively. Before setting off to face Tirek, he is trying in his own way to be helpful, generously providing her the bookmarked entries in the journal that are the clue to how to open the crystal box, but laughing mockingly at her as he does it. Generosity and Laughter together, as they are side-by-side on the Tree of Harmony.
There’s a mirror to this a little later, when Twilight first has that spark of inspiration and realizes the secret of the box: each of them has faced a challenge to their Element, and in the process taught someone else about that Element, receiving a souvenir in return. Those souvenirs are the keys–literally, as Pinkie Pie discovers when she throws hers into the box. (The line between intuition and a lucky guess, after all, is quite thin.) Inspiration and Intuition together, as they are side-by-side on the Tree of Life.
But one key remains. Twilight must face a crisis of friendship, and teach someone else a lesson in the process, before she can discover the secret of the box.
Down the Light drips, creating the Tree as it goes, filling and overflowing each vessel in turn. Chesed, loving-kindness, compassion, the necessity of ensuring that one’s creation is not destructive, but rather, in some way, makes the world a better place for being in it. And Gevurah, judgment and limitation, the honest recognition that one cannot do everything at once, and must choose the good and reject the bad.
Discord is not a good friend. He does seem to be actually trying, most notably with the gift of the book, but he still enjoys annoying others too much, which is to say he is still a petty sadist. He also lacks judgment; he is easily tricked by the more socially adept Tirek–it is in the nature of the trickster to upend norms and invert relationships, after all, and that includes inverting the relationship of trickster to tricked. Tricksters often find themselves falling for the tricks of others, as witness stories like “The Death of Anansi” or “The Farmer and the Devil.”
He mimics the acts of friendship, but doesn’t really understand the underlying necessity of empathy, of acknowledging that others have unique and non-negotiable needs and preferences which differ from his own. He has not, in short, learned Lesson Zero. He also lacks good judgment; he has in the past been effectively impossible to hurt or control without the Elements of Harmony, and so he naturally assumes Tirek cannot harm or effect him. Between these two factors, he is easily fooled into thinking that Tirek is being a friend toward him, and swayed by promises of freedom.
Note the argument Tirek uses, however: he promises to help Discord escape from the restraints of his ties to others, to become free of the world in which he is enmeshed, and thereby become more fully himself. What Tirek is promising, in other words, is a dark form of enlightenment–he has already usurped the role of representative of the qlippoth from Discord. No wonder he steals Discord’s power so easily later on! He’s already practically finished the job from the moment they meet.
The branches, near-pure Light at the top and slowly partaking more and more of the Dark as they go lower, converge. Here is the nexus-point, the trunk of the Tree where everything above converges into the moment of decision. This is Tiferet, Adornment, the point where compassion and judgment, kindness and honesty, must be balanced so that correct action can begin.
Twilight Sparkle has a lot of experience in combining powers. The first appearance of the Rainbow of Light in Friendship Is Magic–heralded as such by the reprise of the original My Little Pony theme–is in the second part of the series premiere, when Twilight brings together the Elements of Harmony and releases it against Nightmare Moon. She’s a natural pick, then, to combine the powers of the princesses, even if she struggles to control it at first.
Tirek, by contrast, combines nothing. He is the Dark, snatching and devouring the Lights. His power is stolen, consumed, broken–thus, even with the combined power of every unicorn, pegasus, and Earth pony in Equestria, plus Discord, he is still only an even match for the combined powers of the alicorn princesses. He cannot defeat Twilight power-for-power, so he must instead force her to make a choice: her friends, or her magic.
He does not understand what Twilight understands, that this is a false choice. Friendship is magic; as long as she has her friends, she has her magic. She just needs to figure out how to access it after Tirek drains it.
And as for Tirek, given all the power he craves, what does he do? He destroys trees. His goal is obvious: to destroy the Tree, to cut the world off forever from the Light, so there is only what he has consumed. But to do so, he must destroy every tree, because every tree is in some sense the Tree–few more obviously than the Tree of Knowledge in which Twilight resides, the very first he destroys.
The Tree is supported by another pair of vessels, the third and final such pair, gateway to the trunk. They receive the decisive intention and power of Tiferet, and split it again so it can be balanced. Netzach, Victory, is the passion the creator puts into the work, the emotional force, the feelings that cannot be expressed through words. It is the shining power of the sun, creating warmth and life. Hod, Majesty, is the creator’s thoughts, the intellectual aspect of creation, that which can only be expressed through words. It is the powerful royal voice, decreeing what shall be.
Celestia and Luna are sealed in Tartarus, but they are here in spirit. They were the original wielders of the Elements of Harmony, after all, and it was they, together with Cadance, who told Twilight she would find her destiny. The box which grew from the Elements, Twilight realizes and decides, contains that destiny.
I have complained before that this series often cross the line from Friendship Is Magic to Friendship Is Mandatory, and unfortunately that happens here. Even though Twilight has never consented to Discord’s friendship, only tolerated having it thrust upon her, she chooses to own him as her friend here, a choice that seems forced on her by narrative necessity. A redemptive read is possible, however, if we note that Twilight had her moment of revelation–which, as for the other ponies in the key episodes, is shown by having the Rainbow of Light briefly play across her eyes–before asking for Discord to be freed.
We can take this to mean that she knows she has to teach Discord to be a better friend by modeling that friendship for him, and that in turn she knows that this will give her the final key to unlock the box and defeat Tirek. She willingly surrenders power that rivals Discord’s own–the power to take the kind of freedom Tirek offered Discord–in exchange for her friends, because she recognizes them as worth it, and in so doing she models for Discord the concept of putting one’s friends’ interests ahead of one’s own.
She rejects the notion of enlightenment Tirek offers, of escape and freedom from being tied to the world, and instead, this pony, who has already experienced apotheosis back in “Magical Mystery Cure,” chooses to be bound to the world, to be bound to her friends, even bound to Discord. Because she has climbed the tree, and seen what is to be seen from the top.
At last we reach the trunk, the connection to the world, the moment of creation itself. This is Yesod, the Foundation, the womb from which all things are born, and the point where the divine, filtered and made safe by the vessels above, actually touches the world. Traditionally, it is identified with the tzaddik, the righteous one, the Enlightened.
Twilight has climbed the Tree, ascending to apotheosis and embracing her destiny. Now she has returned, as the Enlightened do, as a teacher. She shows Discord what true friendship really looks like, and chastised, he gives her the final key.
Within the box is, of course, what had to be in the box all along: the Rainbow of Light. It no longer belongs to the Elements of Harmony or to the Tree, but to Twilight and her friends. The ancient drama replays: Tirek attacks it with his own power, and his power is taken away from him. The Light returns to where it belongs, spreading out into the hearts and souls and cutie marks of all the ponies of the world.
That is, after all, what Light does when it meets Dark: push it back, shove it away into the corners and the depths. Tirek remains what he always was–hungry, nasty, and weak, able to wield only stolen power, gnawing away in resentment at what he lost. While Twilight Sparkle? She shares her power, her Light, and grows ever stronger as a consequence.
Only one vessel remains: Malkuth, the Kingdom, which is the world. This is the lowest of all vessels, the closest to the primordial Dark, into which the creation must be released. This contact is never survived wholly intact–no creation is ever quite what it was envisioned to be, never quite captures that moment of pure potential with which it began. Even in the Beginning, the rabbis tell us, the Light was too much for the vessels, even filtered through all ten, and they shattered into shining shards, each bearing an imprint of the Light and of all ten. These are the souls of humanity, and it is the role of the tzaddikim to gather these shards back together and restore the Light, healing the world, undoing the damage done at its beginning.
This, it is implied, was no accident, but planned from the start.
The error all too many people make, when talking about spiritual progress and enlightenment, is thinking that spiritual progress and material progress are distinct and that, therefore, enlightenment is one-and-done. That there is some pinnacle of attainment from which there is nowhere else to go, and perfection is achieved.
But the vessels were always meant to shatter. Perfection is an illusion, and progress is not teleological. It is not a process of narrowing down to a singular endpoint, but of climbing up and out into new possibilities. The tzaddikim and bodhisattvas both understood this; that’s part of why they come back.
Because you can climb the Tree and sit at the top in contemplation forever, sure. But we don’t climb trees to see into space. The sky still looks basically the same from a treetop as the ground. But the world, that’s different. The real reason we climb trees is so that we can see the world below from a different angle.
The climb up is enlightenment. The climb down is an act of creation, of bringing what we have seen into the world so that we may find ways to share it with others, to plant a seed containing the Light into the ground–which is to say, to gather the sparks, the souls, with which to rebuild the vessels–and thus create a new Tree, from which to spread Light across the Kingdom.
So it is that Twilight’s new castle partakes of elements of both the Tree of Harmony and the Golden Oaks Library, which is to say the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge. Because that too is a story of how the world started out broken, and it is up to us to fix it, to bring back together what once was. But the castle is also a tree, which is to say it can be climbed to see the world in a new way.
For three seasons, Twilight was a student, combining the duty we all share of healing and helping with a boundless curiosity and desire to overcome her ignorance. But she reached the Crown, and became a teacher instead. This season began and ended with her questioning her role; in between it gave the answer. Over and over again this season, we have seen the Mane Six teach others about their respective Elements of Harmony, and in the process they have learned and grown themselves.
Every creative work, be it the masterwork of a great artist or the scribblings of a child, a life lived or a scientific theory, even a silly little cartoon about singing, colorful magic ponies, is a tree made of Light, dribbling down from Crown to Kingdom. And because every tree is the Tree, we always have the option to choose to climb it, to be enlightened, to see the world anew.
And then in the act of climbing back down, of sharing what we have seen, we create a new tree, which someone else can climb if they so choose, while we go on to other trees. Because if every tree is the Tree, than the Tree is every tree, and no two trees offer quite the same view from the top. Again and again we cycle up into enlightenment and understanding and down into creation and the healing of the world, progressing, evolving, learning, growing, and we never have to stop because there is no end-point, but an infinite space into which to expand. We are, every one of us, at once creators and seekers, teachers and students, princesses and ponies, working to grow our trees, all together, forever.
There will be a semi-hiatus for the rest of the month. Regular features (Captain’s Log Weekly Digest on Tuesdays, Video Vednesdays, Fiction Fridays, and Saturday liveblogs) will continue as scheduled, but there will be no content on Mondays and Thursdays, and Sundays will be guest posts if I have them to post. Currently I only have one, on Discorded Hooves. Please contact me if you would like to do one or have something I can use, as I need at least two more.
Regular posting will resume on February 1 with the beginning of The Near-Apocalypse of ’09, a psychochronography of the DC Animated Universe.