Retroactive Continuity: Another Castle: Grimoire

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Mea culpa: I somehow managed to miss two weeks of updates, which means I owe y’all THREE NA09 chapters and AT LEAST three videos. I’m trying to queue them all up now:  NA09 posts Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday, and multi-video posts Tuesday and Thursday.

The original Super Mario Bros., which of course is the referent in the title Another Castle, does not actually have an ending. At the end of every world, Toad informs you that the princess is in another castle, until you finish World 8 and find her–but even then, she just tells you to try a more challenging game, starting you over from the game’s beginning, but now the enemies are stronger or faster. Reach her again, and she does it again, over and over, until eventually the game runs out of more challenging versions of itself to throw at you–but even then, you’re not done. The game just returns to its original version and repeats the entire cycle over again.

The princess is unattainable. The only ways to end are to give up, to die, or to play a different game. The last option being the only one that leads to further choices, it’s clearly the way to go.

The concept of the princess is shifting now. Once, as Another Castle observes, princesses were passive entities traded as pawns in diplomatic games. The daughters of royalty–indeed, of nobility in general–were married off to unite families and generate heirs, and fairy tales reflect that old reality. The princess is a prize to be won, a symbol of the hero’s ascension into the rank of royalty, with little in the way of agency. Fantasy, in turn, reflects the fairy tales its writers grew up on, and so the video game princess is the unattainable prize dangled in front of the player, a promise of ascension never fulfilled to pull us along the game’s path.

But something has changed in recent years. “Princess” doesn’t always mean passive feminine object anymore. It never entirely did–Princess Leia largely rescues herself in Star Wars–but in animation and comics in particular, it’s starting to mean something else entirely. In Disney movies like Tangled, Wreck-It-Ralph, and Frozen, and cartoons from a variety of sources, like Adventure Time,  My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic,  and She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, the position of princess is increasingly depicted as one of political authority and magical prowess. Indeed, in those last two, it has little to do with royalty at all, and instead means something akin to “archmage.”

Another Castle: Grimoire is in large part about that transition. Beldora is, at first, a fairly typical princess of the Disney Renaissance: she feels oppressed by castle etiquette and politics, bound by conventions and rules, and yearns for More(tm). When she is forced to surrender to the evil Lord Badlug to protect her kingdom from destruction, her path seems as clear to her as it is to us: get the magic sword, slay him, and rescue herself. It is classic 90s Grrl Power libfem: the problem is that women are second-class citizens, and the solution is empowerment, which is to say More(tm): princesses who slay monsters and rule their own kingdoms, more women as CEOs, more women as cops and soldiers.

But it isn’t that simple, and the comic, to its credit, reflects that. Trading one tyrant for another doesn’t do much for the people on the street, even if the new tyrant has way better hair. Beldora wants to be someone other than who she’s told to be, but it’s not enough for her alone to do that. She soon learns–courtesy of Robin, the destitute “true king” of Grimoire who desires to be nothing of the sort–that she must seek liberation for all, even peasants and monsters (who, cleverly, are interchangeable in Grimoire). To be genuinely free to choose for herself, she must create a world in which all are free to choose their lifepaths and leaders alike–so in the midst of a popular uprising led by Robin, she beheads Badlug.

And is hailed as king. It is the libfem happy ending; a woman, through individual empowerment, attaining the pinnacle of masculine authority. She has More(tm), and has proven that women can do anything men can do, namely take on roles that derive from and perpetuate patriarchal and kyriarchical structures of power.

So she abdicates in favor of forming a democracy, then announces her intention to bring democracy to the other kingdoms, too, starting with her homeland. She has grown to understand, as few heroes do, the difference between power and freedom, and realized that the latter is worth far more–but is unattainable for the individual. Our entire culture is a game, dangling the unattainable in front of us, to pull us onward on a path, and reaching the end isn’t the end, it just unlocks new enemies. Even if the princess rescues herself, she isn’t free of the game; she just starts from the beginning as Mario, and some other princess is captured in her place.

The only ways out are to die, to give up–or to play a different game. The princess doesn’t rescue herself. She wields Mario as a weapon and helps the Koopas revolt. She changes the game too much for it to ever be played again.

And that is, always, the end goal. The freedom to be who we want to be comes not from playing the game to victory. That just makes us who the game wants us to be. Instead we–together, all at once–have to break the game, so that everyone can play something else.


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