The Heroic Legend of Arslan, Volumes 1-3
Yoshiki Tanaka (original story) & Hiromu Arakawa (manga adaptation)
August 2014 – May 2015
Allow me to date myself for a minute. Back in the early 1990s, we didn’t have the biggest selection of manga and anime in the U.S. A lot of the manga was adult in nature (in all manner of ways) and many anime series were traditional fantasy tales reminiscent of a D&D dungeon crawl. Among them was a 6-part anime OAV called The Heroic Legend of Arslan released by the now-defunct Central Park Media. Time has blunted the details, but I remember thinking it was an interesting story even though we weren’t getting the full picture. Okay, I lie. It was sometimes confusing and random, but we didn’t know any better back then!
Fast forward 20 years later. It turns out The Heroic Legend of Arslan is a series of Japanese fantasy novels written by Yoshiki Tanaka. He began writing them in the 1980s, and, as far as I know, has yet to conclude the series. Sounds a lot like a certain U.S. fantasy author we all know, and no, this won’t be the last time I reference A Song of Ice and Fire aka Game of Thrones. Last year, Hiromu Arakawa, mangaka of the much-beloved Fullmetal Alchemist, began adapting Tanaka’s novels into manga form.
The Heroic Legend of Arslan tells a familiar story. A country is conquered by another nation, and the naïve, untested crown prince must reclaim the throne. Along the path to becoming king, he gathers a motley crew of allies, who each have a different skillset and fulfill a fantasy character type list. Badass warrior? Present. Eccentric strategist? Yup. Freed slave? Got him. Beautiful priestess? Check. Roguish scoundrel? He’s there, too. It’s not a surprising set-up, but it doesn’t need to be.
Loosely based on a Persian epic, the manga focuses on the titular Prince Arslan, who wants nothing more than to prove himself worthy. Awkwardness characterizes the dynamics of the royal family. Famed and feared for his battle prowess in equal measure, the King ignores his son. Astonishingly beautiful, the Queen remains cold to both her husband and son. To say that Arslan’s desire to prove himself worthy of the throne is tied to winning his parents’ regard is an understatement.
What makes Arslan interesting as a character is that he’s relentlessly average. He’s not the most skilled warrior. He’s not brilliant. He’s only fourteen, and not only is he inexperienced, he’s been sheltered for most of his life – both of which are reinforced by his wide-eyed character design. He has no magical abilities. And it’s debatable whether his claim to the throne is actually legitimate. In fact, Arslan’s only outstanding trait is his depth of compassion and willingness to understand other people, even if they happen to be his enemies.
It’s a running theme throughout the series. Arslan’s father, bolstered by his undefeated martial prowess, eschewed politics. He ruled with might. But as we quickly learn, that isn’t a long-term plan. You can’t solve all problems with war. In fact, if you do, you’re going to make a lot of enemies. Not to mention that it led to his downfall. Undefeated in battle, the King grew overconfident in his abilities and his famed cavalry. But even the largest army can fall to superior strategy and betrayal.
Speaking of which, the battle scenes are well-constructed. Arakawa has no problem depicting the bloody reality of war: severed limbs, decapitated heads, and torture victims. Impaled with spears. Stabbed with swords. Shot with arrows. Even the poor horses aren’t safe. (And considering how Pars is famed for its famous cavalry, you can guess how many horses are harmed in this manga.) In fact, the bulk of volume 1 devotes its attention to the battle that leads to Pars’s downfall.
Given its basis, there are historical parallels. The nation of Pars is clearly meant to be Persia. Lusitania, the country that conquers Pars, observes a religion that is an analog to Catholicism. Their king is named Innocentis VII! Not subtle.
In addition to following Arslan’s quest to reclaim the throne, the manga tackles the themes of oppression and religious fanaticism. Pars is built on a foundation of slavery. Most of the nobility can’t bear the idea of abolishing it. Narsus, Arslan’s strategist ally, is considered an eccentric because he freed his slaves when he became lord. On the other hand, the manga shows the flip side of freeing slaves. What do slaves do when they’re free? Where do they live? What about work? The logistics that everyone overlooks when they’re caught up in principle and ideals? Tanaka tackles this head-on.
The practice of slavery contributes to the fall of Pars’s capital, Ectabana. (Remember the uprising against the Masters in Game of Thrones?) Lusitania’s religion is built on the notion that all men are created equal so slavery is wrong. In theory. In practice is another thing entirely. On the other hand, people who don’t worship the Lusitanian god are heretics, and so Lusitanians are justified in killing them. There’s a mental disconnect here.
Speaking of mental disconnects, I do feel a certain amount of cognitive confusion with Arakawa’s artwork. It’s not entirely her fault. It’s the curse of a familiar art style that’s simpler than the norm of a historical fantasy manga. For example, Arslan’s loyal retainer, Daryun (aka The Badass Warrior), looks like a cross between Kimblee and Greed from Fullmetal Alchemist. Did he get lost walking from manga casting?
The comparisons to Game of Thrones are inevitable, especially for English-speaking audiences. The struggle between nations. The brutal battle scenes. The political scheming. And of course, the aforementioned oppression and religious themes. Never mind that the first Heroic Legend of Arslan novel was published a decade before the first A Song of Ice and Fire novel. The similarities are to be expected since, ultimately, both works tell the same story: the battle for the throne.