Spice and Wolf: Chivalry, Modernity, and Gender

*** Major Spoilers to Follow ***

Stories are about change over time, but it might be more accurate to say that stories are about a transition between two states. Aristotle emphasized that the core of dramatic tragedy was the fall of a central character from a high place to a low place, brought upon themselves by a pointed flaw. Hegel, the eighteenth-century German philosopher, later contested Aristotle’s reading, arguing instead that the ‘hero’s flaw’ was not a vice but an inability to negotiate between two conflicting moral and/or social frameworks – either a refusal to adapt to the new system or a self-righteous repudiation of the old. Twentieth-century French philosopher Michel Foucault described these webs of ideology, language, and institutional power as “discourses,” and to this day we still describe ideas in stories with this vocabulary: for example, “There is a strong feminist discourse at the heart of Chihayafuru.” In another model, Foucault’s British contemporary Raymond Williams specified new ways of thinking and viewing the world as “structures of feeling,” describing that at any point in history one could find a wealth of perspectives and social forces vying for supremacy. What all these theories posit is that history and narrative are the same in that the essence of both is a continual shifting of values on personal and generational scales. The movement from A to B – more accurately, the opportunity to move from A to B – is what compels us as audience members to engage with a text because that never-ending state of flux is not only true to human experience, it is human experience. We want to know by the end of the story, after all, will they or won’t they?

“Will they or won’t they?” is the narrative question at the heart of Spice and Wolf, a fantasy romance about the merchant Kraft Lawrence and Holo, a minor wolf deity, but it applies to more than just their possible courtship. Throughout the events of the anime Lawrence and Holo become entangled in numerous power struggles between the church, the nobility, the guilds, the monarchy, and so on. Our duo themselves symbolize the clashing of social forces that wrestled for control of Europe during the messy time between the Late Medieval Period and the Renaissance, a time some scholars point to as the clumsy beginnings of modernity. The richness of Spice and Wolf as a series comes not only from its outstanding character writing, but also from its sharp grasp of the core social conflicts of its setting’s historical inspiration. Although Holo and Lawrence internally grapple with similar anxieties, they’re operating from opposing worldviews – a premodern and a modern one. This is often comically expressed through Holo’s impatience for market logic, coin memorization, and guild politicking, but it’s so woven into the fabric of their relationship that it even comes out in their flirting.

Throughout both seasons of Spice and Wolf, Lawrence and Holo’s go-to game of coquetry is the role-play of knight and princess, a thematic choice so apt yet subtle it proves Isuna Hasekura had to have done his homework before penning the series. You see, some the prevailing popular epics of the Late Medieval and Early Modern periods were the chivalric romances, from The Horn King to Le Morte d’Arthur. By studying the genre’s development over the span of the Middle Ages, literary critics can trace reflections of the social evolution of Europe itself in these texts. Likewise, the way Holo and Lawrence each play their roles (and the way they subvert these roles in their own adventures) mirrors the continental tug of war between premodernity and modernity that Europe was embroiled in just before the emergence of capitalism. So what, then, is the difference between romance in the High Medieval period and romance in the Early Modern period? While hard to narrow down completely, there are a few key shifts critical to understanding the depth of Spice and Wolf‘s historical commentary.

The early romances primarily featured stories about heroes who had to prove their might via trial, and the bravest and most accomplished heroes were rewarded with renown, riches, and (of course) the love of their woman. Because these fictional knights were a mirror and model of the feudal vassalage system – a political organization in which kings granted land to nobles who then drafted knights to maintain order – the moral code of these early tales had a violent bent. Following the fall of Rome, Europe was splintered, and wars between feudal lords were common, as were invasions from foreign entities. Chivalry was about loyalty, conduct, and military prowess, not justice. This is where we get the saying that “might makes right,” and because knights were always men and maidens were, well, maidens, chivalry came to be defined as a code of warrior masculinity constructed around gender relations. The knight serves his lord and his lady amour, for her light is what inspires him to achieve greatness. There is no internal conflict or room for an individual subject here to ponder the human condition. There are few complexities. It is all external, and everything is about social position and class. Whether it was slaying a dragon to obtain a rare flower or defeating the evil tyrant preying on her father’s fiefdom, a knight had to accomplish feats of valor in order to prove his love to his maiden. These are the tales that Holo is likely familiar with, and you see her routinely push Lawrence to be a partner who is “worthy of her.” Like the heroes of early romances, Holo wants Lawrence to prove his worth through his own merits, but the irony is that he can’t do much of anything without her help, and he’s far from the warrior type in a world that still contains knights, mercenaries, and armed conflict. When Lawrence orchestrates a deal with the Milone Trading Company to rescue Holo after her capture by the Medio Trading Company in Pazzio, Holo is disappointed that he isn’t the one who comes to rescue her from her cell, instead reuniting with her covertly in a drawn carriage after a Milone operative leads her out of the sewers. Lawrence makes up for it later by pulling a knife on a mob of Medio Trading goons, but he isn’t going to be anyone’s action hero.

A twelfth-century romance epic by the name of Erec and Enide features a similar paradox, which, for its time, was a major subversion of the genre. The first part of the story follows a tried and true chivalric plotline in which Erec proves himself the best knight and wins the hand of Enide, the fairest lady in all the land. The second part, however, throws a wrench into their fairy tale ending and introduces a major problem to the concept of chivalry. Erec and Enide become so happy together, as it turns out, that Erec stops jousting so he and Enide can make love at all hours. The other knights get more than a little peeved that their bro has stopped playing Fortnite with them to have indescribable amounts of sex, so the rumor mill starts to churn. “Erec is old hat.” “Erec has lost his honor.” That doesn’t sit well with Erec, so he tells Enide that he has to set out on a new adventure to regain his pride. Now chivalry becomes a little more complex because our knight has to make a choice between two conflicting ordinances in a contradictory code of ethics. Which is more important to a knight: kicking ass or being a wife guy? And Enide is just as troubled herself because she loves Erec, wants him with her and wants him safe, but she can’t endure the destruction of his (and therefore her) reputation. Enide compromises with Erec and permits him to adventure on the condition he allow her to journey with him, and thus begins what is maybe the first Western romantic comedy because, whew boy, their campaign does not go smoothly.

This chivalry stuff is harder than it looks…

Similarly, at the climax of each arc in Spice and Wolf, Lawrence must choose between his greed and his desire for Holo’s companionship. Although the first and foremost imperative of a merchant is to make profit, he’s also a human being who needs connection. Like Enide, Holo pushes Lawrence to pursue his ambitions to strike it rich and open his own shop, but they both know Lawrence’s success will only hasten their separation. There’s a reconciliation here in that Holo herself is actually the key to achieving both of Lawrence’s desires, but only if Lawrence and Holo can each overcome their fear of abandonment. Furthermore, Holo isn’t just a personification of a forgotten era, but a deity of harvest with power over the land. As a nascent man of capital whose explicit goal is land ownership, she is both a natural resource he must procure and quite literally his means of (re)production, in both the Marxist and feminist definitions. This comes into play quite forcefully in the final arc when Lawrence sells Holo into slavery as collateral to front the money for his and Eve’s daring fur exchange. Eve, as a femme fatale figure, embodies not only the single-minded greed that Lawrence can no longer abide by, but also doubly serves (as does Chloe, Nora, and the Lenos pub waitress) to present the downfalls of him choosing another merchant or “modern woman” as a sexual partner instead of Holo, with all her bounty and symbolic ties to fertility and prosperity. A noble in title only, Eve is an example of the waning power of the nobility in the face of the rising city-based guild economy and the emergence of the nation-state, two factors I’ll explain shortly. It’s also worth noting that Eve’s grudge is entirely against the church, which, like the nobility, is also scrambling to fortify its shrinking political influence via economic means, another historical parallel Spice and Wolf expertly weaves into its setting. Lastly, Lawrence is not alone in having to bend his framework to adapt to changing circumstances. Holo also has to make concessions to fit into the new world she’s secluded herself from for essentially half a millennium. Consider, for example, her encounter with the “young pup” in the woods between Ruvinheigen and Kuskov. Although the wolves’ code of ethics is likely more akin to territorial instinct, the fundamental procedure is similar to a contest between chivalric knights: one must submit in order to prove the other’s martial dominance. In proper romantic convention, Holo’s love for Lawrence would draw up her courage and she would put the upstart pup to shame. In this instance, though, time is not on her side, and Holo has to abandon her own immense pride to protect Lawrence, a significant compromise on her part.

To return to the chivalric romances themselves, we see chivalry itself interrogated further and become more paradoxical after Erec and Enide due to the many social upheavals that reorganized the political structure of Europe. For starters, in a project to halt the ceaseless quarrels between the numerous feudal dominions, the Catholic Church rallied the disparate political factions together and pointed them toward Jerusalem. That’s right, the Crusades. None of them really worked, but they brought back lost Classical Greek and Roman knowledge, which spurred on other developments in science, astronomy, and math. These rediscoveries helped enable global exploration, which ushered in a new era of trade. Before that, however, the Black Plague killed a shit ton of people and ran feudalism into the ground. The shortage of peasants made the fiefdom system impossible to continue but allowed artisan and merchant guilds to emerge in its wake, concentrating economic power in the cities. This is how Lawrence’s traveling trade niche is born. The Church also firmed up political unions during this time and propped up kingships, which fashioned the nation-state (basically, countries as we currently conceive them) into the new political entity (this later backfired on the Vatican after some countries decided to make their own church, and things got really hairy when some random monk said people should just read the Bible themselves). Additionally, the groundwork for constitutional monarchies was laid when a bunch of nobles unionized against King John of England, an important steppingstone on the road to our contemporary world organized into nation-states.

So how exactly does this affect the romances and vice-versa? As I mentioned before, the Church directed the zealotry of an entire continent against another region. By unifying the warring kingdoms under the banner of organized religion, the Church turned the knights into warriors of faith. Imagine a persistent Bible-man media campaign across three continents. You see small changes in the tropes at first – journeying knights set off with a saint’s blessing, interludes between action scenes now feature fasting and prayer, pagan sages are made into holy hermits (this happens especially with each subsequent iteration of Merlin the Wizard Prophet). We transition from “might makes right” into “right makes might,” and the trials chivalric knights face begin to mix brawn with ethical puzzles modeled after Bible parables. The most famous example is that of the quest for the holy grail – an all-powerful, wish-granting religious artifact which can only be obtained by Sir Galahad, the most pure, noble, and Christian™ of all knights – but for a richer example, one should look to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

This one’s squarely on you, Canada.

In this fourteenth-century epic, Gawain dishonorably fails a challenge issued by a visiting knight who, by way of magic, appears before King Arthur’s court as a hulking, half-plant-half-human beast. The game he presents the Knights of the Round is simple: if the Round Table was worth its salt, any one of them could pick up the Green Knight’s axe and hack his head off in one swoop. The Green Knight would even bow so the plucky challenger could get a clean swing. The catch, however, was that the Green Knight would then be allowed a return blow delivered a year later. All the knights are rightly terrified by this proposition. After all, dude is huge, and his neck is double Hulk-Hogan thicc. Upset by the Green Knight’s taunts, Gawain finally says fuck it and takes a swing, and the dude’s head rolls. Everybody breathes a sigh of relief… until our Jolly Green Giant picks up his own head and tells Gawain he’ll see him next Christmas. The entire court is left utterly, appropriately speechless. Fast forward a year’s journey and a weird stay at Sir Willy Wonka’s castle of sinister morality puzzles, and Gawain finally confronts the Green Knight. Gawain shakes and cries and blames women for all his problems until the Green Knight fells his axe… and leaves Gawain with little more than a nick. The entire setup was a lesson in mercy, humility, and restraint – things the Church was very much interested in instilling in Europe’s warrior class. When Europe was a hot mess, warrior masculinity was a beneficial tool for the nobility to maintain order and stave off invaders. Five hundred years later? Not so much. Society needed a different kind of man, one who could perform complex functions in a burgeoning economy that itself served to fuel a religious-imperialist agenda. A modern man, like Kraft Lawrence.

In the modern world, money is power, and the world Lawrence inhabits inches closer and closer to that reality each passing day. We see the efficacy of Lawrence’s skillset throughout the series. Lawrence alone can’t stand up to the Kingdom of Trenni’s military force, but he’s more than capable of interfering in their currency devaluation gambit. In spite of being a small-time peddler, Lawrence handles multiple high-risk deals, and though he does often get ahead of himself and has to fall back on Holo’s strength, he’s always able to leverage his connections and resources to his advantage by the end no matter how powerful his foe. Part of the reason Holo and Lawrence have such strong chemistry is due to the fact they constantly teach each other new things, and the two share a love of argument. Their conversations are packed with puzzle-like conversations and involve questions that test Lawrence in the same capacity the heroes of chivalric romances were tested by their lovers, such as when the two discuss jealousy in the alleyways of Lenos. Holo implies that her heart has been “colored” by many, and though Lawrence tries to play it cool, Holo demands a proper answer as to how he plans to contend with his jealousy. Lawrence attempts to counter the wise wolf by stating that her question only betrays her own jealous feelings, and he concludes with a teasing smirk that envy is an unavoidable emotion that dooms lovers to self-loathing, a paradox of love. Unfortunately for Lawrence, his answer nestles him firmly into Holo’s verbal clutches. She tells him that, while she appreciates his efforts to empathize with her feelings, what his answer ultimately reveals is the way he unconsciously wishes Holo to be for him: a possessive, pining woman. She then echoes her sentiments from a previous conversation they had in Pazzio after a run-in with the silver-tongued money dealer, Weiz. “All men are jealous idiots,” she says, “and women are stupid too, to feel happy about it.” She would rather Lawrence burn with jealousy so that he, her toy knight, will continue to avail himself to her through displays of affection and bravery in commerce.

Jealousy has plagued the couple before, particularly in the previous arc when Amarti, a headstrong young merchant with romantic ideas, makes things complicated for Lawrence after being duped by Holo and falling head over heels for her pitiable nun act. Though initially unbothered by the ruckus, it’s only after Lawrence allows his own mistrust and self-consciousness to get the better of him that he nearly loses Holo. In his boldness, Amarti is plainly the kind of man Holo urges Lawrence to be, and Lawrence despairs at first when he realizes this and the situation his own passivity has sown. The failings of the modern man are made clear when subjectivity proves too much to handle. A white knight like Amarti never second-guesses anything, but a modern man like Lawrence certainly does, caught between his conflicting wants and social codes. In the transition between the epic romance poems of the Late Medieval Period and Shakespeare, the blueprint of modern storytelling becomes apparent in the protagonist’s heightened interiority; great storytelling now involves both external action and an internal struggle. Hamlet sulks and plays mad for four acts, but we’ll cheer for him when he overcomes his stagnancy at the climax and avenges his father. By the same token, Lawrence regains the advantage against Amarti by baiting him into a duel involving the bubble pyrite market. Unsure about Holo, Lawrence concocts a plan that yields him a profit, win or lose, but a failure on his part to read Holo’s signals again sends him into another spiral of doubt until he’s able to put the pieces together and coordinate his final, winning move with her. A true knight-errant moves with total confidence in his lady because she has confidence in him as well. This is why distance makes the heart grow fonder in these tales. Lawrence could have avoided the whole fiasco if he’d had more faith.

It’s either the hand or your phone.

And speaking of faith, Lawrence’s relationship with religion is one of the more obvious divides between him and Holo. When they meet, he calls her a demon and threatens to turn her over to the church, and the church indeed proves a constant danger on their travels, even in the north where its power is weak. The north, where Holo’s home forest of Yoitsu lies, still largely follows pagan traditions, and just as Holo must hide her tail, so too does Lawrence have to hide his religion the farther north they travel. The geographical limits of the church’s reach provide another example of a world that is alive and diverse in social discourses, but it’s more than just a striking footnote in the setting. Much of Lawrence’s economic success hinges on the northern expedition, a small crusade to forcefully convert the “heathens” of the north. When the expedition is cancelled, Lawrence incurs huge losses and sinks so mightily into debt that not even his guild can protect him. The cancellation leads to economic instability among the border cities such as Lenos, where the church’s schemes ignite a trade war that sparks rioting across town. The church’s exploitation of its underlings is also made plain during Nora’s arc. Mistaking her skill for witchcraft, they send her into increasingly dangerous territories to either rid themselves of her or collect enough evidence to submit her to the Inquisition. The labeling of deviant women who excel in medicine, natural studies, and masculine fields as witches is a topic entirely too dense for this post to tackle, but many feminist scholars like Carolyn Merchant are quick to point to this specific persecution as a strategic move on the Church’s and patriarchy’s parts to consolidate authority and economic power. The embryonic capitalist machine dictates that female bodies must serve their societal function in producing workers, and so were legally restricted and commodified (remember why Eve was purchased?). What this means is that Lawrence’s world reaches its zenith through the destruction of Holo’s. The extermination and northern retreat of paganism directly informs Holo and Lawrence’s relationship, as the purpose of their journey is to reunite Holo with her kin because the people of Pasloe no longer worship her. For this reason, Holo and Lawrence seek out legends of the old gods guarded by scholars and tucked away in private libraries, but the history they recover is not a cheery one. These stories have nothing to do with courtly love and grand adventures; their topic is extinction.

The fact that Lawrence maintains his beliefs despite hooking up with a pagan goddess and nearly dying at the church’s hands on several occasions at first seems inconsistent with his level of intelligence. Then again, if his lecture on the four humors or his views on slavery indicate anything, it’s that Lawrence is a man of his time. It’s also true that his practice of religion becomes less formal as the series goes on, and that he readily accepts (or at least considers) many of the ideas and perspectives Holo shares with him. After their stay at the church outside Pasloe (the first stop on their journey together) Lawrence expresses shock when Holo mocks the idea that a single god could have created everything. Later in the series, we see how much Lawrence’s tolerances have increased when all he can do is concede to Holo’s despairing claim that there couldn’t be a god because of how much suffering exists in the world. Ironically enough, Holo herself has to pretend to be a nun for much of their travels, a bona fide wolf in sheep’s clothing, and Holo plays the part of the meek woman with gusto. Her gender should bar her from accessing a number of social privileges and institutions, and though she tends to allow Lawrence to take the lead so she can laze about, she often uses her wolf powers to sidestep these patriarchal barriers with ease. Her hearing gives her access to rooms neither she nor Lawrence can enter, her smell gives Lawrence an advantage in business, and her wolf form trumps anything her and Lawrence’s opponents can muster against them. She may play the part of the damsel in her and Lawrence’s games to coax his affection, but it’s deeply ironic. A consummate trickster, she’s always the smartest person in whatever room she’s in and is a brilliant reader of people. Her wit isn’t cut from the same cloth as Lawrence’s newfangled “rationality” either, but the wisdom of hundreds of years of accumulated experience.

Holo’s lifespan itself being a focal point of the plot is what brings Spice and Wolf‘s social milieu into stark relief, and the difference between her concept of time and Lawrence’s concept of time underpins the central tension in their romance. In an excellent example of the way their premodern and modern worldviews collide, Lawrence tells Holo that time is money, and Holo responds by explaining to Lawrence how the subsistence farmers of Pasloe tell time by listening to the land they carve out their lives depending on. Holo has seen ages come and go. She’s watched a communal, agrarian society develop into a freshly modern one on the eve of industrialization. One of the more arresting cuts from the anime’s second opening features Holo walking across the tops of hills as the background changes from the village of Pasloe to Pazzio then Lenos. Though it also serves to remind viewers of past episodes, the progression from village to town to city in mere seconds vividly evokes Holo’s experience watching humankind propagate and flourish. In apostrophe to Lawrence (a type of monologue to someone not present) she remarks that her time in Pasloe was so long, she once watched a sapling become a great tree simply to alleviate her boredom. Holo’s acute awareness of the fact she’ll outlive Lawrence forecasts a tragic outlook on their partnership, but it also connects Holo to the viewer who is reading or watching from the twenty-first century. Holo is someone who has lived through a significant portion of history, and her understanding of how society marches through growth and decline aligns her closer to the postmodern viewer with their sizable knowledge of history more so than it does the people she encounters on her and Lawrence’s travels. She may come from a premodern era, but ever the wise wolf, her supernatural character puts her ahead of her, Lawrence’s, and everyone else’s times.

Annotation (7/21/20): Historicism

I have to stress, however, that although Spice and Wolf is working within the realms of an established historical reality based on olde Europe, it is still simultaneously projecting a particular ideological fermentation rooted in the era it emerges from: that of Japan in the late aughts and 2010s. Just as the romances can tell us about Medieval Europe, so too can this light novel series tell us about Japan at the turn of the twenty-first century. And what an amateur like myself can derive immediately from a cultural material reading is twofold. For one, Lawrence’s plight is easily traceable to the two major economic events of Isuna Hasekura’s lifetime: the Japanese recession in the 90s and the collapse of the global economy in 2008. Secondly, these events are deeply intertwined with Japan’s declining birth rate, the otaku-driven light novel industry, and an increasingly conservative national rhetoric in response to terrorist attacks at home and abroad – Aum Shinrikyo’s gas attack in 1995 and the destruction of the twin towers in 2001. What arises from this concoction is, unsurprisingly, a tale of economic and reproductive anxiety, but despite Spice and Wolf‘s readiness to criticize the lopsided dealings inherent to capitalism and state power, it never proposes class revolution or other utopic ideals as a solution. It’s uninterested in grand narratives. Faced with gross exploitation, Spice and Wolf takes an individualist, survivalist stance, likely because any politically-motivated violence in the mid-2000s was associated with terrorism. In lieu of fighting the system, Lawrence and Holo attempt to master it via their own duplicity, and Holo pretty much declares this philosophy word for word after she reveals to Lawrence that she lied to fetch a higher price on their fur inventory in Pazzio. Rather than condemn the show for being “unwoke,” though, we should see it for what it is: a window into the jaded headspace of a lost generation whose prospects were crushed by decades of reactionary politics.

*** End Annotation ***

On your next watch of Spice and Wolf, be sure to pay attention to the ways Lawrence and Holo oppose each other, but also note how they frame their own relationship through the gendered social codes they follow and perform. These elements go beyond the romantic drama and expand outward onto the social conflicts that enrich the well-textured universe of the show. The setting of Spice and Wolf is a land caught between past and present, myth and religion, corruption and commerce. It’s a romantic fantasy, yes, but Spice and Wolf engages rigorously with the real-world history of the transition from premodern to early modern Europe.


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