Frieren: Beyond Journey's End is available at your local bookseller.
Choose your own adventure:
- I can't believe it's already been two years since March 2020
- I can't believe it's only been two years since March 2020
Time, as they say, keeps on slippin'.
I'm not going to remotely claim to be the oldest blogger on the block, but I've started noticing it more and more. Not just in that I can have legitimate nostalgia for a decade ago now. Though that, too. More that, some days, I wake up and can't seem to place what day of the week it is, let alone whether I dusted the bookshelves yesterday or last month.
I swear my memory is no worse – I can still recite my go-to chili recipe off the top of my head. It's just that days and dates all blend together nowadays. I blink once, and it's tax season again. I blink twice, another birthday is already right around the corner.
Which is why it helps to have a story like Frieren to fall back on.
The Slow Life
Frieren starts at an RPG's ending credits.
The very first page sees an adventuring party riding a cart into town. They've slain the Demon King. The people of the land hail their victory, and a celebration rings out.
And then the next eighty years of their lives happen.
Most of the story is told from the perspective of the party's elven mage, the titular Frieren. And, while it's never clear if we're dealing with the Gygax-style “enviable life expectancy” or Tolkeinesque “literally ageless” variety, ultimately it doesn't matter. The result is the same: those eighty years are more or less a sabbatical.
This is true for nothing and nobody else. Not the world, and not the characters in it.
It starts out with the obvious; when Frieren returns to visit her old party members, she visits her old party members, bearded and wrinkly. The next meeting after that is for a funeral. Then, as the first volume goes on, it gets more insidious, as she insists on three-month layovers that might be frustrating to a companion.
Freiren is in a weird middle-space. It's solidly fantasy, but only one monster shows its face in the entire first book. But it's not quite slice-of-life, either; her travelogue is a bit too high-adventure for that. Rather, Freiren can tend to play out like the a collection of sidequests. A little of this, a little of that, and a lot of character text, all taken in at a slower pace.
And nothing takes up your time – or fills out character motivation – quite like a well-minted sidequest.
It's maybe a little odd that I felt so tuned-in to a story told from an inhuman perspective. Even after a human character joins her as an audience surrogate, Frieren's anecdotes are as often told from the outside looking in. The series always feels at arm's length from how we watch the world go by, while at the same time being deeply sympathetic to it.
It's the same reason I adore Maquia – coincidentally, another story about an elf unmoored from her fantastical roots. And, coincidentally, it's why a lot of us are a big fan of superhero myths – especially larger-than-life DC characters.
Self-assessment is hard. Sometimes, it helps to get the thousand-yard view.
But the thousand-yard view of life is, ultimately, that it keeps going on. Yes, sure, in the big ole “dust to dust” way. But also in that real lives tend to be relentless in spite of not being so action-packed.
Sure, Frieren took out the evil lord of the northern lands back in the day. But nowadays, our concern is that the beach is a public health hazard. And that's a full-quarter project with contracts to drum up; worker housing to sort out, schedule rotations to negotiate. Talented and spirited as any one of us may be, we're still liable to spend months at a time poking away at busy-work.
And there's nothing wrong with that. It turns out, the world needs more people putting in the day-after-day work to harvest pumpkins than it does pulling off climactic feats of daring-do. But it's hard to see the value of the former when you're already in it. The daily grind rarely puts you in much different of a place on Wednesday than it did on Tuesday.
But, scaled out and up to years at a time?
The best part of borrowing a manga's eyes for this sort of thing is that, most of the time, they're ultimately pretty hopeful. Which, despite how catchy knee-jerk reactions might be, I still prefer as an outlook.
It's entirely too easy to get existential when you look at at the world in terms of decades rather than the individual moment. There's a reason the manga's original title translates to Frieren of the Funeral – or worse, Frieren the Undertaker. The chapters go three-for-three in putting her in mourning, after all.
But she also gets the longer perspective. How, faced with a problem, the right solution eventually arises. That, given enough time and patience, we will do better, if only on aggregate. And that a lot of effort spent for a meager reward can still be fulfilling, and even virtuous.
And she's hardly the only one. Captain Jean-Luc Picard makes a habit of these observations, reciting again and forever how humanity's strengths outweigh its rat-race tendencies.
But, with an undying loyalty to the good captain, he's more than a little biased.
It helps to have the outside opinion. And, for someone with actual magical power, Frieren is even less grandiose. She's been around the block enough to be in tune with how positive change often takes time. And, in that time, there's often not a lot to write about. Life can, at times, be sparse.
Space intentionally left blank.
And that's valuable in its own way.