(This is part one of the essay series “What Makes a King: Monarchical Representations in Magi: The Labyrinth of Magic. Link to the introduction and essay outline can be found here.)
I know you’re the one who can do it! Because you’re a brave person who risks everything to save others, no matter what! Because I chose you…as my King’s Candidate! – Aladdin
In media res (“in the midst of things”)–a literary technique that has its roots in ancient Greece–is a common and recommended opening for epic tales of adventure and heroism. By plunging into the thick of things and introducing an action sequence right from the get-go, it’s an easy way of grabbing the viewer’s attention and getting buy-in into the story. Especially given how impatient viewers can be (it’s like a law of shonen to rack up epic-length episode counts) and there’s nothing that will make watchers scram faster than a sluggish exposition.
One of Magi’s strengths is its succinct storytelling. It doesn’t jump around at breakneck speed (a la first half of Sword Art Online), but instead moves quickly, covering a lot of ground and working through some dense character development and world-building as efficiently as possible without being bogged down by the details. Magi explains without overexplaining, and of course, leaves plenty of questions to be answered later when dictated relevant by the plot.
Effects of In media res: Quick and Dirty Objectivity
One advantage of in media res is the necessarily objectiveness of the outsider. Given the huge size of the Magi universe, the viewer as well as our protagonists, spend a lot of time as literal foreigners. The first arc, which introduces all three of our protagonists, takes place in Qishan, a country that’s as foreign to them as it is to us. Aladdin’s a literal alien, or at least an interdimensional traveler; Alibaba fled Balbadd out of guilt over his father’s death; and Morgiana’s there unwillingly as a slave.
This idea of an objective stranger (very similar to the premise of Kino’s Journey) is key to Magi’s storytelling, which I would argue, is resistant to the idea of a single, coherently told story. Because history is more complicated than a linear narrative and truths are layered, nuanced and multiple, there’s no reason for us to believe that a story told is ever complete, or is even as simple as it looks.
One thing that particularly interested me is how they introduced Alibaba, who ends up being the first King’s Candidate that we meet. Though we see glimpses of Alibaba’s princely origins (being literate in Toran, a dead language; having a flair for royal swordplay; being a snarky blond), he’s a pretty far cry from what you’d call a king.
Our first impression of Alibaba isn’t a particularly positive one. He’s not evil but he’s no do-gooder either. He’s just your normal guy trying to get by in a tough world where you’re required to suck up to those who are richer, more powerful, and more entitled than you.
It’s not that Alibaba’s a terrible person–the sticking point that he wants to be a good guy, but thinks he lacks the power to do so. To him, power is a prerequisite for courage and because he doesn’t perceive himself as powerful, he sees lying and subservience as his only means for getting by.
Is bravery a necessary quality to be a king? Aladdin certainly thinks so, though he wasn’t in the know on his role as Magi until after he unwittingly chooses his King’s Candidate. Aladdin criticizes Alibaba not for lacking power but for lying.
Why this importance on honesty? Because honesty is a sure sign of courage and it’s essential for empathy. Aladdin calls out on Alibaba’s dishonesty precisely because the very act of lying is an expression of weakness. By going along with the immorality of others–despite obviously disagreeing–Alibaba crosses the treacherous line of duplicity and runs into the danger of accepting the lie as not a necessity of reality but of the only reality. Affecting moral apathy is the first step towards the real deal and Aladdin’s warning words are surprisingly weighty.
Luckily for us (and for the rest of the characters), it doesn’t take too long for Alibaba to own up to some honesty. We see a glimpse of the hero in him when he risks his life to save Morgiana and a little girl from being swallowed up by Magi’s version of the Sarlacc Pit.
The thing is, Alibaba’s not happy with the status quo and wants to change things. Self-deprecation isn’t a very intuitive trait for a king but it’s an undervalued one. Despite his attempts to go with the flow of “fate”, Alibaba finds himself resisting. As much as he looks down on dreamers and naive idealists, he’s a closet idealist himself. When completely honest with himself, Alibaba finds himself gravitating towards helping others. Not simply because it’s the noble, kingly way of doing things but because he genuinely empathizes with people. He has a particular connection with people who are oppressed, which makes sense, seeing that he knows what it’s like to be powerless.
Losing Objectivity: The Dangers of Over-Empathy and Definitions of Social Class
Empathy–that ability to connect with and truly understand others–is a great characteristic in general, and not just in kings. Alibaba’s defining trait, which Aladdin calls “courage,” and I dub as “the courage to openly empathize” is a double-edged sword. Not that empathy is bad or undesirable in a king, but that a king that rules by openly connecting with his people will sooner or later run into the tricky situation of “when it’s impossible to make everyone happy.”
The bifurcation of social class in Balbadd is crude and simple. You have the nobility and royalty on one end and everyone else. Balbadd’s economy, though on the surface seems to be thriving, is shot to pieces, thanks to the financial machinations of Banker, an Al-Thamen agent who’s crippled a weakened economy by making them overdependent on Kou Empire currency through loans. While the upper classes have maintain exorbitant lifestyles, the common folk of Balbadd pay the high price. Social discontent is at an all all-time high. Resentment festers in the people’s hearts as they see the king as a cruel, self-absorbed tyrant all too willing to sacrifice his people to upkeep his luxurious ways.
Alibaba’s arrival seems timely, at least for the Fog Troupe and for Balbadd. But in contrast to the relatively easygoing care he shows in Amon’s Dungeon, Alibaba reverts to his indecisive self when he joins the Fog Troupe, a civilian resistance group of thieves formed under Alibaba’s childhood friend, Cassim, to fight against injustice by raiding the coffers of the Balbadd nobles.
Alibaba, to put it simply, doesn’t belong. Though he was raised in the slums and is certainly no stranger to hardship, there’s something that just sets him apart from the others. Maybe it’s the blond hair and fair skin. Maybe it’s his somewhat naive way of looking at the world. Maybe it’s his royal lineage, which constantly puts him in the precarious position of having ties to both sides of the country’s civil conflict.
While Alibaba may empathize with his people, there’s no denying that his social status is enough to isolate him from them. Regardless of his mixed heritage, as third prince, he’s got a legitimate claim to the throne, a responsibility that he can’t help but shirk on because he doesn’t want to rule. But when your older half brother’s contemplating selling off your country people’s freedom and human rights for more gold, that responsibility starts to weigh pretty heavily down on you.
Alibaba’s kindness proves to be his undoing in Balbadd. He can’t ignore the plight of the people in the slums and sees the Fog Troupe as his best chance of alleviating their suffering. He accepts his position as the Troupe’s “public leader,” while Cassim plans to use Alibaba as a figurehead while he calls the shots from the shadows.
There is no one particular reason for why Balbadd’s attempt to become its own independent country free from Al-Thamen instigated corruption ultimately fails. It’s all too easy to blame Al-Thamen’s weapons dealing and destructive economic management as the direct causes for the civil war that erupts. But as Magi is unafraid to show, human nature is weak and fragile, and emotional solitude is a dangerous place to make one’s permanent abode.
If Alibaba is too open with his feelings, as his foil, Cassim is too closed. Despite his mostly amicable relationship with Alibaba, Cassim’s a guy with a ton of emotional baggage. Besides the guilt of killing his father (granted the guy was a terrible parent), Cassim’s had to suffer an inferiority complex revolving on a distorted perception of Alibaba’s goodness.
In your veins is the blood of a gentle mother and the blood of the royal family. I’ve got the blood of a good-for-nothing father running in my veins. No wonder the two of us are different. That’s how the world works–I knew it even as a kid. But isn’t that unfair? For your way of life to be determined from the moment you’re born? That’s why I made up my mind! If that’s the fate I was given, then I’ll take my revenge on that crappy fate with my own hands! It pisses me off! Even though we were born and raised in the same place, you and I were totally different! Always…always…you were always the only one living in the light!
He sees Alibaba’s kingliness and kindness as a result of genetics rather than environmental factors. Not a very logical way of looking at things but considering that his luck in the world’s been terrible than most, it’s hardly surprising that he envies Alibaba. Alibaba’s destiny is a markedly great one for a slum kid. He finds out that his father’s the King of Balbadd of all people and before he can draw his jaw in disbelief, he’s whisked away into the lap of luxury to receive a prince’s education. From Cassim’s standpoint, Alibaba’s turn of fate only reinforces his philosophy that people are assigned certain fixed destinies from the moment they are born and that those destinies somehow correspond to their karmic potentials. Good people like Alibaba are smiled on by fate while the depraved are condemned to suffer. (This doesn’t entirely explain why you have incredibly nasty people living luxurious lives, but closed in, self-centered logic rarely holds up to scrutiny.)
If you boil down Cassim’s grim take on the world, his perception of the world is that people’s fates are fixed and are ultimately unequal. There are certain boundaries–social, moral, emotional–that separate people–these set differences, pre-determined at birth, are what shape human society. Given Cassim’s general life experiences, it’s a schema that generally works. Except when you have people like Alibaba who threaten to invalidate such a schema.
The People’s Kingdom: Alibaba’s Republic
Desperate times call for desperate measures. With a king unfit for rule on the throne and one prince-regent abdicating his succession, it seems only right that the third prince takes up the scepter. But the least crappy prince candidate does not make a king. I appreciate how Magi transcends standard shonen storytelling by subverting our expectations that Alibaba will succeed the throne.
While one gets the impression that Alibaba’s proposal for a republic is a spur-of-the-moment idea, I think it would be safe (and correct) to give our young blonde prince some credit. Despite his royal bloodline, Alibaba hasn’t been shown to have a king-like disposition. He’s certainly a likeable guy, is quite charismatic and obviously loves the people of Balbadd but balks at the notion of running a kingdom. Part of that can be attributed to Alibaba’s emotional baggage (and as par for the course with most Magi characters, Alibaba’s got quite a hefty load weighing him down). He doesn’t feel fit to rule given that he was indirectly responsible for the death of the previous king. And while in retrospect, it’s tempting to reprimand Alibaba for not being more tight-lipped about his knowledge of the secret tunnels into the royal palace, you can’t really blame him for his unconditional trust in others.
I would say Alibaba’s proclamation for a republic works thematically on several levels. One, it does a nice job of challenging monarchy as the ideal government model. Which may or may not be one of the underlying messages of Magi–that perhaps, while the magi-king system is installed as a means of somehow controlling societies to develop into benevolent and fair places, it’s a system that actually doesn’t work well precisely because monarchy is more often than not, a flawed model to work with.
On a plot level, it’s an elegant way of resolving the sociopolitical problems of Balbadd. With a republic as opposed to a monarchy, the citizens themselves have a say in the government’s decisions and can rid themselves of an ineffectual monarchy that hasn’t been making decisions that would benefit the country as a whole. Although it would be an enormous undertaking, establishing a more representative government seems to be a step in the right direction towards mitigating the suffering of the poverty-stricken population in the slums.
Except that things don’t actually work out.
It goes without saying that timing is everything and our young heroes always seem to be cutting things very close. Aladdin and Morgiana finally arrive in Balbadd practically on the eve of its revolution. Alibaba arrives right around the time his half-brother king declares his intent to sell off the citizens to slavery to keep up his opulent lifestyle. Sinbad saves Jafar from decapitating a mouthy Cassim…
Though the anime doesn’t go into this too deeply, Balbadd isn’t quite ready for a republic. The people are certainly fed up with the current monarchy but that doesn’t mean that they’re ready to break away from that model completely. You can sense the people’s shock when Alibaba announces contrary to their expectations that not only he’s not going to be king, but that there aren’t going to be any kings. He urges people to govern themselves with the hope that the new policies will be more aligned with the people’s interests and well-being.
Alibaba’s Answer and Why The Republic Fails
The truth is, I might have known, but I was so scared that he’d point out that we were hopelessly different, so I might have just been running away from it all along. There might be as many differences between us as there are people. But for me, that was way too sad…but there’s got to be a way, for all of us to lead happy lives despite it all…a way to do it!
Alibaba realizes that empathy isn’t enough. He might declare that there are no real differences between people and that things like social class, destinies, and moralistic leanings aren’t predetermined but he also acknowledges that his way of thinking doesn’t mesh with how most people–even the people he considers close to–may think. He confesses to Cassim that as at home he felt in the slums, his unique position of being both commoner and royalty made him keenly aware of the immutable differences between himself and Cassim. In spite of similarities, they were different. People are different and no amount of empathy was going to change that. Alibaba calls this inevitable difference a reality that was “too sad,” which shows how important it is for him for people to not only live together but to truly understand each other to the extent where fundamental differences can be reconciled and ties of commonality, of shared experiences bind people more tightly than ties of blood and predetermined ancestry.
Even in the manga, it’s still pretty unclear what these guys exactly want and where they’re coming from besides your usual chaos bringing and destruction wreaking agenda. They seem to have some beef with the way world history is being played out–that is, under the guidance of chosen, enlightened kings, countries are flourishing. But we do get some flickers of insight behind their spooky masked doll get-ups. The Balbadd arc, in particular, sheds some light on the reason behind Al-Thamen’s interference.
So despite being the bad guys, Al-Thamen paints themselves as the saviors of the world, promising freedom from the shackles of destiny and encouraging a willful hatred towards the inevitability of fate. Though somewhat decently disguised as a “progressive” philosophy, it is a destructive, ultimately regressive school of thought. Why? Because while the idea of denying that one’s fate as immutable is a break from the traditional line of predetermined destiny, to curse it, to hate one’s fate is unproductive and fosters nothing but poisonous self-centeredness.
While it seems harsh to scold those who pity themselves, who revile their misfortunes–after all, is not self pity human tendency?–a more objective approach will yield that self-pity and loathing that is toxic for one’s health for the following reasons:
1) While it’s in your self-interest to blame one’s karmic destiny, it’s also very harmful to your self-worth and sense of identity.
2) It’s also not particularly constructive since it prevents you from thinking clearly and doesn’t actually do anything to remedy your situation.
3) Contrary to your inflated sense of self in the throes of self-loathing, you’re very likely not the only person who’s going through a hard time. If it’s in your power to help make someone’s life a little better, helping others is often a path towards healing yourself.
So what Al-Thamen really espouses is futility. Because it’s so hard to effect positive change in life, one should just give up and do whatever the hell one wants. Because no one’s handing you any favors, you might as well just feel better by screwing others over.
In other words, futility over one’s fate consequently leads to relinquishment of self-responsibility, which necessitates an egoistic, self-centered view that is the antithesis of empathy and compassion.
So why does Alibaba’s plan for Balbadd ultimately fail? Plot-wise, it’s because Al-Thamen interfered and transforms a movement for reconciliation to a movement of violence. Ideologically, Balbadd fails because of poor timing. Balbadd simply isn’t ready to be a republic yet. While Balbadd is certainly amenable to drastic overhauls of the monarchical government, it lacks the political, social and economic conditions to successfully make the change.
In the end, it comes down to Alibaba. Alibaba himself isn’t ready for the change as he lacks the political weight to realize his proposal. In a world where might determines right, Alibaba is painfully inexperienced in many areas as a leader. He hasn’t mastered Magoi Manipulation at this point yet (he gets more badass in Season 2). He lacks the political finesse to handle tricky foreign relations without some help from King Sinbad. And perhaps on a more fundamental level, he lacks the self-confidence to believe that he can save Balbadd, when he couldn’t even save Cassim.
Balbadd’s Takeaway Point: Learning from Failure
As we’ll discuss later in this series, having power is necessary for a king to rule, but the ascension of that sovereignty comes with a heavy price. Is Alibaba a good king? His heart is certainly in the right place and his enormous capacity for empathy raises his potential to become a benevolent ruler someday. But powerless benevolence, which seems decidedly more common than powerful benevolence, is doomed to languish. Kindness can rule oneself but cannot rule others, especially those who don’t play by the same rules.
So what does the Balbadd arc tell us about the monarchical system? For one thing, having power centralized in one person is dangerous, especially if said person has no interest in anyone but himself. But it’s been mentioned that Balbadd’s economic troubles existed long before Al-Thamen interfered, and while it’s fair to assign his half-brother Ahbmad the blame for making the economic situation even worse, it’s not completely fair to target his regime the root of all problems. The king figures of Balbadd have been shown to be ultimately weak and flawed. Ahbmad was subsumed by greed, Sabhmad by cowardice, and Alibaba by guilt.
So in other words, the monarchical system falls apart if none of the candidates are suitable, making it not a particularly reliable form of government. Hence the establishment of a republic and Alibaba’s toppling of several hundred years history of kings. Except for the fact that Alibaba’s forced to seek refuge in Sindria, since the political climate quickly destabilizes with the arrival of Kou’s army, seeking to reap the benefits of Balbadd’s dying economic throes.
It seems unfair that Alibaba’s hard work ends in exile and grief. And it does make one question the validity of his status as a King’s Candidate. Has Alibaba been a good king? Or at the very least a good leader? Balbadd is not exactly a glowing success story but it would be inaccurate to say that it was a complete bust.
What did Alibaba accomplish? Quite a bit actually, given his inexperience. He reconciled with Cassim, healing over a decade’s worth of bitterness. He helped dismantle the monarchy and establish a republic (if only in name but we’ll assume that a name is slightly better than nothing), averting the financial disaster awaiting Balbadd had Ahbmad’s reign continued. And perhaps more importantly, Alibaba was pushed to his limits to protect what was important to him, and by doing so, he realizes the existence of his limits.
When I talk about limits, I’m not just referring to Alibaba’s political, magical, or physical powers. I’m also referring to the limits of Alibaba’s unconditional empathy and world perceptions that everyone is alike and that people truly aren’t different.
I’m not the squeaky clean person you think I am! I was desperate, that’s all! I never even thought about being royal, or blood or anything! There were days when I was miserable, too…and I’ve done some rotten things!
So profoundly naive. Much like those who are privileged are often ignorant of their privileged status, it takes Alibaba time to realize how privileged he is, in spite of his experienced hardships. And it is precisely at this very moment during his private talk with Cassim that he empathizes with Cassim while acknowledging the differences in their circumstances. And this acknowledgement of differences and similarities between our two friends only comes about when Cassim is dying. It’s the bittersweet ending of deathbed reconciliation and Cassim finds himself contemplating the what if’s and might have been’s had he been more honest with himself and with Alibaba.
Empathy is understanding what the feelings of others because you have experienced it yourself or can put yourself in their shoes. It is an emotional state borne from shared experiences. Empathy is an important ingredient and often the first step towards moral action. Empathy on its own, however, does not erase differences. Or acknowledge them for that matter. It can help make it easier to mediate those differences, though, and provide a foundation for open dialogue to deal with those differences. Because we do ourselves a disservice by being blind to the inequity of circumstances.
People may and should have equal chances at happiness but the reality is that they don’t. Differences lead to conflict. By acknowledging these differences, one can recognize the limitations of empathy. Empathy is not a substitute for action–it’s a prerequisite for moral action.
For a king to act morally, he needs to prepare himself for the inevitability of conflict. By recognizing conflict as a possibility, one can hope to deflect and confront it. Empathy also means being able to not only relate to people but also recognizing and respecting that boundaries do exist, even if one personally doesn’t think they’re fixed. Only when one is aware of the world’s disparities can one take the first step of the long journey to amending them. For our young prince in training, he’s got a long road ahead of him before he musters the power and maturity to reclaim his country’s independence and truly become a leader in his own right.
Tl;dr? Alibaba’s an all around, nice guy who learns in Balbadd that he’s in way over his head trying to help his people out. While Alibaba has empathy and compassion in spades, he’s lacking in political and magical firepwer. Solution? Go learn some EXTREME MAGIC so that he can back up his “feel-good-everyone-get-along” philosophy.