I say that as… well, a fantasy-loving geek who has thought a lot about magic and how it works in any story I find it in. Elemental magics, tech-based magics, magical crafting, alchemy, necromancy, sacrifice-based magic… you name it, I think about it. I just love myself a good magic system, one that’s interesting, understandable in some way – be it a hard or a soft magic system or, usually, some mix of the two, the key part is for something of it to be understandable – and useful to the story. The best magic systems actually tell us something about the characters who use it and the story they’re in.
So, I’ve probably put a bit more thought into the various forms of magic than most normal people have.
And if there is one form of magic that can stump me, it is this: summoning magic.
This is because, for being a magical equivalent of, “Come help me, friend/ally/pet,” there is a surprising number of moving parts to it. And they’re hardly ever addressed.
First, there is the creature or entity which is being summoned. How intelligent is it? Is it sentient at all? How does the summoner direct them, get them to do whatever they’re supposed to? How does it know what to do and why does it obey? What is the nature of the bond between them?
And second, the part that always befuddles me: where do the summoned creatures get summoned FROM? Where are they when they aren’t summoned? What are they doing when they aren’t summoned? How well do they live when they aren’t summoned? HOW do they live, and in what circumstances, and how does the summoning actually take them from where they normally are to where they are summoned to? Do they have any warning when they’re being summoned? Details! Details! How does it actually work from the summoned creature’s perspective?
So, there’s the creature itself, and summoner’s relationship with it, there’s the warping of time and space to transport it, and there’s what the summoned creature’s life is really like.
And what always frustrated me most as a kid was how these intricate components were always treated like one form of magic, and a very simple one at that.
A Simple Card Trick
For some, it’s as simple as a card trick. And I mean that quite literally.
I mean, how much more “card trick” do you get than an anime entitled Cardcaptor Sakura, eh? That’s an anime that features a couple of kids subduing a number of mystical creatures and containing – a much more polite word than “entrapping” – their essence with magical cards. They then use these cards to access the abilities of the entities within, many of whom are shown to be perfectly intelligent.
More pointedly, summoning is usually used to call forth some champion or whatnot. Yu-Gi-Oh does that, again with cards, and uses more cards to empower their champions or cripple the enemy. Admittedly, for much of the show, they aren’t summoning real creatures at all, but, rather, the illusions of such, created either within one’s own mind or externally with the use of super-powerful computers. However, the game is shown to be based on the shadow games of an ancient civilization, which used genuine creatures and entities, and which magic remains many centuries later, rediscovered and used in a bid to conquer the world. One such summoned being even has a crush on her summoner, or so I’ve heard, at least. And yet the fates of these beings, and other humans, rests on the flip of a card.
Much like another show I watched as a kid, Mon-Colle Knights. This one featured these kids who went and met many monsters in another world, collecting cards which could be used to summon them, an ability we only see powerful archangels accomplish. Most often, these monsters considered the kids friends, and were summoned for simple tasks, or to fun games which were contests of strength. But nearly all of them were summoned to the climactic showdown… and a huge swathe of them met their end on that battlefield, fighting for their friends and their world. And somehow that was never really addressed to my satisfaction.
And speaking of friends, that is how a young summoner in Magic Knight Rayearth referred to the creatures he summoned. They were his friends. Who happened to just come whenever he called, automatically ready to do anything he needed them to do right then and there. In perfect accordance with his will.
That’s more in line with summoning as practiced in the Final Fantasy franchise. The character casts the spell and a monster of elemental power is suddenly there to help them out. One of the most dramatic instances of that has to be when Yuna in Final Fantasy X summons that flying monster to catch her when she jumps from a very high place to avoid marrying the creepy villain. It just appeared and did exactly what she wanted until she eventually dismissed it back to the nothingness it came from.
Hmm, you know what this is actually starting to sound like?
Simple Enslavement, Nothing to See Here
Pokemon is one of those anime which looks cute but, when you think about, is absolutely horrifying. This is a world where kids are tossed out at ten years old and expected to make their way in the world by defeating hordes of extremely dangerous, deadly animals with superpowers and then making them fight. Oh, they talk about friendship all the time, but the vast majority of pokemon spend all their time in a disembodied state, locked inside tiny little balls. They’re only let out to risk their lives, and they get traded like livestock all the time, despite how many of them clearly have some form of intelligence and emotion. Small wonder that one Charizard was more keen on eating Ash than obeying him!
Adding more to the “what the heck kind of shows were we shown as kids” we have another “pleasant slavery” scenario in Medabots. Once again, we have people of all ages, especially kids, walking around with watches that can teleport small robots to them. They then remove the small coins which power this from said watches, placing them in the robot body. Within that coin is the robot’s mind, and once they are put into a body, they are expected to obey their human, which, most do. And this, apparently, is their only alternative to those ancient days when they ruled the world. I mean, surely there’s some sort of happy medium in between “slaver” and “slave,” right?
Speaking of such heirarchy, there’s Magi, where people basically summon genie-like creatures, based on the demons of Hell as were apocryphally tamed by Solomon the Wise. These are intelligent entities who dwell or put their power within metal vessels, coming out only when a sacred wise man, a magi, calls them forth. But to anyone who overcomes the trials necessary, they will grant their elemental power, either with elemental magic, or fusing their summoner’s body with power, or outright permanently transforming them into something no longer entirely human. It’s an interesting relationship, where these beings are entirely subservient, and yet are the true wielders of power. It’s not much of a summoning system, really, but it’s not so bad an existence as the others.
On a similar note, in relation to summoning powers (intelligent or otherwise) which one either wears or fuses with, have you ever wondered where all of those shows with summoned armor and uniforms get them from? Everything from Power Rangers to Ronin Warriors to Sailor Moon involves such quick uniform changes, where the outfits come with powers. Where are all of those kept in the meantime? I rather like how Fairy Tail uses the idea, with Erza’s “requipping” of armor and weapons, which she keeps in her own residence. And at least none of these armors or weapons are usually alive or intelligent.
Certainly, none of the above examples is nearly so horrifying as the hellish existence of a familiar in Hellsing Ultimate. Judging by Alucard’s behavior, it would not be uncommon for a genuine, high-class vampire to be able to “bring out their familiars.” This refers to how a vampire retains something of every individual from whom they drink, some part of their soul, within their own vampiric essence. Alucard has a lot of such people, including some powerful enemies which he devoured, the hosts of his own armies, and a really big dog monster. We only see his protege, Seras, do anything similar, and that’s when the soul of the man she loved, the only human from which she drank, enters the fight in a clinch moment to protect her and kill an enemy. So, basically, vampires like Alucard and Seras can keep the people or monsters they drink within them, in some way, and call them forth from the shadowy netherworld of their souls to do battle again. It’s not so bad in the case of the Seras’ love, but the ones inside Alucard have apparently all gone mad with bloodlust, so! No thank you!
Many of these, however, I will admit, involve a certain amount of stretching of the term “summoning.” And they all happen to non-human creatures. And yet, there is an overwhelming number of stories today where people are summoned between worlds to fulfill some specific purpose.
You know it.
We are going there!
You Have Been Isekaied
It’s a very simple sort of summoning, usually: a one-time spell, with a magic circle and an incantation, and done. One moment, you are wherever you are, and the next, you are in another world, there to do the will of those who summoned you and save the world by slaying the demon lord or whatever. Hm, as I think about it, it’s not too dissimilar to when humans try to summon angels or demons or gods or whatnot, though the latter tends to be meant as something short-term.
I will say, this is one form of summoning which only needs to address the one aspect, that of piercing space and time with magic, in order to work. What gets interesting, though, is the other aspect I talked about: that of the relationship between summoner and summoned. I mean, these are fully-functioning and intelligent human beings, after all, or other such entities. It’s one thing if they die and reincarnate, but to be summoned is to be ripped out of life before one’s life is actually over. So, what happens?
Well, according to a number of isekai, too many too count, one becomes an overpowered hero with a harem and who doesn’t think much about the world they just left. I mean, one can just draw straws for that combination of tropes.
Or, alternatively, one can have an immediately soured relationship with the world that drives them to fight to go home… also while becoming overpowered and getting a harem, like in The Rising of the Shield Hero or Arifureta.
Perhaps one finds true love and a harem, after a rocky introduction, such as The Familiar of Zero.
Or one simply goes off and does one’s own thing without a care in the world, like Kemono Michi.
Or maybe one does what one is asked to, but in one’s own way, such as Cautious Hero.
Or maybe one forms genuine bonds of friendship with everyone and just has a really good time, as in Dog Days, though that approach seems to be surprisingly rare.
Or maybe one is filled with raging hatred but compelled to obey, as a certain demon is when he is summoned by a human as a familiar, in Welcome to Demon School, Iruma.
Or maybe one’s summoners attempt to place a coercive bond on you, and it backfires, turning them into your slaves, as in How Not to Summon a Demon Lord.
Either way, the ability to bend time and space clearly isn’t always enough. The questions for summoning living creatures remain the same. How is it done? Where do they come from? Where are they kept? How do they live? How does one get them to do what one needs them to do?
Some Answers Are Provided
Naruto explains everything as some form of ninjutsu. In some way, they are able to form a contract, sealed in blood, between a human and some form of intelligent animal, like a toads, snakes, slugs, etc. Summoning them involves some sort of small blood sacrifice, like biting one’s thumb, while making certain gestures, thrusting one’s bleeding hand onto the ground, and magically inscribing some sort of small circle upon impact. And poof! Time and space are bent, and the creature is suddenly summoned, whether they were expecting it or not. It can be done with other things as well, like weapons or objects or some such, but all of these apparently have to be somewhere in the first place. Exactly where the intelligent animals are isn’t entirely answered whether it’s some region of the planet or some neighboring dimension or what.
I mentioned Fairy Tail and the use of summoning armor and weapons, but the real summoning magic is that of the Celestial Spirits, which are based on Western constellations. These entities apparently live in the spirit world and have their duties and live their lives there, but they also engage in contracts where they can be summoned by the use of a specific, magical key which opens their own, specific gate and permits them to pass between the two worlds. While in the mortal world, their existence is sustained by the magical energy of their master, whom they serve and protect. Many masters have abused this relationship. Though the spirits are quite capable of answering like with like in such cases, they are still bound to obey and take a certain pride in their absolute service. By contrast, though, there is at least one wizard shown who summons humans, renowned heroes of the past who mysteriously “disappeared” when he enslaved them, and this is automatically and immediately acknowledged as something perverse. But it’s no big deal for the spirits, it seems, in whose eyes human lifetimes are astoundingly short. And some set the ground rules early on, like Aquarius hilariously does. And small wonder she’s so sharp in dictating when she’s not to be summoned for two weeks, as time apparently passed more slowly in the spirit world, and she wants a few hours with her boyfriend. Heh.
To Love-Ru is much more of an ecchi comedy, with science fiction more than magic, but there is a form of summoning practiced here, too. See, a mad scientist princess created devices which can access pocket dimensions. She invented them for her sisters, who can communicate with plants and animals, and they use them to keep their many friends living happily in peace, in a garden and a menagerie. In exchange, they answer when their princess calls and help them out as they are directed to. It’s fairly simple and straightforward, answering most of the questions involved in a summoning system, and yet, it, too, feels a bit like a card trick or a pokeball. And for all that we hear that these sisters provide for what they summon, we never really see them do so, outside one or maybe two brief glimpses.
Departing entirely from anime for just a moment, I want to mention a book series, the Grimnoir Chronicles, by Larry Correia. Here, science and magic are fairly well connected, as magic is a means of influencing the forces that science seeks to understand. The source of magic is some massive extraterrestrial entity, which has fled from world to world across the stars, trying to escape something that preys upon it. Each world it has come to, it has empowered the inhabitants thereof, hoping they might kill or otherwise stop that which hunts it. Each world has also ended horribly, eaten up along with everyone on them. But there have been souls who survived despite the destruction of their bodies, and have clung to the living source of magic like refugees, carried between worlds. These are the beings which are summoned, and given form by the summoner, compelled to do their will.
…so, even in the more fleshed out forms of summoning I’ve yet encountered, those which either answer or sidestep all the questions I have, the existence of whoever or whatever is summoned tends to be pretty horrific and dangerous in some way.
Which brings me, at last, to what inspired this post.
The Best Summoning System Yet
I never thought I would find such a perfect, satisfying answer to all of the above as I found in Kamitachi, or By the Grace of the Gods.
For a start, it acknowledges that, yes, there are those two essential, and different, components to the problem: the method of summoning and the bond between summoner and summoned. It doesn’t leap in and answer everything right away, mind you. It starts off just establishing that there is a way for magic users to bond with, direct, and summon other creatures. Over the course of the series (or, at least, over the course of the first season, which is all there is at the moment), it explains exactly how it works.
First and foremost, part of the bond has to do with one’s own affinity for particular types of creatures, or, possibly, the affinity that other types of creatures feel towards them. The lead character specializes in slimes, but there are affinities for birds, wolves, and even dragons. If one has the right affinity, then one may enact a magical contract, though that sometimes involves meeting particular conditions, like playing music for a certain kind of bird. The contract forms a link between tamer and creature, allowing them to communicate more freely with one another. Thus, the human can direct the beast, or share its sensations like what they see or hear or smell, that sort of thing.
It is worth noting that there are two forms of contract here: that of the tamer, which is voluntary, and that of the summoner, which is forced on the creature in question, and thus yields fewer uses than the genuine bond that tamers enjoy.
Once the contract is formed, there is the question of how the creature will survive, and how well it will be treated. For the slime specialist, he simply lives with his slimes. They’re all sorts of useful around the house and on his jobs, being small, versatile, and having very few needs. For the wolf specialist, her wolves live on a mountain and protect the medicinal plants on it from poachers. And the dragon specialist has his dragons live in a nearby range of mountains, preventing various monsters from breaking through and wreaking havoc on the local human settlements. So, the more powerful and dangerous creatures may be amazing, but they can also be a bit more problematic in terms of daily care and how to make use of them in everyday life.
The one thing that the show hasn’t outright shown is how the wolf or dragon specialist summons their creature. By that, I mean they haven’t shown the spell or what it looks like as the summoned creature steps from wherever it is to wherever they are. However, until they do that, one can make some reasonable guesses.
They’ve shown two forms of magic which manipulate space, the first being a pocket dimension to keep one’s things in. The slime-specialist is ecstatic when he learns such a spell that has air in this other space, so he can keep his slimes in it, to call out when he needs them. And the second magic is teleportation, either short-range in the surrounding environment or more long-range to very specific places.
Combine the bond between tamer and beast, which allows both sides to communicate and thus act in unity when a summoning is in order, with the spatial magic of teleport, and voila! It works! With no loose ends, either! There’s no hidden ugly side of taming, no horrible ramifications, no shirking of responsibilities. It’s simple, and practical, and actually quite heart-warming to behold.
I love it! 🙂