Cracking The Character Code: Erza Scarlet (Part 2: Survivors Guilt)

Yesterday, I spent some time exploring the make up of Fairy Tail’s Erza Scarlet, and the suicidal desires she harbored, as well how well written it all was. The way she would do things meant to get others attention that she needed help, as well as how those cries were done in a way to reinforce her own belief she wasn’t worth saving.

I also talked a little about how my own struggles with suicidal desires drew me to the character, and made me feel connected to her so strongly. These kinds of quiet wars, the ones we fight within ourselves, pretty much always have a point of origin, and while I know my own well enough, Erza’s was a mystery.

Which brings us to the “Tower Of Heaven” story arc, and man, I tell ya, I could write entire essays about this part. As far as Fairy Tail goes, this is pretty much the point Hiro Mashima decided he was taking the kid gloves off, and a pivotal point in the series the affects everything that happens after it. More importantly, it is Erza’s story.

It starts while Erza, Natsu, Grey, Lucy and Happy, now officially a team, are visiting a resort community, hitting up the casino, lounging on the beach, and in general, having some much deserved downtime after the trials of the war with Phantom Lord. As the focus of the story has moved to Erza, though, it is her we spend most of our time with, even experiencing a terrible nightmare with her.

Soon enough, the nightmare is revealed to be memories, as a group of wizards shows up, incapacitating her friends, and abducting Erza. This is a pretty mean feat in and of itself, and probably the only two reasons they pulled it off is because Erza knows them, though she wasn’t sure if any of them still lived, and because one of them can block Erza from using her magic.

They head out, to take her “home”, back to Jellal, at the Tower Of Heaven. Erza’s reaction is fear, even pleading with her former friends not to make her go. Seeing Erza frightened is scary enough, but it seems as if they have all joined a cult, with one, Sho, in particular, ranting about how she’s going to help them all get to Heaven.

007Naturally, her friends aren’t down for the count, and quickly pursue, joined by former Phantom Lord member Juvia, who wants to join Fairy Tail now. They are way behind, however, and don’t even know what’s going on.

At the Tower, Erza is chained in a cell, one we’ll come to know a little better soon, but manages to escape and regain use of her magic. She sets out climbing the tower, kicking the ass of anyone who gets in her way, until she runs across the rest of the gang, who have finally arrived. Instead of being happy to see them, Erza orders them to leave, insisting she has to do this alone.

After a bit of arguing, they finally get the story out of her. The people who took her, Sho, Wally, Simon, and Millianna, were all slaves at the very tower they are now in, eight years ago, along with Erza herself, and a boy named Jellal. Hard as it is to believe, the tough as nails, bad ass, silently struggling with suicidal desires Erza, was once a slave.

The cell she was thrown in? Yeah, that was the cell she use to live in with the others, as well as an old man named Rob, who had the Fairy Tail guild mark on his back. When they were allowed to sleep, they would plot ways to escape, and dream of the day they would be free, but Sho was the one who finally came up with an actual plan. The same Sho who so rabidly declared Erza would be the one to get them all to Heaven.

The people who had taken all these slaves were part of a cult that believed the Black Wizard Zeref, who lived some 500 year sago, was a God, and the Tower was the means to bring him back to life, so they could rule the world. In keeping with the assholes that they were, they had no problem literally taking people from their homes to be forced labor, with the ultimate end result being to sacrifice them all to raise Zeref from the dead.

This is what Erza, at the time only 11 years old, and the others were plotting to escape, at least until their plan was discovered. The leaders of the cult couldn’t get any of them to admit to being the mastermind, as Sho was even younger than Erza, so the cultists decided to punish Erza, as she was the only girl of the group.

Evil and misogynists. No wonder Zeref isn’t around anymore.

This is where we get into the meat of the story. The plan Sho had come up with involved tunneling out, and while the cultists couldn’t get anyone to fess up, they figured they could break Erza easily enough and get the information out of her.

So, they tortured her. An 11 year old child. So severely, in fact, they took out one of her eyes. Erza never broke. She never told them anything. While it is never openly stated, there is some insinuation involved that they did even worse things to her than take her eye. Still, she never gave them anything. Her will never broke. She suffered it all.

While that was happening, Jellal managed to escape the cell, get some weapons, and reach the torture chamber, planning to free Erza and escape with her. He gets there, and almost frees her, when he’s captured. The leaders of the cult decide they are done with Erza, and Jellal can take her place. Bandaging her up just enough that she’ll still be able to work for a while, they throw her back in the cell, and begin torturing Jellal.

She knows what they are doing to him. She knows he risked his life, even possibly traded it for hers. She also knows that she’s stronger than she ever thought possible. When the guards come for work shifts, she takes the pick axe she’s given, and buries it in the guards chest, setting off a revolt.

008As the slaves take more and more of the Tower, Erza’s goal is always on reaching Jellal, of saving him as he did her. Everything else takes a distant second, and odds are, they would have, had the leaders of the cult not dispatched their magic soldiers, floating zombies capable of breathing fire. With many injured in the first wave, the slaves break and run, Simon is nearly killed, and Erza is left to stand against them on her own.

She is not the brave warrior we know. She’s a child. Terrified, alone, and facing certain death, all she can do is watch as the monsters breath fire at her. Somehow, it doesn’t kill her, and as she looks up, she sees old man Rob standing over her, having captured their fire and throwing it back, destroying the first wave.

This is the moment. This is where the Erza we know is born.

Once a powerful wizard, Rob has grown old and weak, but believes he can still hold back the tides for someone he loves. He stands, shielding Erza with his magic, against endless assaults, because during the dark times as a slave, she gave him hope. Because he loves her, as a grandfather might, and is willing to die, that she might know what it is to be free.

Erza watches him, unable to help, as his magic is exhausted, and his body turned to dust, her last sight of him, that mark on his back. Cultists and more magic soldiers are closing in, and in her pain, her sorrow, her rage, she screams at the unfairness of it all, her magic awakening, and everything, every pickax, every shovel, every sword, rising up around her.

009She was 11 years old, when she carved a path of blood, to be free.

Sadly, it is too late for Jellal. He has not died, but he has come face to face with the malicious spirit of Zeref, and accepted the thing into his heart. Even as Erza fought, suffered, and lost those she loved, Jellal has turned his back on all of it, swearing to complete the Tower. When she won’t agree to stay, he banishes her, swearing that if she tells a soul, he’ll kill everyone there, starting with Sho.

Washing up alone on a beach, all she can do is cry, for it was all for nothing.

In time, she found her way to Fairy Tail, hunting down the Guild Rob once belonged to. Distant, reserved, and quiet, she did not fit in with the boisterous Guild, even after Makarov had a healer friend of his give her a new eye. Erza soon found herself at odds with another newcomer to the Guild named Grey, the same one that we know as her friend.

After numerous confrontations, all of which ended with Grey getting his ass kicked, he grew only more determined to beat her, and run her out of the Guild, for in his mind, Fairy Tail wasn’t a place for loners. At least, not until the day he tried to challenge her by the river, and found her crying, alone.

010Grey saw, in that moment, that she wasn’t looking down on everyone else. She was afraid. When Natsu later joined Fairy Tail, it was Erza who took him in hand and taught him to read and write, as well as how to be a proper Fairy Tail wizard. Likewise, with Lucy, when she came to the Guild, it was Erza who was willing to lay down her life for Lucy’s right to live her life by her own choices.

Now, in the present, each of them stand by her side, willing to do whatever it takes to help her end this long nightmare she has lived under, for she has done it for them, time and again. In that moment, Erza weeps, for she begins to see that all her attempts to hold these people she loves so much at arms length, to save them from the pain she suffered when Rob gave his life for her, the same as she plans to do for them, are for nothing.

They do love her. They value her. They cherish her. They will do anything for her. Because she has shown she will do the same for them. She never had to say it, for they knew, by her actions, how much she cared.

More importantly, we finally understand why Erza is the way she is. Her suicidal desires come from a place of survivors guilt. Her desire to die for others is born of knowing no other way to show her love than that. As Rob died for her, out of love, so to does she seek to convey the love she feels, by dying for her friends. It is literally the only way she knows how to show it, and the root cause of all her actions to date.

Erza, strong though she is, of body, and will, is still that frightened girl, watching someone she loved die for her. This is the nature of tragedy. It is often impossible to move beyond, for years, leaving us trapped in that moment. Erza’s suicidal tendencies are both her desire to prove her love, and her feelings that Rob’s sacrifice was wasted on her. She does not feel worthy of him having died for her, giving rise to her entire questioning of her own worth.

Erza is lost in a vicious cycle, with no way out.

Before they can leave to seek Jellal, Simon arrives, revealing that he never joined Jellal’s cause, instead lay in wait for the day Erza would return, so he could join her. Sho overhears everything, and horrified at what he’s done, vows to protect Erza, trapping her in a magic card and running to face Jellal alone.

He doesn’t get far before another of Jellal’s henchmen, a swordwoman named Ikaruga, stops and incapacitates him, accidentally freeing Erza as well. The two engage in battle, and despite her considerable power and the near infinite armors available to her, Erza cannot seem to best Ikaruga. Stilling herself, she accepts why.

Donning what is often called her Zero Defense Armor, Erza faces her failings, admits that she has long held herself back by keeping others at arms length, wrapping her heart in armor, fearful of loving or being loved. However, Natsu, Grey, Lucy and Happy have all been chipping away at the ice she built around her heart, bringing out her true feelings for them. Because of this, because she knows that love does not have to mean pain, Erza can finally embrace her true self, and face Ikaruga with no armor at all.

Because she has finally faced the truth, that she is not strong. That her armor is meant to hide her broken heart, and protect her from ever feeling anything again.

011Ikaruga falls to her with a single blow.

The beauty of this is not that Erza has left her dark thoughts behind her, but rather, that she is finally facing them for the first time. The first step in leaving behind suicidal desires is truly accepting that others love and cherish you, that you matter to them, and they would grieve at your absence. This is not the moment Erza overcomes her suicidal tendencies. It is the moment she takes the first step towards it. The symbology of the armor as shielding herself from pain, and finally abandoning it is powerful, meaningful, and resonant.

Going to face Jellal, however, Erza is till ready to die if that’s what it takes. Rather than because of a dark desire within her, it is grim resolve. It is acceptance of the reality of the situation. It is a small difference, yes, but for Erza, a monumentally important one.

Now, while all of this has been happening, the Magic Council has been preparing to stop Jellal by using an orbital magic weapon to blow the Tower up. As Erza and Jellal come face to face and begin their battle, the weapon is in position, preparing to fire. Despite his arrogance that he can easily best her, Jellal quickly finds himself at Erza’s mercy, admitting that he knows the Tower won’t work, because it does not have sufficient magic energy. Driven by the spirit of Zeref, he has been a helpless prisoner in his own body for all these years.

Realizing that she can, at last, save him, Erza lays down her sword, embracing him, as the orbital weapon fires, consuming the Tower in magic energy.

Exactly as Jellal planned.

With the Tower capturing the magic energy, it now has enough to resurrect Zeref, and Erza is to be the human sacrifice that will make it so. She will die, her body remade into Zeref’s that his spirit may live again. Despite her struggle, Erza cannot prevent this, and soon finds herself inside the crystalline structure the Tower has become.

Lucky her, Natsu sucks at doing what he’s told.

He manages to pull her out, but she begs him to leave, to not try to fight Jellal. Frustrated by this, Natsu knocks her unconscious, so that by the time she wakes up, he’ll have beaten Jellal, and Erza, his hero, mentor, role model, and friend, can go back to being the person she was. That she won’t have that look of giving up in her eyes anymore. So that she’ll smile, and finally, be happy.

Some call this an undermining of Erza’s character, by having a male figure rescue her. Obviously, they are forgetting how Erza has rescued Natsu in the past, several times actually. More over, this is Natsu following in Erza’s footsteps, being the kind of wizard she taught him to be. He is only doing what she herself has done, and would do, for him. That speaks more to the strength of her character than any weakness.

Natsu’s battle with Jellal goes pretty poorly, until he figures out that breaking the Tower is all he has to do. Realizing the fight is getting away from him, Jellal attempts to completely destroy Natsu, but Erza wakes up, and shields him with her body. Jellal can’t kill Erza, or he won’t have a sacrifice. While it makes him hesitate for a moment, Jellal figures, fuck it, and goes to kill both of them.

They are saved in the last moment by Simon, who puts himself between Jellal’s attack and Erza. Just as Rob once did. Erza sees Rob in that moment, before Simon collapses, dying. Cradling him, she asks why, and with his last breaths, Simon finally tells her, it was because he loved her.

As he dies, Erza, so strong, so powerful, with a will made of steel, finally breaks. Jellal has done what no one else has ever managed. He has broken Erza. She collapses, screaming, crying, as Jellal laughs.

012Natsu, watching all of this, sees only two things. A good man died for them, and all of the suffering that Erza has been carrying around with her for the last eight years. His hero. His mentor. His teacher. His friend. The person he wishes he could be. Finally, he sees all her heart ache.

And promptly unleashes seven shades of hell on Jellal.

No, seriously. Natsu is so pissed off by all of this, not just Simon’s death, but all the pain Erza was in that he never noticed, that he accesses the ultimate form of his magic, and kicks Jellal’s ass up one side of the Tower and down the other.

Which ends up not mattering at all. The magic energy the Tower absorbed is growing unstable. The crystalline structure is collapsing, and soon, the Tower will explode. Natsu has passed out from the exertion, leaving Erza, already weakened, to try and carry him out, already knowing how pointless even that is. When the Tower goes, it’ll be like standing at ground zero of a nuclear explosion.

For the first time, without even knowing she’s doing it, Erza fights for an answer that will let everyone live, including herself. She chastises herself for giving up, for having already lost sight of those few, tiny steps she has gained towards leaving her own darkness behind, and looks for anything that will save them.

Sadly, there is but one way. Erza must die.

Not because she wants to, or because she feels she is unworthy of living, or even to show everyone how much she loves them. She must, because it is the only way to stop the overload. By giving herself up to the Tower, for a brief moment, as the magic energy tears her apart, she can control it, and the explosion, saving not just her friend, both old and new, but countless other lives.

This is important to understand. From the resort they were at during the start of this, to the island the Tower is one, is not a long trip. The Tower, when it goes, will likely destroy the resort as well, and the thousands of people there. To save not just her friends, but all of them as well, Erza has only one option this time.

Unlike other instances, where she ignored her various options to cling to the dying heroically one, there really is no other one here. This is the only thing that even might work, and there are no guarantees of that. Still, if she doesn’t do it, she’ll die anyway. If she does, at least the rest have a chance to survive.

As she allows the crystal to take her, Natsu wakes up and, confused, asks her what she’s doing. After a brief look around, he understands, but still doesn’t like the idea. In fact, he flat out rejects it. There must be another way. Unfortunately, there isn’t, as they have a minute, at best, before the entire thing goes up.

Sinking into the crystal, Era tries to comfort him, saying that she’s okay with this. That without not just him, but all of Fairy Tail, she has no idea where she’d be, or if she’d have even lived as long as she has, so dying for them, it’s something she’s happy to do, knowing they will live, and be happy.

013This speech, it is so much more than Erza just trying to comfort Natsu. For the first time, she is speaking openly about her struggle, her suicidal desires, and finally telling not just someone, but the person she trusts most, about her darker nature. This is the single most important step in getting past those kinds of tendencies, and even though she is doing it while laying down her life, she has made it. For the first time, she can say it, knowing, truly believing, someone will hear her.

Erza vanishes into the Tower as the energy reaches critical, and because of her sacrifice, is channeled safely into the sky, the crystal structure of the Tower collapsing. In the end, Erza did not throw her life away, distant and alone, because she believed herself worthless, and unworthy of love. Her act was one of absolute love, knowing it was returned.

Afterwards, Erza finds herself floating over her own funeral. Certain she is dead, she watches as the members of Fairy Tail grieve for her. The outpouring of sorrow is so overwhelming, she falls into tears. For so long, she believed that if she could just manage to die for those she loved, they would go on and be happy, but now she sees the reality. Without her, there will always be a piece of their hearts missing.

If only all those who struggle with suicide could see such a thing. If only there had been this when I was younger, maybe I could have dealt with it sooner. This is powerful, for it shows the true aftermath of a suicide, when those who loved the person that is gone grieve, wondering why they couldn’t have prevented it. They struggle to understand, and are left with so much remorse, for all that time, someone they loved was suffering, and they didn’t see it. Not until it was too late.

Yes, in time those who remain will be happy again. They will laugh, and carry on with life. But there will always be a piece of them missing. There will always be those moments when they think of the one who took their own life, and wish they had been there. Suicide leaves a dark mark on the lives of everyone who is left behind, and that is what Erza is shown.

Pained at seeing what she has caused, she turns from it, as a hand reaches down from the heavens towards her. She awakens on a beach, alive. Startled, she realizes that somehow, Natsu pulled her back, and carried her to safety. As they both collapse into the waves, she sees her others friends running towards them, overjoyed they are safe.

But by her side, Natsu confesses that what she said before, about not knowing where she would be without Fairy Tail, is something each of them knows. Everyone in the Guild has asked themselves that at some point, including him. She sees the tears running down his face as he begs her to never do something like that again. When she hesitates, he screams at her to promise him.

This is not anger. This is sadness. Natsu saw the private suffering she had been in. She confessed her suicidal desires to him earlier, and he is seeing all the times she was crying out for help, that he didn’t hear her. All the times he failed to be the friend she needed, and his sadness is that of someone who has been given a second chance to help his most treasured family find a way free of that darkness.

014Erza swears that she will never again throw away her life, finally realizing that you do not die for your friends. You live for them.

The significance of this story arc, and the reason I go into such depth that many will likely give it a TL;DR, is that the entire thing is written to show not only what lead Erza to the point she seriously considered her own life so worthless that dying was the best thing she could do with it, but the first steps she takes to escape that thinking.

The entire “Tower of Heaven” story arc is a manual for those of us who have suffered from these tendencies, on how to take that first step in freeing ourselves. The repeated themes that run through the arc of being free, of fighting for that freedom, all tie back in to Erza’s suicidal desires, and how she ultimately begins to break free of them.

The story telling done is bold, and truly, I wish this had been around when I was a teenager. Perhaps it could have spared me the many years of suffering I inflicted not just on myself, but those who loved me.

Fairy Tail’s “Tower of Heaven” arc is the main reason I always rate the anime in my top five favorites, not just because it deals with the issue of suicide, but because moving forward, it continues to be a part of Erza’s story arc, as the road to overcoming that kind of a desire is not accomplished overnight. She has taken the first step, but there are many more to go.

Tomorrow, I’ll get into all of that, as I conclude my Cracking The Character Code: Erza Scarlet, with Part 3, “Accepting Love”.

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