Everything Changes in Folktales and Frieren


Many people have enjoyed high fantasy recently, especially with all the D&D media taking off. However, I’m willing to bet many fans of Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End didn’t initially become fans because of its fantasy approach. Frieren’s setting gets more complex and interesting over time, but its world-building is arguably pretty generic in the beginning. So, what makes Frieren stand out over less memorable high fantasies? Well… it begins melancholic and somberly.

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Its official English title is Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End, but a popular fan title for it before its licensure is “Frieren at the Funeral.” As described, the story starts with a funeral for a human hero named Himmel. Of all things to die of, he dies of old age, decades after his biggest and riskiest fight to save the world. His ceremony is attended by his old comrades from way back. One of them is the she-elf Frieren, who looks not a day older since they last traveled together.
She stares expressionlessly as he’s laid into the ground…

…and then wrinkles and sobs once the earth swallows his coffin. She regrets how little she feels she knows him. Rather than enchanting with magic, exciting with adventure, or engaging with armed conflict, Frieren hooks its audiences with grief and regret. Frieren uses the fantasy genre to illustrate the feeling, fear, and regret of being “out of place in time.” It affects elves, and through folktales like Rip Van Winkle and Urashima Taro, I’ll demonstrate how it can affect us humans, too.

But First, Frieren

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Human Hero Himmel and his comrades — human priest Heiter, dwarven warrior Eisen, and elf mage Frieren — return from their ten-year journey north to defeat the Demon King. The demons have been beaten, and the remaining good people of the world have been saved. They return to lands further south, report their deeds, celebrate a bit, and then gaze at shooting stars. Frieren parts from them shortly thereafter, off to wander the area for new spells to learn, but not before promising to see the next meteor shower together.

Fifty years pass.

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Meteor showers happen about as often in Frieren’s setting as they do in real life, and Frieren, looking the same as ever, reunites with everyone as promised – and also picks up a magic ingredient from Himmel while she’s at it. Heiter’s face now is more lined and sunken, Himmel’s shrunk in size, and even Eisen’s arms look saggier beneath his cloak. Things changed so much since she was absent, they’ve changed so much. Not long afterward, Himmel passed away.
He was a huge dork who had the biggest heart of gold. He looked out and thought the world of her. He liked her but kept those feelings to himself.

He was also the leader of their adventuring band, the Hero Party. He was their group’s most celebrated member, with statues of himself erected everywhere to remind and inspire (at his encouragement). Murmurs of Frieren’s unmoved expression at the funeral by some of the mourning attendees reach her ears. He meets the dirt, and the fact he’s gone finally sinks in, and Frieren cries. Fifty years for humans isn’t much time at all in elf-years, and ten years is only a fraction of that.

Six decades is nothing compared to her millennia-long lifespan.

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So why didn’t she try to get to know him better?

Why didn’t she check up on him or even think of him more often? Why didn’t she see him more often and enjoy his company while she could? She realizes that he was a dearer friend to her than she thought (perhaps even dearer). In just ten years, he’s impacted her so much without her realizing it, down to encouraging her hobby of learning new spells – all so living her life after defeating the demons that ravaged her people into obscurity and made her purpose to destroy isn’t an apathetic chore. If ten years is nothing for elves like her, and 50 years is barely more than that, then why couldn’t she spare that much for Himmel? Was he nothing to her?

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Clearly not.
But wait.
What do the concerns of elves have to do with humans like us? Standard fantasy elves have long lifespans, far longer ones than humans. Differences in perceiving time due to different lifespans lead Frieren to be out of place in Himmel’s time and later feel conflicted over it. But aren’t elves not real? How relatable can elf-world problems be to human ones? Why are we human fans so broken up by an elf’s grief? If audiences like Frieren as a character, they can feel sad for her, but as far as feeling sad with her…

… I’m positive some of us can also identify with her grief. Her regret wounds us because the passage of time, the transience of life, and loss are things humans are familiar with, experience, and dread. For proof, Frieren isn’t the only story that tackles “out of place in time” that real humans came up with. For instance, there’s Rip Van Winkle and Urashima Taro. They’re culturally significant folktales with human main characters, and by understanding these folktales, we can appreciate how catholic the fear and regret of taking the present for granted is.

Rip Van Winkle

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John Quidor’s Rip Van Winkle (1829)
Image via Encyclopædia Britannica

Based in the New York area, initially colonized by the Dutch before they were persuaded by the British to transfer its ownership to them, Rip Van Winkle began some years before the American Revolutionary War with a Dutch American named Rip Van Winkle. He goes into the mountains, and there, he meets some other folks quaintly dressed like they’re from the early Dutch colonial period. He hangs out with them before falling asleep and wakes up noticeably bushier and grayer. He ventures back to his hometown, now looking larger and more developed than when he left it. He mistakes still being a subject of the British Empire when he’s now a citizen of the United States. He learns many of his old friends have died in the war or moved out of town, that his mistress is dead, and that his two kids have now grown adults. He’s been gone about 20 years.

Rip’s missed a lot since he went missing. Still, he’s surprisingly (perhaps insensitively) easy-going about the situation once the initial shock and loss wears off, probably because his adult children are willing to take him in and care for him.
Taro, often described as Rip’s Japanese counterpart (though his folktale is technically much older), doesn’t take his situation nearly as well. With one exception, there’s nothing for him after his long absence, and the shock and total loss throw him into despair.

Urashima Taro

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Urashima Taro encounters children on the beach who are ‘toying with’ a turtle.
Image via Japanese Ministry of Education (1928) Jinjō shōgaku kokugo tokuhon, kan 3, Nihon Shoseki, pages 39–46

Based in an area now part of northern Kyoto Prefecture, Urashima Taro starts with a fisherman named Urashima Taro rescuing a tortoise from some kids who were torturing it for giggles. He releases the creature into the sea. He’s later met by another tortoise, offering a ride and bearing a summons from the Emperor of the Sea to join him at his underwater palace, Ryugu (a place that might ring a bell to One Piece fans). He accepts, and at the palace, the tortoise Taro saved turns out to be not just a tortoise girl but a beautiful tortoise princess named Otohime (a person that might ring a bell to One Piece fans). She thanks, likes, and weds (in some story versions) and invites him to stay with her (preferably forever). Contrary to her preferences, Taro grows homesick before long, and he asks to go back to the surface. Otohime is sad but relents, wishing him well before handing him a peculiar box that she makes him swear he’ll never open, lest misfortune take him.

Taro returns, heading straight for his home village and old home, only to find it deserted and overgrown. He walks through streets that he should be familiar with but looks off and glances past faces he can’t recognize. He asks around if anyone remembers an Urashima Taro, and eventually, someone recalls a legend of the tortoise man who went out to sea on the back of a tortoise. That was about 300 years ago.

With everyone he’s ever known and loved long gone – no parents, friends, children, nothing but a quaint story – Taro despairs. Absentmindedly or deliberately, he takes out the peculiar box, lifts its lid, and experiences 300 years of age at once (an age some tortoises are thought to live up to). Depending on the story version, he either expires immediately after or spends the rest of his days old and miserable.

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Rip Van Winkle reminds us of how shockingly dramatic things can change in a period of time, though falling into a 20-year coma isn’t something that happens to most humans. Urashima Taro reminds us how traumatic such dramatic changes can be, though no human has yet been able to live 300 years. And Frieren is still an elf, not a human. Yet, these stories still linger in people’s minds. They haunt and move us, because while exaggerating the details – as all folktales and fantasies do – they identify and highlight key human truths. They make less obvious experiences of feeling out of place in everyone else’s time more so.

But I can try to explain my experiences, too.

Me

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It’s not been 300 years, 50, 20, or 10, since I returned to America from Japan. It’s only been five. I worked in Japan for five years as an English teacher. On weekends and holidays, I traveled the country, experienced the culture, focused on the present, and focused on myself primarily. Besides video calling my family every weekend, I hardly thought much of how things were back in the States while I was overseas. Then I returned, and not thinking about my hometown became more difficult. The Starbucks closest to my house is still where it’s always been on the corner, though the Food Source next to it in the shopping plaza is now a Food4Less. The Barnes and Nobles I used to frequent to skim manga volumes is still open, though the rear entrance I always went through stopped being accessible since COVID.

I suddenly remembered a friend of mine having a baby girl before Japan. Our family passed by hers one evening at the local Vietnamese eatery, her daughter tiny in her little onesie, small-cap, and teensy mitts. Next, I see her after church for free donuts; she’s slightly up to my waist, speaking complete sentences while giving me a hug that wraps around my back. I also remembered my friend’s dad. He died while I was away.

At church on a different day, I’m greeted before leaving by an old man whose wife I knew. I used to perform together with her in the parish choir. I visited their house a few times for piano lessons. Their walls always smelled of dried fish, and the backyard was teeming with overgrown fruit trees. I suspect she liked to think of me as a grandson and gave me $20 for my birthday once. Her husband can’t walk or breathe very well anymore; he carries an oxygen machine with him now. Tubes protrude into the machine into his nose. His wife is no longer around.

And then there’s my dad, whose salt-and-pepper hair five years ago looks more salt than pepper now. He’s also been having more trouble with his legs than before. He can’t climb up stairs super well anymore and gets gout badly when he eats things he shouldn’t and skimps on his meds. When it gets bad, he’ll be limping around with a cane. It’s a blue cane now, not the grey one.

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The logical part of my mind thinks there’s nothing to be upset or anxious about here because it’s just time passing and life happening. Stores open and close, children grow up, adults get sick and old, people are born and someday die. The universe doesn’t revolve around us like we’re the main characters; it doesn’t go on pause if we step out for a bit. Change and loss occur anyway.

My emotional side doesn’t like thinking we’re powerless to prevent change we don’t like. People don’t like losing things that they’ve grown attached to. While we can intellectually understand that time is permanently jammed on play and everyone dies someday, like Frieren and me, we can be unsettled by it.

And then there’s just missing those moments and people we feel we should have been there for. Even if we can’t be as supportive as we want to and do anything tangible to help, there’s supposed to be a comfort in bearing witness to change and just being there. You’re at least making an effort; maybe there is comfort in company. Yet, it can be easy to get caught up in yourself and the present because both require focus, too.

Then we’re forced to look back at things we said to ourselves were important but neglected anyway, things that meant more to us than we thought now that we’re acknowledging what time’s done to them. As that song from Adventure Time goes, we revisit the garden in our old childhood home and discover the toy we used to play with all the time before leaving it behind. We see how faded it is when we rediscover it, how lighter it looks when we turn it over.

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We wonder and even bemoan how we forgot something that seemed so precious to us. We feel grief at its poor condition, guilt that we forgot, regret over not appreciating more, and loneliness over us abandoning (and, more selfishly, abandoning us). So many emotions we’re not prepared to feel come to a boil and like Frieren at the funeral, our feelings overflow, and we beat ourselves up for it. We feel awful.

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Urashima Taro and Frieren are relatable because, in exaggerated and fantastical terms, they remind us not to hyper-focus on the present and ourselves. We should not take what’s precious to us outside our immediate orbit for granted. After all, everything and everyone is affected by time, loss, and change. Even Frieren, as ageless as she looks on the outside, changes quite a bit on the inside. But change doesn’t have to always be negative.

She loses someone very dear to her, but she learns to better appreciate those friends she has left, starting with visiting them more often. She develops a stronger interest in understanding humans and being more considerate of their limited time, though it’s still a learning process. The funeral puts her on a new journey, leading her to become a more empathetic person… and fully sorting out her feelings for Himmel.

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Social Scientist & History Buff. Dabbles in Creative Writing & Anime Criticism. Consider checking out his blog, Therefore It Is.



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