The Cultural Roots of Little Witch Academia Part 1: Bewitching Britain and Thaumaturgic Towers

I adore Studio Trigger’s Little Witch Academia, and I’m ecstatic that it’s been successful so far. What started as nothing more than one of many short films featured as part of the Anime Mirai 2013 project has burst into a popular television series that is easily one of the best anime of recent memory. From the breathtaking visuals, to the endearing characters, this show finds all sorts of ways of breaking the mold, not the least of which is its unique setting. Unlike almost every other anime, this series is set in Europe and not some sort of medieval fantasy Europe either, but actual modern Europe. Everything outside the witch academy of Luna Nova, be it the architectural aesthetic found in local towns or the television stations reporting on angry football fans (or soccer fans, I guess), gives the series’ world an unmistakably European sensibility. The best part is that we can narrow this down even further and find that the series takes place in the country of England by looking at the cultural inspiration for one of the show’s most important plot devices: The St. Michael’s Ley Line.

In the show’s universe a ley line is a network of magic energy and there are several ley lines carrying the energy needed to fuel the magic of witches all around the earth. They are known to run through several important buildings and monuments where their power may be harnessed by a philosopher’s stone which helps project the magic energy over a large radius.

Little Witch Academia’s visual representation of a ley line

How does this tie-in to England? Well, that is where the term “ley line” was first coined. In 1925, amateur archaeologist Alfred Watkins wrote the book The Old Straight Track, where he used “ley line” to describe a series of geographically and culturally important locations that seemed to form a line together. And that was all they were, Watkins never claimed any sort of magical energy ran through the ley lines, he was just interested in the fact that so many important things lined up so well. In fact, the name was only chosen because a few of the locations Watkins observed happened to have the syllable “ley” in their names.

The inspiration for the magical aspects of Little Witch Academia’s ley lines comes from the year 1969 where another English author by the name of John Michell revived Watkins’ ley line concept and combined it with Chinese Feng Shui, which associates forms and shapes with spiritual concepts, in his book The View Over Atlantis. The book was extremely successful among the New Age movement and people still to this day believe that ley lines are conductors of psychic, spiritual or otherwise mystical energy. Of course this is nothing more than mawkish superstition with no real scientific support, but it’s still a fascinating origin for something that drives the entire plot of Little Witch Academia.

There is still one aspect of the show’s ley line that has yet to be explained, however, and that is the name. Why is the main ley line of the story named after St. Michael? The Archangel Michael was the patron saint for a large number of groups, including everything from soldiers to sick people to medical experts to, amusingly enough, grocers. Yet despite having such a broad range of patronees there doesn’t seem to be any direct link between him and witches or ley lines. The show’s in-universe explanation for the name is simply that the ley line runs through the academy’s St. Michael’s Tower. Is this a reference to a real life tower?

The St. Michael’s Tower found in Luna Nova

Well it might be difficult to say for sure because of the vast quantity of towers dedicated to St. Michael.  Even with a search narrowed down to England alone there are still several St. Michael’s Towers to sift through. There is the somewhat famous church St. Michael at the North Gate in Oxford which features a tower with architectural similarities to the tower in the show, or the St Michael’s Tower found in Montacute, Somerset. The latter is the subject of a local urban legend about a secret tunnel that supposedly runs between it and a nearby mansion which could be the inspiration for the tower in the series having a ley line run beneath it.

St. Michael’s Tower, Montacute.

Unfortunately neither of these towers rest upon a hill, like in the show, and neither one seems to have any sort of association with magic. Of course, fiction can stray very far from that which inspires it so it’s still possible that either of these served as the basis for the fictional St. Michael’s tower, but I believe I have found a much more likely candidate.

Less than twenty miles from Montacute is Glastonbury Tor, a hill just outside of the town of Glastonbury which, you guessed it, is home to yet another St. Michael’s Tower.

That’s right, we’ve found a St. Michael’s Tower with a matching location to the one in the show, but does this tower relate to magic somehow? Well as it turns out, the Tor is believed to have strong connections to the legend of King Arthur with many claiming it to be Avalon, the location where the mythical sword Excalibur was forged and home to the famous witch Morgan le Fay. This finally provides us with the direct link we’ve been looking for between St. Michael’s Tower and witches, but would you believe me if I told you that the connections go even further than that? The Tor has historically been associated with Gwyn ap Nudd who, according to Welsh mythology, is the King of the Fairies which has lead to the area surrounding St. Michael’s Tower to be represented as a gateway to the land of the fairies. And what is it we see all around Little Witch Academia’s school grounds?

That’s right, fairies, they’re all over the place. The best part is that the connection goes even deeper than that because Gwyn ap Nudd is commonly associated with the European myth of The Wild Hunt which we see happening in the town surrounding Luna Nova Academy (and by extension, St. Michael’s Tower) in episode eighteen. The more I learn about Glastonbury Tor and its St. Michael’s Tower the more I’m convinced that it’s a major inspiration for the setting of Little Witch Academia. If you’re still not convinced, just look at how the two towers look almost identical from the inside.

 

 

 

 

 

Little Witch Academia is a wonderful show with countless ties to real life culture and mythology, each one more fascinating than the last. I absolutely plan on coming back to this series to look at more of its cultural inspirations so if you want to read about that then be sure to keep reading AniRoute. You won’t want to miss what I have in store for next time.

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Will Bertazzo Lambert
Will Bertazzo Lambert has recently risen above doing nothing but watch anime all the time and has now taken up talking about it on the internet. He hopes you will listen too, since he intends to talk for a long, long time.
  • This makes me wanna check the serious out