Why My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is “Serious” Fantasy

Dismiss My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic at your own peril! The show knows how to deploy classic fantasy tropes to tell epic stories.

*** In celebration of the release of the final installment of Peter Jackson’s Middle-Earth saga, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, we present this article that originally ran on September 16th 2014, about the other great fantasy franchise out there…My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. ***

My Little Pony comes with a lot of baggage. To many it’s a cutesy children show, which it is. To others it’s the domain of the bronies, either a vibrant, engaging subculture or a pushy, perverse one depending on one’s own experience. My Little Pony appeals to more people than that, though, men and women of all ages who find that along with the moral lessons and optimistic tone, the consistency of My Little Pony’s world also makes the show function well as a fantasy story.

Even setting aside the fact that the characters are talking animals, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic has a system of magic with its own rules. It has magical creatures like gryphons, dragons, and insectlike ponies called “breezies.” Some of the magical objects, like the Elements of Harmony, have cutesy names, but the way they are used in the show and the characters’ reactions to them give them some weight. Fans of fantasy and science fiction who are skeptical about the show should give it a try to check out the world-building, if nothing else.

In the first season, we see a retelling of the land of Equestria’s recent history, which sets up some of the plot. Sisters Luna and Celestia ruled the land peacefully until Luna became jealous and created eternal night. Celestia banished Luna until six young ponies taught Luna about understanding and friendship, and she returned to being a princess.

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In the episode “Hearth’s Warming Eve” in season two, we see the founding of Equestria as a nation, which came about when the three species of ponies (unicorns, pegasi, and the run-of-the-mill earth ponies) banded together to end a magical winter. The use of weather as a driving force has shades of The Chronicles of Narnia and A Song of Ice and Fire. The world of Westeros also began with a pact between two races, humans and the magical Children of the Forest. That’s certainly not to say that My Little Pony has, or attempts, the gritty gravitas of Game of Thrones – the framework is there, though, with an alternate world to explore.

By building on this background, My Little Pony builds a convincing fantasy world that, while not exactly existing in the same genre as the medieval high fantasy seen in books and live action, has many of the same characteristics, including a mappable landscape and quest stories.

That brings us to our heroes, Twilight Sparkle, Pinkie Pie, Rarity, Rainbow Dash, Applejack, and Fluttershy. The six young ponies each have their own worries and talents. Rainbow Dash is a talented racer, but can be pushy and too competitive for her own good. Rarity is a fashionista and makes a living making clothes, but she’s prone to worrying and obsessing over detail.

Twilight Sparkle is different from many fantasy heroes in a major way – she has parents. They are shown to be alive and well, at least in flashbacks. However, like Wart, the boy who would become King Arthur, she is raised primarily by a magical tutor. Like Arthur, she doesn’t know that she’s destined to become royal until after she’s already had several adventures.

Pinkie Pie is a jokester, like Merry and Pippin from The Lord of The Rings, who sometimes has to take on her own serious responsibility. Applejack is the loyal, down-to-earth character; like Sam from the Lord of the Rings, she is a farmer. Rainbow Dash is the warrior figure, prone to using physical prowess like Aragorn or Conan the Barbarian. Of course, with the less warlike tone of the show she’s usually winning races instead of swordfights.

Like heroes such as Wart of The Sword In The Stone or Garion from the Belgariad, Twilight Sparkle starts out as a child. She has regular lessons with Princess Celestia, and her biggest challenge is finding friends. But as the series goes on, she grows and changes. Her home becomes a castle, she grows wings, and tangles with ever bigger and badder monsters.

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The one trope you won’t find here is the damsel in distress or the epic love story. My Little Pony mostly leaves those to other tales, instead focusing on the titular friendship.

The fourth season of My Little Pony in particular has an overarching story that works especially well as a classic high fantasy for viewers of all ages. It portrays a quest for a magical item, in this case the keys to a locked box, and all the steps and challenges toward retrieving that item that occur throughout the season.

The box is this season’s Holy Grail. In the often repeated tales of the Holy Grail, perhaps best presented in Le Morte d’Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table must travel around England, encountering characters such as noble maidens and reclusive hermits along the way. Characters who interpret dreams and signs, like Luna can do, also feature in Arthurian myths. This is different from The Lord of The Rings, in which the quest is to actually get rid of the magical item, but instead it acts more like the magic sword that the hero finds in the course of a journey. The magical objects are, as usual, ultimately symbolic of personal power.

The series returns to and references different places in  the land of Equestria, especially arid Appleloosa and the city of Manehattan, to give a consistent sense of a world, but the fact that Equestria doesn’t have a precise map makes it different from the many high fantasy series, including Tolkien’s, that often have two-page maps in the front of the book. However, one thing My Little Pony does share with fantasy worlds like that of Game of Thrones is the use of real-world influences on fantasy settings. Appleloosa is reminiscent of the Wild West in the way that Middle-Earth is a stylized ancient England; Manehattan is New York City in the way that Terry Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork is a parodied mix of cities like London. The show sometimes uses this to comment on the real world, but more often uses it simply as setting – the most high fashion ponies can be found in Manehattan, for example.

Last season’s events also effect the fourth season,  such as when Spike the dragon is celebrated for having rescued the residents of the Crystal Empire from imprisonment. Reminding the view what happened last season isn’t a great feat, but it’s one not all children’s television shows do well, or weave into their story as easily as My Little Pony does.  

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One of the other unique things about My Little Pony’s fourth season quest is that the characters don’t know how much they’re learning as they learn it, and don’t know that they’re finding the clues along the way. The quest begins in “Princess Twilight Sparkle Part 2,” the second episode of the season. The ponies find a locked box that sprouted in a flower from the Tree of Harmony, one of the important magical components of the previous season. Trees and nature are often associated with magic in high fantasy too, including Tolkein’s Two Trees of Valinor and the Ellcrys tree in the Shannara series.

The rest of the season concerns finding the keys, but in the end it is revealed that the ponies were gaining the keys – magically disguised as other items – throughout their adventures.  Because the show is designed to teach children, the items each correspond to a lesson about friendship and socialization. They also serve as fantasy objects, like the Horcruxes in Harry Potter (another franchise that often ties magic to emotions like love or loyalty.)

The ponies also have a mentor figure – Zecora the zebra, although she doesn’t appear many times in each season. She provides a potion that allows Twilight Sparkle to look into the past, and shows Rarity’s sister Sweetie Bell visions of the past and an alternate future.

Like Obi-Wan Kenobi or Gandalf, she is an older character, and lives as a recluse until she appears when she needs to give wisdom. Her powers aren’t presented as a remnant of any forgotten order, like Kenobi’s, though. She does have African and Native American influence in her design, and is said to come from a far away land. Another thing that sets her apart from many traditional mentor figures – here’s a quick spoiler warning – is that she doesn’t have to die in order to propel the heroes along their journey.

There is also a more traditional old mentor character, a wizard named Star Swirl the Bearded, but he is spoken of as a figure from the past. More on that a bit later…

Here are some of the season four episodes that contribute the most to the show’s mythology, tying together different parts of its magic:

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The third episode, “Castle-Mania,” serves as a stand-alone story, but also gives fans a deeper look at a location from back in season one location, the Castle of Two Sisters.

The use of a haunted castle and forgotten royalty conjure up the medieval setting of high fantasy, as does My Little Pony’s apparent monarchy  (ponyocracy?). The princesses are just one trapping of this setting, which also has its darker elements.

The castle, where Luna and Celestia lived before Luna was cast out, becomes the catalyst of several season four episodes. If the castles are representatives of their princesses, then the ruins of Celestia and Luna’s old castle show Princess Luna’s dark, puzzling, but entrapped mindset during her exile.

The viewer gets to see the castle in both disrepair and when it was full of finery. It is a loss like Theoden’s in The Lord of The Rings, who became sick as his advisor betrayed him – a loss of power and control, albeit a lot cuter and more pastel. The tendency of fantasy to uplift royalty, to point toward royal families as the most important people in the story, does exist in the story of the castle particularly.

Another way the season shows its system of magic well is to give an example of what exactly those powers entail. In the episode “For Whom The Sweetie Bell Tolls,” Luna moves in and out of dreams with Sweetie Belle and shows her a possible future. Sweetie Bell sees that she might have ruined her sister’s work, but gets the chance to make it up to her.

The power of premonition first appears in myths like that of Merlin or connected with religious figures like the Greek oracle at Delphi, but also plays a part in the Belgariad and the Star Wars prequel trilogy, among many others. The question of whether a hero can change his fate is often struggled with in high fantasy, and we get that in small doses with Sweetie Bell and also with the quality season three finale, “Magical Mystery Cure.”

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In “Twilight’s Kingdom Part 2,” Twilight struggles to control the moon and the sun, causing confusion when both bounce around the sky.  The fact that the princess controls the sun, like gods were thought to do in many ancient religions, isn’t remarked upon by the characters. A manually propelled sun isn’t the only creative bit of world-building that is presented with earnest, simple, but consistent explanation.

This also brings us back to that catchy, cutesy title “Friendship is Magic” and Equestria’s creation story. The blizzard that the early ponies faced was based on creatures fed by hatred, and the “Fire of Friendship” was created to stop it. Magic being based on emotion is just another unremarked upon underpinning of Equestria’s world.

Season four also sees the return of Equestria’s underworld, Tartarus, and its guardian Cerberus.  These were first introduced in season two episode “It’s about Time,” and are based on Greek and Roman mythology. In myth, Tartarus is a deeper realm than Hades, and imprisons monsters like the Cyclops. In the myths, Cerberus guards Hades. In My Little Pony, he guards Tartarus, and his release in season two has a big impact on season four when he allowed one of the major villains to escape imprisonment.

Speaking of magic that exists as a natural part of Equestria, season four also has two instances of magic books, Spike’s comic book and Twilight Sparkle’s Indiana Jones-style “Derring Do” series.  The former is outright stated to be magical, but the latter is just another area that exists in the same world as Equestria.

“Daring Don’t” is an earnest, upbeat episode in which Rainbow Dash discovers that the adventures of her favorite fictional heroine are real, and that the books’ author, A. K. Yearling, is actually the adventurer named Daring Do. After a lot of resistance on Yearling’s part, Rainbow Dash and her friends help defeat the villains of the book series. This is actually one of the less magical events in the season. There aren’t any mystical powers involved in Yearling becoming her alter ego – instead it’s more of a detective story, with Yearling keeping her alternate identity quiet until some thugs find her home.

On the other hand, the episode “Power Ponies” features a magical comic book that Spike the dragon picked up without being aware of its powers. The episode is a standalone built entirely around the idea of placing the characters in a superhero world, and can come off as a bit pandering and shallow to fans who have seen this kind of thing in crossover fan art before. However, the very existence of the comic book tells us more about Equestria – that unlike  Derring Do’s world, some fictional worlds really are fictional, but also accessible. It also tells us that Equestria has magic book shops, as Spike realizes at the end.

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Some My Little Pony episodes can be repetitive. They wrap  up with neat lessons, although not always the ones one would expect. There are uncertainties that keep the world of Equestria feeling alive and unpredictable, though, like a shadowy figure in Luna’s castle or Fluttershy’s vampire teeth.

Each of the main characters has a moment of revelation in which they see a rainbow flash or reflection. These all come together at the end, when it is revealed that the items the ponies got in exchange for helping other ponies are the keys to the locked box. My Little Pony is far from the only cartoon to work its overarching storyline in with standalone episodes, but it does it in a way that simply makes sense. The ending also strongly contributes to an overall mythology that sometimes feels like it could take place in the same medieval worlds as classic high fantasy. If you like daring adventures and systems of magic, you might find that Equestria looks familiar.