Sat. Feb 24th, 2024

Across its first two volumes, Witch Hat Atelier has articulated a philosophy of magic that’s quite distinct from your usual fantasy adventure, wherein practice, caution, and discretion are lauded as the key prerequisites for becoming a great mage. That is because, as any great craftsman or artist knows, there is no further secret. With careful study and diligent practice, anyone can create marvels that seem like magic to the untrained eye. Magic is no different than carpentry or painting in its method of mastery – the only thing that does separate it from any mundane craft is the profound danger of its misuse, meaning any large-scale act of magic must be initiated with the greatest of caution.

Unfortunately, for as much care as any of us take in applying uncertain skills to practical applications, there will be times where our conceptual reach exceeds our grasp, or our understanding of technique is insufficient to address an emergent complication, or we simply stumble and err, our certainty of execution in practice proving no replacement for the pressure of a curious audience. The practice of mastery is in part so satisfying because all great crafts push back against their students, new challenges and surprises emerging as footholds of partial understanding facilitate the recognition of new mountains to climb, new thresholds of mastery far in the distance.

To one blessed with the humility necessary to seek mastery, recognizing how far you’ve still to climb can be an energizing experience. Rather than seeking recognition for external triumphs like Agate, your motivation must come from within; you do not perform magic to seek praise for how much you’ve practiced, you perform it because you can’t imagine expressing yourself any other way, a desire for mastery emerging from your need to clearly articulate your own voice. To such seekers, seeing how far you’ve still to climb should be a cause for celebration – after all, you have now developed the eyes necessary to recognize such mountains, and you now see how much your journey still has to teach you. Unfortunately, when such a moment of humility is crossed with whatever shadow haunts Coco’s journey, terrifying consequences can result. And so we find our heroine once again at wand-point, being forced to answer for her inexplicably powerful casting.

Standing tall and imposing before Coco, a mage of the court promises her that “the terror you now feel will be forgotten.” Even the way you have your magic “taken away” in this world reflects how magic is not some unique faculty of the gifted. What is being taken away is not some innate ability for spellcasting, it is the time she has spent gaining experience, the hours upon hours of practice that have led to her fledgling understanding of spellcasting. As such, the idea of “taking away magic” in this world feels even more frightening, as you are essentially taking away someone’s passion, their purpose, what they have chosen to dedicate their life to pursuing. To one who truly loves their field of creation, stealing their experience and passion is akin to stealing their soul.

Fortunately, Coco’s friends arrive in the nick of time, with Riche blasting her free of the mage and Tetia summoning a fluffy cloud cushion for her landing. In spite of the tense situation, Tetia can’t help but cheer at this practical success, exclaiming “I’m glad I practiced this spell so much! Now I’m finding all kinds of new ways to use it!” Her excitement reflects another aspect of practicing a craft, and in particular of pursuing your own creative passion within that craft. Though we might think of our ideas as idle fantasies with little practical purpose like Tetia, any sort of new proficiency within the umbrella of your craft is bound to facilitate new discoveries, as you test out what you’ve learned in new contexts. There’s no reason to feel ashamed because your ideas seem too small, too impractical, or too strange. Outside of the common mastery we all seek, what you bring to a specific craft is your own perspective, a perspective unlike anyone else’s, which can see things from an angle wholly your own. To deny the validity of your specific fascinations is to deny your ability to make your own mark on your craft.

Between Qifrey’s entreaties and the passion of his students, this mage and “honor student” Estheath relents, delaying Coco’s memory wipe pending a full investigation.  Inspecting her hands, he immediately notes how they are roughly calloused and stained with ink. Bound as he is by his duty to protect the secret of magic, he still cannot help but respect the clear work that Coco is putting in. To the dedicated craftsman, a single marvelous creation is less noteworthy than the practice that guided it – craftsmen are not impressive because of their unique given talents, but because they worked hard day after day in order to develop the skills necessary for mastery. Estheath immediately sees in Coco the most important quality for a prospective mage: dedication to practice with no certainty of result, something Agate had far more trouble with.

Estheath is not an unreasonable man; he simply understands and fully respects the consequences that can erupt from the misuse of magic. His sanction is ultimately less ominous than Qifrey’s, who again emphasizes the cruciality of memory in establishing not just skill and experiences, but your fundamental identity. “Memories make people who we are… Experience and knowledge build up over time and form the very base of life itself.” Whether we choose to spend our time pursuing a craft or simply exploring the world, we are fundamentally composed of our accumulated skills and experiences, more so than any innate core of personhood. What is true of mastering a skill is true of any other project of self-improvement: after the will to improve comes the practice of repetition, and that alone is what reshapes and refines us. Far more important than inspiration or given talent is diligence, and self-improvement is essentially diligence applied over a longer time frame. We are all in progress, all in flux, and all building ourselves one experience at a time; as such, erasing someone’s memory means killing a significant part of their identity. 

With Qifrey having discovered a clue regarding the Brimhats in the form of Coco’s inkwell, the pair race back to Karoon to investigate the shop where it was purchased. Our return to Karoon is articulated through a central panel of arrival flanked by beautiful bookends, the distant background described in the side panels essentially opening like window panes to reveal our heroes’ arrival at the shop. The way Kamome Shirahama guides the reader’s eye across the page goes beyond functional mastery and into the realm of playful conversation, her visual embellishments acting much in the same way as a master storyteller’s distinctive character voices and funny asides.

As Coco meets a shop apprentice named Tartar, more cleverly composed panels guide us throughout the shop. Coco’s fascination with the clutter of the workshop leads us on a rambling journey across the page, until we are ultimately carried away by Qifrey. As in the first volume, Shirahama uses in-panel stairs to guide the eye, this time carrying the viewer up from the bottom towards Qifrey. Ultimately, the negative space at the top of the panel conveys a sense of Qifrey escaping the clutter and bustle that Coco is currently ensconced in, a progression of tones all realized through how the lines of the art direct the eye.

Shirahama’s next flourish is an exercise in staging minimalism, a page that is broken into several panels in spite of largely consisting of one establishing shot of the shop. With the paneling and word balloons guiding us, the page invites us to survey this shop from Coco’s own perspective, scanning from one shelf to another while the stable composition maintains a clear sense of space. And as Qifrey engages in some misguided experiments with Coco’s inkwell, we receive our most playful panel spread of all, as Coco’s attempt to reach a high shelf is conveyed literally through her reaching towards a high panel on the left, and her subsequent tumble is presented as the panels themselves literally crashing off the page.

Back at the atelier, the girls continue their training, with Tetia soon offering another key insight regarding the practice of mastery. “When you mess up, investigate what went wrong. And when you do it right, think about how it worked. Mindless practice won’t get you anywhere!” she declares, finishing off with an “isn’t that right, professor” that makes it clear this is a familiar speech. It’s no surprise that Qifrey has apparently hammered on this point before; after all, there is no surer route to wasting your time while seeking mastery than engaging in continuous yet mindless practice.

The key to mastering any craft is practicing and repetition, but that practice must be guided by self-awareness and a clear roadmap for improvement. You must always attempt to identify what worked or didn’t and why, always present yourself with fresh challenges to expand your understanding, and never settle for repeating the things you’re already good at. You can write ten thousand pages and never improve as a writer if you’re not pushing yourself and expanding your range of influences; you can run a thousand miles and never get much stronger, if you run the same half-mile stretch every day. “When you mess up, think about what went wrong. And when you do it right, think about why it worked” are essential lessons for any student – and in fact, if you get it right the first time without effort or thought, you likely haven’t internalized the lesson, and will almost certainly run into trouble when you attack challenges that build on an understanding of that lesson.

Given the necessity of constantly challenging your own understanding, Qifrey’s explanation of the five trials’ purpose makes perfect sense. “We take these tests to test ourselves and know ourselves. Whether there’s a point or not all depends on how you approach them.” Teachers like Qifrey can create training manuals and study regimes to guide their students towards mastery, but it’s all meaningless unless the students themselves use the opportunities they are afforded to push their own limits, and see what they are capable of. A test should not be a chore, but an opportunity for expressing yourself. If you still see it as an arbitrary hurdle, you’ve likely got more studying to do.

Though she’s starting as a novice, Coco’s greatest strength as a mage is her ability to embody these lessons, working diligently and always pushing herself to try new things. In contrast, both Riche’s antipathy towards tests and Agate’s preoccupation with proving herself reflect the psychological hurdles they have yet to overcome. Agate still doesn’t understand why Coco didn’t reveal how she sent Coco on her dangerous journey, and even went so far as to repair her soar boots for her. Alongside simply not trusting her fellow apprentices and seeing them as more competition than collaborators and allies, Agate still in some way sees magical mastery as a “prize” to be won by overcoming a series of discreet obstacles, rather than the accumulation of your own efforts into a strength that cannot be denied. In contrast, Coco can appreciate how Agate’s reckless choices pushed her far along the path towards understanding; there are no enemies when you are seeking self-improvement, and Coco can value Agate’s lesson even if it was meant unkindly.

If anything, Coco suffers from an excess of productive spirit, leading her to eventually collapse from exhaustion. As Qifrey ruefully acknowledges, “there are times when you just can’t bend your body and mind to your will.” As was likely inevitable, Coco’s desire to learn magic and save her mother eventually outpaced her body’s ability to take care of itself. Most craftsmen and artists can likely relate to Coco’s impatience; often all you can see is how far you still have to go, how little you know relative to your ambitions, and how much time and effort it will take to bridge that gap. You can attempt to rush mastery, but your body will pay for it in the end. It is a cruel fact of life that we have little time and endless potential fields of interest, so you better get started on your craft if you want to excel within your own lifetime.

When Qifrey is called away by an emergency, it falls to the apprentice Tartar to find proper medicine for Coco. Unfortunately, due to his silver-vision haze of argentosis, he is unable to tell medicines apart by color. Tartar’s struggle raises two complimentary points: first, that accommodating those with differing abilities is not simply compassionate, it is also simply logical – after all, Tartar is just as capable and twice as motivated as anyone if he is simply provided tools like labels to accommodate his sight. Secondly, his ultimate solution of identifying mixtures by their reconstituted components emphasizes how diligence and creativity can often create routes around our weaknesses, and perhaps even allow our talents to shine all the brighter. And as ever, his solution once again emphasizes that the practice of magic is less calling on ineffable mystic forces than careful thought and the scientific method. Tartar uses logical deductions to discount one potential vial after another, revealing that what might seem like otherworldly wisdom is just skill, thought, and practice.

“Draw the keystone long and the magic will go shooting off… add an angle, and the magic will twist, too. Magic really is super honest with you.” In spite of Tetia’s regular reiterating of Qifrey’s various lessons, Coco’s ‘magic is honest’ might best summarize the fundamental promise of applying yourself to a craft. Regardless of what you imagined or believe, the work you create will always be an honest reflection of the thought and effort you put into it. Magic, carpentry, or any other skilled craft holds no concern for what you hoped might happen, only what you actually accomplished. The ultimate proof of our efforts will always be the work we create: you could expand Coco’s phrase into ‘creation is honest,’ for all crafts will in their execution tell of the work their creators put in.

For Tartar, that moment of execution is one of glorious relief. Having worked so hard to memorize all the reagents incorporated in magical mixtures, the lens of Coco’s reconstitution spell allows all that he has studied to come into focus, the world of magic sorting itself into perfect order. There is truly nothing more magical than feeling practice become understanding, becoming sure of the footing of your study, and realizing you can actually rise even further than this. The truest magic is the personal reinvention that diligent training makes possible.

When onlookers gawk at the “ease” with which Qifrey executes his craft, he can only laugh and depart, thinking “it’s not easy or simple at all. Otherwise, why would any of us ever suffer or worry?” Magic is not worth pursuing because it is easy – it is worth pursuing because it is difficult, and because through embracing its difficulty, new horizons of personal development and creation might be pursued. While some might pursue shortcuts in bridging the gap between what they can envision and what they can create, the ultimate truth is that the magic cannot exist without the practice, as you steady your hands and train your eyes and come to see the dance of interconnected concepts that so struck Tartar, assuring him his efforts had all been worth it. Appreciating the beauty of a spell in its execution is mundane; to see the logic behind its creation, and know that such a wonder is an honest result of some craftsman’s passion and practice, is truly magical.

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By Sandra Winters

Writer | Author | Wordsmith Passionate about crafting stories that captivate and inspire. Published author of [Book Title]. Dedicated to exploring the depths of human emotions and experiences through the power of words. Join me on this literary journey as we delve into the realms of imagination and uncover the beauty of storytelling.