• The Many Faces of Starswirl


    No new comic this week, but the Legends of Magic special for this year's Annual is fast approaching. Before it arrives, I propose we take a look back at how Starswirl has been presented in the comics.

    We've got several sources to draw upon, so make sure you've brushed up! There will be spoilers within.




    I imagine some of you are saying, "Silver, you writing warbler, what's the point in talking about something that's been rendered non-canon?"

    Interesting question:
    Why didn't Celestia commission a stain glass for her mentor?

    It's true that Starswirl's introduction to the show proper undoes some of the comic stories we've witnessed. I'd say the same is true for the Dazzlings' and Changelings' origin stories from Fiendship is Magic. The comics took risks when they tried to flesh out Equestria. The comic team and show staff weren't in as close communication as they are now, so there was always the risk that something would come down the line to render the story moot.

    I defy you to name the strangest element in this picture.

    I am a fan of storytelling in general, so while the issue how much a story fits into the overall canon is important to ask I don't think it renders a story pointless. If it's well told then I think it's worth studying what works.

    That attitude will serve you well with cross-media continuity.

    Besides, Starswirl is no stranger to retcons. Even within the show his importance has evolved. Recall that his first mention in Luna Eclipsed referred to him as part of "obscure unicorn history". He had a shelf named after him in the Canterlot Library. Next he was the mentor to Clover the Clever and had a wing of the royal archives named after him. Fast forward several seasons and he has become one of the most powerful and reknowned figures in Equestrian history.

    History has never been so adorable.
    Except for the great puppy stampede of '83.

    I point this out because it reminds me to take Starswirl's role as a malleable presence. He's a figure mentioned in passing and became a figure to fit the story's needs. Sometimes that's just how stories evolve, especially when there isn't a central writer. Yet through all this I notice some unifying themes and ideas.

    He may not look like this anymore,
    but that is still the mightiest beard!

    So let's start with what we know:

    The Magic of What Now? 
    Throughout the first three seasons, we only knew tidbits about Starswirl. One of the most critical elements was from Magical Mystery Cure in which Celestia revealed that he did not understand the value of friendship. Just that nugget gave fans and the comic staff something upon which to build a foundation.

    I wonder how many fan fics focused on the tragedy beforehand?


    Sometimes this meant creating Starswirl to be a severe and imposing figure, as his role in Legends of Magic and Shadow Play would demonstrate. I think it a safe assumption that many of us assumed he'd be like this. So what did the comics do? Subvert that.

    This can in no way go wrong!

    Let's start with the Dazzlings' issue of Fiendship is Magic. The Starswirl we witnessed there was a very stern and serious character, yet the conflict he faced required he undermine himself. The story intentionally presented him in absurd situations to get a laugh, and in some cases it worked. The more stern he behaved, the funnier he'd appear in full rapper clothes. That's the theory, anyway. Humor is ultimately subjective.

    In fairness, it was 3-on-1. Hard to top that in any battle.

    My favorite version of Starswirl is seen in Reflections and Queen Chrysalis' origin story. This Starswirl is the opposite of what many expected. He may not understand the power of friendship, but that doens't mean he is lacking for friends. This version of Starswirld comes off as very amiable and quirky. He's more Pinkie Pie than super-serious Twilight. Just ask Luna.

    That is both a compliment and insult to all involved.

    Though the Starswirl we now know completely conflicts with this depiction, I enjoy how the comic staff took some liberties and played with expectation. He's fun because he's not what we expected, and tragic because those same traits make things worse. Which leads to the next topic.

    Good luck getting all those pet vaccinations.

    Tunnel Vision
    No matter what version of Starswirl, he tends to have the same failing. In the Dazzlings' story, he sees the threat they represent and realizes that he cannot magically counter their songs. So does he seek out talented performers to help counter them? Does he draw in helpers as Stygian would eventually do with the Pillars? Nope. He decides that he alone will have to take them on.  

    This is my broody chair.
    I only sit in it when I'm broody.

    Now consider the goofier Starswirl of Reflections. He found the ability to traverse between dimensions and went to it with a merry step. He did not pause to consider the implications or question how this might impact the balance between realities. Consequences were beyond his focus. He could do it, so he never bothered to ask if he should.

    There's being adventurous and then there's tempting the Darwin Awards.

    Even if this origin story for the Changelings, it's Starswirl who sees a threat and tries to solve it in his own way. He doesn't ponder the long-term consequences nor ask where a warning sign would do the most good. He sees where the problem stands and doesn't take in his surroundings.

    Personally, one look at a green pool is 
    enough to make me turn around and leave.

    I think the same can be said for the show canon version. Whatever Starswirl sees before him is all that matters. It took the advice of multiple ponies and a hard slap from reality to make him realize there was more going on that what he witnessed. It seems that no matter the writer or artist, there's a core element to Starswirl that creates his downfall.

    I would mock Celestia's running pose
    but Starswirl is being her wingpony.

    Unintended Consequences
    Did you know that by nailing that warning sign to a corrupted tree, Starswirl unleashed the Changeling swarm? Yeah, that was a thing.

    He never knew what he'd unleashed.
    Though we would technically owe him for Thorax as well.


    If the end of Legends of Magic #12 is any hint, the Annual will lay many charges before Starswirl. His decisions have shaped a lot of Equestrian history, and many would argue for the worse. For me, one of the keystone mistakes was this conversation:

    Contact with the outside world?
    Who needs that?

    It's here that we venture into speculation, for there's no way to know how Luna might have grown had she had other ponies in which to confide. Or perhaps the rivalry between sisters would have driven a wedge between the Pillars themselves. What is certain is that much of the show's lore hinges on Starswirl's choice, and that shows the impact he possesses.

    Would these be Starswirl-crossed lovers?

    The Starswirl of Reflections saw the damaged he'd caused, but his solution was to try and drive Celestia and the good King Sombra apart. In doing so, he pushed Celestia into a corner where she became even more reckless. 

    So much for the cooky mentor.

    The rapper Starswirl seemed to be the one to recognize his shortcomings and question his own motives. Yet even as he writes an account he never takes the first person. It's like writing a confessional, yet using a proxy to take the blame. If Starswirl could have reformed the Dazzlings, the world would be a much different place. As it is he only unleashed them on another realm which had no magical defense.

    It's unfortunate that there's now competition for that title.

    There are plenty of consequences to be listed from Starswirl's choices. Yet the recurring theme is that when he tries to make decisions by himself, it often goes wrong. Perhaps that's what Starswirl's character–in any form–represents. He is not omniscient, yet his ego is linked so tightly to his knowledge of magic that he can't give himself permission to seek help. So he makes a decision that resolves the problem in the moment, but opens the door to further troubles.

    Note that he's deciding it's over. Not Celestia.

    I think that's the key lesson with Starswirl. Even in Legends of Magic, he joins a group of exceptional ponies yet is not truly part of the group. He sees himself as the deciding force and the others as instruments to that goal. That hubris costs them all, and much of Equestria, dearly.

     I sometimes wonder if Celestia has the most tragic backstory.
    After all, she had to deal with the consequences of everypony else's mistakes.

    That is not to say that just anyone has a say in important decisions. Even Twilight and company have dealt with ponies who didn't understand the situation well enough but decided to comment. Yet one of the core features of this show is that a group of insightful, experienced, and honest individuals can reach solutions beyond a single person. And should they fail, they can still rally and find a solution.

    Curious to see if the Pillars will reunite this season.

    So no matter how Starswirl may be presented, I think his character serves as a cautionary tale. While some versions may no longer be canon, the message comes through. That's what I enjoy most about stories. The idea can still be there if the characters are presented well enough.

    I'm Silver Quill. Thanks for reading!

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