I shouldn’t have liked Strixhaven. Although I (like many people) read the Harry Potter novels when I was in school, I (unlike many people) didn’t really care for them. I took note of things like Earthsea’s School of Magic and Discworld’s Unseen University, but was always more interested in other parts of the setting. I’m not even an unusually big fan of the X-Men and their mentor Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters.
This probably has something to do with how bad my school experience was. Looking back on it now, it wasn’t really materially worse than most people’s, in terms of the nitty-gritty details. I wasn’t particularly picked-on or intentionally ostracized by my classmates; my teachers were actually mostly good, and some even liked me. But I always had interests that lay far beyond the grind of daily and weekly classes and homework, and I felt like that grind severely infringed on those interests, particularly once I got to senior high school. For example, my chemistry teacher was fond of giving one particular mini-lecture about how, assuming eight hours of sleep each night, you have 112 hours each week in which to do chemistry problems independently. Forget playing Magic, or video games; forget playing soccer with your friends, or eating lunch with that cute classmate from home room. Forget reading literature or mythology, or watching sitcoms. Apparently, forget even just being. All that matters is the grind. Fill out the worksheets, fill up your notebooks. Listen. Comply. Obey.
But I do like Strixhaven. For one thing, the initial previews of the colleges’ Commands were misleading, and it is not in fact a boarding school but a university. And a university is where people come to start living their real lives (or at least, it’s supposed to be). The colors are inviting, and the action is light and fast and engaging. It’s not that much like actual school, and I think that’s why I like it.
You may have heard the term “grimdark”. It was coined by 4chan, as a condensation of Warhammer 40,000‘s tagline “In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.” Even if the usage of the term hasn’t entirely pervaded conversations outside of that website, the concept has. Many fantasy properties, notably Game of Thrones and The Witcher, embrace it wholeheartedly. Conflict is heavy and gritty and bloody; society is impoverished and callous and uncaring. In both of those settings, even the world is turning against the characters, as they feature a looming climate shift that will likely render most of the action irrelevant anyway. Without external validation of concepts like justice, morality is a much more personal choice; and to be fair, this kind of setting does lend itself to stories about what people will do when they’re pushed, or what morality means when it’s not going to be rewarded.
But the problem is that immersing yourself in a grimdark setting for too long is toxic. We naturally have elements of our thoughts influenced by things around us, and when you’re reading something or playing something that’s 200 pages’ or cards’ worth of continuous awfulness, you start to see things around you as being a little bit more awful. And way too many writers slap together 200 pages of awfulness because they think it makes them sophisticated.
Fortunately, 4chan also identified the opposite of grimdark, which they used to call “noblebright”. It has bright colors, high adventure, and a generally optimistic tone. It does not imply a Pollyannaish outlook – bad things happen in noblebright settings, but they do not drag everything and everyone into a mire of hopelessness. Characters in these settings set off with an eagerness to see what lies beyond the horizon. And so do readers.
The obvious protest is that the real world isn’t always like that – but the real world isn’t always like Westeros or the Continent either. Bad things happen, yes, but so do good things. Sometimes we have constraints, and sometimes we can break free of them.
Universities were originally intended to encourage a form of this outlook. The oldest universities in Europe date back to the Middle Ages, and grew out of schools run by the Catholic Church, where classes were taught by monks and nuns. Their explicit goal was to introduce people to new ideas; to lift the veil of ignorance and – as the monks and nuns on the faculties might have put it – bring people closer to God by giving them a chance to learn about His truth. Education is an inherently noblebright concept.
Strixhaven, as a planar university and one of the most noblebright sets Magic has ever done, thus provokes a lot of thought about what we might do with our hobby (and also just in general). Even if you feel it’s not much like your actual life, or doesn’t have a very deep point, or whatever the issue is, it might well be high time for all of us to think about the different kinds of stories out there and how they make us feel. Does the world really need more darkness?