Why I love the arcana

New video essay out on YouTube!

Shain Slepian
3 min readFeb 15, 2024

Let’s talk about magic.

Hello Future Me is a fantastic YouTube channel that discusses worldbuilding, characterization, story structure. Tim Hickson has made a ton of videos about Avatar (a particular subject of interest on my channel!).

I was watching his video on Legend of Korra’s “Beginnings” part 1 and 2, and I was struck by his description of the spirit world. It made so much sense, yet I’d never thought about it quite that way before. The spirits of Avatar exemplify a trope called Blue and Orange morality. Their actions can’t be described as black and white; good and bad. (Hence, his criticism of Raava and Vaatu, the retconned spirits of light and dark, good and evil).

The appeal of spirits and the spirit world is that they are incomprehensible, mysterious. Hei Bai, for instance, doesn’t care about whether its actions are good or bad by any kind of human standard: it protects that specific forest, for reasons you don’t get to know. It doesn’t speak a human language, it makes no overtures at diplomacy; it’s an emotional creature with no inhibitions lashing out at a community that doesn’t understand how it has transgressed upon it. The science of bending is similarly hazy and that’s not a flaw — it’s a feature.

But The Dragon Prince brings something else to the general structure of Avatar’s magic system that I find particular compelling. So, there’s just no hiding how much The Dragon Prince draws from Avatar. Elemental systems in magical worlds are far from new but with the density of Avatar references, the show isn’t exactly encouraging you to forget that other show Aaron Ehasz and Jack DeSena are most known for.

Both systems have definitive groups who seem to arbitrarily have weird abilities inspired by nature; both the elements and the primal sources seem to metaphorically embody the characteristics humans might ascribe to them; there is some emphasis placed on learning how to channel the ideas exemplified in the elemental sources through meditation and life and breath.

In Avatar, the elemental bending system seems vaguely biologically inherited, but it’s clearly not something that is fully understood. As Tim points out, if you’re going to reveal a mystery, the revelation has to be more exciting and satisfying than the feeling of mystery itself.

By contrast, the primal sources of magic in The Dragon Prince are a lot more knowable, and there are strengths and weaknesses to that. The sources are sort of anthropomorphized. They’re endowed with a sense of intention and a capacity for abstract thought. They craft a kind of ethos and there’s an aesthetic sensibility to the way the sources communicate their values. The sources embody central, conceptual, singular ideas that can inspire the ability to do magic. These central ideas are called arcana: each arcanum seems to lend the user some knowledge that lies between words — cannot possibly be ensnared in the normal analogue framework of the coarse, bureaucratic human mind. This secret knowledge is what allows elves, dragons, and other creatures like that to draw from the primal sources.

Alright, Avatar didn’t have nearly that kind of explanation for its magic system! Surely, The Dragon Prince is demanding that its rules be challenged. An arcanum is a piece of knowledge: therefore, anyone can acquire it, regardless of who they get their genes from, right? Either that, or the message is that humans really do lack the sort of profundity and sensitivity of “magical beings.” That doesn’t seem right, does it? Further, not all magical beings are particularly sensitive to the sublime truths the arcana supposedly teach them.

Sure enough, this is challenged! But not right away. And I think that’s one of the smartest things about this show.

Like what you see? Watch the full video here!



Shain Slepian

Shain is a screenwriter and screenplay editor. For more content, follow their blog and check out their YouTube channel, TimeCapsule. shainslepian.com/