Content Warning: Discussions of genocide, ableism, mental illness, and cruelty to kids.
Spoilers for Witch Hat Atelier: Major plot points from volume 1 and general discussion of characters from volumes 1-6.
“It turns out I’m not as hopeless as I thought! I’m not as hopeless as you always said I was! The fact that I can’t do the same things as everyone else might be the key that leads to things that only I can do.”
In the world of Witch Hat Atelier, magic is not some special ability only granted to the “chosen ones,” but a combination of knowledge, hard work, and skill. It takes practice and study, but with the right ink and an understanding of sigils, the only limits are your imagination.
Well. In theory, anyway.
Witch Hat Atelier begins with the premise that “anyone can become a witch” and then spends practically every volume introducing us to someone who’s been told “no, actually, you can’t,” whether because of their family, their learning speed or style, their physical abilities, or their mental health. Thankfully, the series always proves these naysayers wrong, telling hopeful stories not about “overcoming” differences, but working with and even embracing them.
Using its “magical school” premise, Witch Hat Atelier explores diversity among students and argues for the importance of accessibility throughout society, but especially in education. With supportive mentors and a focus on individual accommodation, anyone really can wield their own kind of magic.
A Bedrock of Bigotry: Witch society past and present
The world of Witch Hat Atelier has a fraught history. Centuries ago, when magical knowledge was available to everyone, people with power used it to exploit and abuse others, particularly along classist and ableist lines. Characters periodically mention these past atrocities, from references to human experimentation to stories of kings who built their castles in the sky so they could literally look down on everyone.
Nowhere is this oppression more horrifically described than the genocides in Romonon, where “the poor, the sick, and the ugly” were deemed to have no “merit” and turned into living statues of gold to decorate the halls of the rich and powerful. Later descriptions of the genocides also mention immigrants and political dissidents, painting a grim picture similar to the fascist governments and eugenics movements of the early 1900s.
Over time, witches who were horrified by these atrocities came together to reform their society. Now, there are strict laws against forbidden spells and the witch community closely guards their knowledge from non-witches (or “outsiders”) in an attempt to keep magic out of the hands of tyrants.
While things have undeniably improved, it’s also undeniable that witch society was built on a foundation of prejudice and that those belief systems still linger in subtle, damaging ways. Witch Hat Atelier understands that not all discrimination is as violent as genocide, but it can still cause real, lasting harm, especially to young people.
Knowledge is Power (And We’re Not Sharing): Class divides and barriers to learning
Coco’s role as an “outsider” offers us our first glimpse into the subtle bigotries at play in witch society. Coco has loved magic since she was a child, but since she wasn’t born into a witch family, she has no way of learning spells. As a result, she stumbles into magic without any guidance. She accidentally uses a forbidden spell that turns her mother to stone, leaving Coco traumatized and orphaned.
She’s fortunate that Qifrey, a more open-minded witch and teacher, finds her and takes her under his wing as a new apprentice. Without him, the draconian “Knights Moralis” police force would have wiped Coco’s memory to keep magical knowledge out of the hands of outsiders. Her mother would have been gone forever and she’d have had no idea why.
There’s a clear class divide between “witch” and “outsider,” one that leads to some of the other characters either snubbing their nose at Coco or treating her like an exotic animal at the zoo. She’s scolded for not knowing things “everyone knows,” and the idea that she could ever truly become a witch receives plenty of skepticism. Fellow apprentice Agott in particular scorns her at first, even tricking her into taking a difficult test in hopes she’ll fail and get expelled.
It isn’t Coco’s fault that she’s playing catch-up to the other students—she literally had no way of learning magic before—but some people treat her like it is. Witches talk a lot about how magic should be used to help everyone, but the way many of them look down on Coco proves they still see themselves as “better” because of the knowledge they’ve kept from her.
It’s reminiscent of the way many education systems (but especially the U.S.) are skewed in favor of wealthier students because of assumptions that everyone has access to the same resources (time, reading materials, adult support, etc.) and early education that many simply do not have.
When we don’t provide these resources and then punish the students (or, just as often, the teachers) for not knowing the things that “everyone knows,” it only serves to discourage them. Coco is an upbeat kid, but even she worries that she really doesn’t belong here. If it weren’t for Qifrey and some of the other apprentices (Tetia in particular), Coco’s situation could have been just as deeply isolating as that of many real-world students.
One Size Fits Few: Exclusive and inclusive communities
This narrow-minded thinking doesn’t end with “insider” versus “outsider,” either. Even among witches, there are ample signs of a strict, conformity-driven society that discourages diversity in ability.
Coco’s fellow apprentices Agott and Richeh both came to Qifrey’s atelier because traditional education systems failed them. Agott’s prestigious family shunned her for not having enough “natural talent,” essentially rejecting her for getting Bs instead of As. Richeh’s former teachers insisted she solve problems using the same answers as everyone else, stifling her creativity to the point where she rejected learning altogether.
Students outside of Qifrey’s atelier fare even worse, leading to clear cases of discrimination against both physical and mental disabilities. Tartah is a boy with “Silverwash” (this world’s version of colorblindness) who’s told from a young age that he can never be a witch because he won’t be able to work with dyes or recognize magic powders on sight.
Similarly, the young apprentice Euini has severe social and performance anxiety. Like many kids who do well on homework but freeze up during tests, Euini struggles to draw spells when others are watching—an anxiety that’s only made worse by his teacher constantly telling him he’s worthless.
In just about every volume, Witch Hat engages with prejudices and proves how much they hurt the young students who don’t perfectly fit the image of a “proper witch.” Fortunately, the series also fights back against these prejudices, showing how teachers and students alike can use knowledge, creativity, and compassion to build a more inclusive world.
Qifrey gets the ball rolling by having a major advantage that most real-world teachers do not: he only has four students, which gives him plenty of one-on-one time with them and the opportunity to cater his lessons to their skill level. It’s a quietly compelling argument for smaller classroom sizes, highlighting how much easier it is to accommodate everyone when you, y’know, actually have the time to do so.
But it’s not just that he has few students; he’s also an attentive teacher who works to understand their needs, providing encouragement and instruction in equal measures. He may push them outside their comfort zones at times, but he also makes it clear he’ll respect their wishes if they truly don’t want to do something. Perhaps most importantly, Qifrey gives each of his apprentices the space to be themselves, allowing their unique perspectives to enrich their own lives and each other’s.
Coco in particular uses her perspective as a former outsider to come up with solutions the other students miss because they all grew up in the same environment. For example, when Tartah tells her he can’t recognize the colors of ground-up medicinal herbs, Coco doesn’t toss up her hands like everyone else. Instead, she invents a spell that Tartah can use to show him a complete image of the original plant.
It seems like an obvious answer in a world full of magic—but then, so do a lot of accessibility modifications in the real world, and yet we’re still struggling to implement them. By thinking outside the box (or spell circle, in this case), Coco shows how different perspectives can challenge accepted “truths” and open doors to new possibilities.
Admittedly, because Coco comes up with the spell (although Tartah does help her draw it), Tartah’s story has a whiff of the “able-bodied savior” trope to it. Thankfully, Witch Hat helps balance this in its next story arc with Euini, who comes up with his own strategy to cope with his anxiety.
Once he’s in a place where the teachers and students around him are encouraging him instead of laughing at him, Euini quickly realizes he can use magic to hide in plain sight, giving him the sense of security he needs to draw spells even when other people are around. It’s a minor change that leads to a major boost in self-confidence, as he starts to realize he can “turn his weaknesses into strengths.” Even small adjustments can make a big difference.
Pass It On: Generational links and the future of the Atelier
Witch Hat Atelier is an ongoing manga, so it’s not clear how the story is going to resolve all these undercurrents about accessibility in education. What is clear is that these undercurrents aren’t going away any time soon. The latest volume (6) introduces Beldaruit, Qifrey’s charmingly eccentric former teacher who appears to be paralyzed and gets around using a magic ram chair.
We’re still learning about him, but it’s not hard to draw a line between his disregard for rigid rules and the repressive society he lives in. It’s even easier to see how Beldaruit’s unorthodox teaching style influenced Qifrey, showing him how to support his own students, who in turn are now supporting others.
The possibility that a disabled person began this current “chain of inclusivity” also helps lessen that touch of “able-bodied savior syndrome” mentioned earlier. Coco is an important link in an ongoing process (and abled folks do need to do their part to enact social change), but she’s also not the beginning or end of it.
Maybe most importantly, Witch Hat Atelier doesn’t fall into the fantasy-genre trap of trying to use magic to “fix” its characters’ differences. Coco doesn’t need to let go of her “outsider” past anymore than Tartah needs to be “cured” of Silverwash. Euini’s anxiety lessens thanks to coping strategies and a support network, but it’s still very much there, the same way it is for folks in the real world.
Their differences are a part of who they are and how they see the world. Instead of trying to force them to conform or give them up as “hopeless,” Witch Hat argues that schools and society at-large should accept and accommodate their differences. The series’ best teachers understand that, helping all of their students to grow and thrive at their own pace with strategies tailored to their unique strengths and weaknesses.
Witch society may be littered with prejudices, but this young generation of “oddball” teachers and “outcast” apprentices are hard at work trying to make the world a more inclusive, accessible place. Here’s hoping they succeed and encourage readers to do the same.