This current season of Shingeki no Kyojin (Attack on Titan) has been completely blowing open the story that has been building for the past nine years. In the weeks since Eren made contact with his brother Zeke, we’ve seen an incredible number of developments, notably, the truth about The Founder, Ymir. Eren and Zeke, now in the boundless realm known as The Path, have explored their father’s memories and discovered the truth about the day Grisha eliminated the Reiss family, moreover; however, there was the truly plot-shattering revelation of the Shingeki no Kyojin’s (The Attack Titan) precognitive abilities. Eren’s attempts to get through to The Founder happen to trigger a set of memories that bring to the fore the truth behind Eldia’s origins, King Fritz, the Titan power, and of course, Ymir; The Founder herself.
The Eldian Empire
The Kingdom of Eldia was a powerful nation that wrought terror into the rest of the world. The rule of the Eldian Empire was long and terrible, lasting for well over 2000 years. This reign begins with the savage rule of King Fritz, a power-hungry King who pillaged, maimed, slaughtered, and took whatever he could. His legacy is one that is so utterly horrifying that it led to the eventual persecution and subjugation of the Eldian people which persists to the present day. How King Fritz managed to grow Eldia into the kind of global terror that it became is through the power of the Titans, which he got by chance through his faithful slave: a young woman named Ymir.
The Enslaved People
At various points in King Fritz’s dominion, villages were attacked, ransacked and the survivors of such raids were enslaved. Among those enslaved was Ymir, a young girl who grew up in a village that emphasized community and doing one’s part towards the collective. Imbedded into Ymir’s psyche from the very beginning was a value of perpetual self-sacrifice for the sake of that which is greater than the self. This was never a value she came to possess and hold dear on her own, but rather through various forms of mental and literal slavery.
The myth created around Ymir depicted her as an overwhelming savior of the Eldian people, a selfless and kind girl who is always thinking of others; one who bravely faced a demon in order to save her people. Ymir is portrayed as an exemplary young woman in the myth because of her contributions to Eldia, but it doesn’t address the fact that Ymir’s selflessness was a survival tactic, a way to have and maintain a place of belonging somewhere in this world.
When Ymir’s people are eventually attacked by the forces of King Fritz, she and many others are taken into slavery. At no point does Ymir ever consider herself to be the protagonist of any story, let alone that of her own life. It is; however, constantly alluded to that Ymir is curious, and yearning for a life beyond the constraint that is all she’s ever known, beyond the expectations set for her by other people.
One fateful day, a group of pigs is let loose from their pens. The thing about this sequence is that it invokes the same gut-wrenching feeling Shingeki no Kyojin has been able to invoke from the very beginning; an increasing and everlasting brutality and an uncanny ability to convey complicated social relationships and emotional subtext. King Fritz threatens to gouge out an eye from each slave if no culprit is found, so they all promptly single out Ymir.
King Fritz subsequently tells her that she’s free, but what he really means is that she’s free to run away from the literal hunters he sends after her. Finally finding some respite, Ymir sees a flower at the base of a huge, spiraling hollowed tree, and hides inside it to escape her assailants. While exploring, she falls down a large chasm into a large lake, where she comes into contact with an unknown creature we’ll call “The Spinefish”, for lack of a better name. This creature fuses itself with Ymir and creates the very first Titan - The Founder.
Ilse Langnar and the Talking Titan
We have to segue from the events of this most recent season to revisit the OVAs from the first season, particularly the first episode titled “Ilse’s Notebook”, which covers events from at some point before Hanji manages to lead the capture of Titans Sawney and Bean. During a routine scouting mission beyond the walls, Hanji and the Levi squad are intercepted by a blonde aberrant that chases Hanji a distance before running back to a patch of forest for some strange reason. When they chase it down, they kill it in combat and soon stumble upon a diary and a body in the hollow of the tree that the Titan was so eager to return to.
About a year before Bertolt destroyed the wall, a woman named Ilse Langnar was a Survey Corps member who was part of the 34th expedition beyond the walls (for reference, the main characters’ first expedition beyond the walls was the 57th). This was long before we knew anything about the titans, and not long after the first time, we ever saw one of the Titans in the wall.
Ilse’s entire squadron was annihilated by Titans and she was left stranded without any real hope of safely making it back to the wall. Armed with nothing but a notebook, Ilse decided that she’ll make some kind of contribution, no matter how small, one that will one day lead humanity to freedom from the fear that has shackled them for 100 years. She documents everything she sees in a diary and accounts for her bizarre encounter with a Titan that spoke to her. It said, “Subject of Ymir. Ymir-sama. I am honoured.” when it got a good look at her face. It then bowed, showing clear reverence towards the puzzled woman.
At this point in the canonical story, a talking Titan was simply unheard of; however, we’d gotten a really good taste of Aberrants, and this particular Titan was very easily designated Aberrant status, hence written off by the audience as a piece of truly important, and plot-destroying lore. Ilse realizes that this is finally an opportunity to make actual contact with a Titan beyond being eaten, and tries to question why Titans do what they do, but the Titan gets frustrated, tearing at its own face possibly in an attempt to think and provide answers to the various difficult questions Ilse posed, like “What are you?”, “Where do you come from?” and “Why do you eat us?”
The Titan groans and tightly grips the flesh on its own face. Ilse, angered by her own question and the sheer absurdity of human-Titan conflict given that they don’t need to eat to survive, indignantly shouts at the Titan, calling it “a useless lump of flesh” that ought to “disappear from this world”. At this point, the groaning and facial self-injury intensify and the Titan’s current demeanour scares Ilse into fleeing, but the Titan chases her and decapitates her. Its facial expression and uncomfortable groans make it seemingly regretful of its actions. It puts the headless body in the hollow of a tree.
Myths, Legends and the Metaphysics of Titanification
The reason why we bring up Ilse Langnar’s story is that there are certain things that were present in the backstory of The Founder, Ymir, that were reflected in this OVA about Ilse Langnar. Talking Titans are not in the majority in the universe, and not even most of the Nine Titans are capable of speech while in Titan form. Of this small number, even fewer are capable of actual conversation beyond a few NPC-esque lines. Examples of these include Connie’s mother in Ragako village, who said “Welcome back,” when gazing upon Connie as a fully-fledged member of the Survey Corps; as well as the Talking Titan in Ilse Langnar’s story. “Subject of Ymir. Ymir-sama. I am honoured”.
Considering Connie’s mother, Talking Titan, and the knowledge that upon Titanification, people will retain their most cherished desire or objective. This was evident firstly with young Eren’s struggle to activate the Attack Titan’s power at will before coming to the realization that he needs to hold fast to a simple goal while he attempts the necessary self-injury.
Please bear with us, this is going somewhere, we promise!
Remember Zeke’s backstory and betrayal of Grisha which led to the exposure and destruction of the Eldian Restorationist Movement, and exile of these people to Paradis Island. Many were transformed into Titans, while others were fed to them and forced to watch as their turn came. When Dina Fritz was injected with the spinal fluid, she told Grisha Jaeger “No matter what form I take, I promise I’ll come and find you”. This was her final thought before she transformed into the Smiley Titan, the one that arrived at Grisha Jaeger’s house and ate Karla Jaeger.
If we’re to understand that the final thoughts one has before Titanification to be a huge influence in their behaviour as Titans, it’s possible that Talking Titan’s final thoughts as a human being were concerning Ymir herself, but remember: Ymir to a certain group of Eldian cultists wasn’t blonde-haired and blue-eyed; she was a badmouthed, freckled young girl we came to know as Historia’s friend. This is further supported by the fact that Ilse Langnar had similar features to that of Ymir, such as freckles, dark hair, and a hooked nose. A cultist would know about the Eldian myth concerning The Founder, the more romantic and occulted version of events surrounding Ymir and Eldia’s past. The hollowed-out tree appearing in Ymir’s past, and being an object of reverence for the Talking Titan, therefore links the events of the OVA with canonical events in the series.
Ymir’s Prison of Self-Sacrifice
Ymir, despite gaining the kind of power that made her quite literally responsible for Eldia’s military might and rapid development, did not use the power to free herself and her people from oppression. Despite the horrible torture she was enduring prior to obtaining the power, the slavery and terror at the hands of King Fritz, Ymir offers her strength to her oppressor and commits a sin that cannot be taken back: she enables King Fritz’s evil to reach unfathomable levels of effectiveness, enabling a 2000-year long reign of terror that leads the rest of the world to condemn the Eldians forever.
Ymir, growing up with the idea that self-sacrifice is the ultimate virtue, ended up committing herself to that value. When she was blamed by her fellow slaves for something she probably hadn’t done, she resigned to taking one for the team despite the fact that she knew that it would surely lead to her brutal death. She knew it would prevent others from suffering, and therefore keep her safe in her world, but the suffering never ended. This distorted value of self-sacrifice also distorted Ymir’s sense of self, and given the fact that she was also taken into slavery from a young age, Ymir never once had a sense of true agency and therefore, it never occured to her that she could even use this power beyond whatever uses King Fritz had for it.
As a result of this distorted sense of self, Ymir remains a slave to the Fritz royal bloodline, centuries after her own death, which came as a result of yet another permutation of Ymir’s programming. Years after obtaining the power and bearing his children, Ymir lays down her life for King Fritz when someone attempts to assassinate him, but she doesn’t recover from this blow the way she had from previous injuries. Even in death, Ymir was the very definition of sacrifice. Even now, she is committed to the whims of members of the royal bloodline, her own descendents. However, the presence of Eren Jaeger is a wildcard - he tells her that she’s not a slave, that she gets to decide and choose not only her fate but that of everybody. Even as Zeke desperately orders her to commence the euthanasia, Ymir is captivated by Eren’s words: the words of someone who is symbolic of the freedom Ymir has always craved but was never able to claim for herself. For the first time ever, Ymir does something of her own volition, and that decision favors Eren Jaeger’s side. For the first time ever, Ymir defies the expectation placed upon her.
Ymir’s past, The Rumbling, and the true history of Eldia are some of the most profound revelations to come out of Shingeki no Kyojin and at this point, the story has come to answer some of its most burning questions. However, only more questions arise. Be that as it may, this foray into Ymir as a character finally demythologises the so-called ancestor of the Eldians, and it creates an interesting opportunity for the further deepening of particular themes. What did you think about Ymir’s past? Drop a comment below and tell us your thoughts!