The Elements of Harmony series are commissioned essays in which I examine a character selected by the Kickstarter backer who commissioned the essay, and construct an argument on why that character is best pony.
Because of course she is. It’s hardly even a question. Twilight has had more focus than any other pony, and is nearly always depicted positively. Even when her behavior is shown in a negative light, as in “Lesson Zero” or “It’s About Time,” she learns from it and improves—there is a steady decline in her neuroticism from the frantic panicking of those episodes, to the visibly manageable anxiety of “The Crystal Empire,” to the strength and determination of “Twilight’s Kingdom.” She is still worry-prone and detail-oriented, but in increasingly mature ways over the course of the first four seasons. So let us take it as a given that Twilight is best pony, and focus on Twilight as a character, on who she is and what role she plays.
Twilight’s role is right there in her name: she is a creature of liminal spaces and transitional moments. She balances on the edge between light and dark, night and day, most obviously in the sense that she is responsible for reuniting Luna and Celestia in the premiere, but in many other ways as well. Twilight moves from a tower in Canterlot to a tree in Ponyville, and later into a crystalline hybrid of tree and tower; towers and trees both act as bridges from Earth to Heaven, and so are deeply appropriate to a character whose storyline has been dominated by ascension.
And what an ascension it has been. Twilight began as the classic nerd character, grumpy, neurotic, and far more interested in the acquisition of data than in her relationships with others. Not that there is anything wrong with being inclined to scholarly pursuits, and the show has never shamed Twilight for that. She has never lost her love of learning, but it has gone from being the totality of her limited existence to one aspect of a more complete person. The premiere was an epiphany for her, opening her eyes to her own incompleteness, and over the course of the first two seasons she grew in her understanding of others. Most significant here was her transformation in “Winter Wrap Up,” where she discovered her organizational skills and slight tendency to arrogant certainty combined to make her a natural leader. From that point, the course of her evolution was effectively set: to master magic and social interaction alike, and ascend to princesshood.
But this was not, in itself, a destination. It is in the nature of twilight to be transitional, and so it is for Twilight; she is always evolving, always connecting realms. Almost immediately after her ascension, she found herself the bridge between two worlds, namely Equestria and the human world in Equestria Girls. Passing through a mirror, she entered the mirror realm, full of reflections of the ponies she knew, and there she encountered her own dark reflection, Sunset Shimmer—even their names are synonymous! This in turn opened a path to seeing Sunset Shimmer’s own reflection, the human Twilight Sparkle (as shown in Equestria Girls: Friendship Games), who never had the lessons she did and so remained incomplete. That Twilight, drunk on knowledge and magical power but lacking friendship to anchor her, nearly slid into a demonic transformation worthy of Nightmare Moon—but Sunset Shimmer helped bring her back to herself, closing the circle.
This is one of Twilight’s greatest powers and greatest gifts. In Friendship Games we see just how close she is to the darkness, how easily she could have become another Sombra or Nightmare Moon. But that liminal existence, that transition from darkness to light, is exactly what enables her to help others ascend. Twilight is the bridge between Luna and Celestia, which is why she was able to heal Nightmare Moon in the first place. She is not only one who ascends, but one who descends to help others.
This, too, is why she had to be the bearer of the powers of the other princesses in “Twilight’s Kingdom.” Luna and Celestia form a binary, light and dark, night and day, sun and moon, gold and silver. Cadance is an outlier, unconnected to either. It is Twilight who partakes in all three—in the obvious sense that twilight is both day and night, but also in the sense that, as the Princess of Friendship, her domain naturally overlaps with the Princess of Love. Her liminality also makes her the one most able to hold the vast quantities of magic involved, as it is in the liminal spaces that magic thrives—one encounters it most in the surfaces of mirrors and the deep woods, in caverns and the backs of cupboards, between sunset and moonrise.
Twilight stands between night and day, between darkness and night, so it is necessarily Twilight who serves as the first line of defense against the darkness. We rarely see Celestia or Cadance fight the terrors that haunt Equestria, and when they do, they are usually less than entirely successful, but Twilight and her friends regularly fight evil, because that is who she is and where she stands—“liminal” comes from the Latin for “threshold,” and it is on the threshold that Twilight stands, Equestria’s gatekeeper. Like her brother, captain of the guard, she is a defender against evils that try to enter the realm, be they dragons, creatures of chaos, or her own Shadow.
Discord in particular is a perfect foil for Twilight. She is nigh-obsessively organized, and he is chaos incarnate, so they naturally clash. At the same time, both stand on opposite sides of the threshold: as master of chaos (in itself a paradoxical concept, because by its nature chaos cannot have a master), a walking grotesque, Discord’s role is to disrupt the order Twilight protects, and in so doing demonstrate its weaknesses and flaws. It is the nature of the grotesque to transgress boundaries, and Discord does, constantly, his very appearance transgressing the boundaries between species, his actions transgressing against the boundaries laid down by the laws of physics, and his conception itself transgressing the boundaries between shows, a Star Trek character within My Little Pony.
So Twilight, in her role as gatekeeper, must face Discord, not just once but repeatedly. At the same time, she cannot simply drive him away, imprison him, or destroy him, because the chaos he represents, the transgression of boundaries, is essential to her liminal nature. She has no choice but to befriend him, and while it is Fluttershy who does the most work in persuading him to change and helping him adapt to his new roles after the change, it is Twilight who provides the key moment of transition from villain to ally.
So it is not just that Twilight is the show’s own straightforward pick for best pony. She is also the most magical pony, not merely in the superficial spell-casting sense, but in the sense of being the pony who transforms and is transformed, the one who walks across worlds, who ascends and returns with the power to help others ascend. She is the one who journeys through darkness to enlightenment, and in that sense, she is us all.