People describe Fate/stay night as about the clash between ideals and reality, but the truth is, this story comes in threes. After all, it has three routes. It’s more about the interplay of ideals and reality, with one’s own happiness caught in the clashing gears.
“Ideals and reality are gears that do not fit together. When forced to mesh, they let out great squeaks and scatter about sparks like blood.”
Ideals. The pursuit of a noble dream, and your ability to fulfill it.
Reality. The actual world around you, the real people in it, and your own ability to understand them.
Happiness. Doesn’t this one speak for itself?
Fate/stay night offers three conclusions for Shirou Emiya to reach in his journey, each of them meaningful resolutions to the conflict amongst ideals, reality, and happiness.
In Fate, Shirou struggles with the meaning of his ideals and his romance with Saber, who embodies those ideals. In the end, he comes to understand just what it means to pursue the dream of heroism and saving people through his interactions with Saber, who has given up her own life in pursuit of that dream. He understands her, eventually, and he understands his ideals and what they entail; he has grown through the course of the Holy Grail War to have the capacity to grasp both the reality of other people and how to connect with them and the noble dream he took on as a young boy. But in the process, he sacrifices his ability to gain happiness for himself in his own lifetime. He will spend all his days chasing a distant dream far from home, doing his best to understand and save the people around him at great personal cost.
In Unlimited Blade Works, Shirou struggles with the worthiness of his ideals and his conflict with Archer, who challenges those ideals and their ability to ever bring him to anything but despair. In the end, constantly forced to defend his dream by the ruined ghost of his own future, he asserts that it is worthwhile and good even though he doesn’t truly understand the ideals he fights for. He only knows that, as flawed as they are, they bring him happiness and fulfillment as nothing else does, so his pursuit of them is not something he can give up. Over the course of this Holy Grail War, Shirou reaffirms his dedication to his ideals and confirms his ability to achieve personal happiness through them. But in the process, he casts aside his understanding of the world and people around him. Rin is at his side at the end, but he never grew to truly understand her as a separate human being, and all he can think of is how he’s chasing after Archer’s back.
In Heaven’s Feel, Shirou struggles with the problems of his ideals and his love for Sakura, who gives him happiness and home. After much interaction with the people around him–not just Sakura but also Illya, Rin, and Kirei–and many developments in their relationships with him, he finally achieves an understanding of himself and his place in the real world, and he finds that he can move forward to achieve happiness for himself. He changes over the course of this distorted Holy Grail War to finally accept himself and his own limitations instead of striving tirelessly for a distant dream, precisely because he opens up to the world and people around him and learns about them as well. But in the process, he lets go of the beautiful dream he once held onto in order to justify his existence. He finds peace, home, and happiness with Sakura at his side in the end, and he knows both her and the world he’s grounded himself in at last, but Saber and the distant star of heroism she represented are gone from his life forever.
All three conclusions are valid paths that offer insight into both Shirou’s character and the themes it’s been used to explore. But in all cases, when ideals and reality clash with the happiness of individual human beings caught in their sparking gears, something has to give.