This essay contains spoilers for the main themes of Berserk. While not disclosing crucial plot details, you might want to refrain from reading on if you prefer to enjoy your fiction completely unspoiled. In case you’re wondering why you should watch this old, incomplete manga adaptation with questionable quality control and a very limited budget, this essay hopes to assist with that decision.
I am in blood
Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er.
(Macbeth, Act III, Scene 4)
I’ve been fascinated by tragedies since Sophocles’ Antigone was introduced to me at the tender age of 15, leading to a significant improvement of my opinion about the things one has to read for school.
The recipe for tragedies is rather simple. You take a hero, provide them with a tiny, but fatal flaw, have them rise to power and glory, then sit back and watch them fall, burn or be broken by the world, a world the ancient Greeks knew was bleak and prone to tragedy long before George R. R. Martin and Christopher Nolan came along. Their gods were fierce and vicious, not loving and benevolent. A hero in Homer’s times was someone who embraced this world and accepted his tragic fate within it, yet would still stand up to defy the gods. If one were to die anyway, better to die fighting.
Those are the heroes people cheered for 2,500 years ago, and when we’re not busy cringing at the word “hero” in today’s all too postmodern view of the world, we still cheer for them. They are the ones whose tragic fates let us experience suffering too intense for us to bear, providing us with valuable lessons, which will, hopefully, enable us to deal with our own (usually much smaller) real-life tragedies in the future. At least that’s part of what scholars think Aristotle meant by the idea of “catharsis”.
If the basic concept of tragedy is so simple, then what makes a good tragedy? Why should we even want to watch something when the ending is already obvious? After all, few people would attend a performance of Hamlet and expect the royal family to still be alive when the curtain falls. So why do we keep coming back? Fact is: We just seem to like it.
Love, hatred, torment, pleasure. Life and death. All at once before our eyes.
This is the beauty of man and evil.
As a modern tragedy, Berserk doesn’t have the luxury of 400+ years of familiarity with its plot and characters. To establish the finality of its outcome, it opts to tell its story in form of a flashback. Right from the get-go, we know a happy ending is never part of the equation. It’s not about seeing how things end. It’s about finding out why they ended up this way, and why fate may be blamed for tragedy – or not.
If a bleak world sufficed to create tragedy, Berserk wouldn’t need any of its gripping plot or complex characters. Its high-fantasy version of medieval Europe is more than desolate. For the past hundred years, two neighboring kingdoms have been at war with one another. While the nobles are busy distinguishing themselves in battle, everyone else is forced into the roles of spectators, watching their villages burn, homes being destroyed and children starve to death.
There is nothing I can do. This is just how things are.
After losing everything or reaching a point where you are unwilling to be victimized any longer, the one path open to the commoner is becoming a mercenary. Fighting for the very same people who exploit and belittle them after burning down their homes, they get to trade passive victimhood for active cannon fodder. Ascension through merit is not on the menu in a rigid estate-based society. But as long as you’re at it, you might as well get paid for surviving.
A world like this doesn’t leave a lot of room for something as innocent as ideals or impractical as dreams. Most of the people inhabiting it have long given up on pursuing their dreams, if they ever even learned how to dream in the first place.
People who think that all they need is a dream… You guys make me sick!
That’s nothing but an excuse for cowards who can’t face reality!
Our story’s hero by the charming name of Guts firmly falls into the latter category. Raised by mercenaries on the battlefield, he not only has no concept of what dreaming could entail beyond horrendous nightmares, he doesn’t even think about himself as a human being with the possibility of a future, let alone shaping it himself. The embodiment of the drifter without a purpose and lone wolf of few words, per trope obligated to carry a ridiculously oversized sword, he lives his life in ignorance. The fact that what sounds like a terribly boring archetype grows into one of anime’s best protagonists is owed to Berserk‘s greatest strength: characters transcending their archetypes by forging complex relationships, engaging in meaningful interactions, forming friendships, animosities and co-dependencies reflecting all the raw, beautiful and terrifying aspects of humanity.
I’ve never known anything but the battlefield. I never tried to know more. Killing others to survive, that’s all I’ve ever done. But I could have been content living that way. If just one person, never mind who, if only someone had ever cared about me.
When Guts meets someone who embodies everything he himself has either lost or never had, he cannot help but be affected and, ultimately, transformed. This someone’s name is Griffith, and he is fueled by something beyond the basic need for survival.
Why do most men commit themselves to the affair of bloodshed? It is a tool to be used for both claiming and protecting precious things. But there is one other thing more precious to a man beyond all else. Something one pursues for one’s own sake and not for that of any other. A dream.
Dreams are a rarity in this world, especially dreams so big they seem unachievable within one person’s lifetime. But they are also a human necessity, no matter how damned and godforsaken a place the world became. Berserk‘s world has long lost any concept of the divine, and its characters are rather stoic about it. After fighting a horned, giant monster, Griffith wonders if their opponent might have been a god. Guts claims it must have been a demon, to which Griffith amicably responds that it doesn’t really matter, as it’s all very much the same, anyway.
In a world where God is dead, there is no-one left to know who we are.(1) Lost and vulnerable, we instinctively commit ourselves to a powerful figure to avoid the last glimmering of our unrequited hopes being extinguished by the cruel and hostile world around us.
Their little dreams and hopes flickering in each light, like a bonfire of dreams. And to keep those faint lights from withering out, they join their light with the strongest flame of all. A powerful fire called Griffith.
Fueled by ambition and defying every limit, Griffith inspires everyone around him without even trying. The young and beautiful leader, endowed with enough charisma and dedication to change the world is another well-worn, tired archetype of the genre.
Heroically contributing to Griffith’s exploits and rise to power, Guts reluctantly becomes part of the community gathered around Griffith’s “fire”, enabling him to develop an identity and acknowledge himself as a human being capable of actual feelings and desires. It seems like a fair deal that this discovery and growth is realized through enabling someone else’s dream. After all, being someone’s friend means you, too, get to bask in their glory.(2)
The epic tales of antiquity, real and fictional, have always boasted beautiful heroic friendships: Gilgamesh and Enkidu, Achilles and Patroclus, Alexander and Hephaestion. A single soul, dwelling in two bodies. While the homoerotic bonds between such heroes have largely been lost in Christianity, they’re still very much present in Berserk, which follows a very classic interpretation of male friendship.
The best of friendships, according to Aristotle, don’t form out of need, but between two self-sufficient people. The problem his contemporary Plato had with this idea was the question of why a self-sufficient person would even need a friend to begin with. And certainly, living someone else’s dream doesn’t hint at a very equal relationship.
In my eyes, a true friend is someone who never clings to another’s dream. Someone independent who can find his own reason to live and follow that part without guidance. And if anyone tries to crush his dream, protect it heart and soul. Even if that person happened to be me.
Apart from ancient Greece, modern tragedies have another golden age to draw inspiration from: Elizabethan England, the pinnacle of the cultural English Renaissance. Shakespeare’s plays, tragedies and comedies alike, are full of great friendships. The deeper the bond, the greater the narrative promise for betrayal or loss. Power and sex are what corrupt friendships in Shakespeare. Berserk‘s story, although lending itself to that point of view, is not about corruption through power. Griffith certainly yearns for it, yet he is perfectly aware of the less heroic prices he will eventually have to pay, leaving no room for corruption from an outside force.
To realize my dream, I will perch on top of their corpses. It is a blood-smeared dream, after all. I don’t regret or feel guilty about it.
Griffith, who turns out to be an even more complex character than Guts, has higher goals. He is not just challenging the political and social order of his world, but questioning the very notion of fate so prevalent in tragedy.
We’re all just surrendering to the flow that is known as fate. Then we fade away. Our lives are squandered, and we don’t know who we are. I must know what my status really is in this world. What has been preordained for me in this life?
Destiny has played a key role in tragedy from Oedipus Rex to Macbeth. At first, Berserk looks like another story about the eternal conflict between fate and free will. But while tragic hero Oedipus tries everything in his power to avert his foretold fate and Macbeth gives his utmost to fulfill his, Berserk‘s heroes seem strangely unfazed by the prophecies of perdition directed their way, adding an interesting modern twist to a trusted framework.
I will foretell your doom. If you and this man truly regard each other as friends, be mindful of this. When this man’s ambition crumbles, you will be destined to face your death!
With everything going all too well for them, it’s understandable how they would be inclined to neglect such early warnings. Guts has to believe in Griffith, who enabled him to rediscover his humanity, and Griffith, not being one to be told what he can or cannot do, believes a terrifying Faustian pact he innocently made as a child to be little more than “fascinating”.
I got this from an old fortune-teller woman long ago. The behelit… This is also known as the Egg of the King, for once you possess this, you are destined to rule the world in exchange for your flesh and blood.
It is this modern approach to the power of fate in tragedy, which has established Berserk as an anime classic and ensured its relevance – almost 20 years after its premiere. The meat of Berserk isn’t really about destiny being imposed upon its heroes in form of ancient relics or prophecies. It’s about exploring the consequences of its characters’ choices in full glory – and brutal honesty. Linking these choices to a self-imposed chain of causality, the ever-popular struggle between fate and free will turns into something much more interesting.
Fate, after all, is rather boring. If whatever is going to happen is going to happen no matter what we do, none of our decisions and actions hold any meaning. Fighting against destiny is a well-loved plot device, but ultimately either pointless (our struggles are futile because we cannot change fate), counterproductive (by revolting against our fate we end up enabling it in a self-fulfilling prophecy which already anticipated and built upon our struggles, making them part of the equation – see Oedipus) or simply a plot hole, disguised as the sentimental heroism of “if you just try hard enough, you can accomplish anything, no matter what the rules of our universe had you believe before”.
Is the destiny of mankind controlled by some transcendental entity or law? Is it like the hand of God hovering above? At least it is true that man has no control even over his own will.
Fate is a deeply depressing concept because we feel ourselves to be free, our future to be open, our will being in control. We need to believe in free will, because if there were no such thing, how could we ever take moral responsibility for our actions? But, morals aside, what is the actual difference between my arm going up and me raising my arm?(3) The answer is: causation. A chain of causality, set in motion by our own decisions. Unlike fate, there is no incompatibility between free will and such a chain of determined events.(4) As the word “determinism” itself already implies, decisions matter, because our decisions are what forms the chain of causality. By empowering its characters, Berserk provides an interesting, modern take on an ancient form, despite the powers of fate trying to tell us otherwise, even within the story.
It is all fixed in the flow of causality. His fate was decided long ago.
While Berserk‘s heroes might be victims of fate, they are also very much the agents of their story and orchestrators of their own downfall. To emphasize this agency, the story takes special care to frame the events leading to the change of fortune befalling its heroes as a direct outcome of their own decisions – freely made within the laws of causation.
What is the point of regretting anything? What is the use of repenting my sins? What can I possibly say to those who have died? I cannot apologize to them now. This is the path that I have chosen.
While, at crucial junctures, a different decision would, theoretically, be possible, it wouldn’t make any sense for the characters in question. And in Berserk, every decision makes sense, because every interaction is meaningful. Even the most atrocious decisions have to happen, because every other outcome would negate the established chain of causality and betray what the characters went through to arrive at the chain’s final link. It’s a terrifying, gruesome link, but its inevitability evokes a feeling of deep satisfaction in a narrative sense.
When protestant reformist Martin Luther supposedly declared “Here I stand, I can do no other”, he didn’t surrender to fate, but accepted responsibility for his actions. The will to do evil is equally – and entirely – in the hands of the individual.(5)
Arriving at the last juncture, the series manages to evoke sympathy even in the face of unforgivable betrayal. Written in a non-Christian context, Berserk isn’t indebted to the possibilities of hope, redemption or forgiveness, bringing it much closer to the tragedies of ancient Greece than many Western plays. The series ends on a disturbingly bloody note, but Aristotle, who was opposed to using violence for shock value, would probably approve of Berserk’s conclusion as the only logical outcome, because the violence, while graphic and painful to watch, is never gratuitous.
If the laws of causality dictate that man is only to be toyed with, then his child must confront his destiny by embracing evil.
So what brings about the inevitable tragic fall of Berserk‘s larger-than-life heroes? Ironically enough, it will be the exact same thing that enabled them to strive towards fulfilling their dreams in the first place: the longing for (and denial of) friendship. Without Guts, Griffith would not nearly have come as close to fulfilling his dream. Without Griffith, Guts would never have cultivated a desire for his own dream.
A life as a martyr to his dream, his God.
Following your dream, no matter the cost, sounds romantic and courageous. Berserk refuses to put on the rose-colored glasses and dives into the mechanics necessary to dream unconditionally.
Busy trying to find out who he is meant to be and leaving his mark on the world, Griffith inevitably removes himself further and further from basic human emotion in order to be able to endure the consequences of his decisions. Not unlike Hamlet, who feigns madness in order to achieve his goal of revenge, he feigns indifference towards loss, pain and guilt. Denying yourself a set of crucial emotions, however, means discarding part of who you are. Knowing what you want and who you are, as it turns out, is not necessarily the same thing. (I’ve written about this in my essay about Fate/Zero and the nature of “I want”.) Griffith doesn’t know his own heart, because he decided to close it up years ago, never looking back. It is his ignorance towards his own feelings which turns out to be his hamartia.
You shall see the truth. And see exactly what it is you are.
Scholars have debated for centuries if Hamlet’s madness is feigned or real. But is there really any difference after a certain point? If you are willingly disposing of your humanity, does it matter if you had any to begin with? There is a limit to how long you can keep up this game before losing to yourself.
When a person suffers so much that he is almost torn in two, his heart freezes.
The loss of a friend has always been a powerful catalyst for heroes. Loosing Enkidu inspires Gilgamesh to set out on a quest for immortality. Patroclus’ death gives Achilles his reason to fight in the Trojan War.
All I’ve wanted was someone to cling to… To be by my side.
When friendship is lost in Berserk, we don’t get any of those noble motivations. Instead, we enter the territory of classic Elizabethan revenge tragedy. In true Shakespearean fashion, the anime’s arc concludes in form of a bloody banquet that makes the Red Wedding look like a Sunday picnic. Transforming the stage into a courtroom, Berserk turns its audience (in front of the screen and within the story) into witnesses of the last, final decision to be made.
The rest is silence.
(Hamlet, Act V, Scene 2)
(1) Sigmund Freud
(3) Ludwig Wittgenstein
(4) David Hume