{Berserk II} The Golden Age Arc

~ an essay on the Berserk manga/anime ~ volumes 4-13, The Golden Age Arc

The Golden Age Arc manga ~ (1992-1997)
Berserk (1997-1998)

Berserk: The Golden Age arc I | II | III (2012-2013)

Susumu Hirasawa – Berserk (1997) (Full OST)

~

~ The ‘Golden Age Arc‘ of Berserk is so named for it represents the origin of the hero of Kentaro Miura‘s story, Guts, as well as his closest companions of an age past, Griffith and Casca. It constitutes their primes; arguably the most significant events in all of their lives take place in their time spent together roaming battlefields and courts over a number of years constituted as this “Golden Age”. Author and artist Miura weaves a tale of medieval-era sociopolitical and military drama from inside the interpersonal relationships of knights, ladies, rulers and mercenary warriors involved in the shaping of a kingdom known as Midland.

As in the ‘Black Swordsman Arc‘ before it, a hellish dark fantasy world is continually crafted before our eyes. Midland is a tapestry of violence and corruption and mystery. Stark contrasts of malevolent and benevolent forces work their swords and tongues in the open air of warfare, as well as in the seedy backrooms of imperial politicking and cutthroat noble intrigue. Heroes and monsters challenge one another onto battlefields, and the monsters are only sometimes true blue demons hounding for human flesh, human hearts. A kind of spiritualistic entropy of body, mind and soul is constantly beckoning, foreshadowing tragedy, winnowing away the light that our heroes hope to fight for.

The arrival of a demon midway through this Age, and the fateful, sanity-blasting onslaught at the close of it, simply accelerate the fade to black we knew to be coming all along. For Guts’ fate was foretold in prior volumes. We are already familiar with the omnipresence of supernatural depravity within the kingdom of Midland from Guts’ future journeys in his black cape, scarred from this past, his expression eternally pained, his voice mostly silenced. 

In this Golden Age, we find out the truths of our hero’s conflicted heart through his past. From his extraordinarily bloody and vivacious origins here, we can finally observe our Black Swordsman with clarity, with empathetic understanding for his future condition as the wayward, amoral demon killer.

During this arc, the rise and fall of the legendary mercenary company known as The Band of the Hawk is detailed. Readers are introduced to Griffith, before his transformation into one of the God Hand. He is the fearless, unmarred, ambitious, charismatic, and altogether transcendently skilled leader of the prolific warrior band.

We are also introduced to Casca, his second-in-command, a skilled warrior woman swinging sword and heart with equal composure in a man’s world quite unwelcome to her presence. Though the rivalry and coming companionship between Guts and Griffith takes the forefront, Casca becomes an equivalently compelling figure within this triumvirate of main characters, as an intermediary between their rivalry, as the subject of their disparate admirations. And their potential love.

The Band of the Hawk ~ art source

The play over this “Golden” era deals primarily with the relationship of these principal characters and their collective influence upon one another. Guts, Griffith, and Casca all have their distinct personalities, philosophies, pasts. And dreams. Outwardly, for themselves, and inwardly, for one another. Through their bouts and victories and facing off against monsters, both man and demon, they craft their dreams in their own way, in their own time.

Griffith’s dream is set at a young age, dealing in ambition, power, continuous intrigue upon battlefields and in kingly courts.

Casca’s dream is forced upon her out of a desire for escape, to gain the strength needed to earn her place, free to choose where she wants to belong.

Guts, the consummate survivalist, struggles with the forging of his dream, influenced by both of his principal companions, all the way until the end… until everything changes.

In Miura’s story, perhaps more important than the dreams these characters have, is where they envision their fellow companions being within those dreamscapes.

Given their existence within this harsh world is full of horror, and violent ends upon blood-soaked fields, and the claws of demons descending upon them from unfathomable dimensions, and the dark beating hearts of ambitious men after power constantly shadowing steps within the hierarchy of society, from the beginning their lowborn warrior’s dreams seem fated to shatter. But who can say? In this story, there is no word of God here to articulate the meaning of the ultimate fate of Guts and Griffith and Casca, there is no hand of a goodly deity there to set things right, or merely into a cosmic context, for the tragedies soon to befall them.

At the conclusion of The Golden Age, with Griffith fully corrupted and ascended upon a throne soaked with the blood of his comrades, and Guts and Casca surviving but fated to be hunted by monsters until they too are violently expelled from this world, a resolutely Dark Age seems certain to follow within this chronology. 

Origins & Dreams

What is so special about Berserk are the conditions of its characters. Their strength, their believability, their causality – as in, how their individual origins so clearly influence their current dispositions, and their dreams. Among the prime triad, each is borne of harsh circumstances, bloody origins of dodged death or worse at the hands of their environs. Griffith, Casca and Guts, initially can be seen archetypal and constant: the charismatic, semi-sociopathic, supremely focused leader from the gutter, destined for greatness from his long work upon battlefields / the resolute, independent woman, nevertheless an underling to a striving paragon that she looks up to, and can’t decide if she loves like a companion or a father… / the strong but silent warrior, the invulnerable, ‘raised-by-wolves’ loner, a proficient killer of men without ambition beyond survival.

Each character is cornerstoned by what they saw and experienced as children, providencing a foundational motivation toward life courses culminating in individuated “Dreams.”

Griffith, an impoverished streetrat raised within the kingdom, saw the king’s castle as a shining star upon a distant yet traversable hill. He is in love with his own dream, he is enraptured by his own future.

Casca, a peasant girl existing on the edge of society, the edge of death, is captured and nearly raped, but is saved by a shining star of a man who looks not unlike a prince in stature and strength, in Griffith. She sees her place as growing alongside him, growing to protect herself first. Then, growing to protect him, and not just with her blade but with her heart.

Guts, lucky to be alive at all and born from the bleakest circumstances of any, knows only abuse and pain and betrayal and blood from childhood, with nowhere to turn, no one to trust, nothing at all to look up to but the void of a silent and indifferent universe. First, with Griffith and Casca and the Band of the Hawk, he finds warriors to travel with. And later, he finds a family.

~ Guts’ birth under the hanging tree in the wilderness is the most brutal origin for a main character I have ever seen.
~ Kid Guts has a good long look into the indifferent void of the universe. One could assume this moment, as much as any other, shapes him into the man he becomes. 

Thusly, our heroes’ dreams can be deduced from there. Griffith seeks a kingdom, a world he can rule over for himself, utterly maximizing his endless inner potential, creating a universe in his control and borne of his own brilliant, worldly efforts.

Casca wishes to follow her princely paragon to the very end of his ambitions, as his sword or his lover, either way as his partner, equivalently empowered at his side.

Guts wants a road all to himself, one he can walk without need of any companions that might betray him in the end, earning his keep by his sole strength alone, just him and his sword, invulnerable and strong.

Griffith breaks from his caste; Casca breaks from the role of her gender. Guts, a perfect physical specimen with transcendent skills, endurance, and vitality, breaks from the deathly circumstances of his birth; to have survived his excruciating childhood at all is a feat as impressive as any of the conquests The Band of the Hawk will eventually make with his strong sword arm leading the vanguard.

I will get my own kingdom.” ~ Griffith
Is this sword my dream?” ~ Guts’ dream vs. Griffith’s – a single sword vs. the whole world.

The founding of these disparate origins, childhood environs, and inspiriting dreams for Guts, Casca and Griffith – each still united by their lives as soldiers, killers that choose to exist at the brink of worldly existence – makes their interplay as companions, slowly influencing and humanizing one another over the course of their journey together in the Band of the Hawk ~ learning to love one another ~ that much more impacting in the end. 

Interdependence & Change

The brightest flames cast the darkest shadows.” ~ The core theme of the Golden Age becomes interdependence.  Throughout their battles and journeying together in a mercenary band tasked with defending Midland against at-times superior foes, the fated trio grow upon one another, weaving a complex exchange of dependencies, yearnings, beliefs.

Their development as characters, via nuanced dialogue and overt action, is aided tremendously by Miura’s extraordinary art, subtexting their courses equally with committed pitches of body language and cooperative hyper-violence. Within each of these strong-willed persons, all three preternaturally sublime swordsman – the prime currency of their world as warriors – profound changes commence over the course of their individual arcs.

In thoughts, words, and presence with one another, our trio’s Dreams change.

In their fighting together, in their saving each other, in their united motivations in the Band of the Hawk and their shared goals – they come to totally shape each other’s lives.

~ Griffith and Guts meet
“…a temporary visitor taking comfort from the flame.”
“People cannot ignore it when looking upon someone they fear.” // idea: The harder you strive for your own singular dream, no matter what it is, the more you shed your humanity.
~ Guts and Griffith working together to fight the demon Zodd

Griffith, the graceful, beautific striving warrior paragon, is changed by Guts – far along his King’s road, he is finally presented with someone that demands more than possession, more than pawnhood within his god-like game of continuous ascension. The emotionally stunted duo find within each other the missing piece of their lives, to differing endgame effects upon their psyche.

Guts, the psychically invulnerable and mostly silent hyper-masculine specimen is changed by Casca – she is someone he can let his guard down around. Someone he can enjoy vulnerability alongside; someone he can learn to love. At different times through their saga, Guts believes that Casca loves Griffith and could never love him; alternatively, their mate Judeau speaks to Guts and Casca as deserving of one another, their shared experiences being visceral, indelible. In effect, their love is already real and they just don’t know it yet.

The truth seems to be that Casca admires Griffith more than she loves him. She believes in him. She loves the idea of him, as a paragon of virtue and strength, as a figure she may reliably rest her own hopes and dreams upon.

Griffith, in truth, as Casca comes to find out, is not emotionally available to anyone, even her. This has everything to do with the stakes of his dream, of the necessary repressions and social sacrifices that come with ascending to the limits of human power. By pursuing a kingdom to call his own, bursting from his lowborn roots, and doing it by command of an army, Griffith must present as a symbol and not a Man.

Casca, in turn, is changed by both Griffith and Guts, at different points, and in a progression of meaning – and as a consequence of them changing each other. She fights alongside each of them as companions. But, as men, they each mean something completely different to her. Initially, Guts is a rival for Griffith’s attention; later, Guts is the only person she can open up to.

As I said, this complex of interdependence between the trio plays out subtly and overtly, over the long arc of this Golden Age. This interdependence comprises their emotional lives, but also their material and spiritual lives as well.

~ “Why does Griffith like you so much?”
~ “The person she’s after is Griffith…”
“His dream is so grand and pure.”
“I want to be by his side.”
~ “Does she know that she’s changing?” ~ Judeau on Casca
“Just feel your life, that’s all.”
~ “[Griffith] seems somehow distant and unreachable… and it hurts.”
~ “I forgot… without a sword by my side, I don’t feel safe or calm.”
“Am I shaping my own destiny?”

Griffith leads their army, the Band of the Hawk. Griffith, importantly, is a strong leader, but he is not a tyrant. He is more populist, and a meritocrat, engaging lowborn peasants as equal fighters into his fold. Certainly, The Band of the Hawk follows his ‘cult of personality’, though he is not manipulative nor entitled in his rulership over them as commander. Despite his striving to attain the peak of his world’s hierarchical structure, Griffith is an egalitarian, an idealist who sincerely believes that *anyone* can do anything. He proves this in word and action, and it is proven doubly so by the fact that his men join his army by free choice.

Griffith’s warriors fight for him and his dream without coercion. It can be said that the Band of the Hawk, this prolific fighting force of mercenary might winning battle after battle under his supreme command, Griffith’s men – including Casca and even Guts – are dependent upon him. Their success is driven by him at the helm. It thus follows that they would care about him, to the point of gladly dying for his cause.

Conversely, the question comes: is Griffith dependent upon them? Yes, to achieve his dream he needs their collective might upon the battlefield as an army, working together throughout campaigns of attack and defense, the games of worldly conquest involved in gaining a throne. Thus, a measure of interdependence is born even between the paragon leader and his peons – Griffith needs their bodies, their energy and their blood, and they need his shining example, his ‘perfection’ in word and action, as a vessel of their own hopes and dreams to one day surpass their birth and achieve more.

The Hawk’s egalitarianism within its ranks, the autonomy and trust Griffith and Casca have for the men, for each other, this can be attributed to their ultimate successes and the consistency of their conquering. At different points, Griffith conveys genuine concern for his men. He cares for the living as well as the dead. Beyond just Casca and Guts, and in his own way, Griffith definitely loved his men in the Band of the Hawk.

Not as friends, but as living, breathing beings. As lives.

There’s no one who never wanted something.” ~ Judeau and Guts, on Griffith

The fracturing within the triad, and the larger collective of the Hawk as a consequence, comes with Griffith’s spoken conception of a *friend* in the necessary context of their own, individual ‘Dream.’

Midway through this Golden Age, his own philosophy upon power and sovereignty and ambition are revealed in his speech to the princess outside the castle, with Guts and Casca within earshot. Fresh off of a particularly mortifying assassination mission, Guts is tired, vulnerable, perhaps resentful of what Griffith has just made him do. And so, such judgments and their influences shift the fate of Griffith and Guts, Casca caught in the crossfire between their dueling ego’s.

It stands to reason that Griffith spoke these words with Guts in mind. Or, alternatively, Griffith spoke from his heart, without any preconditions to his own current surroundings, a blindspot to the circumstance of Guts, his most trusted (and loved?) companion up to then.

From these words it becomes painfully clear that Guts, without a discernible dream of his own, could not under Griffith’s definition, be considered a friend.

“A friend should never subsist on another’s dream…”

~ Griffith

Guts, insofar that he is captured with either Griffith’s aura as a man with so defining and transcendent a dream, or influenced by his explicit words of owning singular dreams as a necessary Truth to unlock his companionship, soon after casts off on his own, leaving the Hawk.

Against the protestations of Casca and Rickert, embraced by Judeau, sayonara’d by Corkus – opposed with bladed gaze by Griffith himself – Guts’ departure brings about the swift end of the Band of the Hawk at the height of their power.

In a haze of psychosexual confusion – or stubborn, spiteful self-destructive desire – Griffith goes and fucks the princess. Everything proceeds into darkness from there. In blood and betrayal, through their actions and inactions, fate inevitably comes for Griffith and Casca and Guts.

The Golden Age enters its twilight.

~ “If I can’t keep him … it doesn’t matter!” ~ Griffith just before his final showdown with Guts, for his right to depart

Imperatively, Miura paints the changes in his characters as so indirect and subtle that the characters themselves do not even realize it’s happening. Even as the audience is discovering and grimly-to-satisfactorily arriving at the realizations themselves, that *this* is what drives our heroes apart.

Dreams. Friendship. Self-determination. The illusions and miscommunications of each, between them and between themselves.

It is open to interpretation of course, but I think it is true that Griffith is so traumatized by Guts’ departure not because it has anything to do with the Hawks’ prospects for continuous victory, and his kingdom quest (which it undoubtedly does!) – but because Griffith loved him. He’d grown to rely entirely upon his presence in his life. To keep himself happy? To keep himself sane?

That initial ‘possession’ of his most-prized, Dragon-esque warrior constantly by his side, over time had turned to something much more reciprocal and real. From there, Griffith 1) didn’t know how to handle the weight of such emotional truths, having never really loved anyone in his life before, and 2) didn’t know how to reconcile the fact that Guts was leaving of his own volition, a real Dream in his eyes, and there was nothing Griffith could do to stop him.

Guts wasn’t just leaving, he was leaving for a good reason – for a self-determining Dream that Griffith would have to respect, or brand himself as a hypocrite. It stands to reason that the changes that come this way – naturally, unconsciously, brought about by the day-to-day continuity of interactions with one’s immediate environment, and those closest companions which end up feeling as family – are the strongest, most permanent, and spiritually affecting changes.

Guts has evolved.

Casca cannot see Guts’ departure with anything but mortification. She instantly sees what it does to Griffith. And to her.

At what point does Casca realize her love of Guts versus when she actually started to love him?

With Guts’ choice as the crux, with the force of fate behind them from there, these are the kinds of changes that come to these three.

“I can’t be buried in Griffith’s dream.”
“Griffith can’t do anything without you!”

Battle, Morality, Fate

Berserk‘s Golden Age showcases, as a subtext, the painstaking efforts that are required to rise above one’s birth and station in medieval times. Griffith and Casca and Guts’ gains in power within the kingdom of Midland are borne of blood and continuous existential risk. They have to literally battle tooth-and-nail for every single inch of ground.

And as a kind of Shakespearean tragedy or cosmic irony, through Guts’ seemingly harmless act of departing to romantically pursue a life of his own, their work as an army mostly done at that point, and Griffith’s desperate and bizarre response to it – we see the stark disparity between how hard it is to build something up, like an effective army dealing in continuous conquest, victoriously leading on to a potential kingdom secured in the hands of a prior peasant – and just how precariously easy it is to tear it all down.

This compulsion can be seen throughout history, with the futility of building real, long-term unity, with power defaulting inexorably toward totality in the end.

Rising power seeking the throne requires constant vigilance and utter, nigh pathological commitment to its continuous attainment. We see this from Griffith for most of the story, when he’s willing to do anything to achieve his goal — such as when he sells his body to an elder Lord to avoid a battle, or takes crazy strategic chances on the battlefield, relying totally upon his invincible “Dragon” in Guts.

Established power besieged by external forces, such as with the existing King, as far as he comes to perceive the coming siege, will resist with every ounce of will left to him, utilize every reach of his institutions, press every weakness and punish any possible misstep. We see this with the King’s general, Julius, and his attempted assassination of Griffith. Later we see it from the King himself, through his action of capturing Griffith and putting the hit out on the Band of the Hawk, still a most powerful asset to his kingdom’s army, after the perceived transgression against his daughter’s virginity (mostly fueled by his own incestuous desires for her, of course…)

Gaining power is nearly impossible and likely to get you killed. Maintaining power, on the other hand, may be maddening, but at least you have the resources to crush your opposition.

Griffith and the Band of the Hawk learn this the hard way. And neither Griffith nor Guts’ prowess with their sword can save them from here. Truly, as soon as their battle was at an end – they were lost…

~ the beautiful art of Kentaro Miura
~ the gaze of Griffith and Guts

The constancy of battle can be seen as a master value for both Griffith and Guts; the difference between them, initially and then cycling in opposition over the course of the events of the Golden Age, is what they see within their individual battles. What do they perceive their struggles – and again, their Dreams – as ultimately amounting to? Initially, the polar distinction is this: Griffith derives meaning from his fight, whereas Guts does not.

Griffith *long, flowing hair eclipsing the rising sun* is on a quest with righteous purpose / Guts *bites coin* is just trying to get by.

The former defies customs and fate itself in order to pursue their own self-crafted destiny, a kingdom built from the ground up with his sword-skill and his loyal men backing him; the latter accepts his lot in life, seeing no inherent meaning in his bloody travails. Guts is content to fight for mere survival, mildly intrigued by the mortal danger of the battles, with no dream to speak of or even envision.

Griffith, as an avatar of creative force and unstoppable ambition, the paragon striver, the “Lord of Longing” as the God Hand comes to call him in his tortured fever dreams, in Nietzschean terms can be seen as the “Übermensch.” Guts, conversely, as the “archetypal nihilist, only able to destroy, but unable to build and act upon a self-actualized ethos” can definitely be seen as the “Last Man,” the opposing dichotomy to Nietzsche’s “Superman.”

Their paths, however, begin to alter as Guts leaves Griffith. Guts moves forward with his life, evolved and finally living for a Dream he has made in mind for himself. Griffith forgets his Dream entirely… I believe it is inarguable that they eventually fully shift places – with Guts/The Black Swordsman as the prototypical Übermensch and with Femto-Griffith as the Last Man – after the eclipse.

Guts, from then on, fights with vengeant purpose for more than survival, defying fate to create a life for himself and for psychically damaged Casca, his blade a convincing thesis against the cruelty and demonic evil and the looming darkness he finds himself continually mired within as ‘The Black Swordsman’ of Midland’s Dark Age afterscape.

~ the dichotomy of the Übermensch and the Last Man

Griffith, on the other hand, acquiesces to fate for his own gain, choosing power over morality, proverbially choosing to rule in Hell rather than serve in Heaven (or after his body and mind are destroyed, simply embrace his death and the coming abyss of non-existence).

Questions of morality are an intriguing and necessary inquest within the universe of Berserk. Principally, they come with regard to the actions of Guts in ‘The Black Swordsman’ arc and of Griffith in ‘The Golden Age’ arc; The Black Swordsman’s tortured aspect and general amorality toward the world, human or demon, can be necessarily explained by Griffith’s intimately devastating presence within his past.

Griffith, without a doubt, is the most morally dynamic and challenging character to analyze within the Berserk mythos. There is an entire meme, semi-serious in its implications, that “Griffith did nothing wrong” despite all evidence to the contrary at the end of the Golden Age. From my perspective, this is because of the complex and emergent conditions and flow of events that occur around Griffith leading up to his fateful choice, behelit in hand and eclipse dawning, the nefarious God Hand awaiting his consent to sacrifice everyone he’d ever known and loved(?) for the sake of his ascension from broken, pain-crazed shell of a Man into a dark, omnipotent, immortal God.

~ art by Areum Jeong
~ The gaze of Griffith. // Comment: Through these last days leading up the eclipse, you don’t know what is going on inside Griffith’s head. It makes everything more complicated and ominous. His last thoughts, in his madness of being tortured, were of Guts and him being the one that “destroyed his dream”, after he left… He stares at Casca with that predatory-like intensity. He wants to be comforted, for sure, given his suffering and his current condition. But does he want reprisal? Does he hate Guts at this point? … Could anyone go through what Griffith went through and retain their compassion, their sanity?

“I made up my mind, that I was going to win by any means necessary.” ~ Griffith

This stone paved alleyway still continues…

In the end, Griffith always – more than anything else – wanted wings.

In my eyes, Griffith’s choice to consummate the eclipse, embracing the power of the behelit – “The Egg of the King” – sentencing his entire Band of the Hawk to grisly deaths, including Guts and Casca, acquiescing to a dark transformation borne of their collective blood at the hands of extradimensional Gods with unknowable designs, cannot be morally justified…

But! It can be explained, even rationalized. As I said before, complex forces converge to create the singular moment where Griffith is faced with the choice of sacrificing ‘everything he holds dear’ for the sake of his own life and body returned and his power amplified to that of a godlike being. Concisely, these forces in chronology, as seen by Griffith, include:

  • The entire Band of the Hawk declared by the King as knights, ascended to the status of nobles after their latest pivotal victory in Midland’s war; Griffith’s greatest noble antagonist in Julius has been assassinated by Guts, eliminated as an obstacle to his ascent – Griffith and his army are at the peak of their power.
  • Griffith speaks of the power of Dreams and companionship to the young princess, who now adds a genuinely inspiring love to pair with her lusting over him.
  • …’Abandoned’ by Guts, who sets off to pursue his own path, his own self-determined Dream of one kind or another, leaving the Band of the Hawk, and him, behind…
  • After choosing to go and sleep with the princess (consensually), for his own pathological and perhaps inexplicable reasoning, Griffith is captured by the King and tortured to the brink of death for over a year, his body ultimately ruined and his mind shattered to the point of madness.
  • Saved by Guts and Casca and his old crew from the dungeon underneath the castle, he is freed and returned to their ranks, but unable to resume his status, lead them on, or even stand or speak. Or be of much use to anyone any longer as an invalid beyond hope of physical recovery.
  • He sees Guts and Casca’s relationship progressed, now as lovers.
  • Guts and Casca care for him diligently, with love, but can no longer see him as he once was.
  • Griffith, unable to accept his life, body and mind as it is now, sets off with a carriage of horses on his own, abandoning the Hawk as the sun sets, while they engage in discourse over what their plan is now that they have rescued him. He does this – perhaps vying for the attention of Guts and Casca? Intending to commit suicide?, etc.?
  • After crashing the carriage and failing to kill himself, cutting his neck against a sharp stone in the water – Griffith is reunited with his trusty behelit, fatefully returned to his fingers within the shallow water of the wilderness…
  • {*E C L I P S E begins*}
  • Propositioned by the God Hand with an ascension into their ranks, Griffith is delivered psychic visions of his own consciousness, his past, the path he took, the blood and bodies along it, leading up to his castle atop the hill that he envisioned as a child – his original goal – all contrasted by the only thing that ever truly distracted him away from it… Guts.
  • ~ Griffith makes his choice – kill The Band of the Hawk to become a God-king, the fifth finger of the God Hand – Femto.
~ Everyone’s death passed through me.

~ The birth of Femto-Griffith. Completed.

Within the eclipse’s extradimensional space, Griffith is broken, body and (in effect) mind, crying tears of blood sitting before the extradimensional beings known as the God HandVoid, Slan, Ubik, Conrad. His allies are far below, transported along with him to an arena of grotesque faces and hungry jaws beyond time and space. Shown his entire life’s course in visions, from the moment he obtained the behelit from an old fortune teller as a peasant boy running the streets, Griffith wrestles with the morality of his path. It is unclear to what extent the God Hand, namely Ubik (who is disguised as the old fortune teller, in the vision / in past reality (?)), influence his reasoning. Griffith sees the bodies of his men, killed in action through his questing with The Band of the Hawk, as tragic and reprehensible outcomes. Undoubtedly, he feels regret at all the death.

Along with all of the previous conditions and memories and the raw state of his current body – two primary trains of thought strike Griffith in this strangely vivid examination of his consciousness –

1) The path to power always lay atop bodies – that was the whole game of him building his army, commanding it against opposing legions, sacrificing the blood of his followers to ascend the steps, eventually, to the throne itself, his men willing to die for his dream anywayeveryone was *always* expendable;

2) Sadness, regret, and empathy for those killed under his command, wishing he could go back to the beginning, in that childhood moment, before his path began and he made this choice to pursue power — all this, all of these emotions are now meaningless. Even as he feels them now, they are without meaning. Because it is past. He is here now, and all that matters is what he does *from here.*

In a kind of dark enlightenment, in which Griffith experiences the exact opposite of what one could call “ego death” ~ as in, an immaterial connection to all life, all other beings and material in the universe, in a transcendent moment of selfless clarity ~ Griffith instead falls utterly into himself, consumed by his ego.

Ultimately, as Griffith is propositioned by these dark gods inside his solipsistic bubble out of time and space, and Guts, screaming with determination, climbs to oppose them and try to ‘save’ Griffith from whatever their intent may be, his final moral conclusion amounts to the following axiom, koan, or finalizing philosophical sentiment:

Fate transcends human intellect; if that is the nature of truth, then it is inevitable for children to resist fate with acts of evil.’

~ Griffith’s realization during the eclipse

Evil can be a hard word to define. True evil. Perhaps the best definition is “a betrayal of love.” Did Griffith love Guts and Casca? To me, that seems certain. What about the Band of the Hawk, the remainder of his men? Judeau, Corkus, Pippin, Rickert. All the nameless (to us) living and dead mercenary soldiers that fought dutifully under his command. We come to find out, during the eclipse, Griffith’s love of his men can be proven by the very rules of the daemonic ritual commenced by the God Hand, surrounding the behelit and the necessary means to this evil ascension.

As we see in The Black Swordsman arc prior, the boons of the God Hand always requires a sacrifice. But it cannot be just anyone – it must be that which the asker loves most in their life

In the end, in his weakened state, Griffith gives in to fate and confirms the darkest path for he and his companions. The wicked and lovely irony of the God Hand accepting his sacrifice, of Griffith’s ascension into Femto: By the nature of this unholy ritual and its esoteric laws, Griffith’s love for the Band of the Hawk, in whatever complex and repressed capacity he carried it, even into his torturous isolation, is proven utterly.

~ Griffith and the Band of the Hawk

Griffith chooses to sacrifice his Band, that which he loves most; he chooses evil, to cut his humanity.

Saliently, this work is done by the demons and monsters within the dimension, away from his sight and hearing, without a single finger raised himself to perform the dark deeds.

Transformed into the tenebrously-winged, obsidian-armored entity now known as Femto, the fifth finger of the God Hand, Griffith then proceeds to commit what might be his worst atrocity, personalizing his wholesale sinning with the rape of Casca, with Guts restrained by demons, weeping and watching. Inhumanely maintaining eye contact through the act with his companion-turned-nemesis, it is at this point that Berserk‘s carnage and cruelty and chaos reaches its apotheosis, Griffith fully corrupted into demonhood and Guts made broken and berserk by their mad, intertwining, caliginous fate. 

“Such beauty… It touches me. Love, hatred, pain, pleasure, life, death. All are there… This is to be human. This is to be evil.”

~ Slan, demon queen

“Causality” is mentioned many times throughout the saga by cosmic forces, such as The Skull Knight and Void; fate is spoke about as being inevitable from the demon Zodd, and more mildly from Griffith himself. Predestination seems possible within the world of Berserk; another Nietzschean metaphysical conception “eternal recurrence” is bandied with by Miura, as the eternal battle between Skull Knight and Zodd seems to herald the possibility that Guts and Griffith are merely taking part in the next generation of some predetermined and endless dance of light against dark. The behelit, lost through the grate of the torture chamber, returns as if by magical, cosmic forces right at the lowest moment of Griffith’s existence, as he tries to end himself in the shallows at dusk.

Causality, predestination, predetermination, eternal recurrence, fate – all this theoretic weaving seems to proffer the possibility that Guts, Griffith, Casca never had a chance to avoid their tragedy, they never had any choice at all.

Is there no free will in this universe? What are the moral consequences of actions without this freedom? Could Griffith, events transpiring as they did, him being who he is, ever choose differently? Griffith’s realization during his final vision quest seems to perversely find solace in acts of pathology – or evil – as the only escape from fate’s cruel grasp. The narrative mythos of Berserk, forging ahead into a darker Age, offers no defined answers on these fronts.

“…a death you cannot escape!”

~ “Why do these monsters keep appearing in front of Griffith and I?”

~ That brand will be engraved throughout your existence, our offering of evil, until the last drop of blood and the anguish of death.

“Whether it is a good dream, or a bad one for that matter, no-one likes waking up in the middle of one.”
~ Judeau

~ It’s futile. A human’s power is useless.

“All within the laws of causality! … All has been decided. Your lives were woven to meet this point.”

We do not know what Griffith intends to do in his reign as Femto of the God Hand; we do not know what Griffith ever intended to do in his potential reign as a human King overseeing his Kingdom earned by the blood of his many battlefields. It seems unlikely that whatever Good he might’ve done in the realm of the humane, or might do now as this ascended, astral being, no ends could ever justify the means by which Griffith gained his throne. The suffering Griffith sowed in the moments of the eclipse, unto his former companions in Casca and Guts, instantly reaps rows of corruption, his King’s reign darkened into an unforgivable abyss from its crowning moments.

“Fate is beyond human understanding.” And power, insofar that any mortal can grasp it, may be too.

Guts, in future sagas, as the Black Swordsman, in defying the God Hand their sacrifice, in his and Casca’s survival — I believe represents the countering human manifestation of breaking fate through strength of will.

From his own sources of physical and metaphysical power, Guts lives out his own dark dream of resistance against fate and the God Hand – a near insurmountable foe – through conscious action. From the beginning, from a childhood hell he was perhaps lucky to escape – Guts fights for himself, in an embrace of humanity and to destroy evil, and not to necessarily create good, if such a thing is possible at all in an age so dark and demon-haunted… But now, after the eclipse, after Casca and Griffith, Guts’ mere survival is a stark defiance of fate, imbued with an inherent and indestructible meaningfulness.

Unspoken but seen in the path he walks from here in Miura’s saga, Guts’ own grand realization – his anagnorisis – coming in his view of Griffith’s betrayal, can be seen as a wayward twist upon that prior axiom:

Fate transcends human intellect;

if that is the nature of truth,

then it is inevitable for warriors to resist fate with berserk action.’ ~

~ In war, the last man standing is the winner!
End note: My first experience with Berserk came with my watching the 1997 25-episode anime adaptation of the Golden Age arc. There is a beautiful difference between this anime depicting the Golden Age, ending abruptly with the eclipse – Guts and Casca’s escape unresolved – versus the manga’s more complete telling. In the manga, there is so much more foreshadowing and examinations of Griffith’s inner life via visions and dreams, and an understanding that things will end horrifically for everyone. The reasons for the horrors that happen during the eclipse are much better supplied to the reader of the manga vs. viewer of the anime, in my opinion. The manga speaks much more frequently of fate and of demons, foreshadowing the eclipse well before it comes to pass. But in the anime, to the uninitiated, it all blindsides much more devastatingly. And then the show just ends, with everything up in the air and everyone seemingly damned to their horrifying fates. ~ All this to say: The experiencing of the 1997 anime in complete isolation, knowing nothing of the story beforehand, was as powerful an experience of art, and as devastating and dreadful and emotionally compelling, as anything I’ve ever experienced up to then or since.
Berserk 1997 edit || Little Dark Age