{Berserk III} – Conviction Arc

{Berserk III} — Conviction Arc

~ an essay on the Berserk manga ~ volumes 14–21, chapters 95–176, Conviction Arc. RIP🙏Kentaro Miura. Previous arcs: Black Swordsman & Golden Age.

In the “Conviction Arc” of the Berserk manga, our heroes Guts and Casca — the lone survivors of Griffith’s eclipse and ascension to dark godhood — are at their wits’ end. Casca’s mind is understandably shattered and Guts is a phantom of a man filled with nothing but rage. Through this arc, they go apart and then come back together, still distressed but together. And stronger for it. Miura begins the process of healing for our two lovely characters.

In the medieval x dark fantasy world of Berserk, those branded as a cosmic sacrifice must run from demons forever. The ascended, expressly evil powers-that-be, such as the Godhand, shape the land with spirits sent freely from the underworld toward murder. Humanity is ultimately at the whim of hungry and overpowering beasts.

Guts becomes “The Black Swordsman” to consummate a madcap hunt against such denizens of the darkness, his transcendent blade arm and cannon prosthetic strong enough to fight back. Slaughtering demons is the only vengeance he can chase, with Femto-Griffith ascended far beyond his grasp. Alone and unable to cope any other way, Guts leaves Casca to Rickert, the youngest of the now broken Band of the Hawk, and Godot, the legendary blacksmith, as he engages in daemonic misadventures in the wilderness of the wider world.

And though Guts’ path is one of pain and traumatic tragedy, his sword streaks through the air inspire hope in everyone he encounters. He is a hero, even if his countenance screams villain to the uninitiated. Magic elf Puck pairs alongside him and steadily learns of the vicious past we’ve already seen. Guts kills demons primarily out of revenge, but he does kill them, saving human lives.

In Berserk, Guts is the hero of humanity.

In the Conviction finale, once more facing the supernatural trauma he and Casca experienced in a shadowy recurrence of the eclipse, Guts at long last reconciles himself to a mission beyond the hunt, the rage, the hatred. That mission is Casca, his true love, to “never lose her again.”

In the bombastic final fight itself, The Black Swordsman must wield his sword as a protector of his loved ones and not just for the sake of a personal and bloodthirsty retribution.

Through more blood and tragedy, Guts and Casca are fated to be together.

This is what the Conviction Arc is all about: how Guts finds himself, transforms from hunter to hero — beast to human — and changes fate once more. This time, however, Guts and Casca do more than survive. A path of twilight lay before them, toward a past foe and a future together.

These are some expressions on the major scenes and themes from Berserk’s Conviction Arc, to my eye.

Monsters & Abysses

Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”

~ Friedrich Nietzsche

The Conviction Arc showcases Guts’ transformation into The Black Swordsman. Only one eye and one arm left, bloodthirsty and wielding the Dragonslayer — Guts is after proverbial dragons in a berserking hunt for vengeance against the dark forces of his world.

Demons. They haunt him in the opening future — in the Black Swordsman arc — and now we understand why, from the long flashback that was the Golden Age arc. The Conviction arc melds our timeline into now, with this medieval age in the midst of political upheaval and infernal transformation.

A recurring duality throughout the Berserk saga: those who face monsters may become them — and yet, only those who have been touched by darkness CAN fight against it.

Guts is branded (𒉭) for sacrifice. As Griffith’s principal companion and survivor of the eclipse’s consummation of a supernaturally evil dream, it means he’s cursed. Hunted by the Godhand’s undead soldiers and demonic apostles, Guts fights back with a fiercesomeness likening him to a beast. Like the Viking berserkers of old, he repeatedly “blacks out” his humanity in order to lose himself in prolific violence, becoming more effective for it and more estranged from himself as a result.

Against demonic trees and insects and the elves of the misty valley led by Rosine, in battling the “Great Goat” and Father Mozgus’ hulking apostles — Guts absolutely relishes the fight. The pleasure painted on Guts’ countenance while murdering evil makes our Black Swordsman out to be as daemonically mad as the monsters he faces.

Unnerving yet necessary to showcase his character arc, Guts’ primary *conviction* for much of this segment of his saga is that of living out that classic Nietzche-ian quote of monsters and abysses. He strikes righteous fear into humans and demons alike, the spirit of both beings residing within his raging heart.

Guts is scary, and scary good at slaying demons. The connection is explicit.

And I’ll be damned if it isn’t darkly beautiful to bear witness. ~

“Dragons are dragons because *humans* can’t beat ‘em.”

Religious Conviction as Demonic Possession

I crawled out of my hole and closely observed the newly arrived humans. And the ones I glimpsed there would fall down dead, absurdly and indiscriminately. Then the suffering and fear of the living trying to escape… that death. The deceit-filled system established to conceal that chaos. The people caught between the order of the crooked system and death. The bizarre festivals where with their own hands they gave shape to the shapeless fear they wished to escape. Both the hunters and the hunted, everyone of the threatened was enthralled by the heat. The world was ugly. My garden was buried by the debris of that ugly world…

Something made abundantly clear in the saga thus far is how demons cloak themselves in the symbols and speech of divinity.

Demons are the most powerful denizens of this world, and there are no *angels* to oppose them; Miura has not crafted a holy blood war between Heaven and Hell in Berserk — there is only Hell.

Thus, demons use that overwhelming power to convince and possess and otherwise infiltrate the power structures of the human populations. With supernatural influence borne of blood and deception, much of Midland’s leaders — political or religious — are, in fact, demons. The mass of peasants then misplace their faith in such beasts, led along and controlled, often sacrificed to their dark rituals and violent whims.

These circumstances make for bleak odds for any human resistance, and dark realizations for those that lose hope. Despair leads to religion; what if the “gods” being worshipped are evil, and can manifest themselves at-will? The seduction of demonic power via irreversible — and evil — transformation is always on the table for those ambitious human beings that seek it out.

In this world, there is no stasis between opposing good and evil forces, evil is continuously winning. The undead rise, apostles rule over towns, and the Godhand molds fate on a grand, country-wide scale. It falls to Guts’ berserking to do the bulk of the “good” work, but with every encounter a mortal combat requiring his utmost skill and inhumane fury.

In Conviction, this theme is driven home by a three-pronged arc of characters to oppose Guts’ journey, ultimately pitting Casca into dire straits and motivating a rescue journey.

In the forest outside of a small town, evil spirits roam. A swarm of menacing insectoids, led by Rosine — a demonic apostle posing as a fairy — terrorizes the people. Guts saves a young human girl Jill, only to return her to abusive parents and a townsfolk that can see him as nothing more than a rogue.

Jill runs away, wanders through the forest and is drawn into a misty valley, where she’s reunited with her old missing childhood friend, Rosine. She learns of her fate, transformed into a “fairy” by mysterious forces, suddenly beautiful and powerful and able to fly. Jill experiences the awe of flight and the beauty of Rosine’s fairies at play within the peaceful waters.

Once more, an oppressed member of humanity is shown the delight and power of demonhood, without fully understanding it. She’s tempted to become one of Rosine’s fairies, before it all comes crashing down and she sees the violent truth.

Once more, demonhood offers a sublime, nigh spiritual escape from the suffering of normal existence.

With the Holy Iron Chain Knights, a religious order of nomadic warriors under order from the Holy See — led by noble Lady Farnese — we see how religious devotion can become an unhealthy dependency. Built upon false or manufactured miracles, these holy warriors face few real battles and their “holy” mission is at the whims of politics and superstition.

Like most of Midland’s knights, their work is ceremonial and their primary job comes in protecting the elite. The band of warriors is wholly inexperienced and ineffective in battle. Exceptions come with the prolific warrior-turned-cleric Azan and master tactician Serpico, who are also the most moral of the bunch.

~ Serpico and Azan, rare men of honor in a supremely dishonorable world.

Ironically, their primary mission under Farnese’s naive leadership, is to hunt down The Black Swordsman, the rumored outlaw killer, and bring him to divine justice. Farnese does harbor doubts about his past and motives, even considering him strangely significant to the religious mythos of the Holy See.

They capture Guts after a vicious battle, with him weakened after killing the apostle Rosine. In her interactions with Guts, Farnese’s faith is tested by his words and deeds. When Guts verbally disrespects her bird-like idol as hollow, she lashes his sculpted form and experiences her own sexuality along with the inner, repressive shame her ideology demands for such feelings. Later, when Guts escapes with her and his life from the Holy Knights’ camp, Farnese is nearly devoured by demonic dogs drawn to Guts’ brand.

~ Guts and Farnese’s horrifying all-night misadventure

Here, Lady Farnese experiences her first true “miracle,” the reality of the evil supernature within their world. The rise of bloodthirsty and carnal animals with human-like faces — along with Guts’ cynical urging — shakes her into a breakdown. So much so is her faith broken that she forgets how to pray and succumbs to a succubus spirit. Farnese then tries to force Guts to kill her in a most sexually horrifying way…

Farnese’s character arc (perhaps the most important of all considering where her character heads from here, in the Falcon and Fantasia arcs ahead) is a progression from religious fanaticism to reasoned optimism.

~ Farnese’s arc

Such misplaced faith and expressly bad miraculousness arrives at apotheosis with the introduction of Father Mozgus and his hulking Inquisitors of the Holy See. Vicious foes, the true horror of religious persecution and violent torture and mass death is unveiled by Miura through them.

Readers of Berserk should beware every time Mozgus and his band of black-masked freaks cross the panels. These are men convinced of their own righteousness, who treat people as flesh to be torn asunder for the sake of their “God.” The Inquisitors eventually subsume the Holy Iron Chain Knights into their ranks and use their martial power to continue their quest of religious imprisonment, torture, and murder across the people of the land. To practice their “religion,” Mozgus’ inquisition crucifies peasants on wheels to be seen and picked at by the crows.

Guts’ showdown with Mozgus, a pseudo-apostle imbued with the dark power of the sacrificial Incarnation Ceremony, at last crystallizes our good vs. evil showdown. An armored and winged Mozgus pummels at Guts’ Dragonslayer and tattered black cloak burning with the blood of felled demons. Their final fight proves out the irony of Berserk’s existential mythos. An “angel” fights a “demon”; one a zealot torturer of mankind and the other is humanity’s last hope for killing the real demons…

~ Father Mozgus and the torturers

The Incarnation Ceremony itself is a “religious” ritual borne of a behelit melded with a man, whose suffering is real and critique of society’s careless violence even realer. And yet, it’s another eclipse. Another mass bloodletting for the sake of power. Another example of expressly evil supernature.

In the culmination of a revelatory vision from Midland’s dreaming peoples, the white hawk returns — a God for a new world. Griffith.

Griffith is the one Farnese and Mozgus and all of the praying peoples and religious infrastructure have been calling for, and dying for.

The most evil motherfucker in all of Berserk. He’s back y’all.

~ the fated return of Griffith is borne from a strange polymerization of human faith and demonic intervention.

Guts’ Fate as Guardian

UNFORTUNATELY, THERE IS NO WAY FOR MAN TO CHANGE THE COURSE OF THIS FESTIVAL. WE ALREADY SUBSIST WITHIN THE CURRENT OF CAUSALITY.”

~ Skull Knight

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of Guts’ life is that he’s never given the chance to pursue his own dream, or even fully realize what that dream may be. From early in the Golden Age, the audience may know it: Loving Casca and escaping with her, perhaps starting a family with her, at long last leaving his sword and the violence behind. With her. But back then, Guts never gets the chance to see it.

His departure from the Band of the Hawk, partially brought about by Griffith’s own words about dreams and companions, sets in motion the end of everything. The Golden Age is shattered over that stretch of wilderness and in that lake of blood, where Griffith closed his fingers around the behelit and wished for godhood.

Now, with Casca unwell and Griffith existing somewhere beyond space and time, Guts is *alone* again (or so he believes, feels).

Naturally, he reverts to his baser instincts — to his core warrior persona. The berserker, the beast that slays men and demons with gusto. Guts gently — inspiringly — tells Rickert of the savage hunt he plans to embark on (necessarily sparing him the gory details, and the real truth of his merciless rage). For Rickert {for us}, once again, Guts is strong:

“The Band of the Hawk ain’t gone yet. Not yet. We’re still here. … This war ain’t over. Take care of Casca. She’s our leader. Protect her. I’m the captain of the raiders, so I’ll raid the enemy camp. Right?

Guts leaves Rickert and Casca and Godot behind, and The Black Swordsman emerges. In the years away, the Black Swordsman arc plays out, with Guts amorally swinging his massive sword throughout Midland’s afterscape, against men and demons, killing several apostles and eventually encountering Femto-Griffith and the Godhand in an alternate plane of existence, furiously seeking his revenge and failing to consummate it…

The Black Swordsman saves Jill in the dark forest, against Rosine’s plot to absorb the young innocent girl into her child army of buzzing hellspawn. Guts is strong enough to slay apostles. But he cannot take her with him, he cannot protect Jill forever — and nor does he wish to. Harshly, Guts tells her the truth of his hunt, the demonic danger that continuously spawns about him, and the reality of this hellish world:

“Look. Take a good look around us. A hard look at the shadows. At the darkness around me. … There’s no paradise for you to escape to.”

Through the first half of Conviction, Guts struggles against the growing ire within him. He “blacks out” in rage at the world, its injustice, and his own failures to find and kill Griffith. For a long time, he believes this to be the only fate left to him. Hunt down Griffith and make him pay for what he did to Casca, to him, to the entire Band of the Hawk — the only real family Guts had ever known. Can you blame him?

After so many demons slayed, so many berserking hunts where Guts was forced to black out his humanity and become a hulking, inhuman monster to slay his otherworldly foes… Guts starts to lose himself in the Black Swordsman persona. He “stinks of darkness” as the Beast of Darkness whispers in his ear, the very manifestation of Guts’ wrath and bloodlust.

The haunting Beast, Guts’ inner Jungian shadow, threatens to overtake him. And yet, our hero Guts is stronger. He declares his humanity firmly to Puck in a transcendent set of panels that depict Guts — once more — overcoming even the thought of succumbing to such darkness, to lowering himself to the level of Griffith and the seduction of something like demonhood:

“Beast…? Monster? Heh! Screw that. I’m me. There’s nothin’ else. I am what I am. And I will make my way to him.”

After years away, when Guts returns to Godot and Rickert — Casca is missing, lost to the dark spirits of the world, drawn away from their care by her fated brand. Devastated and enraged, Guts realigns himself only after hearing words of wisdom from the dying blacksmith — one who has come to understand him from afar, in the careful observation only an elder can provide.

With Godot’s counsel, Guts realizes his truer fate and the source of his strength. Casca. In a gorgeous set of panels by Miura, our hero vows to never lose her again:

I’ll never lose her again.”

In another confrontation with the mystic and mysterious Skull Knight, Guts is told of such things as “fate” and the folly of Mankind before the merciless might of the Godhand’s will.

Branded a “STRUGGLER” — caught between the material and immaterial worlds, the physical plane and the divine one — Guts speaks back to the ancient Knight for the first time with confidence. He and Casca are survivors; they already shattered fate once by escaping Griffith’s eclipse. Together, Guts believes they are strong enough to beat fate again.

The Skull Knight foreshadows the truth of this declaration with more cryptic words of his own, allying Guts’ role as cosmic difference maker with his Dragonslayer to an analogy likening the upcoming “festival” as a shadow of the eclipse:

MAYBE YOU AREN’T A SHADOW ON THE WATER… BUT INSTEAD, A FISH THAT BREACHES THE WATER’S SURFACE.”

The name “Struggler.”

Guts’ reunion with Casca is exquisite. Not only does his immense strength and resolute conviction marry into a transcendent moment of fate-shattering heroism for her sake — Guts’ will to fight *inspires* broken Farnese and runaway Isidro and shifty Serpico and charismatic Jerome to all fight back against the shadows themselves.

Guts may indeed have the power to *stop* fate altogether. To save Casca. To kill Griffith?

He stands without retreating in the midst of this overwhelming nightmare.
The one and only thing that is certain.

With Casca — and a new band of worthy companions by his side — Guts’ final fate as a sublime “struggler” and guardian against the godlike shadows is actualized.

Even with the fear and rage and uncertainty of Griffith’s return to the material world before the wide eyes of his former and closest companions, Guts and Casca can go forth together, stronger for it.

The words from Farnese’s inner hope provide a transcendent coda to the Conviction Arc:

Since that day, I’ve worried I’d been wandering the night… But I had forgotten that this is a world upon which the sun does rise. ~

Maybe you aren’t a shadow on the water but instead, a fish that breaches the water’s surface.