Berserk – In Mythology, Unmei Means Dickery
There’s a lot I like in Berserk, but it is the very end — where a desperate Griffith hands himself fully to a horde of demons and accepts the sacrifice of his comrades so that he can become one of the God Hand — that sucked me in the most, that had me feeling the cold power of this world and how everything moves like clockwork to its unavoidable end. Yeah, the ending clearly marks Berserk as an advertisement for the manga (but what an advertisement!), and the final seconds conclude at an awkward place, but damn it, that ending grabbed me by the head and wouldn’t let go.
What I love best about Berserk is that it feels as if the story, setting and characters have stepped directly from the pages of ancient myths. One of the things I’ve always wanted to rectify is my embarrassing unfamiliarity with myths and legends; I read Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus in high school, a bit of The Iliad and a Hindu myth (or maybe it was Mesopotamian? Wish I’d kept my damn syllabus, or at least developed a reliable memory), whose title I cannot recall for the life of me, in college and a bit of Ovid’s Metamorphoses after graduation, and my awesome sister often regales me with all the crazy ass myths and legends she studies in school, but that’s about it.
Never understood why I haven’t dove more thoroughly into those stories, though. Everything about those stories is so big, bold and, frankly, almost beyond comprehension. We mere mortals walk where gods and demons tread; they could scarcely give a shit about mankind, even the most heroic of us. But they like to pull the strings every so often, and tiny mortals, huge heroes and villains alike get caught on the strings.
Guts, for example, is the kind of hero I can totally get behind, because he has such a wonderfully mythical origin: Born from the corpse of a woman who hanged herself on the battlefield, Guts has been marked by Death and War his entire life. Those around him — friend or foe — seem destined to die just by falling in with him, starting with his original master, and ending (in the anime) with the sacrifices of Guts’ comrades in the Band of the Hawk. It is rarely even Guts’ fault that those he cares for die, which almost makes everything worse, really; no matter how much energy Guts expends to protect his fellow fighters, the wheel of destiny turns nonetheless, and Death continues to hang over him as an almost personal trait.
Destiny is a concept that hangs so heavily over these stories; it is always in motion, and no matter how much people chip away at it with their actions, Fate corrects itself in the end. In Greek myth, King Laius throws out his son, Oedipus, because the little guy is destined to kill his father, marry his mother and bring ruin to the kingdom; despite Laius’ meddling, it happens anyway. There’s always the feeling that something higher than these tiny humans is at work making sure that everything unfolds as Fate ordains. When Guts and Griffith fight the demon Apostle Zodd, Guts is told that Griffith — the holder of the Egg of the King — is destined to be a King, and Guts is destined to die if he follows Griffith down the path of his dream. One of these prophecies comes true (or is at least well on its way to becoming true) by the time the Berserk anime concludes, and if Kentaro Miura ever completes the manga, I would not bet against that second prophecy also holding water.
It’s a great touch to have the post-anime Guts start off the story, curse mark conspicuous on his neck, and bursting to seek vengeance against Griffith (I believe the manga starts this way as well). Even before the audience knows the story, they know there is only one fated path for these characters. Guts may leave the Band of the Hawk at the two-thirds point, but he is damn well going to return, and he is damn well going to suffer at the hands of Griffith’s dream. Human will vs. predestination is a popular topic, and the direction Berserk tends toward is great: Yes, fate can be manipulated to achieve a particular result, but humans have no control over it at all, so tough shit. It’s a one-way trip on the fate train for them.
It suddenly hit during the final episodes when the demon horde — led by the God Hands — swoops in and kickstarts the ceremony to sacrifice the Band of the Hawk so that Griffith can be reborn as a God Hand, a super-powerful demonic entity. Griffith is fated from the beginning to be a King (the Egg of the King does not fall into just anyone’s hands), but what is really striking is how the God Hands give Griffith the illusion of choice even though it is stated multiple times that it is Griffith’s fate to accept his new responsibility in the name of his dream. Humans need the option of choice, so the powers that be manipulate fate enough to give Griffith a choice in the most basic sense: Griffith can sacrifice the Band of the Hawk, transform into a nearly omnipotent demon and come ever-closer to fulfilling the dream that has filled his mind since he was a destitute youth, or he can continue living a pathetic life with a broken body in the care of the one man who took Griffith outside the path of his dream.
The deck is stacked so heavily in the favor of the demons that it is hardly a choice at all (even with the slight tinge of guilt Griffith feels beforehand), but giving Griffith the appearance of power that comes with choice is a trifle, so they do it and sneer at Guts about this choice that is not really a choice at all. And then everything goes straight to hell in that gloriously apocalyptic world that pops up under the piercing black of the solar eclipse. Pools of blood, contorted faces everywhere, fleshy pillars of pure suffering, all in a nightmare dreamscape where death is the only way out for those who have not been marked by destiny to live on.
One of the few things that truly scares me in the world of horror is the feeling that all control of one’s life has disappeared . . . or that, just maybe, it never existed in the first place. Everything in Berserk leads up to this final ceremony, and that is exactly the way it is supposed to feel; every moment in the series leads up to the choice of a man with a dream that has left him broken but with the burning desire to dream nonetheless, and the ambition to make that dream happen at any cost. Fate drags Griffith to the altar to make that choice, and everything outside of that choice is of no consequence — the Band of the Hawk is swept away as if it never existed at all, every accomplishment rendered utterly meaningless. They were there simply to provide a means for Griffith to arrive at this moment. And none of them can do a damn thing about it, because in the scale of things, they are the lowest of the low. They are powerless.
It can hardly even be called cruel on the part of the demons. That implies they care enough to feel any sort of malice about this mass slaughter; even their laughter is like the laughter that comes after a silly pun that is soon forgotten. Even Guts is helpless in the face of this ritual. That is true terror: Facing up against something much bigger than the self, something that renders life pointless. The ritual comes suddenly, painfully and with heart-freezing coldness. These demons may as well be punching in a time card at work.
And it’s all so larger-than-life, so utterly mythical in the way the gods themselves swoop in, screw with humanity a bit and go on their merry way, leaving total devastation in their wake. One moment we have everything and are in control of ourselves and the world, and the next the world rips apart and we see clearly just how chaotic it can be under the surface. It’s a world above humanity in every possible way. There’s something amazing in the sheer scope of that, and the final episodes of Berserk bring that in such a visceral way.
It’s not something this puny human will forget any time soon.