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Berserk: Why Griffith is the Perfect Villain

by Anne Lauenroth,

Editor's note: Originally this article was called "Griffith Did Nothing Wrong", and it was a tongue-in-cheek clickbait title that was a bad choice; not only did it misrepresent the content of this piece, but it angered a bunch of people, justifiably so. We take full responsibility for poor judgement and have changed the article's title to reflect what the piece is about, which is the way tragedies like Berserk are constructed to make actions seem inevitable. Rolling forward we'll try to be significantly less boneheaded when selecting article titles.

When it comes to calling Griffith the perfect villain, I'm not here to justify the inexcusable nor reduce all his actions to the powers of fate and causality. Neither would do justice to one of manga and anime's most compelling villains. I'd rather approach the argument from the opposite side; I want to make the case for why Griffith did everything right and explore how this makes him a perfect villain and foil for Guts in the deeply disturbing world of Berserk.

Spoiler warning for all three anime adaptations of Berserk as well as the events depicted in the manga through volume 21 (end of the Conviction Arc).

If the success of a villain could be measured in the hatred fans express for them, Griffith would surely be among the chosen ones. His betrayal of the people who loved him is so abhorrent that it can be almost as unsettling to hear what fans want Guts to do to him as it is to read Berserk. He's pretty much unanimously regarded as irredeemable, yet fiction is full of heinous villains committing unspeakable crimes that don't provoke such strong emotional reactions. The betrayal of friendship is a powerful sin, but what makes this particular case so personal, and how evil does a character really have to be for their antagonism to become this memorable? In a series as thematically rich and character-driven as Berserk, pure evil would be rather boring.

When we meet Griffith in the Golden Age Arc, he's introduced as a charismatic white knight, so unique in the world that he appears like a "saint" sent to save his followers, the "blazing inferno" for lost souls to gather around in an otherwise hostile world. (And in the world of Berserk, lost souls are the majority.) He's a childish dreamer in a world where impractical things like dreams are in short supply, but because he can deliver on his convictions, he becomes the "miracle" people project their hopes upon, starting with his band of mercenaries and eventually growing to be a symbol for the entire kingdom of Midland. Long before the post-Eclipse prophecies of the Hawk of Light are spread, Kentaro Miura paints Griffith as someone who transcends the bounds of his world. Characters often comment on his almost otherworldly allure, which they can only admire but never quite comprehend.

"We have come hither to grant your deepest desire. You who have been ordained by the laws of fate."

As a lowborn leader pursuing the impossible dream of ruling his own kingdom, Griffith seems to embody Berserk's main theme of human resilience struggling against an unjust world, long before Guts aspires to anything but day-to-day survival. Defying the limits of what the world offered him, Griffith laughs at prophecies of doom while chasing his own fate. When he eventually catches up with it, and the path he carved out for himself crumbles away, his actions to follow will condemn Guts to his own cruel fate in return.

While this is all very nice in a high-concept way, it's hardly enough to create a compelling villain. Fighting a concept might make for interesting discourse, but it provides very little in terms of emotional attachment. For both the character and their audience, it's the human aspect that counts, and despite being “chosen” and “ordained”, Griffith is still a delightful character in all his human messiness and complexity.

"Love, hatred, torment, pleasure. Life and death. All at once before our eyes. This is the beauty of man and evil."

Aside from his heritage as a poor commoner who refused to quietly waste away in a meaningless existence as a back-alley rat, we learn very little about Griffith's childhood. Before he can graduate from mentor to villain, there's no need to give us one formative past event to explain his evil, because he's not evil at all. I realize this once again puts me dangerously close to blasphemous sacrifice territory, so let's introduce some of his less positive traits. While admired and idolized by his Band of the Hawk, Griffith is shrewd and ruthless in his ambition, manipulating or disposing of the people who oppose his rise to power without hesitation. He's arrogant and brutally realistic about human nature, but most importantly, he's the kind of person that Guts aspires to stand on equal ground with.

While Griffith rises on the shoulders of the people attracted by his charisma and determination, and he certainly takes their loyalty for granted, he doesn't betray their trust (before the Eclipse) or force them into anything they didn't sign up for. As mercenaries, they got the best deal by sticking with a leader who not only raises their chance at survival, but also enables a surrogate family to blossom within their ranks, taking them further than they could ever have dreamed. He risks his life to save Guts from Zodd, and he doesn't charm Casca into following him for ruthless reasons. She joins him because of the feelings she projects onto him, as does everyone else. It's rather interesting that in a story where fate looms ever-present on the horizon, the maxim Griffith shares with the Hawks outside of the battlefield is "Do as you wish." That is, every Hawk but Guts. Why is Guts any different?

Griffith recognizes Guts' talents and wants to harness them to accomplish his goals, but that's not why he asks Guts to assassinate Julius instead of ordering him. It's also not the reason that only Guts is privy to the unsightly cleanup after the poisoning attempt, and it's not why Griffith loses his composure so spectacularly after Guts' departure.

"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. For me, a true friend is someone I consider my equal."

To fully understand the nature of Griffith's hamartia and appreciate why he will have no choice in the Eclipse, we need to look at two of Griffith's most human moments; it's this humanity that suggests his fall to evil has nothing to do with fate. Regretfully, the first of these moments is missing from the movie trilogy entirely, a rather baffling choice considering its crucial importance for Griffith's character arc and the conclusion of Golden Age. This is the first time we see his desire to rationalize what cannot be rationalized, which is met with the reward of temporary success.

"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. But to risk thousands of lives while never getting my hands dirty...
It's not a dream that can be so easily realized!"

On a rational level, Griffith is painfully aware of the prize his ambition requires. He's dangerously good at compartmentalization, closing off his heart to feelings of guilt and shame that would only get in the way of climbing to the top of the food chain. Unfortunately for him (and everyone who believes in him), human emotions don't work that way. It's already hard for him to rationalize people dying for his dream, but Griffith's emotional turmoil escalates when he resorts to prostitution in exchange for funds to shorten the war effort. Outwardly, he reduces the lord who buys his body to nothing more than a pebble in his path, not worthy of any emotional reaction. But when he fails to literally wash the revulsion away, resorting to self-mutilation to transform the pain into something he can understand and repress, we clearly see the limits of his resilience. It's a painfully human moment, but it's even more disturbing to see him succeed at this repression. Casca is much more shocked by how quickly he regains control and becomes all reassuring smiles again than she is to learn what he did. And so should we be.

At the time of Guts and Griffith's second duel, the war is already won. Enemies at court have been subdued or disposed of, and Griffith has been raised to the peerage. It's all simple scheming and charming himself into the line of succession from here, with no further need for Guts' particular talents. After years of idolization and success, Griffith has become used to the idea of himself as the infallible savior, detached from all those fragile humans he holds in the palm of his hand. But simply losing control over Guts isn't what causes him to lose his composure. The first instance of inner monologue we get from Griffith marks this moment as Golden Age's peripeteia, foreboding the significance that Guts' departure will have on Griffith before he is even defeated.

"If I can't have him, I don't care."

Despite all Griffith's big speeches about the necessity of his dream, claiming that Guts isn't his friend at this point would be absurd. We've seen Griffith show a side to Guts that he doesn't share with anyone, thinking it would be too much for even the other Hawks to handle. With Guts, he can be honest, even going so far as to seek his approval on decisions. The best friendships form between self-sufficient people, and when Guts leaves to find a dream of his own and become truly self-sufficient, it turns out Griffith was the dependent one between them.

"A person's heart can't be sustained by ideals and dreams alone! Griffith's no good without you!"

Griffith's tragic flaw isn't hubris so much as a lack of self-awareness. He doesn't know his own heart because he so thoroughly perfected the practice of compartmentalizing his emotions years ago and never looked back. Because he never considered the possibility that he would care about someone else more than his dream, this suppression of his own human nature initiates his fateful demise.

While the remaining Hawks cling to the broken dream of someone they've lost but can't continue without, Griffith clings to one thing only during his long year of suffering: his memory of Guts. I've always found the idea that torture drove Griffith to an insanity that caused the Eclipse to be unconvincing. He doesn't get visited by the God Hand because he lost his mind, but because the wheels of causality are spinning faster after the point of reversal. Griffith is sane when his first instinct is to strangle Guts upon being rescued, giving up only when Guts begins to cry. He's also sane when he resents Guts and Casca creating their own campfire without him, not knowing how much presence he still takes up in their minds. He's equally sane when he wants to end his life over all this pain but fails, and so I would say he's very sane when he makes the decision to sacrifice the Hawks.

"Fate is beyond human understanding. If the laws of causality dictate that man is only to be toyed with, then his child must confront his destiny by embracing evil."

To determine Griffith's guilt, it's necessary to address the question of free will in a world where no one ever shuts up about the flow of causality deciding every outcome in ways that a puny, fragile human can never hope to change. And to do that, we need to look at the arc omitted from both Golden Age anime adaptations: the Black Swordsman.

Berserk begins in medias res for several reasons, which are important to "appreciating" the events of the Eclipse. Beginning the story with the Black Swordsman Arc hammers home the inescapability of fate that comes up incessantly throughout Golden Age. We already know that Guts and Griffith are doomed, and because of that knowledge, we can spend the Golden Age focusing on the question of if they are doomed no matter what they do. While the 1997 anime series shows us the inevitable outcome, it withholds the crucial human aspect behind the bounds of fate.

Fate is a deeply depressing concept because we feel ourselves to be free, our future to be open, and our will to be in control. We need to believe in free will, because if there were no such thing, how could anyone ever take responsibility for their actions? So Berserk gives us the Count, a disgusting excuse for a former human being, who makes the choice to go to hell instead of sacrificing what he loves the most at a crucial juncture, erasing any doubt about Griffith's culpability in the Eclipse. While Griffith is no mere Apostle, truly ordained for bigger things by the God Hand, he is still a man. Even if man is doomed to fate because he doesn't have full control over his own will, embracing evil because you can't handle fate's cruelty is still a choice itself.

"God bestows upon us fate. But it is the children of men who choose it."

Griffith doesn't surrender to the fate brought about by his prior decisions, and in his choice to embrace what the God Hand offers him, he retains full agency. Determinism doesn't exist on such a micro level in Berserk, as the God Hand themselves confirm not knowing every link in the chain of causality.

The thematic conflict between fate and free will isn't the only one weakened by omitting the Count's story from adaptations. Griffith's own human conflict is so central to the plot that it saddens me to read fans say that he was always evil, that he could sacrifice the Band of the Hawk as cobblestones to pave the road to his dream because he never truly cared about anyone. It's telling that the God Hand appeal to Griffith's aptitude for compartmentalization by making him believe that the Hawks would approve of being sacrificed; it's the kind of justification that resonates with him because those are the lies he's always told himself. But even that is not the reason for the final words Griffith speaks as a human being.

"As a sacrificial offering for the invocation of doom, not just any lump of flesh and blood will do. It must be someone important to you, part of your soul... Someone so close to you that it's almost like giving up a part of you. By making such a sacrifice to demonkind... you'll be able to sever any last remnants of your own humanity."

The God Hand's condition for the Count to become an Apostle is crucial, because that story was never about him. His story exists for the sole purpose of establishing the rules and gravity of what happened to Griffith. Griffith can and will sacrifice Guts because he cares about him, not because he doesn't. Just as the God Hand tell the Count to bury his fragile human heart and transcend humanity so he will no longer know sorrow and despair, Miura cuts to Griffith pondering his destiny in the Golden Age. Even if his fate is already preordained, the reason for his inhumane choice is an utterly human one.

"When suffering so profound as to make someone rip himself apart is confronted... a heart is frozen."

Even the most calculating villain has a weak point, and for Griffith, it's the deeply human bond he shares with Guts. He must sever this bond for the God Hand's rationalization to work on his mind; he must choose to rid himself of pain. When Guts once again comes running to the rescue, Griffith finally reaches his moment of anagnorisis, completing the thought that initiated the Eclipse.

"You're the only one... who made me forget my dream."

By punishing Guts for making him care, Griffith finally succeeds at burying his human heart, concluding the path he embarked on long ago. He will be reborn as Femto in a crowning, vicious, and deeply human moment of gut-wrenching sadness.

The chain of causality that led him to this point wasn't the hand of God hovering above, but Miura's brilliant character writing. He put his characters through hell, but he never betrayed their integrity as they formed friendships, animosities, and co-dependencies to reflect all the raw, beautiful, and terrifying aspects of human relationships. Griffith doesn't sacrifice Guts because it was foretold by fate, but because he sees it as the necessary choice to preserve the meaning of every action he'd taken in the past. It wasn't excusable for anyone, but it was inevitable for him. Truly great villains aren't caricatures of evil, but complex human beings, and being able to see their humanity within unspeakable and unforgivable crimes makes them all the more poignant – and scary.

Finally free from his humanity, Griffith should be in control of his will at last, yet his first act as a supernatural being is to take away everything he claims to have given Guts and Casca, choosing to break them without any discernible necessity. Clearly, this newborn member of the God Hand isn't quite as detached from his twisted human heart as he might have thought. It's abundantly clear that this is as personal for Griffith as it is for Guts.

"The truth is you became this thing to run away from the pain inside your own heart. To run away from yourself! You threw away your humanity! If anyone's a fragile human, it's you!"

While Guts is fueled by hate to escape his sorrow, the lost and vulnerable of Midland summon Griffith back from the Astral plane for salvation from insufferable darkness, even if much of that darkness was brought upon them by the very Hawk of Light they're so eager to follow yet again. The crueler the darkness, the bigger the dream of a better world, but it's not just this dream (and its dreamer's sacrifice) that provides the vessel for Griffith to be reborn. On a thematic level, Griffith has now become the fate that Berserk's real hero, Guts, must fight. On a human level, this fight is still deeply personal, because no matter if fate or causality is to blame, Griffith's dream of a Perfect World has now been twisted by the spirit of Guts and Casca's demon child, whose body was disfigured by Griffith's betrayal of their love.

I find great satisfaction in the idea that even after sacrificing everything to rid himself of his humanity, Griffith seems unable to free himself from those he once cared about. We've yet to see what this twist will mean for the seemingly inescapable bonds the three of them share, but if Guts cannot escape from the fate Griffith has assigned him, then Griffith, whether he's human or demon now, shouldn't be able to escape from the sacrifices he made to build a Perfect World.

"Any sinner should have at least one person to mourn them."

In its uniquely warped way, Berserk can be incredibly poetic.

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