There’s what we do, and then there’s what we say we do. It’s all too easy to say you didn’t do something out of guilt or foolish pride, when the things you have done speak far louder. No one, not even Griffith, the charismatic leader of the mercenary Hawks, is immune from this. Certainly not Casca, the girl who joined Griffith out of admiration for his purity of purpose, or Guts, the bruiser who chose to follow Griffith (for now) as a way to perhaps find a place in the world.
Volume 7 continues Casca’s reminiscences about how she came to meet Griffith and ride with his band — and also how she came to realize, by degrees, the depth of his commitment to his vision. At one point Griffith prostitutes himself to a wealthy lord with a taste for handsome young men; the next morning, while compulsively scrubbing himself clean in a river (this part is hardly subtle but absolutely on the mark, psychologically), he admits he did it for the sake of the group as a whole. Or did he do it as a way to assuage the guilt he buries away about those who die in his services, whose names he never even knows?
“I want to be his sword,” Casca finally says, and there’s no double meaning there. The only life she can imagine now is one in Griffith’s service — all the more reason why she’s outraged so thoroughly when Griffith’s attention fixates so thoroughly on Guts. Of all the people in the world to captivate her man so thoroughly, why Guts? Why this brusque, meat-headed bruiser who wields a sword bigger than he is and has little more than contempt for her — at least in part because she’s female, and that much weaker when suffering from her menses (as she is now)? Still, even while injured and on the run from an enemy army, they have no choice but to set aside their anger and cooperate as best they can to rejoin the others.
In the end, they must separate — Casca fleeing back to the Hawks, and Guts facing off against literally dozens of men in the forest in one of the most stupefyingly violent sequences in the whole series so far. What makes any one of these scenes riveting and not simply interchangeable placeholders is how they’re used as commentaries on the characters. At the climax of the fight Guts finds himself bedeviled with questions that he can’t put out of mind: Why do this? Why kill, and maybe die, and then just get up tomorrow and do it all over again? Who’s it really all for? Not her, certainly. Only after great effort does he finally push such things out of his mind and leave a forest full of dead men behind for the Hawks to stare at when they finally do come to rescue him.
He’s a hero now, if he wasn’t one before — “the Hero of the Hundred,” they call him, but on returning to their camp Guts realizes he’s only thinking about staying on until the end of the current campaign. Their leader has been like a great fire, throwing off endless heat and sparks, but maybe (he tells himself) he’s only been warming himself by that fire for a time before moving on. Maybe there really is no place for him in this world, and any talk of real solidarity for him is just self-delusion — it’s just what he tells himself can be true, instead of what is true.
The entire second half of this volume is lighter on character and heavier on basic plotting, since it’s the kickoff for the remainder of the war which lapses into the next book. Aside from providing the usual servings of bruising violence and black humor, there’s another plot element that’s slipped under the door quite abruptly: the commander of the fortress the Hawks are trying to capture is none other than the man whom Griffith sold himself to all those years ago. And he wants Griffith captured alive. I’d say that was foreshadowing, but I don’t want to ruin the surprise.