Lady Anne: Villain, thou know’st no law of God nor man:
No beast so fierce knows but a touch of pity.
Gloucester: But I know none, and therefore am no beast.
— Shakespeare, Richard III
Those words were tailor-made to describe Griffith, possibly the most pitiless and fascinating character in any manga currently running. He’s a good part of the reason why Berserk is, in turn, one of the most fascinating manga running, period. We have to know what he does next, and next, and next — and not just him but everyone else he’s gathered around him, too.
Throughout the eighth volume of Berserk, Griffith employs his friend and right-hand man, Guts — the seemingly unstoppable “Hero of a Hundred” — to destroy his opponents not only on the battlefield, but in the dark corridors of power. Griffith’s plans as a mercenary warlord are all just prelude to his even greater plans to create his own kingdom at any price, and anyone who has followed the series thus far will know in their bones that means, yes, any price. There’s very little that will give pause to a man who prostituted himself (to another man, no less) to pay for his own army’s rations and equipment.
How far will Griffith go to see his dream through? At the close of the last book, he was leading his army, the Hawks, against a fortress commanded by the very man he’d slept with to ensure the survival of that very army — Lord Gennon. Gennon makes the fatal mistake of trying to meet Griffith in battle one-on-one, and comes to a swift and bitter end. “You were a stone on the path I walk, and nothing more,” Griffith tells him, before dispatching him with a sword thrust to the face. Does he think of everyone he meets in such mercenary (pun intended) terms — including his own comrades? It’s a question that has come that much more forcefully to the surface in the past volume or two, and it casts an ugly pall over every triumph achieved. Yes, they’ve won, but the cost will be incalculable.
With the end of the war comes a new phase of Griffith’s ambitions — to make the transition from warrior to statesman, and to bring as many of his fellow Hawks with him as he can. Those in power, particularly the queen of Midland and her advisors, fear Griffith’s popularity with the common folk, and draw plans to have him murdered before his ascendancy to power. What they do not count on is Griffith being even more devious, even more willing to backstab and cheat and double-deal to get what he believes to be rightfully his. He lets himself be poisoned — or, rather, allows others to believe he’s been poisoned — burns the queen to death in her tower, and employs Guts to clean up what few loose ends remain. It comes as a sad surprise to both of them that it should be this easy — easy only because both of them have so much practice killing without regret.
And yet it becomes a dismaying experience for Guts, one that clinched a realization that has been forming for some time. As welcoming as the Hawks are, as easy and rewarding (if amoral) it is to be Griffith’s right-hand man, and as much as it puts at ease some part of him he didn’t even know existed to be with Casca … this is not the place for him. “I can’t remain buried in his dream like this,” Guts tells her. Even his fellow Hawk Corkus, with his spiteful mouth, and his other fellow Hawk Judeau, with his calm boyish demeanor — both longtime veterans of Griffith’s company — cannot convince him otherwise. Guts wants something he can win for himself — on his own terms, not through someone else. And, last of all, there’s Casca, someone he knows he can never have simply because Griffith got there first and means that much more to her than he ever will. Sure, Guts could fight him for her — but to what end? To earn her enmity and put everything he could have wanted all the farther out of reach?
Griffith, however, is having none of this nonsense about Guts leaving. “If you want to leave my grasp,” he tells Guts, the only man who even came close to besting him on the battlefield, “then wrest yourself away by your sword.” And so once again they clash — except this time it is Griffith who is defeated, much to his own shock. He has never been denied anything that he has ever set his sights on, until now. It’s exactly the shock that’s needed to demonstrate a major change in direction for the story, one that’s been building across the last two volumes. The last panels of the book show Guts as nothing more than a stark figure in an endless expanse of wintry white, walking away from the only real family or home he’s ever known.
The Golden Age is over. Now begins the long and terrible slide into hell that will dictate the true direction of Berserk from here on out.
Kentaro Miura has stated that this is his life’s work, and there isn’t a page in it where you can’t see the urgency of his mission. He’s mentioned he’ll need fifty or more volumes to tell the whole story, and I hope by whatever god is listening that we all make it through to the end. As expensive as it is (the books are $14 each, but RightStuf offers a welcome price break), you’ll want to start from the beginning and follow this masterwork all the way through, right to whatever end Miura has in mind for us.