The Struggler and the Dreamer: The Existential Discourse of Berserk
The Golden Age Arc is a triumph of storytelling, setting up the prologue of the Berserk series while acting as a self-contained story. By itself, it has the makings of an excellent tale. Through its moving pieces and a world that helps expand on the themes of the arc, the Golden Age Arc becomes a crash course philosophy lesson within a medieval setting.
For this story to work, the arc required a cast of characters that both embodied and journeyed through the themes of existentialism, dreams, purpose, self-actualization and fate. The Band of the Hawk had impressive supporting characters, such as the talented yet humble Judeau, the frustrated "self-righteous" Corkus, the idealistic Rickert and so on. Yet these figures were led on by two powerful avatars of dreams and struggles, Guts and Griffith. The two share e a bond that goes beyond rivalry and compatibility. They can neither be considered parts of a whole or complete wholes. In a way, they are driven agents with empty canvases.
Griffith and the Philosophy of the Dreamer
The story begins with Guts finding himself in a battle and eventually garnering the attention of the Band of the Hawk and its charismatic young leader Griffith. After a mercenary's duel between the two, where Guts is taken in by Griffith, we are led from the world of random assignments into the journey of one man's ambition.
Griffith is the embodiment of absolute ambition. His goal is to build a kingdom. Sounds simple, right? Not quite and as we explore the Golden Age arc, the nature of this dream and its weight on the dreamer reveal its depth to the reader. As such, his story arc and themes require deeper exploration.
Griffith once told Princess Charlotte that all men live and die by their dreams. Without a dream, a man is dead. Whether it is in the forging of the sword or in some other craft, in a simple life or a grand conquest, men are always after something. The pursuit of dreams is not only the life project of the individual, if one were to use Heidegger's language, but a call to follow Fate's design.
Because of this belief in dreams, Griffith sees those without any pursuit or goal as not worth his notice. One example is in his encounter with a nobleman he spent one night with in exchange for money. He saw the man's pedophilia and desires as beneath him. These were temporary pleasures but not what he would call a dream. Would Griffith call a hedonist who never endeavors to excel and seeks only constant appeasement an equal? This also applies to those who are not convinced of their path. While this gives Griffith a perceived sense of arrogance, he believes that the only life worth living is a life dedicated to a dream worth living for. Therefore, he does not consider anyone without a dream his friend, leading to Guts' own existential realization and eventual turning point.
Nevertheless, this philosophy of being bound to dreams gives Griffith his indomitable spirit and charisma to lead others and inspire them to pursue their own dreams. As Guts would later attest, the Band of the Hawk gathered their smaller dreams into one powerful bonfire by Griffith's burning ambition. Binding their "weaker flames" to the raging fire that is Griffith's dream gives the men a sense of purpose. However, the bonfire of dreams represents what I see as the first stage of the dreamer. For a man to dream, he must have seen something worth pursuing. This was how Guts, the man without a dream, took his first step. Hearing Griffith's thoughts of friendship and seeing the value the Hawks put into their leader made him see how his sword-swinging life was mere futility.
Guts and the Journey of the Struggler
We begin the story through the one eye of the Black Swordsman, Guts. He was born at a tree, whose branches held the corpses of several people, including his mother. A mercenary band led by Gambino discovers this place. Having lost her own child, Gambino's wife Shisu adopts the baby but dies after only a few years of raising him, leading to Gambino's lifelong resentment of the boy, until he would die in an attempt to murder Guts.
The story of Guts has been defined by two words: the sword and struggle. At a young age, Guts was raped by one of Gambino's men. This created a fear and loathing for any physical contact. Having never received the love of a parent, Guts saw only perpetual violence in his life as a mercenary. Every fight was a struggle to survive, which defined his existence from then on. This is exemplified in the ultimate symbol of his anchoring to life, his sword, which he clutches and holds whenever he sleeps. Like a blanket, the sword provides Guts security. Like a parent, the sword offers Guts unconditional warmth and love. The sword is Guts' meaning and god. It gives him power and drive. However, the act of murder, from which Guts draws his life and flicker of hope, is only a momentary and fleeting exhilaration for him. He is the man outside Paradise, waging in nature's war of all against all.
Meeting Griffith challenges his perception of the struggle. In the past, his struggle was of survival. After bonding with the Band of the Hawk for 3 years, even leading its raiders to many successful battles, he found another kind of struggle. For the first time, it seemed that the sword gradually lost its power to give meaning. Its comfort was uncomfortable. He could only be blanketed from death but never offered love or something bigger. With Griffith, he saw the mighty fire of his ambition. With Griffith's dream, he found an absolute drive to purpose. There was a dualism between the two. Guts was the aimless struggler. He did not seek any purpose yet his wanderings brought him to Griffith, who was the relentless dreamer, the hawk that would take what he pleased.
The Struggle to Dream
Realizing his own limitations, Guts sought to pursue his own dream. He needed a way to find it and not be consumed by the fire of Griffith's ambition forever.
In one climactic duel, he left and for the first time since joining Griffith, he made a determined choice to forge his own path. This was no longer an aimless wanderer. He now had a goal to pursue, with the sword that helped him live and a struggle to find purpose.
At the same time, the duel revealed a contradiction within Griffith. The man was a peerless visionary that drew so many and yet it was Guts that drew him most. He proclaimed only the dreamers to be his friend yet when Guts desired that role, he saw it as betrayal. This was because, in a way, Griffith became dependent on Guts to pursue his dream, even when he already had Midland's Princess as the key to his dream kingdom. His frustration at losing Guts, the man he desired for his dream's fulfillment, turned into a counterproductive act that destroyed any hope of his dream.
The dreamer must awaken to reality of struggle and accept that he too depends on smaller flames to stoke his ever-burning ambition.