Character Analysis: Guts (Berserk) (Spoilers!)

[Description]: A comprehensive examination of Berserk’s protagonist: Guts and how his varying traits, conflicts, and developments shape him into such an engaging and remarkable character. A warning to prospective readers, I will be discussing his characterization in full which will involve directly speaking to the subject matter of each of the animated adaptations and very lightly to one or two characters yet to be included. This analysis should be open to those who have watched the 1997 anime and/or the movie trilogy as well as the 2016 series and will not detail the content beyond them directly. As for why I am writing this – while the general consensus is that Guts is an extraordinary character, I have yet to read a character analysis of him that I think details him in the exact way I would like to. I enjoy the character of Guts immensely and would love to lay out the reasons for why this is the case.

Introduction:

From the very beginning, Guts is not as he seems. To account solely for his psychical appearance, exterior attitude, and iconic sword, these various attributes might suggest a brutish and violent character. In many ways, Guts himself follows through with these face-value assessments – the brutality of his combat, his terrifying rage, and prodigious armaments all visually reinforcing this archetypal character. This however is where the similarities end. In every way that such a character suggests a short temper and immense ferocity,  it also typically infers a simple-mindedness or even lack of intelligence which don’t describe Guts at all.These relevant traits characterize Guts yet do not define him. They don’t speak to his thoughtfulness, his introspection or emotion. They fail to capture his humanity.

Any reader will be quick to tell you that Guts is a far more complex character than he might initially appear. More than merely his towering physic and colossal sword, he is selfless, loyal, resilient, often infuriatingly stubborn, and unnaturally determined. What’s more is that to summarize Guts by only listing off his traits is perhaps as great a disservice as relegating him to the depiction of the one-dimensional, brutish swordsman. His development is absolutely core to his character and the way in which he changes over time and exhibits certain ideologies and traits at some points but not others is central to understanding him. Guts’ compelling nature and complexity is founded in the coalescence of all of his various facets at each turning point in his journey – not any one element or genius aspect. Each development and scrap of dialogue speaks to Guts’ multitude of features in different ways and it is in this complicated exchange that he becomes so human.

Acknowledgement & Griffith

Guts didn’t’ just have a rough childhood. He had an upbringing that etched its tragedy and misfortune into every aspect of his being and no matter how he changes and develops it never stops informing who he is. The most initially important of these things is seen in his relationship with his would-be adoptive father Gambino and how Guts works to earn his affection. It’s a thoroughly twisted relationship. Gambino taught him how to fight but only sparingly offered any approval in return for Guts’ achievements on the battlefield. He’s cruel to Guts and this relationship instills in him the desire to be acknowledged in ways Gambino never allowed. The brutality of his mercenary life-style and Gambino’s heartlessness and eventual betrayal as well as his death at Guts’ hands irreversibly shape Guts into the man he is.

Growing up under the heel of Gambino robbed Guts of his faith in others, his love, and most importantly his trust. This can be seen most obviously in Guts’ hatred of physical contact as seen after his victory over Bazuso. He’s utterly feral at this point and soldiers on doing the only thing he ever learned how to do – kill people. He rejects the company of others and even harbors the guilt of killing the closest thing he ever had to a father. Deprived of affection, Guts wanders from battlefield to battlefield aimlessly and though he spurns the approaches of others, he desperately desires to form relationships yet doesn’t allow for any to develop because of the hurt and betrayal he once experienced. That is – until he encounters the Band of the Hawk. Until he meets Griffith.

While he never truly lets go of his learned savagery and stubbornness, the Band of the Hawk is the first place Guts ever feels at home – the first place where he feels accepted. Though he is initially standoffish, over the three years he spends with them he grows immensely fond of their company and comes to care for the raiders under his command. Alongside this, he becomes fast friends with Griffith who shows him the value of comradery and who, for the first time, gives Guts a reason to swing his sword for a reason other than his own survival. Guts feels comfortable with Griffith and the Band of the Hawk however he does not at that time fully understand what they mean to him. Nor what he means to them. He looks to Griffith for the very acknowledgement he was once denied and this desire to prove himself to Griffith and his fascination with his dream and charisma eventually leads to Guts’ most character-defining realization.

Love & Casca

Before diving into what is likely the most important of Guts’ developments, it’s critical to discuss Casca. It is frustratingly impossible to talk about one of the main characters in Berserk without considering the others at length – which is wonderful. The way in which they reflect upon one another, give each other greater definition, and illustrate Berserk’s many thematic parallels, ties them inexorably together. You cannot truly know one without knowing the other. While Guts’ association with the Band of the Hawk sees the walls he places between himself and others fall away, Casca represents this ‘opening up’ of Guts’ character almost iconically.

Their relationship is wonderfully written. Their initial disagreements and mutual admiration for Griffith pitting them against one another which only serves to sweeten the moments when they find themselves confiding in each other. Guts may feel responsible for Gaston and the raiders he commands but he doesn’t reveal himself to them in the same way he does to Casca. In moments like the bonfire of dreams and their reunion after his one-year absence, he bares himself completely to her. This is in part because of her own conflicted affection towards him but also because of how similarly they stand within the context of Griffith.

Though he thinks of themselves as friends, Guts comes to realize that he is as far away from Griffith as he is desperate to stand beside him. He falls into a similar camp as Casca in this way – both of them lesser in Griffith’s eyes as Casca commits her entire life and being to Griffith’s dream rather than fostering one herself. This is no different than Guts and the two scorned individuals find solace and equality within one another. Upon his return to the Band of the Hawk he can no longer restrain his feelings for her and in that moment he fully admits to himself as well as Casca that he loves her. This love between them becomes incredibly important not just because it sets up the story for its ultimate tragedy in the form of the eclipse but because, in time, it becomes what Guts holds most dear. This love saves him.

Dreams & Purpose

At last we arrive at what many might consider the most central, driving force of Guts’ character and certainly a major thematic pillar of Berserk itself. Due to the circumstances surrounding his early life, Guts had never aspired to be anything, want anything, or make something more of himself. Even in the Band of the Hawk, while he grew to know true friendship for the first time, he never sought something beyond what he knew as a mercenary and freely threw himself into the task of supporting Griffith’s campaign. Guts like so many other members of the Band had fallen under Griffith’s spell – his charismatic aura that illustrated his flawlessness, infallibility, purity, and calm composure. To many, Griffith was a brilliantly shining entity, capable of grasping the world with his hands and like no other man before him, achieving what he desired. And it was in this man that Guts found a friend.

So when Guts witnesses Griffith’s fateful speech above the palace steps pertaining to destiny, a man’s aspirations, and dreams, he is overwhelmed. Not only does he realize that Griffith detests his own life-style, of living purely for the sake of doing so – but he comes to understand the great distance between himself and his perceived friend. Griffith states that a true friend to him, somebody that he can truly acknowledge – is an equal to himself – somebody with a dream of their own. In both Griffith’s perspective as well as his own, Guts was not fit to stand beside his friend and this is the one thing he could not allow. Griffith meant everything to him and his inability to earn his respect as he wasmade Guts realize that he had to pursue something himself – he was the one man he could not bare to have look down on him. And so he leaves the Band of the Hawk, Casca, and Griffith. Not because he is disillusioned with Griffith’s dream but because he does not want to be buried within it any longer – his desire to strive for something greater than himself conflicting with his ability to support another’s ambition.

Guts feels incomplete and for the first time he comes to desire something more for himself. He wants to discern a purpose to strive and live for that gives his actions and existence enduring meaning and in that way strengthen himself and become Griffith’s equal. The issue that arises is that Guts has never tried to divine a meaning for his actions before. He has survived merely because it is all he knows how to do. From his confrontation with Gambino to his bout with the wolves, his body has moved of its own accord – his instinctive will to survive. A major symbol of this is his sword – something that, up until now, has defined him. Not only does it represent his drive to live and his combative nature but through his vocation as a mercenary he quite literally makes a living by his sword. Up until now he has always swung his sword for the sake of other people but at this point he must decide who or what he should wield it for and for what reason.

This search is where a lot of Guts’ introspective and thoughtful qualities come to the forefront of his character as he leaves to train and hone himself over the course of a year. Ultimately he doesn’t come to any grand realization through these efforts however upon returning to the broken and battered Band of the Hawk led by a waning Casca, he begins to realize just what it is he should be fighting for.

Loss & Realization

This irony – of Guts not knowing what he has until he has either left or it is gone is a pervasive and continuously paralleled trait in Berserk and it can be seen in a variety of circumstances. The day he parts with Griffith after besting him in their second duel speaks directly to this as he doesn’t at the time recognize the implications of his departure. Guts’ inability to recognize and value what he has compounded with Griffith’s own infallible facade made it impossible for Guts to understand how dearly Griffith needed him or what he meant to the Band of the Hawk. He is unable to see how his absence might affect Griffith and how his friend’s self destructive tendencies might bring ruin upon his allies. What’s more is that he abandons Casca. Thinking himself inferior and undeserving of her and believing that she loved Griffith alone, he leaves her for the first time.

Only when he returns to them afterwards does he realize that what he had been searching for – a reason to live, a reason to swing his sword, had been in front of him the whole time. In the Band of the Hawk. In Casca. The ultimate tragedy then is that once this realization dawns upon him and he makes peace with his existential quest, his friends and lover are ripped away from him by the horrors of the eclipse. Afterwards, betrayed, maddened, and driven by an insatiable lust for vengeance, he leaves Casca once again. In his rage he commits the same mistake he made once before and it shows that in his inability to look past his hatred and pain, that he has learned nothing. To Skull Knight and the reader – Guts is not simply the ‘Struggler’ because he persists and endures despite the monsters he combats but additionally because of this conflict of self and value. He thrashes about, unsure of himself and what he should believe in. His confusion is the amalgamation of all the hurt, hardship, and betrayal he has suffered through, creating this inner schism.

Madness & Epiphany

Before rounding out the arc of Guts’ nearsightedness, I have to talk about his other most defining trait which manifests itself in Guts after the eclipse. As the black swordsman. His friends killed before his very eyes, his lover raped by the man he most admired, and his body irreparably damaged – Guts loses everything. His pain and grief are immeasurable and though Casca survives, the events of the eclipse rob her of her mind and she is no loner the Casca he once fell in love with. In one moment all of Guts’ development, practically all of what I’ve talked about up until this point, is destroyed. Though as the black swordsman he becomes defined by his hatred and fury, Guts still exhibits a handful of his core traits.

In his youth, Guts tied the worth of others to their strength. The weak deserved to die and the strong survived another day. He regresses back into this mindset over the course of the two years he hunts apostles. What’s interesting is that, the way in which he distances himself from others is no longer as simple as it was before. Yes he is emotionally damaged at this point and doesn’t care to foster relationships that he might then again lose but the Brand of Sacrifice adds an additional layer to this. Given that he attracts various spirits and demons, he separates himself from others for their sake as much as his own – still valuing some place in his heart the preservation of others.

To complicate things further, he adopts his perspective of the weak and the strong once more not just because of his hurt and anger but because he desperately wants to shield himself from further pain and responsibility. If people die around him he is quick to blame their deaths on their own weakness or stupidity – he can’t bare to recognize his inability to save them. His own misery and powerlessness. This development is one of the best examples of the many layered ways in which Guts’ traits and developments consolidate into one another to form the complex and intricate character we know. Guts descends into absolute madness, driven only by his hatred of the apostles and of Griffith. His actions become more morally complicated and he revels in his own blood-lust and carnage. He doesn’t only desire to kill the apostles, he wants them to suffer. He wants to inflict as much pain as he feels and more and it isn’t until he is visited by the Demon Child that he begins to come to his senses.

Torn from the pit of madness and despair he persisted in for the past two years, the appearance of the Demon Child and a foretelling of Casca’s potential danger urges Guts to return to Godo, Rickert, and Erica. A myriad of realizations begin to wake Guts from his nightmare. His exchange with Rickert draws attention to how he himself wallowed in despair and pain over the past two years while Rickert provided graves for the Hawks and was able to accept their fate and move on. Additionally, Godo chastises Guts – telling him that his journey was merely an escape from the pain and that in casting himself into the throes of his own hatred, he avoided confronting his sorrow. In the moment of greatest importance, he chose to be alone – to spare himself.

These confrontations as well as his following introspection in the cave lead Guts to the revelation that he had done it again. He left Casca alone just as he did years ago – just as he did Griffith and the Band of the Hawk. Frustrated by his own choices, he vows to never leave behind someone he cares about again. This is the beginning of his revival. As great a turning point in Guts’ story as when he walked away from the Band so long ago – he wrenches himself away from his nightmarish struggle in pursuit of his new goal. Above all else he wants to return to Casca. To save her – even cure her of her affliction. This love he harbors for her becomes his reason for living. After years of anguish and misery, Guts once again has a dream.

Renewal & Struggle

What’s significant about all this is that, though Guts has arrived at yet another turning point in his life, his past doesn’t go away. While his search for Casca sets him on the right path, a change in goals is not enough to wipe away the hate and suffering within him as characterized by the Beast of Darkness. Rather than be ruled by his wrath and bloodlust as he so recently was, he wages war against them in an ongoing struggle to stay sane. Guts’ development isn’t ever so simple as forgetting where he’s just been and moving onward – he’s constantly influenced by his experiences and trauma. His madness recalls his youth, his renewal recalls his madness, and so on. This is what makes him so endearing and impressive. That he doesn’t overcome his weaknesses and hurt but battles against them to stay true to his dream and to himself.

His love for Casca isn’t the only thing that changes Guts in this way. Many of his companions cause subtle and gradual changes in Guts as he encounters them and they accompany him on his journey. Puck and Isidro bring some much needed levity to his tortuous life-style. Schierke is especially noteworthy in this regard because she very literally rescues him from his own madness and aids in his ongoing war against his inner demons. Casca, Schierke, and his companions give him something to protect and bring out the best in him. Their initial understanding of each other is usually skeptical and uncertain however through their dialogue and interactions it’s clear that both Guts and his companions influence each other greatly. He humors Isidro, exchanges verbal jabs with Puck, and even supports Schierke with a gentle affection. After all his hardships and struggles, Guts again begins to walk in the light, despite his ongoing battle with his own darkness.

Conclusion (TL;DR)

So what makes Guts such a compelling and complicated character? To summarize all of what I’ve said – Guts presents a marriage between the brutal image of a heavily armored swordsman with the introspective and existential qualities of a genuinely human person. His desire to live, to be acknowledged, and to better himself makes him incredibly endearing and in so many ways defines his growth and journey. The many themes and narrative parallels that revolve around him give his actions and dialogue significant meaning while the depth of his pain makes him a woefully tragic person.

Guts’ resilience and ability to overcome truly nightmarish obstacles both physical and mental is impressive and keeps his characterization varied as he transitions from one part of his life into the next. Every aspect of Guts – every trait, development, and realization all feed into one another over the course of his adventure. What results is a staggeringly intricate person who’s prodigious transformation is but a single element of Berserk’s great narrative.

Thank you for reading and I hope you’ve found what I’ve written insightful or entertaining!

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