There is no hatred stronger than that which starts as love, and no enemy more detestable than one who was once a friend. It’s easy to understand that there are bad people out there who mean us harm either through action or inaction, but when such people are those we consider our friends, every part of us rebels, often at first with confusion, and eventually with far greater anger than if we were harmed by a stranger. It’s simply far more unthinkable to be betrayed, because it flies in the face of what we understand about ourselves, and those closest to us.
So it is with Griffith from the manga and anime series Berserk. From the beginning, we are teased with the notion that Griffith is a terrible villain, someone, or something even, to be feared and hated, as our protagonist Guts flies into blind rage upon even seeing him. We initially see him as some sort of terrible demon god, who has blighted the world along with his brethren, and while the rest are inhuman cosmic horrors to be destroyed, Guts’s reaction to Griffith is clearly personal. So who is this Griffith, and why does Guts hate him so? We are shortly treated to a flashback, in which we learn of the origins of the two men.
When we meet Griffith as a young man, he is nothing like the monster we have thus far seen. Instead, he’s a teenaged mercenary captain, brilliant and charismatic, with dreams of rising from commoner to king. He is loyal to his men and on the rise within the kingdom he serves. After an initial fight, Guts quickly comes to trust and admire Griffith, and so do we. His strategies win battle after battle, and once Guts joins his cadre, the two men forge the Band of the Hawk into a force to be reckoned with, as well as becoming fast friends.
As time goes on, and the Hawks become more successful, Griffith rises in station with the king and begins to play court politics, with nobles scheming for his death, and his own plans to court the princess of the realm. In order to insure his success, he plots the assassinations of his political rivals. He calls upon Guts to kill several of these, and while Guts is a soldier, not an assassin, he carries out the orders because he is loyal to his friend. Obviously, at this stage Griffith is morally dubious, but because his victims are largely treacherous killers themselves, it is easy to not only overlook, but even possibly admire what he does.
As time goes on, Guts decides to set out and become his own man, breaking free of Griffith. Griffith does not take this well, and when he loses a duel to Guts, we begin to see the cracks in Griffith’s perfect armor. He miscalculates badly and is thrown in prison by the very king who oversaw his rise to power. The Hawks eventually bring Guts back, and risk everything to save their leader, who was tortured so badly he would never speak, walk, or hold a sword again. It is at this, his lowest point, when the God Hand, a group of demonic demigods, approach him, and offer him the chance to become one of them, if he will but offer his men up as a blood sacrifice. Griffith reflects on this, and ultimately accepts. What follows is one of the most horrifying orgies of violence and horror I have ever witnessed, as we are treated to the death and violation of the entire Band of the Hawk except for Guts and one other, neither of whom emerge unscathed. Thus we understand why Guts’s hatred is so severe.
Griffith’s motivations in this moment are, he would have us believe, what they have always been: he wants to become a king. With the breaking of his body and the ruin of his reputation, his previous plan, which would likely have succeeded, is in ruins, and he is taking the only path to power he has left. However, it may be more complex than this in truth. After his rescue, he is forced to watch Guts, the man he blames for his ruination, claim everything he once held dear without even trying. His own love and admiration turned to hate, and his sacrifice of the Hawks was as much about taking revenge and making Guts suffer as it was about him achieving his dream. Would he have taken the God Hand up on their offer if Guts had not been there? Hard to say. Whether Griffith always was the amoral sociopath who would sacrifice his men for power, or was at first a (borderline) decent person simply driven too far is up for debate.
Another important facet of the his motivation is the sexual undertones between Guts and Griffith. While Guts is shown to be asexual early on due to childhood abuse, and heterosexual later, Griffith’s sexuality is somewhat in question. While many could draw conclusions about him simply due to the fact that he is a delicate-looking man with a soft voice, and there is one uncomfortable scene early on in which Griffith has a conversation with Guts while naked, I would normally dismiss such comments as reading too much in. However, because the series does address sexual matters, Griffith’s in particular, it seems that something may indeed be going on. After defeating him in their first duel, Griffith refers to Guts as being his, which could be read in the sense of a lord owning a vassal, or more romantically. There is also Griffith’s treatment of the women in his life. The female mercenary Casca clearly has feelings for him early on in the series, but his interest in her seems to be purely professional. His later courting of the Princess also seems to be based on how it might advance him politically. While both of these could indicate a lack of interest in women, Griffith later on shows a more complex reaction to both of them. When Casca falls for Guts, Griffith becomes jealous, and when Guts defeats him in combat, Griffith goes to the princess sexually, in an act that is not rape, but nevertheless uncomfortably aggressive. Is Griffith a closeted homosexual? Is he bisexual? Is he simply confused? We are given no clear answer, but I suspect his own feelings on the matter are jumbled. Both of these extreme reactions are in relation to Guts, and given that his ultimate decision to give into damnation relates back to his former friend, it strongly suggests those feelings were not simply platonic.
We are thus invited to see Griffith in all his aspects, and while I imagine few of us have experienced a situation as horrible as Guts did, most people can relate to the betrayal of a friend, and how it makes us feel. Having a master villain who embodies this sort of betrayal is extremely effective, because no matter what cosmic villainy he commits as a demon god, nothing will ever be as awful as his final decision as a man.