As the end of the Black Swordsman saga, Guardians of Desire is an often overlooked story in Berserk. Which is a shame. Because this one is among my favorite arcs in the series.
Continuing his journey, Guts wanders into a town ruled by the violent Count, yet another demon for him to slay. But things quickly turn sour as the Count sets the entire city guard against the Black Swordsman. Luckily, he’s saved by Vargus, a mutilated survivor of the Count who thirsts for revenge. Can Guts fulfill his desire? And more importantly: will he?
This is the last bit of world set up before we launch into the legendary Golden Age saga. And hoo boy, does it do a great job of it! We get all of the last bits we need, from Behelits to the God Hand themselves. This is the arc where Berserk turned from a dark story about an angry man swinging a sword into a full-blown fantasy epic!
I love the Count. He’s such a disgusting and vile villain. Yet he has a soft vulnerable side with his daughter, Theresia. One that is played to an incredible degree in the story itself, right up until the character’s demise. It adds a layer of depth and tragedy to this disgusting man-eating bastard. Plus, his fight with Guts is easily the best in the Black Swordsman saga, with the most brutality and creative strategizing out of any of them.
Vargus is an often overlooked character in this series, but I feel that he is a much more impressive one than people give credit for. He’s essentially a walking representation of what Guts fears he will become: small, weak, and driven purely by revenge. Yet Vargus still has a gentle and kind side to him. He’s the perfect foil to press on Guts’ weaknesses, to pry open the facade the Black Swordsman puts up to the world.
But the highlight of this story is, without a doubt, the climax. Because this is where shit gets weird.
Here, we get our first glimpse at Kentaro Miura’s artistic interpretation of Hell. And it is marvelous! Few stories out there manage to make their version of Hell feel truly otherworldly or terrifying. Here, we get a depiction that is truly beyond knowing, truly discomforting, and entirely overwhelming. Not to mention that it is yet another display of Miura’s museum-worthy artistic abilities.
Here, we get our first look at the God Hand. And what an impression they make! All five of these characters have a distinct design and personality that makes them uniquely creepy and horrific. Yet they all carry an odd sense of divinity. They’re clearly demons, but even at a glance it’s clear that they are well and truly beyond anything Guts has faced so far.
Not that he cares about all five. There’s only one that he is focused on.
It’s hard to remember just how tantalizing a mystery this introduction presented now that we’re all so familiar with the truth behind said mystery. Remember: this was the first time we met Griffith. Hell, this is the first time we got even a hint as to Guts’ backstory! And it is wildly effective. Every action Guts takes and every line Griffith speaks just makes you wonder: what happened between them? Especially when we get that incredible panel of the human Griffith helping a young Guts up off of a battlefield.
Not to mention the final choice of the count makes for an incredibly simple yet intense moment. Guts is down, Puck is helpless, and a little girl is in mortal danger. Reading it, it’s hard not to feel totally helpless and completely terrified. Will the Count make another terrible decision, as we’ve learned he has before? Or will that last shred of humanity within him overcome?
Even when the choice is made and the God Hand is gone, we’re not allowed to relax. Because then we’re treated to my absolute favorite scene of this arc: Guts confronting Theresia.
It’s a horrifying scene. Seeing Guts push this little girl towards suicide is a truly despicable thing of him to do. Yet you can tell he doesn’t do it out of malice. He’s presenting to her a choice that he himself has contemplated many times. To give up, to just end it all and escape the pain once and for all. Not only that, but he’s attempting to give her something to live for. In trying to make her hate him, he is trying to give her some desire to push away her suicidal thoughts. I mean, think about it! If he truly wanted her to just kill herself, why would he save her with the Dragonslayer when she fell?
Then we get this panel.
Guts’ facade finally shatters as his heartbreak and despair overwhelm him. It could be out of empathy for Theresia, who now hates Guts with a loathing just as powerful as his own for Griffith. Or it could be simple defeat. Of knowing that he was completely powerless and his goal of revenge is still so far away. Maybe it’s impossible. Maybe he should give up.
I have heard so many people say you should skip the Black Swordsman saga, including the Guardians of Desire arc. And I legitimately cannot understand that way of thinking. Yes, the Golden Age is one of the greatest manga storylines ever penned, if not the best. But that doesn’t mean you should skip this just to get to it faster.
Especially since this arc has so much going for it! Gore, violence, tragedy, it has it all! This is the first truly complete story of Berserk, the first time Miura demonstrated just what this series was going to be. And it, too, is a masterpiece.
Although I will admit: it does kind of pale in comparison to what comes next.