Is obvious but I fall for it anyway. I’ll live.
I’ve this thing for historical fiction (e.g. The Masters of Rome; series of novels by Colleen McCullough) , or fiction that presents itself as some kind of historical record (e.g. The Red Book of Westmarch, a.k.a. The Lord of The Rings). Vinland Saga is a manga more like the former and Berserk is unlike either. Still it strongly invites comparison, perhaps due to the violent, hack and slash action; perhaps as well as positing a very, very strong prologue.
Both stories’ prologues are easily the best parts as of yet, as both are ongoing manga series. Thorfinn’s rise as a fighter in Askeladd’s band in some way evokes Guts’ career with Griffith’s Band of the Hawk. But this is where the similarity begins to come harder. Vinland Saga being set in a grounded, historical environment keeps its physical world quite secular. Berserk, on the other hand is outright fantasy and is set in a perilous dark world of demons and monsters.
Both in tone and in presentation, Vinland Saga is Mobile Suit Gundam to Berserk’s Mazinger Z. It is Legend of the Galactic Heroes to Berserk’s Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. It’s a real-Viking to Berserk’s super-barbarian. Thorinn’s dual knives slashing with agility and stealth vs. Guts’ BFS swung with mighty power. But even this line of comparison seems less apt.
You see, Guts will never stop being a Berserker. He became truly Berserk after the prologue. The manga has only one resolution to all its conflicts: Guts hacks the monster into chunks with his gigantic sword. Monsters keep getting bigger, the chunks stay the same size more or less.
Thorfinn, on the other had spent his killing spree during his revenge arc, constituting most of the prologue. What happens at the onset of the main story is pretty clear to me: Thorfinn’s transformation into a pacifist, placing him squarely into a tradition of manga and anime many people like me love to hate on our worst days, and tolerate during our best: the once-deadly saint/hero/martyr/the fucking Batman.
Vinland Saga may pretend to be about Nordic Vikings, but it’s really about something very Japanese – particularly its legends about Bushido. This manga has more in common with Vagabond, or Rurouni Kenshin than it does with Berserk. The swordsman becomes a saint, by preaching non-violence even as the art of swordsmanship is perfected despite the inactivity.
Feeling betrayed? Did this catch you by surprise? It shouldn’t.
The Troll was there to begin with.
The greatest, most powerful force that existed in this world told Thorfinn:
A True Warrior has no need for a sword.
Can we ask the same about Guts? No, I didn’t think so either. Most of his most awesome moments involved his BFS:
The prologue is what we jizzed over. The prologue might as well be called Askeladd’s legend because not only is a giant among manga characters made of utter perfection, he is what makes the prologue meaningful and weighty. His story is the exclamation point that marks the end of the prologue and sets the two protagonists’ stories in motion. Thors was there to lay the foundation of what Thorfinn must become, and this is what will save Canute, his “rival.”
I am not sure why this tradition exists, this perfection of the warrior that ironically stands at opposite ends with war and violence. Back when I practiced martial arts it was a point of reflection and meditation: there is no fight, therefore there is no loss. Loss begins with violence itself. True victory is not fighting. So on, and on… as a fan of action this rankled because I did not go to the dojo to learn not to fight. I don’t watch violent anime to see the best fighters not fight.
It almost always becomes comical lameness when the hero suddenly powers up and defeats a whole bunch of enemies by disarming them, in some way. Edward and Alphonse Elric did it in Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood; Renton Thurston did it in Eureka SeveN, Banagher Links did it in Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn, Alto Saotome did it in Macross Frontier: The Wings of Farewell; and of course Kira☆ Yamato did it in Mobile Suit Gundam SEED Destiny, ugh.
I think it’s a dirty trick in the respective narratives. It’s as if all the other violence is justified because they are perpetrated by evil villains, and unenlightened allies. It’s all good because the hero—the one to be emulated, is against violence, refuses to kill and uses his great powers to save and not harm. This is a rotten, dirty trick. This is why I value Broken Blade probably more than I should, because it gives the finger to this shit.
This is a dominant shounen literary tradition.
Even Vagabond’s Miyamoto Musashi is headed this way, although luckily most of the narrative depicts his journey towards this state of being as a long path of cutting down many enemies. Most of the narrative covers his relentless desire to be “Invincible under the sun,” before being shocked into contemplation after surviving a battle against 70 samurai.
We are almost sure this Bushido thing is almost pure fantasy, because soldiers and warriors kill. In the Western chivalric tradition there is the honorable fight, but there is no overweening directive to spare lives… to merely disarm instead of incapacitate or kill. Even Musashi himself, up until the very end wanted more to become a cavalry commander, but could not find employment. This actually explains his swordsmanship style.
The character narratives in Vinland Saga center on this morality, the meaning of being a warrior, that is to not need a sword, that is to love, to love everything equally and treasure each life without prejudice. The will of the sword is to kill, and thus the warrior must rid himself of the sword. The will of the crown is to gather and hold onto power. The true ruler who loves must rid himself of the crown.
In chapter 78, we find out that the will of the crown gathers swords to seize the farm tended by the swordless warrior, the slave of the sword that is now free.
This is not Berserk.
The Second of Two Posts:
- The Legend of Askeladd, & Farmland Saga
- The Trap of Comparing Vinland Saga With Berserk [you are reading this]