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Berserkers In Fantasy

Berserker by GworldIn fantasy, we see a lot of magicians, shape-shifters, werewolves and all manner of humanoid characters with supernatural qualities. One type of powerful character that crops up more rarely, however, is the berserker.

A “berserker” is someone liable to be overcome by rage – a rage that sends them into a violent, frenzied state, temporarily endowing them with super-human strength while at the same time taking away their self-control. Occasionally it also alters their physical form.

MYTHOLOGICAL ORIGINS

Originally, the term ‘berserker’ (in Old Norse: berserkr) referred to Norse warriors that would descend into a trance-like frenzy in battle, overcome by a bloodlust that made them deadly and indiscriminate killers. They were said to wear distinctive wolf or bear pelts so that allied combatants would know to stay away from them in battle. However, the concept of a transformative battle rage is not exclusive to Old Norse literature.

Cú Chulainn by Joseph Christian LeyendeckerThe hero Cú Chulainn from Irish myth is overcome by a frenzy called ríastrad that turns him into a horrifying, gruesome monster. In this distorted form he single-handedly defeats hundreds of enemy soldiers but can no longer distinguish friend from foe.

In Greek Myth, Heracles (aka Hercules) is prone to fits of rage and madness. These are often induced by the goddess Hera, and make him kill people he cares for, including his own children and his friend Iphitus.

Other myths and historical writings also contain berserker-like characters. Real-life warriors undoubtedly inspired many of these, and historians have theorised as to what caused this “berserk” state. Theories range from psychological disorders and genetic conditions to drug ingestion and self-induced hysteria.

THE APPEAL OF BERSERKERS IN FANTASY

Despite its relative rarity in the fantasy genre (as compared with other superhuman powers), the ability to “go berserk” is one that tends to fascinate us whenever it appears, and has several attributes that contribute to its appeal:

As Much a Curse as a Blessing

Logen Nine by CorysaurWhile the berserk rage allows characters to defeat foes and survive against terrible odds, it is an uncontrollable and destructive power. Berserkers are as likely to butcher their friends as their enemies, and as such, often view their ability as a curse.

In The First Law trilogy, for example, Logen Ninefingers actively tries to repress his berserker alter ego and is haunted by what it has made him do in the past. It aids him in defeating enemies, but at the same time it turns this relatively good-hearted man into a brutal, indiscriminate murderer who can kill friends without a thought.

Power with a Price

There are few magical systems where the use of superhuman ability comes at a truly high cost. In the berserker, however, this sense of price and consequence is inherent: the character must sacrifice control and soundness of mind in order to gain great strength. Additionally, the berserk frenzy is often followed by a period of intense fatigue and weakness.

The HulkIf you look to the comic book world, the berserker-like character of The Hulk provides a classic example. The Hulk is one of the only superheroes who can be as much a hindrance to those around him as a help, and whose power comes at a very high price.

In the Abhorsen novels, berserker rage is to some extent controllable and helpful, but after it has abated the wielder is overcome with a fatigue that leaves them vulnerable.

A Temporary State

Berserkers spend most of their lives as relatively normal people, only occasionally going berserk in moments of great emotion or peril. In this way they are like dormant volcanoes or loaded guns: we know they could go off at any moment, and wait in near-constant tension to see if it will happen. Like a secret weapon, there’s a thrill in seeing that power finally unleashed.

There is a very literal translation of this short-term power in fantasy games. In Warcraft, for example, you can activate a troll berserker’s enraged state to make them more powerful, but this additional power will only last for a specific period of time. Similarly, in the roleplaying game Pathfinder (and Dungeons & Dragons) use of the Barbarian class “Rage” feature increases the damage units can deal and take but is temporary and comes with other limitations.

Blood and Inheritance

A berserker’s power is strongly associated with blood. This is in the use of words like ‘bloodlust’ and ‘blood frenzy’; in the descriptions of heating blood as the rage comes on; and in the blood the berserker spills in their violent state. However, it is also a key factor in reference to hereditary bloodlines. Being a berserker is rarely a disease or curse you can acquire – more often it is something that runs in your family.

Redwall-Lady Rose Eyes by killskerryIn the Abhorsen novels, for example, the “fury” runs in the bloodlines of the royal family of the Old Kingdom. Characters inherit it and must learn to control it, which many do through studying a book called The Fury Within. In the Redwall series, badgers, and in particular their rulers, have historically been prone to the “Bloodwrath” – a berserk state that aids them in battle, but is considered a dangerous affliction.

FANTASIES WITH BERSERKER CHARACTERS

All of these traits make the berserker a fascinating character type, and one that comes with inherent conflict and intrigue.

Some fantasy stories that feature or reference berserker characters include:

Books
First Law Trilogy (Joe Abercrombie), Abhorsen Novels (Garth Nix), Redwall (Brian Jacques), Swords of Good Men (Snorri Kristjánsson), Malazan Book of the Fallen (Steven Erikson), Deverry Cycle (Katharine Kerr), Berserker series (Chris Carlsen), Forgotten Realms (RA Salvatore), Cormac Mac Art (Robert E Howard), The Sea of Trolls (Nancy Farmer), The Broken Sword (Poul Anderson), The Red Queen’s War Series (Mark Lawrence), Dragonlance Chronicles (Margaret Weis)

Games
Final Fantasy, Warcraft, Dungeons & Dragons, Diablo, Warhammer

Manga/Comics
Berserk, The Hulk

hunting monster by tahraIt’s worth noting that of all examples listed above, I can only identify three as having female berserkers: the Abhorsen series (specifically the prequel Clariel, a recent addition to the series), which has two key female berserker characters; the Red Wall series, which features the female berserker badger Lady Cregga Rose Eyes; and The Hulk comics, some of which feature the Red She-Hulk. Perhaps this scarcity is due to the prevalence of berserkers in male-dominated sword and sorcery works and the historical association of berserkers with male heroes. Regardless, it seems there’s room for a few more female berserkers in the genre.

And while I don’t think we’ll ever see berserkers becoming as popular as magicians, witches or shape-shifters in fantasy, I think they’ll continue to be a phenomenon that intrigues us and provides us with dark, conflicted characters. After all, there’s something thrilling about seeing a character pushed to their emotional or physical limits until they finally ‘snap’ – especially when we know that ‘snap’ will have dramatic consequences.

Title image by I-GUYJIN-I.

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8 Comments

  1. Dan says:

    I would add to the list the whole God of War franchise. It could be argued that the protagonist Kratos does not go into a beserker state, so much as he is never out of his beserker state.

  2. Teo Ionita says:

    Maybe The Lightbringer should feature on your list, as Kip has such moments – though his powers aren’t limited to berserking, like Logen’s.

  3. Edward Partridge says:

    I would like to add Falcio from Sebastien de Castell’s Greatcoat series. Considered a leader but suffers from the affliction. Which can obviously impair his ability to lead.

  4. Patrick says:

    Also would add Regnak (Rek) from Legend

  5. Dayo Ntwari says:

    What about Mr. Hyde? Would that count as a berserker, as well?

  6. Ryan says:

    The Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind has also got a rather intersting berserker state. The protagonist Richard is bestowed with a weapon called the Sword of Truth, which grants him the skill of all the previous wielders of the blade. Drawing the Sword puts the wielder into an intense berserker state, fueled by anger. If the wielder does not learn how to control this power and anger, there’s a magically enhanced withdrawal when the berserker state ends, which causes immense pain and suffering where they feel all the suffering they caused. He must learn to wield the sword and harness the anger without losing control, otherwise they are slowly turned into a twisted shadow of their former selves, physically and mentally.

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