I will start this with a SPOILER ALERT! If you want to be surprised by anything in this story, then you do not want to read this! Fair warning! 😉
I have a confession to make: though I was avid in my viewership of the first two seasons of Shingeki no Kyojin, or Attack on Titan, and I still love it, I stopped watching early in the third season. Reason being that it was just getting to be too much for me. Too much death, too many complications, too much intrigue in a plot that was getting far too convoluted.
That said, I’ve still stayed fairly abreast of things. I am generally aware of the overarching conflict with the Marleyans, with the tragic origins of the titans and their spine-eating ways, and with the world-shattering revelation of Eren’s incredible power to influence the past. Most pointedly, for this post, I am aware of his endgame, his ultimate goal: the absolute annihilation of his homeland’s enemies, consisting of the brutal extinction of all life beyond their island’s shores, every man, woman, and child, right down to the last, with no exceptions made anywhere for any reason. It is the terror of the Rumbling.
To accomplish this, Eren enacted a scheme of his own, a plan which gave him absolute command over an army of colossal giants that dwarf even most of the other titans. When he finally gained that power, he announced his intentions loud and clear for all of his people, his comrades, to hear. The reaction was almost universally one of horror and opposition, culminating in the uniting of those who have been both friends and enemies, to each other and to Eren himself, to stop him.
It’s easy to see why they were all so horrified. Who today would be happy if they were told that the only way to be safe is if almost everyone in the world was killed off? Who could even stay sane at the thought of going about your happy little life atop the corpses of nearly seven billion people? Soldiers and even zealots who understand the importance of killing an enemy before they kill you would reflexively shrink away from such total, absolute genocide.
It’s part of how we define being a decent human being, to not accept anything so horrific as that. Not even when it’s exactly what the rest of the world – which, Marley is, compared to the Eldians – have been trying to do to you and your people. We aren’t supposed to return evil for evil. We are supposed to be better than our enemies, not become the same and worse.
And that’s just on the side of Eren’s people. His Marleyan enemies have long since had reason to fear him. He’s gone out of his way to strike terror into their hearts before, and now he can really dish out the devastation! When terrified enemy soldiers saw his massive form looming over his army of giants, it was, for them, very much like looking at the Devil made manifest, come to claim the souls of those whose sins have forfeited them the protection of God.
Eren has become the Devil of his world.
I once heard someone say that heroes act, but villains react. I’m still trying to puzzle out the sense of that, but I think part of what it means is that heroes choose to act in the face of evil, while villains are made out of lower, petty, reflexive reactions to the unfairness of the world. A hero sees someone in trouble, sees injustice in the world, and acts to help, to make things better. A villain experiences injustices, sometimes real and sometimes imagined, and reacts at the basest of levels, to return hurt for hurt, death for death, evil for evil. “I’ll show them! I’ll show them all!”
And yet, almost everyone is the hero of their own story. So how does a story like Eren’s go so wrong? How does the initial hero of the story become its worst and final villain? How is such a devil born from the heart of a good boy?
I was actually pretty shocked when I realized how simple the equation is, and how obvious. It’s all there for us to see, and I have to applaud the author of this work for creating something so true and simple within such layers of subtlety, parading it in front of our faces without most of us noticing it.
Mind you, this may be something of an oversimplification, and this is entirely my own perspective on it, but it only took the combination of two or three major elements, which are shown throughout the story, for Eren to become a monster.
Beginning: Eren is the Hero
Eren grew up in a place of safety and peace within the walls. He was surrounded by people who were complacent, but idolized the scouts who ventured beyond the walls to fight the man-eating giants, called titans. His was a soul that yearned for freedom, such freedom as to see all the wonders of every corner of the world. And he hated bullies. He refused to tolerate them, always fighting them, even though he almost always lost the fight unless his friend Mikasa was there.
His refusal to tolerate bullies and his desire for freedom made him brave when others were cowards, bold when others were timid, and ruthless in the face of evil. That last was shown when Mikasa’s parents were murdered by a trio of human-trafficking bandits. He happened to find the men who, right then, were going to have their way with Mikasa, just a little girl. He defended her, using his wits and a knife to kill two grown men when he was just a little kid. Even more, he inspired her to stand up and fight for herself, killing the third evil man just when he was about to kill Eren.
So, by any definition, Eren was a brave, forward-thinking – hah, the irony of that now – hero, bold and loyal and a clumsy sort of leader, the kind that blazes trails and happens to be followed by others along the way. He was beloved by his friends and family, and possessed an unconquerable spirit from a young age.
In short, he was a good boy.
Then the enemy came.
First: The Enemy Are Monsters
Everyone within the walls knew about the titans outside the walls, but for everyone except the scouts and their families, it was a safe, distant sort of knowledge. They simply could not, and would never, breach the walls, so most people were largely unconcerned about them. They had problems, but they weren’t in a war for their very survival, so far as they knew. The walls kept them safe and separate from the monsters.
Then the Colossal Titan and the Armored Titan made their debut. They shattered the outer and inner gates alike, and titans immediately flooded in, eating everyone they could get their hands on.
Eren’s mother was among the devoured dead. His home was destroyed with her still inside it. She could not escape and she could not be rescued. Eren was pulled away from her, carried on the back of a man who was a friend. He saw everything, as the titan came, picked her up out of the rubble, and lifted her towards its mouth as she screamed and cried and beat her fists against its hand in futile resistance. The giant snapped her neck as casually as a man would break the neck of a bird or a rabbit. And it swallowed her whole.
Eren saw everything. It was seared into his mind, his heart, and his soul.
The horror of the uncountable dead that day was only enhanced by those who could be counted later: the refugees who fled from the outer region of the walls into the the interior, behind another wall. With so much territory lost, the kingdom just couldn’t grow the food to feed so many mouths anymore. So over half a million people who came looking for protection were sent out to die at the hands of titans, with some bogus political posturing that couldn’t have screamed any louder, “We’re sending them to die, but we’re all going to pretend otherwise… aren’t we?”
So the enemy was a horde of man-eating monsters, the complete inhumanity of which drove humans to do inhumane things just to survive, just a little bit longer.
But for the entire series which has followed that inciting tragedy, the titans have been ever more humanized.
We saw a titan that killed other titans. We saw Eren become a titan for a time. We saw that other people can become titans at will, and these people served an enemy that existed beyond all the titans. We saw that all the titans in the world used to be human, that what they have become is something that was done to them by this greater enemy, one far more vile than titans ever were, called Marley.
At the start, humans were the victims of titans. It has now been made clear that titans are, in fact, the victims of humans. Human hatred. Human intolerance. Human greed.
Right from the beginning, the titans were forced to obey the will of a human king, who shoved onto his own descendants the burden of monstrosity. The first who had the power to be a titan was a woman, now called the Founder, and the king used her without limit even while thinking nothing at all of her. Neither did he hesitate, when she died, to enslave her very soul, to have their three daughters eat their own mother’s spine. This was the origin of those compulsions which have tormented them and their victims ever since: going into war, and eating people. All for the sake of power and conquest.
It worked, for a time, but not for long. The king’s vision of invincible, gigantic warriors, the Eldians, was fulfilled, but he underestimated the response of the rest of humanity, who eventually coalesced under the banner of Marley.
However, the Marleyans are not “good” just because their enemy was once terrifying. They didn’t just defeat the Eldians. They shoved the Eldians under their heels and took control of the titans’ power. Those who were not driven out of Marleyan society, to hide behind the walls of Paradis, were forced into the slums, and they’ve been preyed on for sport ever since. They’ve been tortured and murdered for fun, their youth exploited by a greedy, grasping military, and their people turned into the titans which infest Paradis. And still the Marleyans seek nothing less than a complete and absolute Eldian genocide.
This, despite every reasonably mitigating factor: the passage of thousands of years, the innocence and submission of those Eldians who are alive under Marley’s heel, the pacifism of the coward king who took his people to hide behind the walls, the ignorance of those within the walls, and more. The Marleyans are cruel for their own amusement, tell themselves lies as propaganda, and will never give peace a chance. They are an entire people that actively seeks genocide, murders innocent little girls while wearing a kindly smile, and sleeps well at night.
They are directly responsible, in every possible way, for the death of Eren’s mother, which they wouldn’t care about anyway because she was Eldian.
The enemy are indeed all monsters, and it’s only made worse for how they’re still human.
Second: Cast Your Humanity Aside
“Those who aren’t willing to sacrifice everything will never be able to change anything.”
That is a comment made by Armin, if I recall correctly. Poetic then, that he is the first one to balk at Eren’s use of the Rumbling against civilians as well as military targets, but I digress.
The general meaning is that, in order to achieve an objective, you have to make sacrifices. Sometimes you must even sacrifice your own humanity.
Accomplishing a mission involves soldiers sacrificing their lives, and their commander knowingly leading them towards death. Even more, the endless, apocalyptic war they’ve been fighting demands that humans get sneaky, hit below the belt, so to speak, and do things that others would quail at doing.
There’s no time for being nice, civilized, and orderly when the end of the world is at stake.
To evacuate a town, Mikasa has to strike down the self-important ego of a greedy merchant.
To stop the bandits who murdered Mikasa’s parents and were going to use her as they saw fit, Eren and Mikasa had to kill them without hesitation, pity, or mercy.
To capture an enemy, Commander Erwin and his subordinates have to sneak, lie, set traps, use their comrades as pawns and let them die, put their own bodies on the line, stand against the military police, and even bring trouble straight into the heart of their society, leaving dozens of dead civilians in their wake, all for very little obvious gain.
To keep everyone fed, the government had to send hundreds of thousands of their own people to die horribly.
To gain the power to strike down an overwhelming and relentless enemy, Eren had to become responsible for more than one travesty, including the deaths of children.
Is it any surprise he did so, with lessons such as these drilled into him? How many times did he see his leaders and friends sully their hands, not in the slightest bit refraining from low-down, dirty tricks which earned them the hatred of everyone bound by the status quo? It’s the only way anything ever got done. That’s the only reason they ever made any forward progress in the war. It’s how they discovered the truth of Marley after their people had been made to forget.
Yet, for espousing this ideal so much, the story often shows the peril of it. When humans let go of their humanity, after all, that’s when they become monsters, lacking that most basic element of humanity: compassion.
That merchant Mikasa threatened? He prioritized what was important for his own benefit over the lives of his people. It’s not so dissimilar to Commander Erwin prioritizing his own agenda over the lives of soldiers and civilians alike. Much like the local monarchy destroying anyone it wants to, for its own interests.
To forfeit one’s humanity is to forfeit basic compassion for others and even for ourselves. That’s how people are able to betray and abandon each other when the titans come calling. That’s how an entire swathe of a population could be sent to die, just to relieve the burden of a strained food supply. That’s how tyrants violently suppressed dissent and murdered anyone who happened to be the slightest bit inconvenient to them, ignoring how their entire kingdom was already a sinking ship. And that is is how Marleyans committed atrocities against innocent Eldians for centuries.
That is how Eren was able to do every despicable thing that was necessary to further his goal. Which brings me to the final point.
Third: Eren’s Unyielding Resolve
Eren has had two particular desires which have dominated his character: to be free, and to wipe out the titans.
Initially, both of these were presented in a one-sided light, but, by this point, Attack on Titan ought to be famous for twisting that around.
Freedom was Eren’s first desire, before atrocity fell upon his family. That’s why he idolized the scouts so much. He and Armin read of things in books, wonders of the world they couldn’t comprehend at the time. The endless blue waves of the sea. Regions entirely covered in ice, where lights danced in the sky. Brutal lands of burning sands. They read about these, and wanted to know them, to see them, to experience and touch them!
Eren never liked being confined in the walls. He never liked how people were able to just go about their everyday lives without ever leaving, without moving around, going out there and seeing the world. And he never liked when one person chained another, not even in something as simple and mundane as neighborhood bullying. People weren’t meant to live beneath others, stuck in walls they could never leave. Freedom was his North Star.
How many times has the story talked about such freedom while showing the terrible cost of it? The brutal reality of humanity’s subjugation, and especially Eldian subjugation, has been on flagrant, bloody display for years now. When Eren rises from a stupor to carry a boulder, he is accepting a huge burden that threatens to crush him. All around him, the scouts are screaming and dying in his defense as he tries to bar the gates and stem the slaughter. He is driven by a need to be free, as everyone has the right to be, and it is for this that people are dying. It is an incredibly powerful, moving scene.
The reward for such is shown much later, when Eren and the scouts finally make it to the sea. And they just stand there, absorbing the wonder that was there all along, but which they have only now been able to obtain, at great cost. After all the horror and loss, they have at last inched closer to freedom.
Right to the end, it remains one of Eren’s most defining aspects. That is how he gains the power to kill all of his enemies, the power of the Founder, in the first place: by offering freedom to a soul crushed eternally under a limitless burden which was unjustly shoved onto her thousands of years ago.
Freedom unleashed the Rumbling.
How often does the Devil promise freedom and deliver destruction?
So, even with Eren’s best and most noble motivation, there are two sides, and there is no escaping that horror. However, Eren’s all-consuming wrath is much, much worse.
Of course we applauded, as we were meant to, when Eren pledged to kill the titans, to wipe them entirely from the world. He was both mocked and admired for it, but he always held true to it. And why not? They killed his mother, and so many other people, and were a terrifying threat to everyone who remained. How could a desire to kill them all be anything but good, anything but beneficial to humanity?
However, what Eren was pledging to destroy wasn’t simply a bunch of giants. He wanted to destroy everything that killed his mother. When he learned the truth of things, that the titans are victims, that it was Marley all along, a nation full of monstrous humans, his resolve did not die. All that happened was a mere shifting of targets, from one that could eventually be cut down, one by one, to one that was just way too big to do anything less than crush them all, the entire lot of them, in massive numbers.
Others sought peace. Some sought to hide safe behind walls and armies, and kept trying to hide no matter how many times they failed. Others sought to serve, giving their lives for Marley while not even having the resolve to stand up for their own oppressed people. Even when the Rumbling got underway, there were people who tried to say that they could just limit the destruction to Marley’s military, ignoring the vast mass of humanity behind them who, having already been indoctrinated to hate Eldians, would undoubtedly find some way to strike back as soon as possible.
But, really, all of them do so simply because they quail at the thought of such a massive slaughter. For all that they’ve talked about sacrificing anything and everything, the only one to actually possess the resolve to do so is Eren Jaeger. Because he, alone, is still driven by the insane need to “wipe them all out, every last one of them.” That is how he is strong, and how he is weak.
His comrades are unable to carry out the Rumbling, or tolerate the totality of it, because their resolve is weak.
Eren himself is able to enact the Rumbling because he is weak, his mind and heart broken.
Deep down, in his heart of hearts, Eren is simply a boy who was driven mad by the sight of his mother’s awful murder.
The Rumbling truly began, the first spark given to its ignition, the moment he was made to see her die.
Enemies which are truly monstrous
The need to sacrifice anything to defeat them
The resolve to get it done
Thus was born, quite simply, the Marleyans’ personal Devil, Eren Jaeger, the Attack Titan. “Shingeki no Kyojin.”
It’s the simplicity of it that makes it so terrifying. It doesn’t take much to push someone past the point of no return. Erin’s story is fantastic and tragic.
I’ve read the manga and am waiting for the anime to finish before completing that. I also finished season two and stopped there.
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