Being one of the best-selling manga and most-talked-about anime series in recent times, the arguments and speculations that go around the story of Attack on Titan never seem to cease.
While there is a lot that the fanbase debates about on a daily basis, there is only one argument that has consistently produced heated exchanges amongst die-hard audiences. Questions regarding Eren’s legitimacy as an honest protagonist and whether the rumbling has any merit are prime points of concern for many.
Mangaka, Hajime Isayama, wasn’t exactly explicit about some of Eren’s motives, inner thought processes, and desires. Nor did Mappa give away much of what was going on within the Attack Titan. The story in the later season was narrated in instances, with expositions taking place crossing all boundaries of consciousness and time.
So it’s quite hard to pinpoint the motives behind the Rumbling, and if Eren was meant to play the selfish agent of Chaos who “destroyed for the sake of destroying” to save his homeland, or was he a complicated hero who died a villain for the greater good.
This article will try and look into some of these speculations, and which of the two theories has more weight, taking into consideration everything that has been shown, and how it was shown, in the Attack on Titan anime and manga.
Eren Yeager in Attack on Titan: A tragic hero or an agent of chaos?
Now, to understand some of the speculations behind Eren’s Rumbling, it’s important to look into some of the instances that were shown throughout the anime, and how that translated into the protagonist becoming who he became by the start of the final season.
Looking at it bluntly, the Rumbling did have merit for Eren, irrespective of what his intentions were with starting the genocide. If it were to just delay the destruction of his homeland or to die as the common enemy of the people, uniting them under one cause, to him, the Rumbling was a positive influence.
This is one of the reasons why he looked to pick world destruction over Zeke’s plan to just sterilize the Eldians, which many felt to eventually be a better course of action to deal with centuries of racial prejudice.
Now, to understand his choice of picking the Rumbling over sterilization, fans must first look into why Ymir herself chose Eren over Zeke.
Why did Ymir pick Eren?
While Zeke had the advantage of his royale bloodline of Frintz, it was Eren who was chosen by Ymir to start the Rumbling.
Upon visiting the Founding Titan’s memories, Eren saw how Ymir began her life as a simple girl in a village, where the greed and violence of her society led King Frintz to hunt her down and slaughter her. Even after getting her Titan powers, the king retained her as a slave and used her as a weapon against his enemies and to be someone to have his offspring with.
This is where the similarities are found between the stories of Ymir and Eren, as both in a sense were enslaved to what others around them termed as the higher cause. Both Attack Titan and the Founding Titan were born, bred, and trained to be vehicles of vengeance, and were inadvertently caught up in this cycle of destruction.
It is perhaps this cycle that both Eren and Ymir were looking to break, with the latter denouncing Zeke’s plan to sterilize, feeling that this cycle of prejudice will not end and the world needs a fresh start.
During Historia’s coronation ceremony when Eren kisses her hand, he immediately sees glimpses that are essentially ripples in time and consciousness. He saw his father Grisha’s memory of murdering the Reiss family, and how it was he himself who orchestrated the massacre by whispering into his father’s ears, to fight.
Attack Titan has the unique trait of being able to see memories of the future as well as the past, and it is through glimpses and visions that Eren is able to learn firsthand just how tragic the cycle of death and violence truly is.
Hence, when he finally does meet Ymir just before the start of the Rumbling, he is immediately able to connect with what centuries of violence that she had to witness meant for her, and how she wants all of it to stop in one fatal blow.
Hence genocide on a global scale became the only option in their eyes, and it’s because of this that Ymir endorsed Eren and not Zeke.
Eren Yeager: The freedom fighter who lost his freedom
It’s easy to ship Eren off as an agent of chaos who wants nothing more than to save his home at the cost of the entire world, and there are indeed many instances in the series which do incline towards that speculation, chapter 123 in particular. While it’s a valid argument, it’s not exactly wise to accept it as the one and only truth, and center Eren’s decision entirely around the theme of morality,
From the very beginning of the show, before the walls were broken, and there was a state of relative tranquility on Paradis Island, Eren was represented as a character that lacked a purpose. At least a purpose or aim that was his own and not injected into him when Armin came along in his life and shared his dream of one day visiting the outside world.
This inception-ed thought grew substantially in Eren’s subconscious, to the point where he saw the walls as a sign of oppression and his inability to go beyond it as an act of stealing his freedom.
But after the destruction of Shiganshina and the death of his mother, Eren never again saw the dream in the same way as that of Armin. His desire slowly looked to mutate to the point where many fans felt that there was nothing left but vengeance. Vengeance towards anything that looks to take his freedom away from him.
Throughout the next couple of seasons, Eren has had to constantly wade through his demons, and subconsciously, the “Us vs Them” modus operandi has become the base for a lot of his ideological struggles.
Destroying his enemies, those who take his freedom away, became the sole purpose of his life, and the freedom fighter Eren Yeager eventually lost his freedom to himself. In subsequent episodes, the audience will see a massive shift between how Eren looks at the world outside and how Armin looks at it, and what freedom means to both.
The Sisyphian struggle: The misfit vs the world
Eren’s struggle against his circumstances soon began when he ultimately joined the corps, and it was clear just how powerless and futile his attempts were.
The entire world soon became his enemy, and while his comrades were the only source of solace, the revelations around Bertold, Annie, and Reiner soon made Eren look at the entire outside world as something that he needs to destroy.
When humanity became his one true nemesis, Eren saw that he fit nowhere, and his ideologies made him the misfit who struggles with futility.
With the knowledge of Eldia and Marley, the dream about the ocean became something distant, something that was forever lost to him, and all that remained in him was anger and hate.
With a growing sense of nihilism, Eren changed with the changing circumstances, and all but Mikasa feels that the new Eren that they are noticing is somewhat of a drastic shift from who he once was.
In a setting without war, the freedom fighter has no purpose, so he personally travels all the way to Marley, and sets the stage for the Rumbling. In an act of freeing himself, Eren will look to free the entire world.
A clash of ideologies: Stagnation vs change
One of Eren’s primary character traits is his unwillingness to change. Throughout the entirety of the series he is shown to have a hard time letting things go, and there were hardly any moments where he was shown to enjoy life.
While others around him looked to change and grow, Eren remained stagnant and it made many in the anime and even the audience feel that he had suddenly become cold, with ruthless intentions of destroying the world.
Because of all the knowledge that he has, from past and present, Eren looks towards death and destruction of grand scale to be the only solution to the cycle of violence that breeds in society. Mikasa notices, and it’s one of the reasons why her exchanges with Eren are so much more memorable and emotional than all the moments that he has had with Armin and others on the corps.
Mikasa’s understanding of Eren and his motives is much greater than Armin’s understanding of him. Perhaps Mikasa knew from the very beginning that Eren had a very high chance of turning out into what he did.
Violence and destruction was something that Eren endorsed, and it was not something that he shied away from. But what did concern him was the lack of violence that was inside him, he was always hard on himself every time he struggled to kill down a Titan and do what was necessary to keep his comrades safe.
As a protagonist, Eren was powerless, he was a product of the circumstances and forces around him, pushed into one set of acts and into another. His stagnation led him to become one of the most broken personalities in Attack on Titan.
There is no right or wrong
What many feel that Attack on Titan tries to represent is that there is no right or wrong in the world, there are just ideologies, and the clashes between them lead to innocents suffering.
May it be change, progress, or stagnation, these are just states of being, and while the Yeagerists find the Rumbling to be the justified solution to all the ails in the world, many others do not.
In a century-long tale of genocidal melee, Eren was just a product of his time, with knowledge of the past as well as the future. Eren was never intended to be a hero from the very beginning of the anime, which is why the most impact in the narrative comes when audiences get to see his so-called changed self.
Death was eventually trivialized in Attack on Titan, and destruction became a regular norm, second nature not just to the characters but to the audience as well.
In a world where death and loss mean so little, and vengeance is given the pivotal seat to drive the entire narrative forward, the theme of morality eventually gets thrown out the window. Which is why Eren’s struggle against the forces of what made him who he is is as futile as his former comrades trying to stop him from completing his genocidal march.
The self-absorbed Eren and the globalist Armin from the two dicotomous schools of thought in Attack on Titan. Hence, when compared to the other characters around him, Eren is fundamentally flawed both as a hero and as a villain.
He is a mouthpiece and a child who cannot let go of things that he has lost.
The Broken Man and the Freudian death march
The entire notion of death becomes trivialized in Attack on Titan, the more that characters around Eren adapt to the changing circumstances. Eren’s stagnations is a constant reminder of what was lost, how it was lost, and what one should do with that loss.
Hence, the signifiers of Eren turning out to be who he eventually will was always there on the show. In his words, expressions, and actions, the broken man has nothing left than to give into his death drive and go on a march that will eventually see the entire world destroyed.
Much like with Christopher Nolan’s portrayal of the joker in his Batman: The Dark Knight, there is no redemption for a character that is irreparably broken. The only way to defeat such an individual is not just physically, but psychologically as well.
Like all the characters in Attack on Titan, Eren too is a product of all his loss and suffering. But unlike the others, he chose to hold on to that loss with every fiber of his being, and he soon became a character who can only function when the world keeps taking what he loves away from him.
In search of peace, the fundamentally flawed protagonist looks to leave peace behind instead of attaining it for himself.
Eren x Lelouch Lamperouge: The image of the enemy
When a broken character looks to play the hero, all hell does break loose and others have a new enemy to rally against.
Eren, much like Lelouch from Code Geasse, might have looked to play the biggest villain in the series to make humanity join forces in an attempt to bring him down and bring about a temporary age of peace and stability in the world, until there are clashes of ideologies and discrimination once again.
Theoritically, this act is often considered to be the formation of the Image of the Enemy. Humans being instinctively social, it is the group and not the individual which is the unit of survival.
Homo sapiens can only survive as members of organized groups, which are expected to provide protection against hostile environments and external threats. It is this sense of psychological security that pushes members of the group to share customs, rituals, and even ideologies.
This allows them to understand each other's behavior, and gives a sense of meaning to their lives. This is why a group, or even a society, is always threatened when there is a different worldview that looks to encroach on their space. Psychologically and biologically, the group looks for alternatives to survival.
Hajime Isayama looked to incorporate much of this ideology into Attack on Titan, as with the Rumbling, Eren became the enemy of the entire world.
An enemy is seen as a person or a group of people that is ready to hurt or kill oneself, therefore one often feels justified in hurting or killing the enemy in self defense, or even in retaliation.
Attack on Titan as a drama was simply a series of events that created a new enemy image after another, with Eren becoming the one true threat just like the role of the tyrant Lelouch so masterfully played in Code Geass.