This weekend sees the wide release of The Northman, the new film from director Robert Eggers (The Witch, The Lighthouse) starring Alexander Skarsgård and Anya Taylor-Joy. Set between A.D. 895 and approximately A.D. 914, Eggers’ historical revenge drama follows the story of Amleth, the son of the deposed king Aurvandill War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) who is betrayed by his brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang). Seeking retribution, Amleth flees his home and trains with the goal of one day returning to avenge his father and save his mother (Nicole Kidman) by slaying his uncle.
Told across visceral episodes of gut-churning violence, phantasmic dream sequences, and the vast picturesque landscapes of Iceland and Northern Ireland, The Northman is “Conan the Barbarian by way of Andrei Rublev,” according to Eggers; it’s a medieval Viking epic of brutality and obsession underscored by fastidious attention to historical detail. If Eggers’ latest has whet your appetite for more stories of its ilk, look no further than the 2019 anime Vinland Saga (available on Prime Video), produced by Wit Studio of Attack on Titan fame, for another entertaining and inventive take on a Viking revenge epic.
Set predominantly in England around A.D. 1013, the historical adventure epic follows the story of Thorfinn, the son of a former Viking soldier named Thors who is murdered by a band of mercenaries at the behest of Floki, Thors’ former comrade and the acting commander of the Jomsvikings. The similarities between Vinland Saga and Eggers’ The Northman are already apparent from this brief synopsis. Both stories’ protagonists are the sons of great warriors who aspire in their own way to follow in their fathers’ footsteps, only to witness them betrayed by someone once close to them. As a result, both The Northman’s Amleth and Vinland Saga’s Thorfinn dedicate their lives to avenging the deaths of their fathers, honing their bodies into weapons of war for the singular purpose of claiming the lives of those who shattered their own.
It also bears mentioning that both Thorfinn and Amleth are based in part on actual historical figures. Vinland Saga’s protagonist is a fictionalized version of the Icelandic explorer Thorfinn Karlsefni, who sailed alongside Leif Erikson and attempted to establish a settlement in North America. The Northman’s Amleth is based on the medieval Scandinavian hero who would go on to inspire William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It’s at this point, however, that the similarities between these two characters end, diverging not only in the specifics of their quests, but in the resolutions of their respective goals.
While both The Northman and Vinland Saga are works of historical fiction, only the latter is concerned with the major historical events that occur alongside its hero’s quest for vengeance. Aside from a passing mention to King Harald Fairhair, the Norwegian king responsible for Fjölnir’s self-imposed exile to Iceland, Eggers’ film is a fairly straightforward revenge story that eschews any explicit nod to historical events outside of Amleth’s personal journey to kill Fjölnir. By contrast, Thorfinn’s personal story of vengeance in Vinland Saga parallels the larger spanning story of King Sweyn Forkbeard’s conquest of England and the subsequent rise and reign of his son, King Canute the Great.
In the fourth episode of Vinland Saga, Thorfinn witnesses the murder of his father Thors by a band of mercenaries led by Askeladd, a cruel and cunning sellsword hired to assassinate him by the Jomsviking commander Floki. Unaware of Floki’s machinations, the young Thorfinn fixates on Askeladd as the sole object of his anger, following closely behind Askeladd’s army for the right moment to strike. Right as he prepares to strike the deathblow, killing Askeladd in his sleep, Thorfinn hesitates, preferring instead to challenge him to duel. After being beaten and humiliated at the hands of his father’s killer, Askeladd tells Thorfinn that if he joins Askeladd’s army and proves himself worthy on the battlefield, he’ll reward him with another opportunity to avenge Thors’ honor in a duel.
The relationship between Askeladd and Thorfinn is one of the most fascinating aspects of Vinland Saga, transforming what otherwise would have been a conventional Viking revenge story into an emotional saga about coming of age and searching for meaning in the midst of war. To Thorfinn, Askeladd is simultaneously his most hated enemy and (reluctantly) the closest thing he has to a living father figure, whereas Askeladd looks at Thorfinn in much the same way The Monarch from The Venture Bros. looks at Henchmen 21 and 24: as a person who represents a rare blend of expendability and invulnerability, making Thorfinn the perfect tool through which to carry out his leader’s aims on the battlefield.
Time and again throughout the series, Thorfinn achieves feats that some would otherwise think impossible, delivering victories and vanquishing foes at Askeladd’s behest in exchange for a duel. Despite growing stronger and more formidable between each bout, Thorfinn can never quite seem to defeat Askeladd. In the eighth episode, Askeladd muses that “everyone is a slave to something” while watching his uncle Gorm beating a servant he had just purchased. Both Thorfinn and The Northman’s Amleth are slaves to revenge; they are bound to the fevered promise that their loss, grief, and most importantly their honor will be vindicated through the act of shedding their enemies’ blood in glorious combat. For Amleth, the answer to the question of what awaits him beyond his uncle’s death is a life with his lover, Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), the enshrinement of his tale in the annals of legend, and perhaps even a place among the hallowed warriors of Valhalla. But for Thorfinn, there is no other concern — and nothing to live for — beyond taking Askeladd’s life and avenging his father’s death.
What makes Vinland Saga such an exceptional anime is not just how the series reconfigures the elements of what one would typically expect from a Viking revenge epic to surprising effect, but in how it ultimately transforms into a story that probes at the question of what makes life worth living at all. It’s a story about Thorfinn’s emotional journey to understand what his late father tried and failed to teach him when he was younger — that “no one has any enemies” and that a “true warrior” needs no weapon. Though remarkably different in terms of its style and substance, Vinland Saga complements Eggers’ The Northman through contrast, and it’s the perfect series for anyone looking for a different kind of Viking revenge epic to watch.