The adaptation of Makoto Yukimura’s seminal historical fiction lays bare the ugliest and the grittiest of a tumultuous time, the Viking conquest of England in the 11th Century. It is a reminder that our history is riddled with war and soaked in blood; a time when we failed to comprehend one another. Yet. Vinland Saga also stands as a reminder that there is hope for change; that someday we may cross the line to mutual understanding.
Our protagonist Thorfinn, is the vehicle of our traverse through the snow cloaked sceneries of Northern Europe and England. He is an innocent child at the beginning of this story, he admires warriors and dreams of adventure. Through his eyes, the audience is invited to experience Yukimura’s portrayal of the struggle of war as Thorfinn grows in a world that views war as a norm and trivializes life; eroding his being.
However, for a short time, it is Thorfinn’s father, Thors that is put in focus. Thor is a seasoned warrior, feared far and wide as Thors ‘the Troll’, a mighty warrior that once stood at the apex of the strength centric Viking society. When we meet Thors he is however in a different place; he has foregone war, choosing instead to live a quiet life surrounded by friends and family and to dream of the ethereal Vinland. We only meet him briefly but his shadow colours the adventures of Thorfinn throughout the show, his death is the reason for Thorfinn’s hate of Askeladd, but his ideals stand as a strong contrast to the world that Thorfinn perceives.
Thors, like Vinland, represents hope. He is a character that has seen the horrors of war and of a society that disregards the humanity of others. He is a character in a special position in a society dictated by strength, one of absolute strength; it is that strength, much like in modern society, that affords him the rare luxury of a choice. Thors has reached an epiphany and recognized the gaping flaws of society as it was. He now believes that there is more to be a warrior, a recurring theme also seen in Leif. A warrior in their eyes is not those that stand on the battlefields repeatedly fighting in often meaningless battles, but rather those that brave the world in search of something better.
By stripping away this ideology from the viewer early on with Thors’ death Yukimura allows the viewer to organically experience Thorfinn’s own journey of realization. The latter is at the beginning oblivious to the world of the Viking or to Thors’ ideology. With Thors’ death, he jumps headfirst into the world of violence to obtain a chance to avenge his father by killing Askeladd. Early on in his career, he has washed ashore and rescued by villagers of a village on the pillaging track of his band. He attempts to warn the women that saved him out of gratitude, but nevertheless lays the groundwork for the invasion; that is the norm that Thorfinn lives in. He is unable to understand the feelings of betrayal and sadness of the English woman as she sees his betrayal. His understanding of the world beyond the ruthless world the Viking is still in his infancy.
Thorfinn and the story are of a single mind at first, only his hate of Askeladd matters. But slowly, alongside Thorfinn, the viewer trickles down into a vaster sea of understanding. A major influence in the ideological and thematic development of the story is Canute. The initially quiet prince is an aberration in the Viking world, he displays none of the brutish virtues of the Viking people, instead choosing to remain within the delicate veil of his status as a prince and his faith as a Christian.
Canute too sees the defects of this society that glorifies death and enslaves those who live. But he does not have the courage to rise until after the death of Ragnar. The latter’s death is the catalyst of his realization, he is a representation of the adage that ‘change has to come from the top’. In Vinland Saga, both Norsemen and Christians seem to be more concerned with otherworldly fates rather than their current existence, the Vikings fight to one day go to Valhalla and Christians pray for heavenly salvation, they walk in a fog oblivious to one another. The once pious Canute has become disillusioned with this mode of thinking, endeavouring to create a paradise on earth instead of relying on a saviour that has ostensibly abandoned them.
In sharp contrast to Thorfinn’s adamant hate stands Askeladd; originally portrayed as being a man driven only by logic the viewer soon learns that he too is burdened by hate. Albeit in a much more nuanced portrayal, unlike Thorfinn. He hates the Norsemen for enslaving his mother and for his treatment as a child, he swears in his heart allegiance to his Celtic roots, yet he fights and laughs amongst his Danish companions for a decade. Despite his hate he has come to terms with this feeling, he does not hesitate to cut down his companions, yet he wishes well to Atli despite the latter’s betrayal, he is also accepting of Bjorn’s friendship despite him being Danish, calling him his ‘only friend’.
Askeladd is a reminder that in the real-world emotions are rarely straight forward, foreshadowing Thorfinn’s own future struggles. His portrayal is that of a man forged by the cruelty of the world, but like Thors and Canute, he feels anachronistic to the time. He too is driven by kinship and belief, but what differentiates him from others is that despite his long-standing hate, he is understanding. He hates the Norsemen for their actions but never dehumanizes them and as a mixture of Celtic and Norse he is in a better position than anyone to understand them, both as an outsider and as a Viking. At the end of Bjorn’s life, he accepts his friendship and respects his beliefs by defeating him in combat so that he may ascend to Valhalla. Askeladd’s demise after his murder of King Sweyn alludes to the idea that it was not the people that Askeladd hated, but rather the system that had created them. In the end he dies trying to have faith in Canute’s vision and to save Wales. He too bets on the future.
Similarly, Thorfinn’s own hate becomes muddled upon Askeladd’s death. Thorfinn, who had made his life’s purpose to kill the latter is distraught and in disbelief upon his death. Askeladd in the end was more than a villain in Thorfinn’s eyes, he was a constant. Like Askeladd before him the viewer is is invited to believe that Thorfinn has warmed up to his companion of misfortune. To Thorfinn, Askeladd, the object of his hate, was the closest he had to a father figure since Thors’ death.
Vinland Saga peels away the norm-centric and era-specific injustices of one of the worst times in our history to unveil a universal message; that as much back then as it is now, there is a sameness to us as a species. Often, we laugh for the same reasons, we cry for the same reasons and we love for the same reasons. It is telling that a fictional portrayal of Middle Ages Europe by a Japanese author has such resonance with the world as it is today; people might be capable of ugliness, Vinland Saga tells us, but beneath it all we are fundamentally the same, forgetting that is what makes it so ugly. I’ll be looking forward to the adaptation of Thorfinn’s future adventures.