At surface, Vinland Saga doesn’t seem very interesting. It’s a loosely historical manga that’s all about Viking warriors and glory in battle, and how the protagonist Thorfinn Karlsefni seeks retribution on his father’s killer. It features a lot of over-the-top ultraviolence, like men punching horses. It is page after page of Viking dudes killing each other bloodily while screaming about Valhalla, because of course. It is designed to make fanboys slobber all over themselves because woo, awesome. Panel after panel, the characters take their heroic code with deathly – and deadly – seriousness. Honor in combat! Glory in war! Final destination Valhalla!
But Vinland Saga is about something else entirely, and it lets you know very early on, even though – at that point in time – what it is really about seems to be one character’s mistake. A mistake that gets him killed.
The story goes like this. Thors used to be an elite warrior who ran away from the battlefield to make a life as a farmer, raising his family with his wife. But it doesn’t work out. Old comrades turn up and drag him back into war. Like all boys raised in Nordic culture, his son Thorfinn longs for the glory of battle. He finds Thors’ old battle gear and seizes on a knife. On discovering this, Thors doesn’t react like most Nordic fathers. Instead, he tells his son: ‘You have no enemies. No one in the world is your enemy. There is no one you need to hurt.’ Here’s the result of his philosophy.
The desire to no longer kill – to no longer be ‘Thors the Troll’, terror of the battlefield – gets him, very simply, dead. Seeing this, Thorfinn embarks on a quest for vengeance. He enlists in the mercenary band led by his father’s killer, Askeladd, with the premise that this way he will have an opportunity to fight Askeladd and avenge his father. Thors has asked a question of the world, and the world has answered: there is no place for peace or pacifism, there is no place for compassion or mercy. The only way to survive is to treat everyone as your enemies, answer brutality with even greater brutality. Everyone is a product of violence, the toxic and corrosive warrior’s code that demands blood and beheadings. Even Askeladd is a product of such, having grown up the son of a slave woman, uselessly dreaming that one day his ancestor – Artorious – will come and rescue him and his mother from a life of dehumanization and terror. So he grows up to inflict violence and pain and suffering for money.
For 53 chapters, it appears everyone is right and Thors was wrong. Violence is the sole path. Nothing else can resist it, and nothing else is a useful counter to it but more and more of it.
The fifty-fourth chapter is called ‘End of the Prologue’, where Askeladd sacrifices himself for a political plot, and Thorfinn loses the one purpose for which he’s been living. Thorfinn is enslaved and sent to work on a farm (relatively more comfortable life than other slaves, but still a slave). Now a shell of himself, he has constant nightmares and hallucinates mountains of corpses, people he killed and people who’ve died on him.
This is the real story. Not the tale of how a boy avenges his father or even the tale of honorable Viking warriors, but a tale of how a shattered, traumatized boy must live with the legacy of violence that has been perpetuated on him, and which he himself has perpetuated. It’s about breaking free of this legacy, and about recovery, and about trying to do better in a brutal and murderous world.
It’s about reaching the understanding that violence breaks you.
Ninety chapters and fifteen narrative years later, Thorfinn finally understands what his father meant.
Because Thorfinn’s character development sets the tone, much of the initial story pays very little attention to women, and the few that appear are treated terribly, killed off, or disappear. But as Thorfinn resolves to become better and to atone, he comes home to Iceland where he meets Gudrid, a farmer’s daughter who doesn’t want to marry and live in domestic bliss with a husband chosen for her (who is depicted as a buffoon, but not outright heinous). There is now much more room in the story for women’s voices, their places in the domestic sphere and their places elsewhere – not only Gudrid but the older women around her who speak for her and help her get out, and later still, we meet Hild.
A stunning, delightfully muscular woman who makes her first appearance shooting down a bear. A consummate hunter and inventor, who in her teenage years had the fortune of living under a father who lets her invent whatever she likes in her workshop – genius inventions! – without making her marry if she doesn’t want to. Her life was violently interrupted and her entire family slaughtered, but there’s no sexual assault in her backstory. Instead, she learned how to hunt under an old master, leading as unconventional a life as we have seen in Vinland Saga.
This has come a long way from a story that was initially all about screaming Viking men going into battle to seize glory.
The manga is, as of this writing, ongoing and there are some uncomfortable connotations in Thorfinn’s desire to colonize ‘Greenland’, but altogether it’s been a tremendously affecting story to follow because it is written such incredible conviction. It is strong in its intentionality, in the philosophies and developments it explores, in its portrayal of trauma and violence. It could have been mindless – the author could certainly have made easy money off yet another ‘gritty’ historical manga about honor in combat and all that. But it’s about this instead, a journey of healing and empathy, a path to recovery.
Its central core is far from a milquetoast appeal for pacifism – this is mature, thought out, and heartfelt: You have no enemies. No one in the world is your enemy. There is no one you need to hurt.