Vinland Saga – 09 – London Bridge is NOT Falling Down

Turns out that huge warrior leading the defence of London from its famous bridge is not even an Englishman, but a Norse giant named Thorkell. King Sweyn’s armies will make little progress until he’s out of the picture, so Askeladd sends Thorfinn to work out some of his frustration. Thorfinn makes him promise for yet another duel in exchange for Thorkell’s head.

Floki and the Jomsvikings beseech Thorkell to abandon his contract with the English and re-join the Danish army, and he’ll be paid double. But like Askeladd’s right hand man Bjorn, it’s not about themoney. Unlike Bjorn, who likes easy wins, Thorkell doesn’t want to fight the English; they’re too weak. He’d much rather fight the tougher Vikings.

As the Vikings continue their siege of the Thames, Thorkell makes any ship or soldier who comes too close regret it, sending a hail of arrows from his archers, or just heaving a massive boulder or tree trunk into the Viking ships, sinking them. He’s a bit superhuman, but heck, so are a lot of Vikings, chief(tan) among them the late Thors and his giant oar.

When Thorfinn leaps onto the bridge to face Thorkell, it’s immediately apparent the latter has a huge advantage in size and strength, and isn’t that much slower. One wonders if it would have been better for Askeladd to send Bjorn instead—preferably on his berserker mushrooms. Then again, I’m sure Askeladd values Bjorn far more than Thorfinn.

Thorfinn hangs in there about as long as you’d expect, considering the moment Thorkell gets a grip on any one of his arms or legs, it’s basically game over. Thorkell blocks Thorfinn’s dagger with his hand, then slams him back and forth against the bridge like a ragdoll.

To Thorkell’s surprise and delight, Thorfinn hasn’t lost any of his will to fight, and when Kell’s guard is down Finn claims two of the fingers from his stabbed hand before plunging into the Thames. Thorkell lets him go, hoping for another fun fight in the future.

It is clear King Sweyn bit off more than he could chew, and isn’t going to get the quick victory he wanted, so he redirects the bulk of his armies to Wessex in the west, where they’ll hopefully have more luck. He leaves the continued siege of London, and just 4,000 men, to his son Prince Canute, despite protests from Ragnar, whom the king blames for making the lad “faint of heart.”

Whether Canute succeeds in London will probably determine whether he succeeds to the throne, but as we haven’t heard a word from him, who knows how that’ll go. Perhaps at some point he’ll get some lines and we can see what kind of person and warrior he is beyond what others say about him.

As for Thorfinn, he’s washed down the river westward and meets back up with Askeladd’s crew, now headed to Wessex. After popping his dislocated shoulder back in, he joins the march, remembering the words of the “madman” Thorkell talking about how fun fighting is. But it’s not fun for Thorfinn. It never was, and probably never will be.

Vinland Saga – 08 – Bound by Past and Pride

Thankfully there are no goofy-looking generals or ships overladen with treasure falling down waterfalls without damage this week, as Askeladd’s crew returns home to the Jutland peninsula and settle down for the winter. When they arrive, there are boys eager to join the crew to replace those who died in battle, and girls eager to give Askeladd a warm welcome—and get some pretty jewelry in return.

These lands are owned by the feudal Lord Gorm, who micromanages every quarter-piece of silver it will cost for Askeladd and his men to live, eat, and drink on those lands. Askeladd is rolling in dough, so that’s not a problem. He also meets Gorm’s slave Hordaland, named after her homeland in Norway. Gorm blames her noble upbringing for her ineptness as a servant, but Askeladd thinks he’s just not using her the right way.

Oh yeah, there’s also that tiny little matter of the duel between Askeladd and Thorfinn; the time has finally come. Now that he’s older and harder, a couple women actually take notice of Thorfinn’s mild cuteness, though he once again needs a good barber…and probably a bath too.

Like last time, Askeladd treats the start of the duel rather casually, but Thorfinn immediately demonstrates that if he lets his guard down too much. He’s killed many people and gotten a lot of training and battle experience since their last duel, and it’s on full display in his less erratic, more deliberate and thoughtful fighting style.

However, in those same years Finn has gotten older and better, Askeladd is still as good as he’s ever been at using not just whoever but whatever he has to win, and he also happens to know exactly how to push Thorfinn’s buttons.

He pretends not to remember Thors’ name or whether he actually killed him, with a condescending and disrespectful tone that causes Finn to quickly lose his temper and make an ill-advised charge that Askeladd is all too ready for.

Since no one said anything about a fight to the death, and surely Askeladd has no interest in taking the life of one of his best scouts, he simply knocks him out after neutralizing him with a stunning move. Thorfinn may have become a better warrior, but he’s still no match for his captain.

That night at a huge feast, one of those eager boys sidles up to Askeladd seeking a job, and asks his possibly future captain why he risks keeping someone like Thorfinn around when he could easily kill him in his sleep? Askeladd is categorical: Finn would never do that. He is a warrior, like his father, and would never accept victory devoid of honor.

Askeladd can sleep soundly because Finn is held back by the twin binds of past and pride. He also can’t help but laugh as he watches Lord Gorm, a slave to money, beating Hordaland, not just a literal slave but a slave to her past and pride, being a former noble who had no say in her present situation.

As Thorfinn sulks aboard his father’s ship, Thors comes to him in a vision, and upon placing his hand on his son’s head, Finn turns back into a boy and bursts into tears. Thors knows nothing he can say can stop his son from seeking revenge, but reminds him again that no one has any enemies, and the most honorable warrior has no need for a sword.

When Hordaland surprises Thorfinn with some dinner, we finally get to hear how she feels about her situation, rather than just assume from how she acts around Lord Gorm. She believes, rightly so, that she and Finn aren’t that different: both are where they are because they have nowhere else to be. In her case, she believes even if she ran away and kept running, she’d just end up someplace just like Gorm’s lands.

As the snow starts to pick up, Finn tells her about Vinland, and in doing so attempts to give her some hope that it does matter whether or not you run and/or fight (Horda would never kill, and probably doesn’t want to start, but she can still run if she chooses to). True to Thors’ words of wisdom, both Finn and Horda have no real enemies—only their own self-imposed binds.

In the August of the next year (1013), King Sweyn’s armies mount a huge invasion of England, burning, pillaging, and raping their way all the way to London…where their momentum is suddenly halted by a stout defense, including someone who looks like Askeladd’s wilder English brother. Sweyn also gives his son Prince Canute a chance at valor, who along with his other son Harald, are candidates for succeeding him.

While it’s exciting to see an early London come into the picture and other big-world developments, what made this episode was the duel (and how it was won) and its more intimate moments: those between Askeladd and Gorm, Askeladd and the wannabe fighter, and between Thorfinn and Hordaland. Vinland Saga has some shiny toys to toss around, but those smaller human interactions pack a far meatier emotional punch.