Vinland Saga – 24 (Fin) – The Prelude Hath Ended

I tell you, gentle reader, I was not ready for the epic-ness this episode dished out, nor the way it completely exploded my idea of where I thought this show might be headed in a rhetorical second season. But I don’t watch shows to have my feeble theories proven right; I watch to be entertained and surprised, which I very much was. Though in hindsight, it was folly not to expect absolutely anything from Askeladd.

Last week we saw Askeladd dreading the corner into which he’d been pushed. On one hand, he must make nice with King Sweyn in order to keep the longer-term plans for Canute’s ascent viable. On the other, Sweyn seems to have deduced Askeladd’s Kryptonite to be Wales, and aims to mercilessly exploit that weakness.

Sweyn entertains Askeladd’s boldness after he attempts to dissuade the king with logic: Wales just isn’t worth it. But in exchange for his lenience, he draws in close to Askeladd and gives him a choice: Canute or Wales. He can only save one. Sweyn twists the knife by telling Askeladd the only good export from Wales is slaves.

Out at the port, Thorfinn boards Leif’s ship—the very same ship he dreamed of boarding as a boy so he could join Erikson on his adventures hither and thither. Finally he’s been given permission to embark, but Thorfinn’s attention is captured by a seabird preening then taking flight into the bright blue sky.

It almost looks like a metaphor for Thorfinn’s present state of freedom and potential for more, but it turns out to be an omen. The bird isn’t his freedom, but the lodestar to which he’s hitched his wagon these past eleven years, about to take off without him. Thorfinn suddenly vanishes from the ship, to Leif’s unyielding dismay.

Let it be said that Askeladd is, as Thorkell puts it, “good with words.” It’s why he had his own loyal army for so long, and why he’s able to openly question the king’s judgment.  But he’s always had deep thoughts to match behind those words, as well as decisive action to back them up. But had thought long and hard for a scenario in which Sweyn would make him choose between his homeland and his chosen heir to the throne?

Hard, perhaps; long, hard to say. “Plan B” happens in a hurry, because Askeladd would never get as good a chance as he had in that moment. So he draws his sword and beheads Sweyn with one swipe before the guards can come near. If he and Sweyn were playing chess, this is Ashy flipping the board and letting the pieces clatter on the ground in chaos. He also reveals his true birth name, Lucius Artorius Castus, offering it as proof he is the rightful King of England.

Askeladd, to most in the hall, appears to have gone quite mad, and the extremity of his rambling continues as he carves through the guards, who it is notable to mention follow orders from Prince Canute. Askeladd isn’t really mad at all; he simply surveyed the board and knew he wouldn’t win without sacrifice. When Canute tells Thorkell of Askeladd’s “act”, Thorkell makes it clear that it must be Canute who executes his father’s murderer.

Canute manages to do so, plunging his sword into Askeladd’s heart, impressing the old man with the precision of his first killing strike. Thorfinn is too late to stop it. The plans surrounding who will rule the Danes and England proved too large and important to pay any bother to his personal vendetta, something that had gone on so long it had soured into a pathetic futility; a source of pathos, not fear.

When a stunned Thorfinn suddenly lashes out at Canute, cutting his perfect cheek, the new king’s loyal subjects line up to kill his would-be assassin. But Canute interrupts their attempts to win favor with the new boss; Thorfinn still isn’t that important. Canute immediately cancels any incursions into Wales, and as everyone assembled bends the knee, he orders his armies to prepare for English revolts in the wake of his father’s death.

The conquered must be made to understand that the new king has no intention of giving up what has been taken. Thorfinn could potentially have a part in that, thanks only to Canute’s surpassing charity, which saved his life. It would be too easy to say Canute did a disservice to Thorfinn, even if the kid’s life has never looked bleaker.

There he sits, beside the fresh corpse of his surrogate father and nemesis, unable and even possibly incapable of even considering how he’ll live the next five minutes, let alone the remaining years of his life. Before he dies, Askeladd begged Thorfinn not to let himself get stuck in “such a boring place” as he currently inhabits.

As he’s carried away, Thors’ dagger falls out of his son’s hand, the past twenty-four episodes of Vinland Saga thus far rapidly unfold, reflected in the blade. Then we’re teased with new locations and new characters, but no explicit announcement of a second season. While it seems highly likely one is coming, questions abound: Will Thorfinn be a part of it, or will his story conclude in an upcoming film?

Whatever the case, this finale was a brilliant culmination of the events that have unfolded thus far, with the stories of old players like Sweyn and Askeladd coming to a close and the stories of young players like Thorfinn and Canute still up in the air. More than anything, it left me wanting more, and hoping to get it as soon as possible. After all, if such a tremendous work was merely the prologue, how does that bode for the story proper?

Vinland Saga – 23 – Adrift At Sea

Following the thorough and decisive physical and emotional ownage cast upon him by Askeladd, Thorfinn is quite literally lost. Limping through the mud, his arm searing with pain and the blood still on his face, he can’t be bothered to do much of anything, aside from engage in a bit of street brawling and get arrested and thrown in jail.

Canute, meanwhile, begins the intricate dance of death with his father Sweyn at the council of elders. The king embraces his son and thanks the gods for returning him and Thorkell, then appoints Canute to rule the fertile and prosperous lands of Mercia, hard won by his leal service. To Askeladd’s eyes, everything is going as he had foreseen…right up until it doesn’t.

While the king is playing nice, he adds a caveat that, intentionally or not, changes the game completely: announcing his intention to open up a new front against Wales in the Spring. This leaves Askeladd scrambling to think of a counter-move that will still net Canute the crown without setting his beloved homeland ablaze. He doesn’t come up with one here, indicating he underestimated the king’s wits. And Floki definitely notices Askeladd going pale (as Ash!) upon hearing Wales.


As for Thorfinn, he’s probably where he should be considering how he’s basically squandered the last eleven years of his life on a meaningless, self-defeating, futile quest for revenge. Leif Erikson hears he’s been locked up, and visits the jail to try to snap him out of this profound slump, first by considering it a matter of personal honor to return Thorfinn to Iceland.

That doesn’t go over so well, so Leif offers him something else: The New World: Vinland. Perhaps there, Thorfinn can gain a new, more fulfilling purpose. To his credit, Thorfinn sits up and doesn’t immediately dismiss the offer. Here’s hoping he takes it, especially if things with Askeladd turn sideways.

Vinland Saga – 21 – It Will Never Be Enough

It’s pretty amazing that Askeladd, who only a couple episodes ago was about to be assassinated by his own mutinying men, now finds himself taking a prominent role in maneuvering Prince Canute to the throne of the most powerful kingdom in Europe. Then again, it’s par for the course: Askeladd isn’t a mere pirate, he’s a tremendous diplomat, charmer, and spinner of yarns, all to aid his own interests.

Askeladd knows he’s sending his prince into a veritable hornets nest from which he may never come out…unless he plays his cards right. Sweyn wants Canute out of the picture, but he’s not reckless or bloodthirsty. He must match the king’s wits with his own. When Canute is shot in the chest by a sniper with a crossbow, the person actually shot was merely a slave woman serving as his body double.

Thorfinn goes after the sniper, and ends up in the arms of one Leif Erikson, a man he had probably not thought about in some time. Leif spots Askeladd first, and surely feels he owes Thors a heavy debt for saving them years ago. Leif remembers the cheerful boy on Iceland, and expects that he’s ready to leave the battlefield and go home; that he’s had enough of battle. He sure looks it, after all.

Of course, that’s not the case. Thorfinn betrays a moment or two of surprise upon seeing his old uncle again, but any talk of going home or seeing his mother and sister again, and he immediately puts his shell back up. It hasn’t been enough, and it never will be until Askeladd breathes his last, having been pierced through the heart with the blade of Thors, wielded by his son.

It’s entirely expected for Finn to act this way, but it hardly means he’s gone for good; he’s still so young after all. Just that he has his priorities. If he even considers himself the same person as the boy who has a mother and sister in Iceland, which is itself in doubt, returning comes home is entirely dependant on getting his father the revenge he believes he’s due.

That’s despite him knowing full well his father would have preferred he stop fighting and return home to family years ago, and not even bother with Askeladd.

That night, Askeladd visits an irreparably-wounded Bjorn, who arranges for his boss to fight and kill him tomorrow. Then Askeladd holds council with Canute, Thorkell, and Gunnar, and we learn just how much he’s thought through this York situation. He hired the assassin to attack the double, in hopes of making a big public show for the people of York that King Sweyn was playing dirty.

Indeed, we see rumors of varying degrees of accuracy spread across the city. Askeladd’s elite gut even sniffs out Gunnar’s treachery, and in Gunnar’s presence not only said only what he wanted Sweyn himself to eventually hear (that they’re not interested in a short-term battle, but in buying time), but has Finn follow Gunnar and his spy all the way to Sweyn’s house.

Canute doesn’t like how a woman had to give her life for a charade, but he can’t really complain when it’s put him in a far better position, increasing his available options while limiting those of his father.

The next day, Thorfinn asks Askeladd for yet another duel, and Askeladd once again accepts, with Canute and Thorkell acting as witnesses. But first, Askeladd has “a previous engagement” with Bjorn, who arrives and draws his sword for his last fight.

Before he dies, Bjorn tells his leader how much he looked up to him, but also pitied him for the loneliness he must experience. He paints Askeladd as someone who has risen to his present station (and indeed still breathes and stands, albeit with one so-so-leg) by rejecting everything and anyone.

Still, all Bjorn wanted to be his friend, and before delivering the blow that kills him, Askeladd grants him that wish before he passes. He allows him to hear those words, then turns Thorfinn, who may well succeed him as the next Askeladd. Scoring victories and glory left and right, but with nary a friend, family member, or lover to share it with.

Vinland Saga – 20 – Everything Must Change

Flanked by Askeladd, Thorfinn, and his new follower Thorkell and his army, Canute marches into Gainsborough like at…well, like a Prince—a clueless boy no longer. Floki can clearly tell something has changed just by looking at Canute’s eyes and hearing his tone.

His newfound backbone, charisma, and will conspire to put Floki in his place. It’s a good start, but the prince knows swaying his father won’t be so easy. More likely than not, the king will have to die before Canute’s Paradise on Earth can be realized.

Canute takes only Askeladd and Thorfinn to his meeting with the king, but the three realize almost immediately that they are walking into a potential ambush. Sweyn has packed his hall with hidden soldiers and archers, and his precise commands for where the trio to stand/kneel makes it clear he’s not shy about his intentions to finish what the war in England couldn’t—dispatch the son he no longer needs.

Askeladd demonstrates what an asset he is to Canute by using his silver tongue to beg Sweyn to reconsider what he believes the “will of the crown” to be. Sweyn has certainly seen better days (long ago, he apparently resembled Canute), and he’s not so subtly implying that the crown he wears is largely responsible, as it has a will of its own…much like the One Ring.

All a king can do is hold onto and increase his power. When Askeladd explains how that wouldn’t necessarily happen if he assassinates Canute, the king withdraws from that course of action, and an uneasy truce is reached. They’re to reconvene in York, where he’ll have a “reward” for his son’s service to the crown.

That night, Canute sits and drinks with his men (and a fresh-shaven—and 23-year-old!—Williband), and hears Askeladd’s impression of his father. Bottom line: Sweyn is no slouch, and dealing with him will pose a considerable challenge.

While pissing outside, Atli and his now brain-damaged brother bid their former boss farewell. Askeladd, a good sport, gives Atli some gold and one final order: never pick up a sword again, but take a wife and work the land. Canute’s paradise will need many more men like Atli and less like Askeladd or Thorkell. Because everything has to change.

P.S. Another Leif Erikson sighting, in Northumbria. Will his and Askeladd’s paths cross once more before the curtain falls?

Vinland Saga – 12 – The Face of a King

As Thorkell’s forces chases his, Askeladd sends a message across the Severn River, hoping for some reinforcements to even the odds. His “Ear”, an Asian-looking man with very good hearing, can tell the enemy is only a few days away, if that.

The men are worried, and Bjorn relays that worry, but Askeladd is content to leave everyone in the dark. He also hasn’t been quite the same since seeing Prince Canute’s face. It just doesn’t seem like the face of a king. To be fair, Canute is young…but so is Thorfinn.

A thick, brooding atmosphere of impending doom pervades the march of Askeladd’s men as they grow more fatigued and Thorkell draws closer, but takes on a more otherworldly hue once they arrive at the spot where Askeladd says the reinforcements will be waiting.

The rendezvous point is a Roman ruin, suffused in fog. The soundtrack starts to boom with synth bass and brash, punishing tuba as Askeladd draws near and bows in deference to the two figures in romanesque garb. Eventually, triremes come into view.

These aren’t representatives of the Roman Empire reborn, nor another world, but one of the stubbornly independent kingdoms of Wales. Any enemy of the English is a ally of theirs. Askeladd’s connections enable them to cross Wales to reach Gainsborough rather than deal with Thorkell.

It will be a long journey, and the lands of Wales are rough and unforgiving, so Askeladd appoints Thorfinn as Prince Canute’s bodyguard. Amusingly, the Welsh commander mistakes Finn as the Danish prince, and says the same thing Askeladd thought when he sees his face—just not king material…at least not yet.

Thorfinn’s job is to make sure Canute lives to fulfill his destiny, but despite being the same age the two couldn’t have more different paths to get to that age. Finn is cold to Canute, while the prince is frightened of Finn. We’ll see if putting the two together toughens Canute, softens Finn…or both. Of course, the challenge of just keeping Canute alive becomes painfully plain when their forces are lured into a trap, with archers from a neighboring Welsh kingdom raining arrows down on them.

In an odd aside, we see an aged, balding Leif Erikson arriving at a port, and spots one of the slaves being taken away. (S?)he looks a lot like Thorfinn: messy straw hair, brown eyes. I wasn’t quite sure what was going on here. Does this scene place some time after the ambush? I doubt Finn would be so easily captured. If you have any insight into that, let me know in the comments.

Otherwise, this was an interesting episode to mark the halfway point of the series. Thorfinn is protecting Canute mostly to get another duel out of Askeladd, a duel that’s sure to be the closest yet as he grows stronger and Askeladd gets older. But there’s a lot going on around him that threatens postpone or even deprive him of that duel, if for instance Askeladd doesn’t survive the ambush.

Vinland Saga – 05 – A Duel Deferred

Despite Askeladd and his crew being sure Thorfinn would eventually die of hunger, thirst, and/or exposure on the captured ship, he survives long enough for them to sail into the Humber for a brief stint in England. At first his thirst for revenge outweighs everything, but he slips on some moss and gets knocked out by a tree trunk. Defeated by his surroundings before he’s anywhere near the enemy.

He awakes in a gorgeously lit forest and finally drinks some fresh water. He’s so surprised to still be alive he even manages to smile and laugh, but that cheerful mood doesn’t last when he starts to hear screams and spots flames in the distance. Askeladd’s men have decided to spend their “resting time” doing what they apparently do best: rape, burn, and pillage.

Once things die down Finn sneaks into the village and finds the hut where Askeladd is sleeping, unprotected. Eschewing his dagger for an unwieldy longsword, he raises it in preparation to behead his father’s murderer, but stops and retreats, much to the surprise of Askeladd (who was briefly roused before going back to sleep.

In the morning, it’s confirmed why Finn stayed his hand: he’s his’ father’s son. Stabbing a sleeping man in the back isn’t his style; he wants a proper duel with Askeladd. Unfortunately Finn is absolutely no match for Askeladd, especially when he’s letting his sword swing him. He gets a brutal kick to the gut, but that’s all he gets.

Back in Iceland, Leif and the rest of the crew return and inform Helga and Ylva of Thors’ honorable death, and promise to not rest until they’ve found Thorfinn. Ylva, bypassing several stages of grief, flies straight to detatched acceptance and gets back to work, reacting to the news with little more than a shrug and by admitting she figured he’d get killed one of these days.

Neither Ylva’s friends nor her mother are buying what she’s selling—that she feels nothing for what has happened and merely wants to move on—and this is most powerfully illustrated when Ylva is working on a loom late into the night and Helga puts her hands on hers to stop her.

Only then, when Ylva stops—working, busying her mind, simply stops—do tears start to flow, almost despite herself, from her crystal blue eyes. Then Helga draws her into an embrace of shared grief and comfort. Will Ylva stay with her mother, perhaps the only family she has left, or join Leif on the search for her kid brother?

As we know, she still has a brother, who simply refuses to die. While Thorfinn won’t accept scraps from Askeladd’s men when they’re offered, he comes back later to eat what little meat is left and suck out the marrow. He has a chance encounter with Bjorn (collecting mushrooms), who treats him as little more than an irritant, but tells him that while his father was indeed strong, he was also naive. Finn isn’t even strong, not yet, which means he doesn’t have a chance.

Taking that to heart, Thorfinn continues training in the forest, and one night encounters a hungry wolf. Remembering Askeladd’s words about being swung by his own sword, Finn ditches the huge weapon for something much more suited to his size: the dagger Thors gave him. He then kills his first wolf, learns to throw a dagger, kills his first rabbit, feeds himself, recovers some strength.

As Askeladd and his men prepare to depart, having stayed longer than originally planned, Thorfinn confronts him one last time with yet another duel challenge. This time, he shows Askeladd a lot more, and even surprises him with the thrown dagger, but Finn is still nowhere close to being a threat.

Demonstrating he has at least some heart and empathy for the kid’s plight, Askeladd refuses to kill him, and instead makes a promise: if Finn becomes stronger and distinguishes himself in battle, he will honor the duel at a later date. The implication is, he must first join Askeladd’s crew. Knowing that as much as he might want to avenge his father, he’s still too young and weak, Finn agrees, and a truce is struck.

Vinland Saga – 04 – The Warrior Without a Sword

Even Askeladd’s biggest, toughest warrior Bjorn, tripping balls on “berserker mushrooms,” can’t make Thors so much as draw his sword. He defeats an entire boatfull of Askeladd’s men with his bare hands, then smells him out as the leader and challenges him to a duel.

Askeladd shows why he commands such a large group of unruly pirates—he’s really good in a swordfight, relying on speed, surprise, and trickery to get the upper hand. When Thors starts wearing down Askeladd’s sword at the cost of his own, Askeladd takes the bait, swinging wide and paying for it.

If Askeladd were an honorable warrior like Thors, he would have accepted defeat. But things aren’t that simple. Thors is outraged that the rules are being broken, but Askeladd has clearly made a life out of doing just that—not to mention Thors also broke the rules by deserting in the first place.

Now, while it’s been great hanging out with the Troll of Jom and seeing the awesome things he can do, we’ve known pretty much since the start that he wasn’t going to last long, and sure enough, as Thorfinn watches helplessly, he’s run through with a good number of arrows from above.

In the end, Thors was as much a victim of his own pacifist ideals, and the expectation everyone he dealt with would follow the warrior’s code to the letter, than those arrows or any cheating on Askeladd’s part. Men like Askeladd almost always outlast men like Thors because they understand that rules don’t mean a damn thing if you’re dead.

In Thors’ case, he’s also incredibly lucky that Askeladd decides to honor Thors’ duel victory by withdrawing and sparing the rest of Thors’ crew. But his one final miscalculation was that Thorfinn would go quietly back to Iceland after watching his father cheated and killed before his eyes.

Thors’ death now sets up Thorfinn’s quest for vengeance, as he stows away the villagers’ ship Askeladd’s crew took as a prize and basically stares the man down, promising he’ll kill him. Askeladd is unimpressed, and tells his men to leave him to starve. If he manages to survive, he could be useful down the road. After all, his whole crew saw the fire in the kid’s eyes.

I won’t lie; it was tough to blast through three fantastic episodes of Vinland Saga in the first week, then wait three weeks for the fourth, especially when we knew full well Thors was doomed and his son is going to join Askeladd’s crew. It would have been better if this introductory arc had been completed before the long hiatus, but alas. Still, while telegraphed, Thors’ death was still well-executed. Now we move on to the next phase.

Vinland Saga – 03 – It’ll Pull You In

Askeladd immediately shows both Floki and us what kind of dudes we’re dealing with, as he manages to double the bounty for Thors’ head from five to ten pounds of gold. Floki is a very shrewd man with good instincts, but he also has a solid right-hand-man in Bjorn, who spears a Jomsviking who was hiding behind a tapestry and passes it off as an innocent accident.

As for Thors, he doesn’t leave at the break of dawn, but is seen off by the whole village. Before they leave, all five of the young men he’s bringing along have designs on asking Ylva for her hand in marriage upon their return and presenting her with spoils of war; all Ylva wants is a little more shuteye.

When a young lass who likes Ari (one of the guys who tried to propose to Ylva) is cruelly rebuffed, Leif assures her none of the five greenhorn lads will come to any harm; Thors will see to it they’re dumped off in Norway before they see any battle, and Leif promises he’ll ship them back to Iceland, disappointed, but with their organs still very much internal.

Seemingly the only member of the village not seeing them off is Thorfinn, who is nowhere to be found and presumed by both Thors and Ylva to still be off skulking, angry about being scolded. We get a little more comedy when the five guys line up on one side of the boat, while Thors is on the other side all on his own with one hell of a huge oar. Leif bangs out the pace on the drum, and the ships are off.

It isn’t until they’re already out in the open sea that Thorfinn reveals he stowed away. While peeing over the side (he really needed to pee) he suddenly notices where he is, and his smile is so wide and bright, Thors can’t help but smile back, despite the fact his son just ruined his plans to try to keep him safe.

He later paints Finn’s back door red for his insolence (pretty tame discipline from a viking in the 11th century), as the gears turn in Askeladd’s head. He chats with Bjorn about the bounty deal not seeming quite right; he’s quite sure Floki reached out to them independently and his superior didn’t order Thors’ execution.

Askeladd also believes Floki is afraid of incurring a great loss of his own men, and so hired someone else. This tells Askeladd that this Thors fellow shouldn’t be a pushover, even if Floki says he’s “not a warrior” anymore.

As night falls, Thors warns Ari not to stare at the moon in the sea, lest it “pull him in,” a common nautical hazard. As Thorfinn dozes contently in his lap, Thors tells Ari more about his first child, the woman Ari says he’s in love with.

It was a difficult birth for Helga, the daughter of the leader of the Jomsvikings, but Thors was about to head out on another mission, and was annoyed he got a daughter instead of a son. He’s about to leave when Helga asks him to name her.

He says he’s “busy”, but Helga insists—the first time he ever saw her truly angry. So he named her Ylva, after his mother. And that, he tells Ari, was the first time he started to feel afraid of battle…which makes sense, as dying in battle meant abandoning his newborn child and wife to an uncertain future.

The next day they arrive at the Faroe Islands—the usual rest stop between Iceland and Scandinavia. They row into a cove that leads to a trading village, but the high walls immediately spell foreboding, and Leif notes that there are fewer structures in the village itself.

By the time they start rowing out of the cove, it’s to late—Askeladd’s men start dumping huge piles of debris onto their ships, blocking their only exit. Then another drum can be heard: the drum of Askeladd’s two ships rowing towards them.

Ari and the other men bristle and claim to be ready for battle, but Thors knows better; the boys will be no match for these hardened foes. So he takes a deep, “I’m getting too old for this shit” breath, pulls out his sword, and hands his dagger to Thorfinn, warning him only to use it in time of absolute need.

Before Askeladd’s men know it, Thors has leapt onto one of their ships. He takes out the first man with one punch, two others with two more, and then three with three; six skilled men downed without even drawing his sword. It’s then that Bjorn and Askeladd know: they’re going to have to work their asses off to earn every ounce of that gold.

Each of the first three Vinland Sagas have been very different affairs—from an introduction to Thors and Thorfinn and live in Iceland, to the arrival of a new old threat, to the swashbuckling adventure that begins in this episode. But all three of kicked all kinds of ass in their own way.

Like Thors himself, it doesn’t glamorize violence or killing, and Ari and his four hotshot friends are presented as the naive fools they are. As for Thorfinn, he may not have pissed himself while hiding in that barrel, but yeah…he’s now somewhere that’s absolutely no place for a six-year-old. I just can’t see how this ends well for anyone…but nor dare I look away.

Vinland Saga – 02 – Nobody Has Enemies, but Everybody Loves War

As the English launch an ambush on their Danish occupiers during their Saturday bath (note to self: switch up bath days for this very reason) in Northumbria—slaughtering men, women and children indiscriminately—the children in Thors’ village, Thorfinn inluded, participate in mock battles using blunted wooden swords and spears.

It’s a simple but effective juxtaposition of the ideation of war as a grand, noble, and honorable venture, and all it really boils down to: people ending the lives of other people, often without even the slightest hint of grandeur, honor, or nobility.

Thors ended many lives as a warrior, but those days would seem to be over, as he now takes smithing classes not to make weapons, but to make cooking pots. But his old comrades, the elite Jomvikings, have other ideas. A warship captained by Floki land at the village, their mere presence a transparent threat.

It’s revealed Thors essentially deserted when he jumped into the ocean and cast away his sword. The Jomsvikings don’t take kindly to desertion, but they’re giving Thors one chance to repent because he is a skilled warrior. Floki gives him an offer he dare not refuse, because now that they know of his village, it’s the villagers—and his family—who will suffer if he does.

As Floki makes the announcement that Thors has agreed to join their campaign and will need volunteers to crew his warship, the entire village erupts into celebration: finally, a war! But the only one who has actually seen war—Thors—is the very picture of gloom.

As they drag the village warship out of mothballs and prep her for the voyage to Jomsberg, Thorfinn gets a bit overzealous during the mock battles, injuring a couple of kids four to five years older than him, breaking one of their arms with his wooden sword.

When he gets home he tosses that sword aside, because he wants—he thinks he needs—a real weapon. Snooping around the storage room, he soon finds a stately chest, full of Thors’ old regalia and weapons (minus the sword he tossed).

When Thorfinn takes a dagger in his hand, unsheathes it, and holds it up to the light to admire, his father’s huge hand closes upon it, as powerful and concise an image as Vinland Saga has conjured thus far. Thors isn’t the kind of dad to rage or even raise his voice to his kids, so when he asks his son who he plans to kill with these weapons, it carries even more weight.

Thorfinn, all naivete and bluster, says he plans to kill “the enemy,” but Thors asks him who that is, knowing he has no idea. In his many brutal bloody battles, Thors gradually learned that fighting and killing is ultimately pointless, which is why he cast it aside. But his son has already been influenced by his peers and by the presence of the Jomsvikings.

Thorfinn also thinks his father is being hypocritical, as he’s heading out to war. Never does it occur to him that he shouldn’t be thinking about fighting in any battles anyway simply because…he’s six damn years old.

As Helga stoically cleans the dagger wound on his hand, Thors tells her to take care of Thorfinn. The next morning, Leif, who is joining Thors, tells him the conditions are right to begin the voyage, and Thors takes one last look at his sleeping son before departing.

Meanwhile, on one of the Faroe Islands, Floki is meeting with someone named Askeladd, who has been contracted by the Jomsvikings to kill Thors, in exchange for five pounds of gold. Thors is sailing into a trap, to his death, and there’s no guarantee the village will be left alone if and when he’s taken out.

The question is, is he as reluctant and morose about having to mobilize simply because he thought he was done with this shit…or because he knows it’s a trap, has no choice but to sail into it, and can no longer guarantee his family’s safety?

Vinland Saga – 01 (First Impressions) – Hard Times in a Hard Land

Fresh off the heels of Attack on Titan’s third season, Wit Studio brings us something just as harsh and bleak and serious, but with its roots in real history; specifically, Vikings. We’re immediately thrust into a melee aboard a longship in the middle of a huge naval battle, as the stoic warrior Thors is rudely awakened from a pleasant daydream of greener pastures and his wife Helga by an attacking foe.

Thors easily defeats his opponent, then carves through dozens more in a very businesslike fasion before anyone lays a finger on him—or in this case, an arrow to his shoulder. Still, he pulls a warrior into the freezing sea with him to even the odds, kills him, and eventually comes ashore, none the worse for wear. The battle is an impressive display of mixed 2D and 3D animation, particularly the sudden storm of hail.

Fifteen years later, in the harsh colds of Iceland, Thors lives with his wife Helga, his daughter Ylva, and his young son Thorfinn, who longs to go on adventures like another village member, the gregarious Leif Erikson (who discovered North America, which he called Vinland, half a millennium before Columbus).

Donning a headpiece and smoking a pipe from the natives he met, Erikson evokes both awe and skepticism from the kids, but Thorfinn is mostly among the former. He doesn’t like Iceland, and would rather be anywhere. I can’t blame him; while an achingly gorgeous land, surviving there is a constant battle, and the spirit of a warrior like his dad Thors is paramount in such an exercise.

As Thors talks with Leif long into the night about the worsening winters in Greenland and Iceland, and how his family’s battles are only going to get tougher, Thorfinn dreams of captaining a grand longship on a westward journey.

Unfortunately they run into the legendary Jormungand, who proceeds to squeeze Thorfinn until he awakes. Turns out Jormungand was Ylva, sharing his warm bed (a “hot” commodity in such a cold land). Vinland Saga wastes no time showing that while life is hard, this family has endured by sticking together.

Ylva, it seems, would still prefer if they bought a slave, since her mother has grown weaker, something to which her dad seems morally opposed. But when she falls off the roof they’re clearing of snow (a scary moment), she lands on something strange, and after some digging, she finds a runaway slave.

Meanwhile, Thorfinn, probably not doing his fair share of chores considering he’s just hanging around Leif, wants to start adventuring at once, not waiting until he grows into a man. Leif warns him of the dangers of the sea, particularly so far north, and how he was once the only survivor out of a crew of seven whose ship was crushed by ice floes.

When Thorfinn asks why they all live in such a hard place, Leif doesn’t sugarcoat it: their forbears once lived in Norway, but when a king rose there and demanded the people choose fealty or exile, they left. Thorfinn is angered and doesn’t believe Leif, seeing this fleeing of his ancestors as cowardly.

The slave gains consciousness after Thors warms him by the fire gives him a kind of primitive CPR, and is awake long enough to tell him he doesn’t want to go back to Halfdan’s household. We soon learn why when Halfdan suddenly shows up at the village, causing a standoff. Still, the chain-obsessed Halfdan is looking for a slave, not a fight, so even when one of his own men tries to attack a villager, he flays the skin from his face himself. Talk about lawful evil…

Upon entering Thors’ house, he demands they return the slave to him. Thors offers to buy the slave instead, for more than Halfdan paid for him—over four times more, when the negotiations conclude. The whole time, Ylva can’t believe her dad is making such a deal, which isn’t a good one in any century.

Sure enough, the slave dies soon after the deal is struck, leaving Thors’ family short eight goats. But I know why Thors did it. The slave had already suffered enough, and Thors wasn’t going to be the one to return him to his earthly torments. Better to die peacefully, which is what he did. It was a bad deal, but it was the right thing to do.

That night, as the family watches the Northern Lights from a dramatic promontory (it really is a shockingly gorgeous land), presumably after burying the slave, Thorfinn asks his dad if Leif was telling the truth about their people running away. Thors quietly confirms that “that’s what they say.” To which Thorfinn asks, if one wanted to run away from here, where would they go?

The answer, it seems, will likely drive Thorfinn from this sleepy, cold, and often cruel village, no doubt after whoever is smirking in a longship attacks his village…at least that seems to be the likeliest sequence of events. Not being well-versed in Norse history (and never having read the manga), his journey will be new to me.

While a mostly quiet and understated beginning, Vinland Saga built a strong foundation for the coming twenty-three episodes (the following two of which I will review soon) by showing us Thorfinn’s roots, and why his wanderlust is so strong. I can assure you if Leif Erickson regailed us with tales of his travels every night, I’d probably want to head out too.