Vinland Saga – 13 – The Prince is Beautiful, But Cautious

After what looked like a no-win scenario had unfolded for Askeladd, Thorfinn, and Prince Canute, the standoff actually de-escalates when Askeladd starts speaking Welsh, to the surprise of even Bjorn.

It’s his assessment that their “hosts” from Brycheiniog won’t do them any harm, but they cannot let a horde of Danes cross their lands unchallenged, hence their intimidating posture. Askeladd tries to get Canute to intimidate them back, but the prince hides behind Ragnar.

Askeladd and Gratianus have a private meeting with the Brycheiniog commander, Asser, in which Askeladd reveals that he is half Dane and half Welsh, and a living descendant of the legendary King Artorius of Brittania, who inspired the legend of King Arthur.

The episode’s cryptic cold open depicts him in his youth bringing his dying mother back to Wales, and Gratianus greeting him. It should be noted young Askeladd looks a lot like Thorfinn. No wonder he’s taken such a shine to him; he’s the son he never had.

Anyway, Askeladd agrees to hand over the weapons of all his men and allow themselves to be escorted across Brycheiniog so Asser and his king can save face and look good to the common subjects. In exchange, Askeladd will see to it Canute is the one who succeeds the Danish throne, which means he’ll have a powerful seat at the table with which to ensure a treaty of non-aggression with Wales is arranged.

The fact of the matter is, Askeladd hates the Danes, likely in part (if not mostly) because of what they did to his mother. He seems as intent of keeping Wales unspoiled for her sake as anything else. But between some concerned looks from Bjorn and some groaning of his men, he will be testing their loyalty—and the secrets he’s kept from them—to their furthest limits by changing their route to Gainsborough.

In the meantime, Prince Canute finally hits his limit for enduring verbal abuse and mockery from Thorfinn, and calmly explains that as a prince he must be more cautious with his words…before abandoning that cautiousness to give Thorfinn a piece of his mind. Ragnar is shocked, but in a good way; he knows more than most how he might be hurting the fledgling by not insisting he leave the nest.

Still, Ragnar’s desire to protect a child who has already endured so much (Canute’s childhood was not a happy or peaceful one) seems to override that logic. It’s probably heartening to no end to hear Canute speaking to someone other than him; it means Canute and Thorfinn are, against all odds, developing a rapport. That can only be good for the both of them.

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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 – 11 – A Valkyrie in Midgard

Thorkell leads his 600 men through the forest with his new hostages: Prince Canute, his master-at-arms Ragnar, and a drunken priest, all Christians. The men start to mock the Christian faith and Jesus as a weakling with lame magic powers, but the priest starts to yell and scream about “seeing Him,” leading Ragnar to urge his captors to give the poor man more booze.

When Thorkell asks the priest which god is best, he responds “whichever god created booze!” Canute, perhaps the most passive character of the Summer 2019 season, having neither said nor done anything in any of the episodes in which he appears, simply sits in stoic silence. This suggest that his faith is so strong, if he simply lets the cards fall where they may, he’ll ultimately be saved.

Sure enough, his forces catch up to Thorkell and demand they return the prince, claiming they outnumber them nearly four-to-one. Thorkell can smell a bluff, but lets them have Canute anyway. His magnanimity is matched by his ability to effortlessly provoke Canutes men into resisting Ragnar’s orders for surrender and place their own honor above the well-being of their prince.

In the ensuing melee, Thorkell learns his opposing force numbers no more than 400. But then he smells something; something other than blood and guts: charcoal. A third party—Askeladd’s crew—has set fire to the forest in order to confuse both sides.

Askeladd, still trusting Thorfinn implicitly as long as he still owes him another future duel, soaks the kid in water and orders him to ride in and rescue Prince Canute. The confusion caused by the flame and smoke is plainly demonstrated when one of Ragnar’s own men attacks without ensuring his target is the enemy.

That soldier, in turn, is killed by Thorkell’s men, who used Ragnar’s method of communication against him by pretending to be friendlies. They never get close to the prince, however, as a flaming horse separates the two sides, and a hard-looking boy in a cloak appears between them. Thorfinn is ready to take on the whole group coming after Canute, but they are interrupted by a cheerful-as-ever Thorkell, happy to see another “true warrior.”

Thorkell knows Thorfinn is a true warrior because he is the son of Thors, whom he says is the only man stronger than him. Finn is surprised Kell not only knows his father’s name but his mother’s, Helga, but his father’s fame precedes him, even after death. Kell decides to play nice this time, letting Finn have Canute, certain they’ll meet and fight again soon.

Just as Bjorn is voicing doubts about Finn’s ability to get the job done, the kid arrives with Canute, Ragnar, and the priest in tow. Askeladd and Bjorn pledge their fealty as his new escorts, and Ragnar has no choice but to accept it.

Askeladd only asks if he can see Canue’s face, and the prince slowly removes his helmet to reveal a ethereally beautiful, feminine visage—like a Valkyrie in Midgard. With their new royal charge, Askeladd’s men are poised to rejoin King Sweyn’s main force…the same force Thorkell’s men are eager to fight, assuring them a place in Valhalla.

Vinland Saga – 10 – Dawn in the Age of Twilight

Vinland Saga has become an exercise in guarded patience, centered around the question of how long Thorfinn going to pursue revenge, and when he’s going to wake up and live his own damn life. Maybe that’s what he thinks he’s doing, and his father, both in life and in his dreams, is just wrong that there’s a better path than the one he’s on.

Maybe Thorfinn is simply caught in the inertia of the events surrounding him, and would simply rather put effort in what he sees as a sure thing—one day cutting Askeladd’s throat—than the uncertainty of returning to a life of peace with his mother and sister. After all, Thors tried to live that life, and failed when his past caught up to him.

Whether consciously or not, Thorfinn is drawing nearer to ending up just like his old man: strong and distinguished, but in too deep to ever get out. But he’s still young, and as many lives as he’s taken, it probably doesn’t come close to the number his father took. There is still plenty of time to turn his life around into something worthwhile.

His dreams start as an idyllic life that never was with his family in the endless, rolling, fertile hills that look a lot like England (or possibly Vinland). They end with the skies darkening, his village attacked, and his father run through with arrows. Will Thorfinn ever take that dream to mean stop wasting your life chasing revenge and return to his family?

Maybe, maybe not. As Vinland Saga reaches its midpoint, I’ve found Thorfinn’s quest for revenge misguided and increasingly not that interesting. I’d like to know whether it’s going to reach a point where he either finally manages to kill Askeladd and moves on to something else, or walks away from that quest entirely.

But the cloud of uncertainty persists without any regard for my wishes, and in the meantime, the Danish war with England seems to be winding down. Askeladd’s men have been mopping up lesser villages as the main army has headed north to rest. Canute has failed to do anything with his 4,000 men in London, preferring to pray to Jesus in his tent.

Askeladd’s men are so restless, the smallest insults between them become pointless fights to the death. Having awakened from his beautiful, terrible dream before dawn, Thorfinn stays above the encampment, among Roman ruins, where Askeladd finds him.


It’s there where Askeladd attempts small talk but is rebuked by Thorfinn, asserting “they’re not friends” and that he hasn’t given up his goal of slitting his throat. Askeladd likes Thorfinn’s look, but still isn’t scared. He knows time isn’t on his side, and that his would-be killer will continue to grow stronger as he grows older and weaker.

But by that same token, if the Christians are to be believed, Judgment Day and the end of everyone and everything on earth, could be upon them in as few as twenty years (an event Thorfinn likens to Ragnarok). Considering the Romans were a far more advanced society than the Saxons who defeated them (not to mention the Vikings on the cusp of defeating the Saxons), it certainly seems like humans have had their time in the sun, and now live in an age of twilight.

And yet, the sun still rises just as it always has, bathing the land in light and possibility. With the dawn comes a rider from London, who reports that Canutes forces were routed by the English led by Thorkell, who’d grown impatient waiting on the bridge and is marching his men north to meet the main Danish army.

The war is not over as long as Thorkell is with the English, while Askeladd sees the potential for great riches if he and his men rescue Prince Canute. Not wanting to share the glory or spoils of such a victory, he kills the messenger, and will make do with what he has. He fires his men up, and Thorfinn seems poised to continue following him.

If the end is coming for all, Askeladd will be satisfied with “going out with a bang.” But as we know, the world wouldn’t end in twenty years, meaning final blazes of glory are woefully premature, especially for someone like Thorfinn, who still has a mother and sister to protect, and a family and home of his own to build. With so many dawns he has yet to watch rise above the horizon, it would be a shame to descend into night now.

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.

Vinland Saga – 07 – Getting a Head in France

The Danish King Sweyn orders his armies’ English advances halted to give them time to rest for the winter. That means Askeladd’s crew’s contract work with the army ceases, which means they have to do as the birds do: migrate south in search of food.

It turns out there are already various factions within France fighting one another, including a siege on the Loire river in which a numerically superior Frankish force is unable to take a fort held by only a handful of their enemies. Askeladd sends in Thorfinn, older but still a kid, to make a deal with the besieging army.

Their general—who has a distorted cartoony design that resembles a fat toad, and with a weird voice to match—reluctantly agrees to ally with Askeladd’s men for the siege. The general’s out-of-place appearance is another sign that while Vinland Saga can be very realistic when it wants to be, it’s still depicting a highly stylized version of history and reality.

A more overt sign is when Askeladd’s men join the Frankish general’s armies in the siege the next morning, they come lugging their three boats on their shoulders and running at full speed; at least 25mph (the current record for human speed is Usain Bolt’s 27.8mph; he was not carrying a viking ship).

So yeah, even if the Vikings did carry their ships around on occasions when it was necessary to take land shortcuts, they certainly didn’t carry them that quickly, and I imagine when they were done carrying them they didn’t have enough energy remaining to not just fight a battle, but absolutely dominate in it.


Of course, challenging realism in this show is a slippery slope, so I’ll stop there, as it’s more plausible that after however many years Thorfinn has trained and killed for Askeladd, he’s become a finely-honed, ninja-like killing machine. There’s a long line of soldiers between him and their commander, but he cuts through them all like butter. Unfortunately, when he beheads the commander, the head falls into the lake, and the whole reason he went up there was to claim their leader’s head.

The Frankish general/prince was planning to betray Askeladd when it made the most sense to do so, but Askeladd betrays him first, pillaging the village of all treasure and leaving the worthless empty fort, and the victory, for the general.

Presenting the head of the commander, Thorfinn formally challenges Askeladd to the duel he’s owed once more, and Askeladd formally accepts…but only after they’ve escaped to safety. That means rowing their three big viking ships—likely overladen by treasure and other spoils—down a steep waterfall. Not only do the ships make it down without a scratch, but not a single gold coin spills out.

Despite all the action in this episode, it still felt rather static, in that Thorfinn and Askeladd’s unresolved conflict hung over everything, and the fact it was once again delayed despite Finn meeting the requirements feels like another artifical delay, for which their French excursion felt like so much window dressing. The comic-relief buffonish toad man and questionable physics further undermined the outing.

Vinland Saga – 06 – Engulfed by the Quarrels of Men

On November 13, 1002, King Æthelred II of orders all Danish immigrants in England killed. The Danish respond by sending troops across the sea, and the Vikings—Danish pirates—serve as the “army’s army.” Askeladd’s crew are right in the middle of this.

When English archers ambush their camp, Thorfinn gets a crash course in mass death, killing, and living with it, taking his first life and letting out a cry of vicious despair that carries through the forest, while Askeladd observes in quiet approval.

The battles with the English continue, and Thorfinn continues to kill and gets better at it, with his enemies continually underestimating him due to his size and youth. Askeladd starts using him as a scout, and he manages to kill two foes who come at him, gaining a second dagger with which he dual-wields henceforth.

While on another scouting mission he takes an arrow to the shoulder and washes up on a branch in a river in East Anglia. A kindly, God-fearing mother and her daughter take him in, clean him up, and feed him. The daughter worries (rightfully) that he’s a Dane, their enemy; but her mom doesn’t think any women or children should be bothered with the quarrels of men.

The mother even combs the fleas and lice from Thorfinn’s unruly hair, with the same comb she used to use on her son, who died of a cold two years ago. An English soldier arrives looking for a pint-sized scout, but the mother covers for Finn.

That night, while the daughter continues to argue with her mother about harboring him, Finn abruptly takes his leave, saying just one word to them in English: Run. He then sets a cottage on the beach aflame; the signal to Askeladd to make his landing.

The mother doesn’t run as Finn urged her; she comes to the beach and sees for herself the boy she nursed back to health and harbored: a rabid killing machine. When Finn spots her among the crowd, tears streaming down her cheeks, guilt momentarily washes across his face, as he remembers his own mother and older sister.

Then the mother is simply gobbled up by the charging viking horde, Finn takes a deep breath, and the guilt is replaced by cold detachment as he too gets lost in the crush, joining his fellow fighters in the latest retaliatory raid on a relatively well-off English village. The comb the mother used on him is trod upon and broken, and perhaps with it any possible chance of Thorfinn turning back from his current, blood-soaked path.

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.