Vinland Saga – 17 – Not Everyone’s Afraid to Die

The normally cautious Askeladd lashes out at his mutineers, throwing them off balance and allowing Bjorn to escape on the sled with Thorfinn, Prince Canute, and the Priest. But as he contemplates what could be the last moments of his life, he remembers a moment from his childhood when his dying mother told him about King Arthur, who is not only still alive and recovering in the mythical land of Avalon, but will return someday. When he does, she told Askeladd to serve him.

Mutineers manage to catch up to the sled, and realize that there’s no bargaining with Bjorn; if they want the Prince, they’ll have to kill him. Thus, they take the less sporting route by killing his horses, sending the sled and its occupants flying. Finn kills one of the pursuers and mounts his horse, abandoning the prince because killing Askeladd is more important. If Askeladd should die by someone else’s hands, I doubt Finn would ever forgive himself.

Askeladd fights of many of his men, who fall back and shoot him with several arrows, none of which immediately threaten his life (though infection could set in if his wounds aren’t tended soon). Then his life is saved…by Thorkell of all people, who has arrived, and orders his men to kill everyone but Askeladd. The mutineers reluctantly pick up their weapons and die as something resembling warriors, but Thorkell pushes Torgrim too far, and Torgrim simply…goes bye-bye.

That’s when Thorfinn rides in, plowing through mutineers and English alike with his horse and charging towards Thorkell, who without hesitation charges up and uppercuts the goddamn horse like it was nothing. I’ve harped in the past about some of the more supernatural feats of Thorkell and others, but in this case the silliness is a good complement to the seriousness of the situation. Finn tells Thorkell that he’ll kill him if he doesn’t give him Askeladd, and Thorkell is all to eager to let Finn try. Here’s hoping for Finn’s sake this isn’t like London.

Vinland Saga – 16 – End of His Rope

Askeladd’s luck ran out the moment Anne was found by Thorkell’s men. The weight of his army steadily bearing down on Askeladd’s comparatively paltry band fills this episode with increasing tension. While there are warriors like Bjorn and Thorfinn who will never betray him, those two aren’t nearly enough to counter the precipitous drop in morale, and thus loyalty, among the majority of his men.

When I think of how much fun Askeladd and his men once had earlier in the series when his luck was riding high, it only puts his current predicament into greater focus. By episode’s end he can count on one hand the number of men he can truly count on, with fingers to spare. When an English captain simply won’t talk no matter how many fingers Askeladd snips off, it’s almost the final nail in the coffin for him; a sign that he’s lost his power.

When your men are all either worshipers of older gods or of no god at all, they put their trust in a leader with luck and strength, and Askeladd’s is almost totally out. His side plan to force Prince Canute to toughen up pretty much takes a back seat to the far more pressing matters of how long it will be before Askeladd’s men turn against him, and when Thorkell will finally catch up to them.

Thorkell’s name invokes far more fear than Askeladd’s at this point, which means Askeladd’s time is almost out. However, it’s not yet certain whether his longer-term plan to “reform” Canute will fail. All we see is that after he leaves Ragnar behind without any kind of funeral and slaps Canute across the face, Canute starts adopting a far more Thorfinnian visage.

Askeladd is nothing if not perceptive, and has no illusions about how things will go down once the men who are done with him gather enough allies within their ranks to pull something off. That’s why when Thorkell finally appears on that horizon—the glinting from the tips of his mens’ spears portending dread, while his own thrown spear impales three men and beheads a fourth—Askeladd has the best possible defensive position he can have.

Bjorn is at the reins of the lead sled with Thorfinn, Canute, the priest, and two horses when the rest of the men surround Askeladd, calling for an end to his leadership. It is without doubt the most precarious position he’s ever been in, but one should never underestimate Thorfinn’s desire to have at least one more duel with Askeladd—which means keeping him alive…maybe.

Vinland Saga – 15 – Every Father Loves His Child

In the aftermath of Askeladd’s cruel slaughter of the villagers, Prince Canute, Ragnar, and the priest pray to God the Father before the mass grave. When the drunken priest voices his doubt of that father’s love, Canute erupts in outrage, saying all fathers love their children.

But if the priest’s faith was shaken by the massacre, it should be buoyed somewhat by the fact a survivor—Anne, from last week’s masterpiece—managed to get away without anyone noticing. She makes it to Gloucester, where as luck would have it, Thorkell’s army is encamped. Eager both to see Canute and fight Thorfinn again, he immediately prepares to head Askeladd’s way.

The foundation for Canute’s outburst at the priest was no doubt laid by his first outburst, which was in response to Thorfinn’s disrespect. In other words, the kid is finally growing a bit of a spine, at least insomuch he’s less weary of speaking his mind. In the same way, Finn’s “domestication” continues thanks to being around Canute, who secretly cooks as a hobby despite his father’s deep disapproval with his son “acting like a slave.”

Ultimately, Canute will probably have to rely on his frenemy Thorfinn after the events of the episode’s final act, in which Ragnar is killed and Askeladd assumes Canute’s guardianship.

Askeladd believes it’s for his own good, and considering how much Ragnar had coddled Canute to that point, it’s hard to argue that point. Still, Askeladd makes this move unaware of a truth Ragnar ironically would only tell him with his dying breath: King Sweyn always intended for Canute to die in battle so his other son Harald would assume the throne.

Despite how badly his father has treated him, Canute still believes his earthly father loves him, but that’s not the case; he was fine with discarding him. Thankfully, the father upstairs may still love Canute, because Canute still has Thorfinn by his side.

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.