The Northman: The Poetic Edda Meets Gladiator

I must confess that the pop-cultural enthusiasm for Vikings has long eluded me. While the pirate stories of the 17th and 18th centuries inspired childlike fantasies of freedom, adventure, and the liberation of noble ladies, the Norsemen—trapped on unadorned longboats, robbing, plundering, and raping the ladies instead—had no appeal to me. As I realize now, this was because the tragic character of this culture in decline, which we see clearly in the sagas and myths of the North, never found its way into Viking-themed film and television. That is, until now.

With his first two films, The Witch and The Lighthouse, director Robert Eggers established himself as one of the most promising directors working today, distinguishing himself above all through his enormously detailed depiction of past historical eras. With Eggers, the practice that decades ago gained a foothold in classical music as “historically informed performance practice” found its way into films as well. After we heard characters in The Witch speak in 17th-century English, the aggressive historical accuracy of The Northman comes as no surprise. What Eggers’ new movie reveals, however, is a deeper level of his fascination with the intertwining of myth and historical reality.

The plot of The Northman is fundamentally based on the story of Amleth in Saxo Grammaticus’ Gesta Danorum, which later became the basis for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The young prince Amleth (played as an adult by Alexander Skarsgård) witnesses the assassination of his father, King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke), at the hands of the king‘s half-brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang). Fjölnir declares himself the new king and “steals” Amleth’s mother Gudrun (Nicole Kidman) as his new wife. Young Amleth escapes in the knick of time and, in good Norse fashion, swears revenge.

At this point the plot departs from the original legend, with Eggers developing his own variation of the revenge myth. Unlike Saxo’s original and Shakespeare’s version, Amleth does not pretend to turn mad; instead, we meet him many years later as a Viking berserker on a Varangian quest in Rus territory. The once-gentle boy does not feign madness, but instead has become a ravening beast. Sunk in his murderous frenzy, he has forgotten his quest for revenge until a Slavic witch (Björk) appears to him and reminds him of his fateful obligation. It is she who also informs him that Fjölnir’s fratricide was in vain, as King Harald of Norway quickly conquered Fjölnir’s territory and forced the murderous uncle into exile in Iceland.

To reach Iceland unrecognized, Amleth decides to travel in disguise with a group of slaves. During the crossing, he meets the enslaved Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), who recognizes him as a disguised Northman but does not unmask him. Once in Iceland, both Amleth and Olga are bought by Fjölnir, inaugurating Amleth’s extremely brutal vendetta. While the Amleth in Saxo’s original makes use of cunning and dissimulation, his incognito presence as a slave in The Northman is more reminiscent of Russell Crowe’s Gladiator. In the brutality of Amleth’s revenge, however, Eggers takes inspiration from some of the oldest Eddic poems and sagas of Icelanders, such as the Brennu-Njals saga with its multi-generational spree of revenge and torture, or the saga of Grettir who is bound in a vicious circle of violence and fading luck until his downfall—granting, of course, that this decision may simply also represent a concession to modern cinema. With a budget of over $70 million, The Northman is a far more expensive production than his previous films, which had cost less than $10 million each; this means that it is under pressure to appeal to wider audiences and earn back a considerable amount of money. That said, while the violence in The Northman is an integral part of the world of Norse sagas, Eggers is no stranger to graphic depictions of violence as can be seen especially in his previous work, The Lighthouse.

Aside from The Northman’s stunning scenery (that alone makes it worth seeing in theaters), the dense atmosphere is captivating. While this certainly owes much to the film‘s detailed depiction of the inhospitable world of the Northmen and the excellent acting, this atmospheric spell comes primarily from Eggers’ distinctive fusion of reality and myth. Supernatural visions and rituals combine seamlessly with a relatively realistic depiction of life around the year 900 AD, yet somehow we never feel that we are thrust into a fantasy film. Eggers manages to maintain a credible fusion of the natural and the supernatural, creating a comprehensible world that reflects the experienced realities of the people of the time.

Eggers succeeded in doing something similar in The Witch, when the Puritan exiles’ fear of diabolical forces turn out to be real. Likewise, the visions of the lighthouse keepers in The Lighthouse are the outflow of real experiences (madness could be an experience as well!), even if it was fed less by a complex religious feeling than by a rootedness in seafaring legends. The same is true for the people in The Northman; whether it be the rituals dedicated to Odin, the shapeshifting in the berserker ritual, or Amleth’s visions of Valkyries, the supernatural elements do not represent a break with reality, but rather reveal another dimension of the reality of this world.

As a result, Eggers unfolds a world imbued with spirituality before the eyes of modern audiences accustomed to a thoroughly demystified world. The appeal of a film by Robert Eggers is to truly live, for a few hours, amidst the essence of the experience of bygone eras. In the case of The Northman, this essence lies not in long beards, looting, robbing, and raping (although these things are very much present), but in a fatalistic belief in fate, imbued with hopelessness and the impossibility of breaking out of an eternal circle of revenge and death. To this end, Eggers not only makes use of the already bleak premises of fratricide, matricide, banishment, and revenge, but also embeds them in the spiritual world of 10th-century Norse pagans.

Anya Taylor-Joy as Olga.

This can be seen most strikingly in the figure of Olga, whom Anya Taylor-Joy herself described in an interview as an archetype. She seems to represent a connection to the ancient Wane cults, which by the time of the film’s storyline had long been supplanted by the war-oriented gods of the Æsir. Olga, originating in pre-Christian Rus, can be seen as a representative magna mater, the archetypical embodiment of the Wanish fertility goddess Freyja. Just as Freyja was kidnapped by the Æsir, so Olga belonged to another world before being enslaved. When she becomes pregnant by Amleth, they both want to flee, but Amleth realizes that he cannot escape his fate; he must complete the revenge which will ultimately lead to his doom. It could be argued that Amleth is longing for the Wanish ideal of an ever-renewing nature, symbolized by the children Olga is bearing, but he is already too caught up in the fatalistic, almost nihilistic, world of the Æsir gods, the last rebellion of a pagan culture that would soon be replaced by Christianity. This fighting retreat appears also in the fact of Amleth’s young exile, mirrored by Fjölnir’s own exile to Iceland, the outermost edge of Norse paganism, where at last the two Norsemen take their last stand at the “gates of hell.”

The other central female figure in The Northman, Amleth’s mother Gudrun, is also characteristic of the despair and fatalism of the period. While Amleth long believes he must save her, she not only turns out to be content with her new marriage to Fjölnir, but reveals to Amleth that she instigated Fjölnir’s fratricide. In an incestuous offer to her son (which may be a trick, but still), Gudrun reveals herself as the source of all the original sins that shaped the traumata of the Barbaric Period in the world of Norse sagas. Even her name is telling: Gudrun is the name of Kriemhild in Icelandic versions of the Song of the Nibelungs, who becomes the death-birther, the inversion of the archetypal life-giving woman, reflecting the destruction of the fertility cults of the Wanen by Æsir cults. In the Nibelungenlied, Gudrun brings death to her husband Sigurd (Siegfried) as a result of violated honor; in the Balder tale of Norse mythology, Frigg is the death-bringing mother for her most beautiful son. The Northman’s Gudrun is an amalgamation of these women. Wounded in her honor by her husband’s disinterest, she orders his death; to complete her revenge, she orders Amleth’s death. With this inversion of the mother figure, Gudrun becomes the clearest embodiment of the hopelessness of the Nordic Æsir world.

Gudrun, played by Nicole Kidman.

From the outset there can be no happy ending in this world of endless revenge. The only glimmer of hope is the figure of Olga, an image of Freyja, who is a last fruitful lifeline amid nihilism and death. In the world of the Æsir Freyja takes on the role of a Valkyrie, bringing half of those killed in battle to her realm; Amleth sees a Valkyrie in Olga when she rescued him after a grave injury. 

The greatest concession to the medium of film in The Northman is the plot’s clear conclusion; it is appropriately tragic, but too brief. Although Amleth’s revenge must succeed, but it cannot lead to a happy ending. In a saga, the first part of the story would end with the successful revenge, whereupon a second part would begin, telling how Amleth and his people lose everything, including their lives. This is not insignificant, since it is exactly this never-ending cycle of revenge, often over several generations, in which the fatal hopelessness of the world of Norse legends shows its full strength. Within the limitations of a film, Eggers finds a compromise that remains satisfyingly true to the tragedy of his source material.

The Northman is the most impressive film adaptation of Norse lore that we have to date. Visuals, acting, and atmosphere vividly convey the profound tragedy of Norse culture. The film does justice to its medium in all respects, presenting a stirring journey into our spiritual and cultural past without taking a neo-pagan or moralizing stance. The Northman is great cinematic art that should be experienced and suppoted by film lovers, so that filmmakers such as Robert Eggers can continue to create daring storytelling based on the richness of our heritage. I, for one, cannot wait to see which historical-mythological topic Eggers will tackle next.

David Boos is an organist, documentary filmmaker, and writer for The European Conservative and other publications.