“The Troll’s Son”
Fillers can be sordid affairs, if the precedent of mainstream shounen adaptations are anything to go by. Often times, fillers form the object of derision and scorn from an expectant fanbase. But not this time. It’s not often that they can be leveraged to full effect, in a way that fulfils the original creators vision while substantially adding to their imagined world. Other than properly adapting Ylva’s difficult home situation with her father dead and brother missing, Studio Wit’s decision to include an anime original bridge between child Thorfinn and teenage Thorfinn was remarkably brave, and I’d say it certainly paid off. An unexpected yet pleasant surprise.
If people ever wanted main protagonists like Sasuke or Kurapika, Thorfinn not only fits the bill, but even goes beyond it. His voice actress did a really amazing job selling the misery, pain and agony that Thorfinn is still experiencing as a result of his father’s recent death, and I could feel the very depths of my soul shivering from how genuine it felt. We see a kid Thorfinn thoroughly consumed by his desire for revenge. However, he is limited thanks to his bodily needs and he first needs to learn how to survive. Thorfinn receives pretty much no sympathy or support from the vikings, outside of the fact they won’t kill him, meaning he’s left to his own devices as an elementary school kid. Nevertheless, he finds it in himself to power through all his hardships — scavenging off meagre leftovers, figuring out what’s edible, honing his skills to the point where he can successfully fend off a wolf or hunt a rabbit. He is now this tireless engine running off an unlimited supply of vengeful hatred, which allows him to power through everything and persist with a single-minded determination, despite the fact his beloved father urged him not to follow it. This should be enough to tell you exactly how he’ll wind up further down the line — an individual utterly dedicated to surviving and learning the blade alongside how to kill with it, so that he may eventually exact his revenge.
Also, Askeladd’s remarks at the end of their duel really explained why he decided to spare Thorfinn throughout those years (a point which is not explicitly touched upon so much as implied in the manga) — there’s definitely some leftover respect towards Thors as well as the fact he completely understands what makes Thorfinn tick. Namely that Thorfinn is not the kind of person to backstab him in his sleep, and will only seek to fulfil his vengeance by winning a one on one duel fair and square. As such, Askeladd does not need to worry about being killed in his sleep and extrapolates use out of Thorfinn through promising duels, provided that Thorfinn does things of note during their missions and raids. Not to mention with the blood of Thors running through Thorfinn’s veins, perhaps Askeladd hopes to one day relive that same excitement from challenging a worthy adversary. Additionally, he also knows what it’s like to have an objective to pursue with every fibre of one’s being, and maybe even views Thorfinn as being a pawn with a part to play in his grander schemes. He definitely sees a bit of himself in the young boy, empathises with his intense feelings and that’s why I believe he chose to spare him.
While I criticised the adaptational efforts last week, credit must be given where due this week. This was a fantastic episode where the anime easily surpassed the manga in my eyes. The background sceneries were absolutely gorgeous, and it moved me to see such beautiful vistas and landscapes, which weren’t so present in the manga. The soundtrack was on point, especially when the vikings raided and burnt down the village. And the animation sequence where Thorfinn unleashed a flurry of quick and precise swings at Askeladd felt mesmerising, and just as the vikings stopped laughing to hold their breath at how far Thorfinn had come, so did I. Most importantly, we get a much better insight into how Thorfinn ends up in Askeladd’s crew and why Askeladd would permit for this revenge consumed nutter to always remain in close proximity to him. Considering the adaptation went down a path of straight chronology, as opposed to the manga which left a massive blank between kid Thorfinn and teenage Thorfinn, this decision was pretty much necessary in hindsight. Anyway, that’s about everything I wanted to discuss. As always, thanks for reading my opinions, and I’ll throw it over to Guardian Enzo to give his take on the episode!
Guardian Enzo’s Take
In some respects, you could say the quality of the original episodes is as good a measure of an adaptation’s greatness as any. And this was (mostly) an original episode, the manga readers tell me – only the section with Helga and Ylva is from the manga (a bonus chapter). It takes real skill to translate a great manga chapter to the screen without losing anything (and even more to make it better), but most series can’t make the jump without some tweaking. And when the anime has to assert its own take on the story, the wheat is separated from the chaff.
This episode of Vinland Saga – like the third episode of Dororo and the “Little Fox’s Watch” from Natsume Yuujinchou – passes the ultimate test for originals. That is, it feels so authentic to the story – so essential – that it’s hard to imagine the series continuity without it. In that sense this ep had a tougher challenge than those two examples, because both come from series that were largely episodic in nature. Vinland Saga is very much a serial at this point in the narrative, and already having re-ordered things the anime has to make the events of one week flow seamlessly into the next even as it develops the characters.
Well – mission accomplished.
I believe we’re already seeing the essential conflict of the story emerging in Thorfinn. His father, Thors, rejected a warrior’s existence and chose to live a life of peace. He died for that – died a hero, saving his son and his inexperienced and aging company at the cost of his own life. Thorfinn, understandably, has chosen to pursue a life of revenge. It’s what a warrior’s son would be expected to do in these circumstances, perfectly rational in the context of the time and place. But this path is totally in conflict with the one his father chose for him. And not only that, in truth Thorfinn is focusing his thirst for vengeance on the wrong target. It’s hard to imagine this life ultimately bringing Thorfinn any happiness – but will he ever get to the point where he not only understands that, but believes that it matters?
Askeladd is very much a crucial figure at this point in the story. I think it’s important to understand that he won’t consider anything he’s done – executing a contract on Thor’s life or murdering an entire English village – to be wrong or evil. He’s a Viking, and raping and pillaging is what Vikings do. His is a mercenary company, and accepting payment for dirty jobs is how they stay in business. As with Dororo, we’re seeing a time that was foul and violent and intrinsically lacking in fairness or justice depicted with unstinting brutality. This is the way that Thors rejected, more or less, and the one that his son is embracing. No one should kid themselves about that.
For Askeladd, there’s a difference between those acts and killing Thorfinn in cold blood. Maybe there’s a trace of sentiment to the man – in his private moments, his face reveals things he would never admit to his men. Why does Askeladd lie to Floki’s men and tell them Thors died a “normal death”? I think he feels they don’t deserve to know the truth – that Thors’ end belong to Thors and himself, and no one else. Does Askeladd spare Thorfinn’s life out of a sense of guilt for killing his father? No, I truly believe he feels no guilt over it. Regret, yes – but regret and guilt are two very different things. His job was the kill Thors, and he’s done that. Thorfinn’s life doesn’t belong to him. I think Askeladd believes that even as a small child Thorfinn has shown a warrior’s spirit – and as such, deserves the chance to try and live as one.
As for Thorfinn, his actions here – like Ylva’s – are straightforward and totally in-character. Thorfinn is weak and strong in equal measure, as proud as his age and desperate situation allow him to be. He sucks on the bones of Askeladd’s meals only when he has to, tries to learn to fend for himself with no one to teach him. The key moment for me was when he realized he had to set aside the sword that was “swinging him around” and picked up the dagger – Askeladd may have been trying to nudge him in that direction, but if anything I think that made it even harder for Thorfinn to accept the truth. By doing this, Thorfinn prioritizes survival over pride and displays an understanding that long-term goals are more important than fleeting emotions.
I have no doubt that Thorfinn is going to grow into a true beast. I suspect Askeladd thinks so too, if the boy can survive long enough. But that’s not the real story Vinland Saga wants to tell, I don’t believe – a part of it certainly, but not the point of it. It must have been very difficult for Thors to become the strongest of the Jomsvikings, “The Troll of Jom”. But it was surely even more difficult – and fascinating – for him to go from being that man to being the man who left the world with his heart at peace and his ideals intact, and a family and village who adored him. Whether Thorfinn will ever come to understand and accept that – to me, that’s surely going to be the true question at the heart of this Vinland Saga.