“The Journey Begins”
The anime original bridge between kid Thorfinn and teenage Thorfinn was not just limited to last episode. It branched out for the first half of this episode, giving us valuable insight into Thorfinn’s baptism of fire as part of the mercenary band, and how he evolved into becoming this cold blooded killer with minimal humanity remaining inside. My favourite anime original scene was when Thorfinn killed for the first time, and how he was utterly broken by it. Tears, and a guttural scream to the skies that resounded across the forest. That in itself is a tragedy. He never wanted to kill per se, but spurred himself on, relentlessly chasing the promise of a duel with his father’s killer should he achieve things of note during battle. His need for revenge outweighed the human instinct and child-like innocence that told him, it’s wrong to kill. Yet he only continues to kill, and kill, and kill. Becoming better at it and losing his progressively more humanity every step of the way, in a way that the manga doesn’t convey as seamlessly.
For the second half of the episode, the anime adapts a single manga chapter. This adaptation of Gainborough’s invasion was excellently done, and they managed to include everything, although the gore was understandably toned down for reasons. The story plays out exactly as shown. Thorfinn is sent to scout, almost dies, only to be saved by a kind English woman. Even then, despite the woman showing him nothing but kindness, Thorfinn betrays the entire village to their doom. You could say that she was extremely naïve to trust him, despite all the red flags screaming out. Her daughter was doing a great job of pointing them out. I can’t help but feel this scene as well as the one featuring the monk from earlier in the series are digs at Christianity, or religion. Yukimura could be trying to tell us that relying on a benevolent god to look after and reward you for kindness, instead of taking matters into your own hands, is asking for suffering at the hands of those looking to exert their might by way of pillaging. That’s a perspective I cannot deny. But I still feel sympathetic towards the woman, because she was still grieving for her dead son, who she clearly saw in Thorfinn. Now the woman and her daughter will probably be kidnapped, repeatedly raped and turned into slaves for the rest of their lives. All because she did something good, out of the kindness and love within her heart. Kudos to the anime for including the symbolic shot of the broken haircomb, which really punches home just how gut-wrenching these sequence of events truly are.
Wit did an exquisite job showing a flicker of remorse in Thorfinn’s eyes. He feels the conflict within him, the legacy of Thors philosophy trying to surface, only for it to be quickly snuffed out as he proceeded to join his fellow mercenaries in the subsequent pillaging. He’s utterly consumed at this point. Again, we’re seeing how Thorfinn’s need for revenge, his need for that duel for Askeladd outweighs everything else. Apart from Askeladd’s life, his own life and his own honour, he will throw away everything to achieve it, including any trace of human decency. Yeah, he told the family to flee. But he didn’t bother to take any more steps in trying to ensure their safety. And I can tell you, this will probably continue to happen. He will leave behind more ruined lives in his wake, continuing to betray kindness and trust shown to him by others, for the sake of single-mindedly pursuing his revenge. Thors would be reeling in his grave, seeing the path his son has now taken. This definitely can’t be what he wanted.
Askeladd’s treatment of Thorfinn might have seemed counterintuitive, saving a kid that wanted to kill him from certain death. Surely it would be better to have let him die and eliminate a future problem? But is perfectly answered within the episode. As long as Thorfinn’s alive, no one else can claim Askeladd’s life before Thorfinn can do so with his very own hands, meaning Thorfinn will always seek to protect Askeladd’s life in every battle. So he’s even safer with what is essentially a dedicated bodyguard on hand, provided he can stay ahead of Thorfinn in terms of skill level, and prevail in every single duel. Plus he gains another extremely skilled mercenary in his band. While people may be disdainful towards his methodology, there is no denying that Askeladd is an extremely intelligent and fascinating character. Anyway, that’s about everything I wanted to discuss for this episode. I’ll now throw the ball to Guardian Enzo’s court for him to take over.
Guardian Enzo’s Take
I haven’t read much at all of the Vinland Saga manga, as followers of these posts will know. But the deeper we wade into this story (and while that feels very deep indeed, in the larger scheme of things we’re only up to our ankles) the more I’m convinced the decision to reorder events was a good one. This is a speculative point, because I’ll never have the experience of consuming the intro to Vinland in its original sequence. But in order for us to understand the depth of the tragedy that’s playing out here, it seems to me that we really need to understand just what is being lost.
And make no mistake – this is a tragedy. Grasping that means seeing what Thorfinn was before he became what he is now – and seeing the father and the path he tried to guide his son onto. It seems to me that what we’re watching is the slow death of Thorfinn – not just of the father inside him, but the human being. It’s not a question of blame – it’s a question of circumstance. Fairness and justice were effectively non-existent in the time and place depicted here (just as they were in Dororo). But does that also mean human decency was, too?
History buffs among you will recognize some of the names and events depicted in this episode – I won’t bog these reviews down with reams of detail, but context matters in a story like this. This ep finds Thorfinn – already learning to kill, and slowly inuring himself to what it does to the killer – sent ahead by Askeladd to Gainsborough to scout. Gainsborough has an important role in the Viking story in England – it was the capital of England for all of 40 days (stay tuned), and the landing site of a very important invader who became its ruler for that short time. Even now, most of the residents of Gainsborough are of Danish descent.
Here we see some of the tension between privateers (pirates if you’re not feeling charitably inclined) like Askeladd and the “official” Danish army regulars. Everyone knew full-on war was coming and wanted a piece of the action – a war that was inevitable due to the decision of Ethelred the Unready (the old woman in the village takes his name in vain) to slaughter as many Danes in England as could be slaughtered. Thorfinn’s role is clearly to figure out how much presence the English army has on the ground, and signal Askeladd’s men towards a good landing spot.
It’s truly gut-wrenching watching Thorfinn become better and better at killing. Because it’s a brutal act, because he’s a child, and because we know what his father hoped for him. Even so it takes incredible fortitude for Thorfinn to have survived as long as he did, and in doing so he’s gained Askeladd’s trust after a fashion. When Thorfinn is wounded during the scouting mission and passes out in a stream, a young woman and her mother find him and take him back to their cottage, where the mother – grieving the loss of her own son to disease – nurses Thorfinn back to health (and combs the lice out of his hair).
There’s never any doubt what’s happening here – the mother knows what her daughter says about the boy’s origins is true – nor about how it will all turn out. But that’s the nature of tragedy as a dramatic form – knowing what’s coming and being helpless to prevent it is what makes the experience so powerful (and painful). What makes it even more painful is that Thorfinn still has enough of Thors in him to be conflicted at what he’s about to do. He knows what will happen to the village, specifically to the women. He knows that telling the women to flee to the woods is a futile gesture. He does what he does anyway, and lives with the anguish – but the fact that he is anguished is proof that the human being in him isn’t totally dead. Yet.
Vinland Saga is clearly a very complicated story – one the mangaka says he’s only now, 14 years in, beginning to tell in the manner he dreamed of telling it. The matter of Christianity is a fascinating one we rarely see addressed in anime – it’s presented in a generally positive light so far, as with the old woman’s views on charity, and it’s notable that Leif is a Christian himself. It may in fact come to bear on Thorfinn’s personal saga before this series is over. But essentially, I believe that personal story is the essential core of Vinland Saga, and the mass of historical events and supporting characters ultimately a vehicle to tell it.