“The Battle of London Bridge”
1013 AD – the combined forces of King Sweyn and the viking try to capture London, but find themselves held at London Bridge. As someone who’s walked up and down the Thames and London Bridge countless times, it’s so hard for me to imagine that everything used to look like that 1000 years ago! Back then, makes sense it was full of wooden structures, surrounded by swathes of green speckled with settlements, and strewn with the mangled corpses of men who died in battle. Now, it’s just an urban metropolis with tall metal buildings sprawling as far as the eye can see, and emotionless crowds of people. I would happily take the second choice without a question, because although times were much more exciting back then (though Brexit and Trump give them a run for their money), nothing beats stability, safety, and a steady provision of resources such as food and water. At least for sane people like myself. But it’s just so weird thinking that there’s so much history to this place where people led lives that are different from current times, and it’s interesting to think that people back then could never have envisioned the kind of progress humans would make in the next 1000 years. And I believe that remains the case, even today.
To kick things off, Bjorn makes the assumption that Thorkell is a hired gun that would happily flog himself to the highest bidder. Little does he know that this giant is a quite insane, refusing Floki’s higher monetary offer simply because it would be more fun to fight for the losing side against more challenging opposition. And I have to say, Thorkell’s stole the show every single time he appeared on the screen, emanating with a continuous torrent of charisma and strength. Though he may grin like an idiot, he posed an absolutely formidable presence. I doubt even the Mountain from Game of Thrones could chuck a boulder that size, or throw giant wooden pillars sundering ships apart as if they were javelins. If he had his hand wrapped around my head like that, I’d be shitting my pants, figuratively and literally. To say Thorkell’s got a few screws loose would be kindly putting it. This is a man who completely lives for the sake of battling. He fights for the sheer hedonistic fun of it. And you know, he’s damn good at it too. I find it extremely impressive that his abilities alone essentially allowed the defenders to successfully hold London Bridge, and fend off the combined Nordic invasion. Upon sighting Thorfinn, he calls off his men and engages the boy in a 1v1 duel. The CG animation was thoroughly breathtaking, and since the visual perspective came from behind Thorfinn, you could feel the sheer pressure and intimidation that Thorkell’s massive fists alone were exerting.
In a fair fight, no way Thorfinn stands any semblance of a chance. Thorkell’s vitals are too high for Thorfinn’s blades to reach, and if Thorfinn takes a single hit from this Goliath-esque specimen, it’s game over. This makes for an extremely intense duel, where the odds are overwhelmingly against Thorfinn, but his ridiculous agility and speed keep him alive. And he uses some wits to trip up Thorkell, forcing him to one knee, bringing his difficult to hit vitals within proximity. After stabbing into Thorkell’s hand, at what was so nearly his neck, Thorkell shrugs off the pain and damage as if it was a mosquito bite, and proceeds to Hulk slam Thorfinn into the ground repeatedly and smashing up multiple bones in his body. Only when he seems limp and unresponsive, does Thorfinn see an opportunity to unleash a decisive attack that inflicts permanent damage onto Thorkell – cutting fingers off the giant’s hand. But if you asked me, cutting two fingers off in exchange for getting most of the bones in your body broken seems like a terrible exchange. Though he manages to get away with his life, I feel pity for Thorfinn who seems racked with agony as well as despair – and he ponders to himself about the futility of war. Even though he fails to realise and make that direct connection with the word Thors left to him, his father’s philosophy very much lives on inside his heart. And it’s telling that Thorfinn’s only in it due to Askeladd, because it’s clear he only kills out of what he perceives to be necessary for his revenge. Perhaps once he finally achieves it, Thorfinn will look back on the destruction he was involved in and feel endless pangs of regret and guilt.
And I know it’s a silly thing to think about, but I wonder how a fair duel would play out between Thors and Thorkell. Both are pretty much worth dozens of men in terms of strength, with an incredible mix of power, technique and speed, so a fight between these two would be absolutely amazing to witness. Plus considering Thorkell’s love of combat, and hinted recognition of Thors towards the end of his fight with Thorfinn, perhaps they have indeed sparred before? If that’s the case, I really hope that Wit decide to throw in an animated flashback of Thors and Thorkell duking it out. Meanwhile, Swedish politics seems quite intriguing. Sweyn seems like a ruthless king, and for whatever reason, he’s giving his son Canute an impossible task that will likely culminate in the boy’s death. What would cause him to take such drastic measures? Likely a test for the worthiness of succession, but if that’s the case, why the utter lack of love or empathy towards his son? It’s clear he’s rather disapproving, accusing Christianity of making his son soft. I guess we’ll find out in the coming weeks, and maybe there’s more to Sweyn, Canute and their relationship than whatever meets the eye.
Anyway, that’s about everything I wanted to discuss. All in all, a masterful and pretty much perfect adaptation by Wit. I have no complaints as a manga reader this week – with the exquisite animation (particularly the facial expressions and use of CG this week) and excellent voice acting bringing so much life to this adaptation. As always, thanks for reading this and I’ll throw it over to my colleague Guardian Enzo for his take on the episode!
Guardian Enzo’s Take
This was an interesting week on Vinland Saga. For the most part it was another full-on battle episode, and a corker at that – not nearly so silly and a lot grittier than the one set in France (even if one of the characters’ abilities stretched credulity a good bit). But it says something about the nature of this series that an ep can be all tempest and rage for its entire length, and have it all be overshadowed by a single line of dialogue at the very end. Both about the ability of the series to tell a story, and about its goals for that story.
Things pick up more or less where they left off last week, with the Danish fleet approaching London Bridge. There’s a famous nursery rhyme based on the “Battle of London Bridge” (if I said which one it’d be a spoiler) so while less famous than the other “bridge” battle that would follow a half-century later, this was an important event in English history. For the purposes of Vinland Saga, however, it’s most important because (even though we met him briefly in the premiere) it’s the formal introduction of Thorkell the Tall into the story.
Thorkell is a unique individual to be sure, and in fact based loosely on a real person. Here he’s a former Jomsviking (as he was in real life) and comrade of Thors, and perhaps the only man stronger in battle. Unlike Thors the Troll however, Thorkell seems never to have lost his lust for battle. Bjorn speculates that once Floki offers him double what the English are paying him (which he only does after trying to win him over the cheap way, by playing on his loyalty) he’ll switch sides back to his roots, but Askeladd knows better. The whole reason Thorkell is fighting for the English, it seems, is because they were a lost cause. It would be much more “fun” to win leading such an army, and indeed Thorkell is dismissive of King Sweyn for “only fighting battles he’s sure to win”.
Askeladd, charming rogue that he is (his beard hair seems to be falling out – stress?), is certainly an asshole for sending Thorfinn to “take Thorkell’s head”. Thorfinn has no idea what he’s getting himself into, but he acquits himself quite well in another splendidly choreographed fight sequence. Thorkell is nothing if not sporting – he voluntarily takes the boy on without any weapons, and doesn’t seem especially angry when the ensuing scrap causes considerable damage to his sword hand. As for Thorfinn he’s pretty damaged himself – broken ribs, dislocated shoulder, sprained ankle – and he retreats into the Thames before Thorkell gets a chance to explain his relationship to the lad’s father.
Thorkell the Tall is obviously an incredibly charismatic screen presence, and with Ohtsuka Akio voicing him the impact is magnified by an order of magnitude. I struggle a bit with a man who can single-handedly sink warships with spikes the size of trees and toss boulders as big as minivans – even for a generational freak of nature, Thorkell’s prowess is a bit much. But it is true historically that Thorkell was an extremely powerful warrior whose allegiances in this war were a matter of great interest to both sides.
The question of allegiances is an important one in this battle, and it’s not simply a matter of “English vs. Vikings” by any stretch of the imagination. Britain wasn’t a united kingdom at this point for starters, and things were complicated in the Norse world too – not least with some Vikings being Christians and some observing traditional Norse beliefs. Sweyn’s decision to abandon the attack on London Bridge for now and leave only 1/5 of his force (about 4000 men) under the command of Prince Canute is met with outrage and dismay by Ragnar. But Sweyn coldly accuses his retainer of spoiling Canute and causing him to grow up “soft” (and blames Christianity in part) and it’s clear the seize of London is an important crucible for Canute to prove his worthiness to succeed the throne.
All that is big – big characters, big historical events, big action and drama. But the best epics are also intensely personal, and with one sentence Vinland Saga distills everything back down to Thorfinn and the real battle at the heart of the series – the one going on inside him. Even as Thorfinn chases revenge, grows stronger and becomes more and more inured to the horrors of battle, the part of him that’s his father’s son remains alive inside him. And that boy realizes the insanity of Thorkell’s way of living – that the endlessly spinning wheel of brutality grinds up all in its path, even those who feel as if they’re in control of it.