Given all the recent incidents around the world – Brazil, Indonesia, etc – I have to say, don’t try forest fires at home kids! But if you can’t beat a fearsome warrior in straight combat without losing so many men, going all out with the forest fire makes a lot of sense, even if there’s no honour to be had. We’ve already seen it before with Thors. So it’s not surprising to see Askeladd resort to underhanded tricks, and he took a calculated gamble that his quarry wouldn’t perish within the flames – namely Prince Canute as a political bargaining chip for the highest bidder.
The drunk priest’s outburst reminded me of Yang Wenli’s philosophical pondering on alcohol. How could one abandon one of humanity’s oldest friend? Even if God invented the cheap swill he enjoys, I’m sure that he’d be a bigger fan of Jesus. His blood is wine in the Eucharist and he can transform water into alcohol. But too bad there’s no Holy Grail War where you can summon Jesus as a heroic spirit to fight for your side and produce infinite amounts of liqueur for everybody to enjoy. Because Vinland Saga is actually true to history for the most part, unlike Fate, though I like ’em both as they are. Anyhow, I think the priest’s outburst scene was meant to indicate the fragility of the priest’s belief in God. I’m quite sure that people definitely had their faith challenged in those times, especially when people you care about get raped or die brutal deaths for no good reason. So I find it absolutely fascinating to see the depiction of this ageless struggle playing out, as it surely must have even back then.
Vinland Saga has shown us a mix of motives that drive its cast, some being more obvious, others much less so. Thorkell’s men make it clear that the prospects of Valhalla drive them forwards, and the temptation of a good shag even make them consider converting to Christianity. Thorfinn, Thorkell, Ragnar and the Priest have extremely clear-cut motives. Thorfinn wants to avenge his father; Thorkell wants to fight for the sheer joy of it; Ragnar desires to protect his prince; the Priest just wants his booze. On the other hand, some people look to be driven, but are shrouded in mystery. We’ve seen glimpses of Askeladd’s desire through his extremely brief flashback, we still have no idea why Floki arranged for Askeladd to kill off Thors, and Prince Canute himself hasn’t even spoken up yet. His appearance seems extremely feminine and timid, making it quite clear why he had elected to wear a helmet this entire time. In an age like that of the vikings, where strength mattered beyond all else, I don’t suppose those good looks would get him anywhere and it would probably count against him in terms of trying to inspire confidence and respect from his men. Now we can see why Thorkell opted to lead the charge at London Bridge despite being significantly outnumbered – this Prince and his advisors seem extremely lackluster when it comes to the art of war.
The boy prince has certainly been the greatest mystery so far, and we know surprisingly little about him in a series where we’re usually shown how all the cogs have been turning – e.g. we as viewers understand that Floki schemed to have Thors killed off. Perhaps Ragnar’s over-protectiveness has been extremely stifling, sheltering the prince to an extent where he’s not getting the opportunities to face tough experiences that he can grow from. Maybe it will take an extreme figure like Askeladd, who murdered Thorfinn’s father and molded the boy as he liked, to help Canute undergo a personality transformation. I’d be extremely excited to see what comes of this, considering history buffs should have a vague idea of how things should proceed here. Anyway, that’s about everything I wanted to discuss. As always, thank you for reading my writing, and I’ll throw it over to Enzo for his insightful thoughts on this episode!
Guardian Enzo’s Take
The word “cinematic” gets tossed around a lot as praise for a TV show (I’ve done it myself here and there) but I think it really applies to Vinland Saga. Following this series really is like watching a short movie every week – or at least, watching an HBO drama (which usually may as well be a theatrical movie, based on budget). It’s also a universal in a way most anime epics, such as Golden Kamuy, are not. When we see material like this presented though an anime perspective but mostly lacking in tropes and culturally specific aesthetic, the result can often be stunningly good.
It’s also interesting to compare Vinland Saga against 2019’s other great anime epic, Dororo. That show was structurally quite Western, but it presented a quintessentially Japanese experience – survival in one of Japan’s most notorious eras, with a full grounding in Japanese and Buddhist mythology. What Yukimura Makoto seems to be trying to do is to divorce his work from Japanese prejudices as much as possible – the dedication he shows in researching his subject is legendary. And while ultimately such a thing can never fully succeed because we are who we are and our upbringing shapes our artistic sensibility, he’s managed to create something remarkably universal and thought-provoking.
The elephant in the room for this series is certainly Prince Canute – and his devout Christianity. That’s been the case for a few weeks but never more so than here, where he’s a presence in almost every scene. That’s an interesting effect because Canute still hasn’t uttered a word – if it weren’t for the fact that he has a seiyuu (and a well-known one) I’d have started to suspect Yukimura-sensei decided to make him a mute. Again, if you know your history you know the role Canute is fated to play in these events more or less, but the path VS is taking with him is certainly an interesting one.
As it stands, we have a three-cornered drama playing out in the forests of northern England. Canute and his retinue – Ragnar and the drunken priest whose name I don’t know – are prisoners of Thorkell and his men. They’re making no effort to conceal themselves as they saunter north and why should they, when the whole reason Thorkell kidnapped the prince was to provoke an attack? Thorkell jovially muses on the relative merits of Norse religion vs. Christianity (the tone masks what’s actually a rather serious part of Vinland Saga’s narrative) and good-naturedly mocks the silent prince and his Christian companions as they wait for the attack they know is coming.
Thorkell is an interesting contrast to Askeladd, seemingly as simple as the latter is complex. Thorkell is not stupid by any means – his sense of both tactics and strategy is clearly elite – but his desires seem very straightforward. Fatty autumn fish and meat, battles worth fighting, and ultimately an escort from the Valkyries into Valhalla for an eternity of the first two. He doesn’t love to fight because he’s cruel or sadistic – he just gets off on the rush. When a party of the main army (claiming to be 2000 – a ruse seen through immediately by Thorkell – but probably about 400) arrives to “surround” him, Thorkell lets Canute and his entourage go without a worry. They’ve performed their function, so what does it matter?
The wild card here is Askeladd – and being the wild card seems to be Askeladd’s existential role in life. He’s been shadowing Thorkell’s pursuers and when the moment comes, he sets the forest alight with plans to have Thorfinn snatch the prince in the confusion. It’s a classic Askeladd plan – minimizing risk to he and his men, utlilizing Thorfinn’s skill and fearlessness, and offering an escape hatch if it fails. The approaches of he and Thorkell to this confrontation could hardly be more emblematic of just how polar opposite these two men are, and Canute more than anything seems just a pawn in a larger struggle.
Ragnar does make note of that last point – “Why is it never the Prince’s decision?”. But while we see Canute’s face at last thanks to Askleadd’s request/demand, there are still no words – just an extremely feminine visage and a defeated expression. The moment that stays with me, though, is the reunion of Thorfinn and Thorkell, where the latter finally gets the chance to tell the boy that he knew his father. We’ve not seen the last of this – Thorkell acknowledges Thors as “the one man stronger than me”, and clearly has no idea he’s dead, and now Thorfinn knows a man his father may have called friend walks the same paths as he. Loyalties are going to be tested on many fronts, that much is certain, and as far as what was going on in England at this time that’s 100% historically accurate.