“The Light of Dawn”
From the perspective of a manga reader, and if we’re talking in terms of the material both the manga and anime have covered, this was definitely my favourite episode Vinland Saga so far. It took something that the manga already did an amazing job with, then elevated it to a whole other level. This episode comes in two parts for me – the priest’s searching for a definition of ‘love’ and Askeladd’s brutal massacre of the innocent villagers.
Despite seeming like nothing more than a drunkard, Father Willibald has definitely shown signs of being a much deeper character than viewers or vikings could have anticipated. Two brothers from Askeladd’s mercenary band attempt to impress the priest with their familial love – which is even hinted to be somewhat shallow when the older brother gleefully admits that he’d ditch his brother if the offer of gold was too much. And while the priest praises them, he remains thoroughly unimpressed. So what is the priest searching for? Loving people you’re socially conditioned to care about or have grown to care about of your own volition is natural. There’s nothing special about it. If they needed something, you’d help them out most of the time. Doing something for a stranger? Not so much. And the brothers make it clear to the priest that they don’t trust him to have their backs and wouldn’t help him out in a pinch.
Surprisingly, it is the mention of Thors and his actions which captivated Willibald the most, making his eyes sparkle with life. And what epiphany does this priest see, which brings him closer to realising the true nature of love? The hardest love of all, without any doubt, is loving your enemy. The Bible actually preaches this love so it’s definitely related to Christian teachings, and it’s the sort of love that the priest seems fixated upon. With this in mind, it helps explain why the priest reacted in the way he did. Thors is someone who loved his enemies, enough to spare their lives, even when they came to kill him and eventually succeeded in doing so. This should certainly resonate with the priest’s beliefs and teachings. But I have to wonder if the priest has misunderstood Thors and his situation. Yes, Thors became tired of killing and became a pacifist, which definitely factored into his decision to spare all of Askeladd’s men. However, I believe he was equally motivated to protect Thorfinn. Say he killed one of the warriors, and one of the warrior’s friends survived, before Thors is shot full of arrows. It would have been much more difficult to negotiate for Thorfinn’s safety with Askeladd, and there would be a distinct possibility that one of the mercenaries could have gone after Thorfinn for the sake of enacting vengeance. I believe there was definitely an element of foresight on the part of Thors, realising that the situation was unwinnable. Flanked by archers on all side, his life was necessary to secure any possibility of sparing Thorfinn and everyone else who was with them. Context is sorely lacking from the edition of the story that the Priest has heard, which I believe results in a less accurate interpretation – though the philosophy of a warrior needing no sword is certainly a profound one nevertheless.
In the second half of the episode, Anne’s story began in a charming way. Her struggles with doing right whilst fearing damnation as a result of her own sin is really a timeless struggle that many can probably relate to. Most people, regardless of how good a life they’ve led, probably have a few skeletons hidden in their closet. But if she indeed incurred karmic retribution for her actions, this was definitely a heart-shattering overkill by God from above. When the mercenaries burst in on the happy and laughing family, I was instantly put on edge. There could be no good ending when they were starving and in a foul mood due to harsh weather. I knew what was coming, but it still hit me hard. It’s one thing to read about the ruthless massacre of people in the news, before nonchalantly going about your daily business. It’s a whole other thing to see the systematic murdering of innocents begging for their lives play out on screen. The cinematography was something else. Seeing the corpses of parents who tried to protect their children, to no avail, chilled me to the bones. And that zoom onto Askeladd’s emotionless face hammers home what a cruel and savage bastard he is, despite the noble intentions that he proclaims of seeking to save the Welsh people. This man is no hero to be celebrated. He is the same man who killed Thors in an extremely underhanded fashion, and this episode was a stark reminder of the villain he is. Albeit one who can still be respected for his foresight and pragmatism.
It goes to show how much society has evolved through the centuries. By our standards, Askeladd and his men are despicable murderers who should be held to account for their atrocities. Nevertheless, not only was it expected in those times, it was even encouraged in Viking culture to rape and pillage and murder then die in battle so that a warrior could ascend to Valhalla. To them, carrying out these barbaric and inhumane acts adhere to a worthwhile moral code in and of itself. And although we’ve come a long way from the days of vikings, it’s not like humanity at present has already reached the apex of moral progression. There may be things in modern society that we reckon to be morally acceptable. But many years from now, they might be deemed by future societies to be cruel and wrong. Canute and Ragnar may as well be second comings of Pontius Pilate, given their lack of action towards the slaying of their Christian brethren. At least Father Willibald heroically tried to warn the villagers. Yet for me, the biggest question marks have to be thrown over at Thorfinn. Having participated in this senseless massacre of innocents, the boy has strayed extremely far off the righteous path that his father Thors had envisioned for him. The Troll would be utterly ashamed by Thorfinn if he was to see his son at his present state. And I wouldn’t be surprised if people consider him way beyond the reach of salvation or redemption – though anyone should be fascinated to see how the series could potentially play with such an idea. Anyway, that’s about everything I wanted to discuss. As always, thanks for reading this post and I’ll throw it over to Guardian Enzo, who will no doubt have some choice words and high praise for this masterfully produced episode.
Guardian Enzo’s Take
I won’t lie – that was an episode that really had me grinding for a long time on just what to make of it. Brilliant to be sure, unsparing and dark and brutal without a doubt. But with Yukimura Makoto it’s absolutely clear that there are no accidents. Everything about the man is meticulous – his preparation, his research, his scene-setting, his exposition. If he shows us something like what we saw this week, it’s because he wants to make a point. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to be immediately clear just what that is.
I’m going to generalize a bit here, but when a Japanese author writes about Christianity, I think it’s best to try and avoid reading it through the usual Western lens. Whatever our personal choice of religion (or lack thereof) is, those of us that grow up in America or Western Europe are presented the world from a Christian perspective. Perhaps a Japanese writer has an ability to be more objective than a Western writer would. Perhaps there are nuances that writer might not perceive that a Western writer would. Either way, the perspective of the writer is different in important ways.
To complicate matters still further, what Yukimura is doing in Vinland Saga is not setting off Christianity in contrast with Shinto or Buddhist thought (which we see in manga and anime here and there). Rather, he’s contrasting Christian and pre-Christian Europe – and what a fascinating story emerges. The truth of the matter is for most people living in most places in the world in the 11th Century, life pretty much sucked. There was rarely enough food unless you were an aristocrat, disease was rampant, war religious and otherwise endemic. One could hardly blame anyone, wherever they were, from taking to take some solace from wherever they could find it.
Is Yukimura-sensei judging his subjects here? And if so, which side is he judging more harshly? The Christians of Britain are certainly presented as a naive lot at times. Yet they scrabble together an existence as best they can, and give meaning to their misery with the promise of something better after death. The Danes, by contrast, seem to live for the moment. They take what they’re strong enough to take from those too weak to resist, and pre-emptively kill in order to protect their interests even if the “enemy” is women and children. Is it their contrasting view of paradise that drives this narrative? For Christians the path to salvation is piety and devotion. For the old Norse it’s glory in battle, plain and simple. Is this really all just about getting into Heaven or Valhalla?
I think it goes deeper than that, to be sure. But at the center of it, always, is Askeladd. We tend to romanticize men like him in fiction – I do it myself by calling him a magnificent bastard. But he’s a brutal man, possessed of no mercy or kindness for its own sake. Lives are a calculus, not a moral or ethical concern. The villagers he murders aren’t people at all to him, seemingly, but resources and hinderances. This is purely my projection, but I don’t think Askeladd is concerned either with getting into Heaven (obviously) or Valhalla. My sense of the man is that he’s someone who understands that his go-around is the only one he gets, and he knows what’s waiting for him at the end of it. He’s going to do what he wants on this Earth because when his life ends, it’s over for good – there’s no reason to hold back.
Bookending this episode are the drunken priest and the young girl Anne (Hara Yumi), the only villager to survive the massacre. Askeladd’s men continue to sport with the priest in seemingly good-natured fashion, but their conversations are getting deeper and deeper. For the first time Priest-san’s attention is really snared with the mention of Thors (though not by name). In the tale of the man who defeated 30 enemies without slaying a one, who claimed before his death that a true warrior was one who didn’t need a sword, Priest-san finally hears a description of the kind of love he continually fails to describe to Askeladd’s men. That priest will later try and warn the villagers before they’re captured – the first real act of courage we’ve seen from him, and one which earns him a beating and a warning from Askeladd that Canute’s friend or no, it will be the only warning he gets.
As for Anne, she seems to represent Yukimura’s cynicism towards Christianity. She tries hard to be good, and seems to believe the stories her priest father tells her of the coming armageddon. But the only team she feels alive is when she’s wicked – such as the moment she steals a ring from the traveling market. She still thrills every time she wears it, even as she’s racked with guilt over doing so. And when she – after having slipped away at the right moment to covertly wear her ring – manages to avoid the massacre of her family and village, she tells God that it makes her feel a sense of elation. Maybe Yukimura is telling us that human nature has an innate need to feel the thrill of existence no matter how we try and suppress it – or maybe I’m projecting again.
It’s not as though Yukimura has to have a larger point to make in all that happens in this episode – he doesn’t owe us that. It’s just that I know he’s trying to make one. There’s a clear and fundamental conflict in all this for Canute and Ragnar, as Christians to be accomplices in the slaughter of fellow Christians (that they’re innocents should be enough, but in practice we know that detail matters). Every day Thorfinn is not just complicit but an active participant in this life is a betrayal of the life his father laid down for his. Only Askeladd seems to be free of such conflicts, living for its own sake – but he’s living a lie just the same, using men he says he hates to slaughter indiscriminately. Even for a man like Askeladd, I suspect life has meaning – and that be believes there are existential consequences for the choices he makes, even if limited to this world.