「ケダモノの歴史」 (Kedamono no Rekishi)
“History of Beasts”
If last episode dealt with the beauty of fatherly love, then this episode took no gripes in exploring the ugliness of human nature. Though Canute throws a tantrum, you can see that he’s actually beginning to harden up. In the absence of Ragnar, and having taken the emotional impact of his death, the prince seems to be deeply reflecting on life, perceivable progression marking a break from the status quo. Some people would say that Askeladd had a point and went about proving it. To which I say, you might be correct. But as Emiya Shirou famously declared in Unlimited Blade Works, just because you’re correct, doesn’t mean that you’re right.
The Geneva Conventions exist for good reason. That’s all I can say about Askeladd, in mercilessly scheming Ragnar’s death and his lack of hesitation to brutally torture the captive, cutting off all his fingers before attempting to shear off his nose, while giving him a lecture about how the Anglo-Saxons were a menace to the original occupiers of the land. He’s kind of full of himself. I must point out that Askeladd conveniently leaves out history where the Romans did not really coexist with the Celts, so much as humiliate their leader in Queen Boudicca by flogging her naked and raping her daughters before defeating her in battle, after which she committed suicide. So from my perspective, Askeladd is no different from a nationalist who is blind to the ills of his own nation in seeking to craft a biased, romanticised narrative.
Still a fascinating character in spite of these traits, and it serves to reiterate my point from last week. While his lofty ideals are respectable, his single-minded determination to bring them into reality causes him to behave in cruel and twisted ways, wherein the end point justifies his means. Sure, it was only animation. But seeing a human being having their dignity desecrated, roiling around in agony at the senseless cruelty being inflicted upon them made me extremely uncomfortable. And twice in a row at that.
Of course, the sheer visceral reaction it can create is part of what makes the story so amazing. Yukimura as a mangaka and artist really doesn’t hold back, in terms of accurately depicting the barbarity commonplace during those times, be it violent rape, gory deaths or brutal torture scenes like these. This is how he chooses to express the human condition. It’s a shame that we aren’t actually getting the full product, with the anime making some choice cuts across the board. Nevertheless, avoiding controversy might be for the better if we take into consideration reactions from comparative shows.
But at the same time, it would be disingenuous to call the story of Vinland Saga a true reflection of history. This isn’t a bona fide historical chronicle that avoids bridging over to suspension of disbelief. It’s a Saga – which implies stories of greatness depicting figures as being larger than they were in real life. And they’ve made it extremely obvious this whole time, first with Thors near the start of the series singlehandedly taking out fleets by himself, and now Thorkell, who throws a spear from 500-600m away to impale 4 of Askeladd’s men as if they had been struck by a ballista. Sure, it looks epic. But I cannot kid myself into thinking a fearsome specimen who could break the javelin world record a couple of times over with his bare arm strength really existed. Yet in the world of Vinland Saga, where this character does exist, I definitely empathise with the terror that Askeladd and his men feel – though I have no sympathy for their plight considering that they slaughtered a whole village of people.
So what now? With a full scale mutiny on his hands, with the mutineers being unaware that Thorkell certainly won’t spare them any mercy seeing how he blended the deserters into meat paste with his dual axes, I’m not seeing a situation without a ridiculous plot twist where every character can escape with their lives. That said, we’ve seen that Thorkell is extremely particular when it comes to preventing his men from interfering in his fights, as seen when he roared at everyone to back off from Thorfinn at the London Bridge. Hence an honourable one on one fight isn’t out of the question. Naturally, Askeladd is still a cunning creature and he’s a formidable fighter, having put Thorfinn in his place multiple times. If he’s more of a match for Thorfinn, who landed some hits onto Thorkell, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that a combination of brains and technical capabilities may yield Askeladd a surprise upset against such a monstrous adversary. If he were to end up facing him. 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 for his insightful take on the episode!
Guardian Enzo’s Take
The old false main character syndrome really rears its head with Vinland Saga. This is a long manga, and I flatter myself that I can see where Yukimura Makoto is going with it – the larger arc of the narrative is Thorfinn’s from a poetic and philosophical standpoint. But in anime terms, we’ve basically jumped straight from Thors being the heart of the story to Askeladd – not just in terms of screen time, but genuine development and thematic importance. Thorfinn has mostly been a participant observer – so far. But the gears are grinding, beneath the narrative surface.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that things have fallen out this way, even if Yabuta Shuuhei and Seko Hiroshi have re-ordered things a bit for the anime. Thors and Askeladd are the poles of this story in many ways. Each of them exerts a magnetic attraction on Thorfinn, and it’s as yet unclear which pull is stronger. Askeladd represents the darkness and Thors the light in many ways – but Askeladd also saw in Thors the possibility of achieving his own ends in a nobler and more powerful manner than he’s forced to go about trying to do so. We’ve been carefully and artfully shown the two major influences on Thorfinn’s life – eventually he’ll have to decide which course is his to follow.
I don’t think there’s any question that one reason Askeladd took Thorfinn under his wing was because he saw something of himself in the boy’s desperate thirst for revenge. We didn’t know it at the time, but Askeladd has dedicated his life to vengeance too – vengeance for the crimes committed against his mother and her people. Askeladd’s nature is different than Thors or his son – his greatest weapon is his ability to deceive and to spot deceit in others. But when one’s entire life is a lie, perhaps there are limits on how long even someone as brilliant and fearless as Askeladd can keep the house of cards from collapsing.
As always with Vinland Saga, the most memorable moments come in the quiet conversations between characters. Before a truly harrowing opening sequence which sees Askeladd cheerfully supervising (and commandeering) the torture of an English captain, he has a conversation with Bjorn in the woods. Bjorn openly questions Askeladd’s decision to murder Ragnar, and suggests it’s backfired. Askeladd asks Bjorn why he’s followed him these many years, and the blunt and straightforward Bjorn can only offer “Because I wanted to”. Askeladd counters with “I’m the same. I choose my own lord, too. My lord must be the type of man who makes me want to serve him.” He tries to pass it off as a joke, but this is not a man who says such things frivolously. The mind wanders back to Thors of course, but the significance of this statement is fascinating to ponder.
Askeladd trusts Bjorn to be sure (this will be a matter of great importance later in the episode) but you have to ask – does he feel anything for him beyond that? Does he feel anything for anyone? He hates the English to be sure – but it was the Danes who kidnapped and enslaved his mother. How ironic it is that it’s really only Thorfinn that Askeladd can trust besides Bjorn – the son of a man he murdered who’s dedicated his life to killing Askeladd in revenge. He knows where Thorfinn stands – there’s no doubting his motives. Askeladd is no good to him if he’s killed by someone else. And Thorfinn is the son of the one man in the world we know that Askeladd truly respected.
When the chips are down and everything seems to be falling apart around him, it’s Bjorn and Thorfinn to whom Askeladd entrusts the hysterically grieving Canute, the reason for this entire wild gamble he’s taken. When a few deserters are offered to him after the news that Thorkell has caught up Askeladd invites them and anyone else who wants to go ahead and desert (Thorkell casually kills the lot of them as “useless”). Askeladd knows he’s already losing his grip on his army, and killing deserters will only hasten his downfall – and that he’d rather have deserters as far away as possible (even in the enemy camp) than lurking in his own army as ticking time bombs.
Superficially, it appears that it’s all coming apart for Askeladd. Thorkell is mere hundreds of meters away across a shallow river, and almost the entirety of Askeladd’s force has turned on him. This is the price Askeladd has to pay for the manner in which he’s chosen to lead, but history and fiction both teach us that men like Askeladd are like cockroaches, incredibly fast when cornered and difficult to kill. Knowing him Askeladd will have had contingency plans in mind for this moment which, brilliant as he is, he had to know was coming sooner or later. The advantage of having no loyalty to his men is that Askeladd can betray them now without hesitation – they’ve never been more than tools to him in the first place. Things may look grim, but I suspect Askeladd has too much resourcefulness – and will to survive – to let this be the end of him.