「仕えし者」 (Tsukaeshi mono)
First off, I’m aware that a bunch of manga readers have taken to social media, in order to air their grievances and directly mob the staff who’ve worked very hard to bring this series to life. Even if I do agree with some of the sentiments here and there, when it comes to depicting the satanic ferocity of Thorkell and the lesser subtlety in Askeladd’s hatred of his mercenaries, that kind of behaviour is unacceptable. While I’ve been grumpy about certain adaptation choices in my posts, in no way do I condone the actions people have taken to directly target hard-working people and make them feel crap. It’s not on. Anyway, with that out of the way, let’s move on to breaking down the episode.
The jig is up. We finally discover Askeladd’s motives as being a mission given to him in childhood by his mother – to await the promised king and loyally serve him when the time comes. But he’s running out of time with old age slowly catching up. And that’s where desperation sets in. He can no longer sit around waiting for Artorius to return, and clearly views Canute as a step towards his goals, even if the boy isn’t a finished article. Having figured out that his mercenaries are about to betray him, Askeladd decides to single-handedly hold them off while sending off Bjorn and Thorfinn their separate way with the prince in tow. Though they are eventually waylaid by the pursuing convoy – who rejoice at recovering their quarry, only for an injured Bjorn to emerge from underneath the overturned carriage, chomping on a berserker mushroom while issuing a promise to send them all to Valhalla.
Meanwhile, Askeladd might be no Thorkell, when it comes to swinging his arms and weapons like a human General Grievous, transforming all creatures in his wake into meat paste. But it would be extremely foolish to underestimate a man who could repeatedly defeat Thorfinn with ease, a proven combatant who has himself single-handedly murdered his way through platoons. So he holds off 50 men utilising every trick in the book – parrying blows, using his free hand to redirect enemy attacks into each other, poking out eyes, cleaving a man in half with a well placed and hefty slash. And it makes for an impressive feat. But it proves to be his undoing. As they say, what goes around comes around. Once they see his full might out on display, the men lose confidence in taking him down through conventional means. Just as he defeated Thors using the underhanded strategy of utilising multiple archers, Askeladd receives a bitter taste of his own medicine when the men decide he’s too dangerous to engage against in direct confrontation and elect to shoot him down from afar.
And I must say that there’s a remarkable contrast between these two men. Thors went down with pride and dignity, standing strong without betraying any hint of pain, also sparing every single man that came after his life. On the other hand, Askeladd come across like a cornered rat writhing on the floor in agony, having desperately killed as many of the men who came after his life. Again, demonstrating that while they possess stark contrasts in personal philosophy, their indomitable resolve to see through particular goals is extremely respectable. And I was still left feeling extremely conflicted even though I’ve despised a lot of Askeladd’s actions – a testimony to the incredible characterisation that Yukimura built up. Askeladd clearly received his just desserts and I’ve acknowledged that he shouldn’t have my sympathies. Yet a part of me continues rooting for him and felt sadness upon seeing him fall.
While Askeladd might be one son of a gun who definitely deserves to face some kind of justice, Thorgrim gets considerably more than he bargained for when he tries to turn him over and the promise of securing Canute, as a way of achieving ceasefire with Thorkell. If Thorgrim was trying to strike a deal with someone of Askeladd’s sensibilities, perhaps it could have worked. But his pleas fall on deaf ears, because Thorkell lives for battle. The prince is pretty much secondary compared to fighting and murdering other men. Also, it’s quite obvious that Thorkell feels disdain towards the mercenaries for betraying Askeladd – so having them die in battle is his way of restoring honour to them. Upon realising his impending doom, with no way out of facing a creature as satanic as Thorkell, Thorgrim’s mind shatters. Meaning that while the rest of the men were massacred (what goes around comes around, since they slaughtered hundreds if not thousands of innocent villagers in a similar manner), both Askeladd and Thorgrim are spared, because there’s no honour in killing incapacitated warriors.
There’s a possibility I’m giving Thorkell way too much credit here, but he may have figured out that Askeladd is his meal ticket to a rematch with Thorfinn. Sure enough, the boy swiftly returns on horseback, with the most guttural and contorted face he’s ever expressed. His fury? Because no one else is allowed to touch Askeladd as long as he draws breath. After his horse receives a fearsome uppercut from Thorkell, sending him flying into the air, Thorfinn recovers gracefully in what definitely looks to be the prelude to a second round between these two combatants. With Askeladd as the wager, it will be exciting to see how this plays out, since the situation looks impossible with everything on the line. 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 insight on things!
Guardian Enzo’s Take
Vinland Saga has really become the king of cliffhangers, which is all the more frustrating because it’s on break next week. This week’s was a doozy, with one of the series’ ultimate battle scenarios about to play out. But there was a lot of buildup to get to that moment – and a lot of spattering blood and flying limbs, too. Watching all this play out makes me think, more than anything, about how fucking pointless most of it is. And that – ironically – is probably the point.
It’s dangerous, as always (see: Beastars), to infer meaning from a writer’s word with too much confidence. I don’t know exactly what Yukimura-sensei’s intentions are with the scenario playing out, or what he wants us to feel as we watch it. But it strikes me that we’re seeing an awful lot of suffering occurring as a result of what the author (maybe) sees as fantasy. How much has the Christians’ faith done for them so far? Meanwhile, the Danes relentlessly trudge into battle in the belief that Valhalla awaits them as long as they go down fighting. They’re not as different as they appear.
And then we have Askeladd. He’s always been the odd duck in this story – by far the most contemporary of the major characters, a thinker, a logician and a practician. But as we’ve been learning, he’s chasing a fantasy of his own – Avalon, the legendary kingdom of Artorius. His mother’s words to him as a child have clearly stuck, and while there’s a hard political reality to this (protecting the independence of Wales) I can’t help but think that the romance of Arthur and his own supposed lineage is partly what drives Askleladd. He doesn’t seem like the sort of man who’d be motivated by such romantic ideas – but even a hard man like Askeladd surely needs to believe in something to have persevered as long as he has and done the despicable things he’s done.
So we have Thorfinn, whose religion is revenge. Christians, who suffer in the belief that the Kingdom of Heaven awaits them. Vikings who fight and die in order to enter Valhalla, and Askeladd, whose religion is Avalon and all it implies. What’s the square peg here? The title, of course. Vinland seems like the most fantastical story of all, the whimsy and imagination of an eccentric old sailor, but unlike all the other ghosts the characters are chasing it’s demonstrably real. It’s not the paradise Leif implies, no, but it is a huge and bountiful land far beyond the horizon. It’s been largely missing from the narrative so far, but all that we’re seeing now leads me to think it’s going to play a large role in the story’s denouement (especially for Thorfinn).
But all that is speculation, and the reality of the moment is that Askeladd’s world is collapsing around him. He finally admits the truth to his men, that he’s hated them and used them for years (a reckoning with Bjorn must surely come, sooner or later). He’s not going down without a fight of course, and he sends Bjorn and the boys fleeing while he makes a last stand and kills as many of his own men as he’s able. Which is a lot, much the chagrin of Torgrim (Gotou Hiroki, who I can finally credit now that his character has a name). Eventually Torgrim wises up and decides to leave it to the archers – a sharp irony, given the way Askeladd took down Tors all those years earlier.
Thorfinn riding to save Askeladd from the exact fate his father suffered – the irony is indeed strong. Of course there’s another player here, Thorkell, and his arrival on the scene is Askeladd’s last wild card in hopes of escape. Naturally Thorkell has no use for any of the rebels from Askeladd’s camp – it wouldn’t have mattered if they still had the prince or not. But Thorfinn is in berserker mode that anyone else should be the one to take Askeladd’s scalp (and just maybe his feelings have become more complicated). And truthfully, all that is just fine with Thorkell, who does his best Blazing Saddles re-enactment and happily accepts a duel with Thorfinn, with Askeladd’s life in the balance.
These are all fascinating people, no doubt, though it’s hard to feel a whole lot of sympathy for any of them. Askeladd has sold out everything and everyone on his one big gamble to try and honor his mother, Thorkell lives only to kill for the pleasure of it, and Thorfinn has dedicated his life to honoring his father in a way that would break his heart. I don’t find Torgrim any less sympathetic than the others – his actions make a lot of sense in the moment, and he even tries to give Askeladd the chance to flee. At least in Thorfinn’s case we can say that circumstances have led him so far astray – to experience what he did at the age he did would warp almost anyone. But sooner or later this story of revenge and consequentialism has to become a story of redemption, because otherwise it’s just (vastly entertaining) escapism and not really a “saga” at all.