Thorfinn’s recently taken a backseat, as far as Vinland Saga’s focus goes. However, Canute makes for an extremely deserving protagonist, given his recent character arc and the crucial epiphany which has shaken up his personal philosophy and world view. The young prince always had the ability to read into political intrigue, since it was the only way he could survive. Now, he’s gained an unshakable resolve to forge through the court room’s treacherous tendencies. The way I see it, Canute is still a believer in God and remains devoted towards goodness. But the death of Ragnar completely shattered his unconditional love for God, and he completely questions the part which divinity has to play in the grand scheme of humanity. As such, he elects to become a demon outside of God’s remit and takes it upon his own hands to bring about paradise for the mortal realm of men – bringing about echoes of Satan from Paradise Lost. Unfortunately, to achieve those kind of goals, the power to change things is imperative. He might be a prince, but he lacks power of that magnitude. For the sake of making this dream come true, seizing the power inherent to his Danish birthright would be a natural progression. Though it isn’t without peril and obstacles – most notably coming from his father, the king.
First off, he’s not the only heir and is widely considered to be the weaker candidate. To that end, Sweyn claims that the crown has a will of its own, and that it ordered him to kill off Canute for the kingdom’s sake. Contextually, people were a lot more superstitious 1000 years ago, to the point where they’d consider their good or bad actions to be caused by the influence of external supernatural forces – angels, demons, etc. If we judge him by the standard of his times, it’s a fitting claim to make – whereas any modern leader would seem a little bit crazy if they were to use a similar metaphor in justifying their own morally questionable action.
Not to mention an analogy could be made with the one ring from LOTR or the elder wand from Harry Potter – items possessing such great power that people willfully murder and steal in attempts to gain sole possession. He seems to suggest that heirs would seek to kill the rightful ruler or each other, because the allure of power is too much – something he’s perceived in Canute’s eyes as sharing the same look as he did when younger. Perhaps it was incidental musing by Sweyn, or even an allegory intending to forewarn Canute that even the best of intentions can become corrupted by power – or that circumstances and constraints can be complex in a way that prevents an individual from realising their idealised vision.
Additionally, Askeladd observes that Sweyn is a smart man, which is quite the acknowledgement coming from the person who’s used his smarts to overcome many tricky situations. And in my opinion it definitely reflects in how Sweyn chooses to rule. Although democracy is irrelevant when it comes to monarchy from this location and time period, incidents like the Magna Carta demonstrate that a king still needs to serve the interests of his nation as well as please his powerful and influential underlings, lest they begin harbouring sentiments to depose of him. He’s clearly managed the Jomsviking effectively, and orchestrated a successful campaign to take over England. Only his kingdom suffers from an unavoidable problem. Once he dies, the uncertain nature of succession inherent to gavelkind poses an existential crisis to his kingdom. From his perspective, for the long-term good and stability of his kingdom, Canute had to die. The threat of internal conflict between the respective supporters of Harald and Canute could tear apart Denmark, ruin the legacy he achieved within his lifetime and plunge the nation into civil war. But he’s unable to openly kill off Canute.
So he first establishes a scenario that would most likely result in Canute’s death. When that fails, he cleverly tries to provoke a violent reaction from Canute and Askeladd so that any potential use of force to claim their lives can be justified. Canute rises up to the challenge. He reads these situations extremely well, allying with Thorkell and choosing not to fall for Sweyn’s bait. Askeladd also calls out his bluff, pointing out that openly killing Canute would not sit well with his generals. Though their position remains disadvantageous with Sweyn losing nothing from the attempt while holding onto most of the cards. If Canute is looking to assassinate his father, the king definitely realises the political threat that his son currently poses, and will certainly be wary in terms of providing any exploitable opening. Fortunately, the prince also has some aces up his sleeve in Askeladd, Thorkell and Thorfinn. It will be interesting to see how these two play out their game of political chess, and whether Harald will gallop in as a dark horse to participate in the overarching political intrigue.
A thing to note, Askeladd exhibits uncharacteristic vulnerability twice within this episode – providing greater insight towards an individual who has otherwise seemed unflappable throughout most of the series. Seeing how he usually taunts Thorfinn about Thors, he receives an extremely bitter taste of his medicine when Sweyn casually disparages his mother as a slave. Askeladd utterly flare up with intense wrath and bloodlust, and with his widened bloodshot eyes and uncontrollably twitching fingers, it’s remarkable that he held back from attacking the King. I suppose he isn’t a hot head like Thorfinn, who definitely would have gone into a murderous frenzy if the King described Thors as a ‘disgrace’. That said, I don’t think Askeladd will ever let go of this incident – he’ll cooperate with Canute for now and seek out a way to enact a fitting revenge onto Sweyn.
And despite claiming to hate his mercenaries, Askeladd demonstrates a soft spot towards Atli, gifting him gold on the condition that he gives up the sword and live out an honest life. It can be complicated like that. Sure, they might have been Danes who betrayed him, same as the filthy pillagers who he hates for repeatedly desecrating his beloved Wales. But these are also men who he entrusted his life to on many occasions, sharing in many journeys and adventures together. He might have chosen the path of a devout nationalist, sacrificing innocents and bringing untold suffering to make his dream of emancipating Wales come true. Nevertheless, it’s nice to know that there are shades of humanity beneath that apathetic exterior, making him more than just some evil and sadistic bastard who only seeks to utilise people for his own personal gain.
Anyway, that’s about everything I wanted to discuss. With announcements that the anime will be deviating from the source material from this point onwards, I’m fascinated to see how these changes will play out. And for once, I will be able to provide fresh perspectives, instead of ones coloured by the benefit of hindsight. As always, thanks for reading this post and I’ll throw it over to Guardian Enzo for his fantastic insights!
Guardian Enzo’s Take
What a relentlessly fascinating, challenging series this is. The fact is that it’s full of fascinating and challenging characters, Askeladd probably the most so, and that of course drives everything else. There’s a part of me that still bemoans Thors’ early demise, because it would have been really fascinating to see a narrative play out with he and Askeladd – so very different yet more alike than they seem – as opposing poles in the story. But without Thors’ martyrdom there is no Vinland Saga – he died so that the plot could live.
If I were to quibble with anything in this arrangement, it’s that Canute’s transformation has been a little too comprehensive too quickly. Admittedly the kid has seen a lot of terrible things recently, and I suppose the counter-argument is that he’s always had the intellect to rise to this sort of occasion. But the degree of confidence and savvy he’s showing here both seem a bit of a stretch to me – he basically grew up as a farmer’s son, yet his feel for the intricacies of court intrigue seems pretty unerring at this point.
The irony in all-this is that Canute has had a sort of anti-awakening – he’s transformed into a stone-cold bastard with a steel spine by rejecting the way of God. This irony is not unintentional on Yukimura’s part to be certain. Canute swaggers into Sweyn’s camp at Gainsborough like a boss, dispatching Thorkell to build bridges with the grunts while ordering Askeladd to size up King Sweyn when they meet. He also stares down Floki, whose men raise their spears against him at first. Floki can hardly believe this is the same prince, a theme which we’re going to see repeated a lot this week. Floki also crosses paths with Thorfinn for the first time in over a decade, surely having no idea who the boy is – just as Thorfinn has no idea that it was Floki that was responsible for the death of his father.
The confrontation (and no other descriptor really fits) in Sweyn’s hall is certainly tense. Again, Canute is utterly cold-blooded here – even as Askeladd and Thorfinn inform him that he’s walking into an ambush, Canute refuses to take the bait, gambling (correctly as it turns out) that his father can’t kill him yet. As the prince is the one who’s effectively delivered London (by delivering Thorkell) and its wealth into the court’s hands Canute is a heroic figure – far too heroic for the offer of “a piece or Cornwall” that Sweyn presents as an ultimatum to spare his life.
The most fascinating moment of this encounter, though, comes when Askeladd intervenes on Canute’s behalf and Sweyn fillets him like a herring. I had no idea that Askeladd meant “covered in ashes” but it’s clearly a nickname, and Sweyn correctly deduces that never having been named by his father Askeladd is the son of a raped slave. A couple of thoughts here – one, Sweyn is, as Askeladd notes, a very smart man (even if his eyes are tired). And two, while Thorfinn is stunned to see the fierce anger Askeladd barely suppresses, my take is that having deprived so many innocents of their parents, Askeladd really has no business fronting righteous indignation.
Canute having won this staredown for now, father and son back off from the gunwales and prepare to coexist while waiting for the right moment to kill each other. At the drinking party that night, Ragnar’s brother Gunnar (Mogami Tsuguo) arrives in camp, and apart from the sagittal crest you’d never guess they were related. He’s been working on an escape hatch for Canute (in Normandy) but the prince informs him he’s not interested – right after rather callously dropping the news that Ragnar is dead. Canute seems to have no doubts about Gunnar’s loyalty despite his showy demeanor, but Askeladd clearly feels differently – and if anyone should recognize a betrayer, it would be him.
Leave it to Vinland Saga to make Askeladd taking a piss the lasting memory of the episode – or at least what happens afterwards. Atli – his brother reduced to a childlike state after the terror broke him – informs Askeladd that he’s going home. In a rare moment of sentimentality Askeladd offers him a crown of gold, on the condition that Atli – who he says was never meant for the sword – find a wife, settle down and never take to the battlefield again. Askeladd also tells Atli that Bjorn is a goner, his wounds having reached his intestines. That means Thorfinn is the last of his men still with him.
More irony – even as he’s closer than ever to achieving his goal Askeladd stands alone in the world, his only companions two boys who he effectively orphaned. Canute has expressed a willingness to become a “demon” to achieve a higher purpose, but Askeladd has already done just that many years past. He’s a tragic figure but I can’t really feel any sympathy for him, as he’s chosen this path for himself (just as Canute has). As for Thorfinn he did too, but the fact that he was six when he made the choice surely mitigates in his defence. And it’s going to be fascinating to see what choices Thorfinn – who still refuses to sweat allegiance to anyone, including Canute – makes when he’s reunited with the man who’s arrived in York just ahead of Sweyn and the royal entourage.