For those who haven’t heard the announcement, the mangaka of Vinland Saga tweeted on Twitter forewarning fans that the anime will be diverging from the manga. The fact he had to go out and tweet about it, while remaining silent on prior changes, has been a source of consternation for fans. Some who suspect that he’s trying to soften an inevitable disappointment, since he’s privy to details we wouldn’t know about.
It’s not possible to judge the entire deviation yet. We only have one episode to talk about. However, I’ll give credit where praise is due. The anime original additions in this episode were fucking phenomenal and truly elevated it beyond the source material – in terms of precisely capturing the characterisations of Askeladd and Thorfinn. Despite being a hotly anticipated fixture, a very one-sided beat down takes place, after Askeladd throws away his sword to prove his point that Thorfinn cannot win, by virtue of being unable to control his highly exploitable anger. In a sagely foreboding fashion, Askeladd stops short of killing Thorfinn and decides to teach both Thorfinn and Canute the real way to kill a person that you hate. About not waiting for god to dispense his judgement, by taking matters into one’s own hands. Thorfinn, out of pity. Canute, because Askeladd respects him and desires for the boy to be king.
I had previously been impressed with the way they implemented an anime original telling of Thors backstory, and fortunately, they also got it spot on with Askeladd. We get to see how he came from a really tough background, an unacknowledged bastard child who worked all the tough jobs, because that was how much he loved his Welsh mother. And sure, perhaps after they dueled, Askeladd’s father properly recognised him as a son and gave him everything he could materially want. But I really enjoyed how in spite of the good life he’d been living, Askeladd could never forget or forgive Olaf for how he treated his mother, especially raising his sword to kill her all those years ago.
He never forgot the suffering she had to endure, to the point where he loses his faith in Artorius and decides to take matters into his own hands. Say unlike many Christians in this series, who have been depicted as helpless sheep waiting for God to save them, only to be massacred without a trace of divine intervention. To that end, he patiently bides his time for 2-3 years before viciously enacting murder. Askeladd realises that he might have had a long way to go before besting his father in combat, so he opts to kill him while his guard is down and frames it on one of his brothers. This ruthlessly efficient route starkly contrasts Thorfinn, and it’s not difficult to see where Askeladd is coming from when he regards Thorfinn as a feckless idiot.
In defence of Thorfinn
However, the circumstances behind their contextual motives for revenge wildly differ. Whereas the mean justifies the end for Askeladd, because he doesn’t want to stoop down to the level of his father’s killer, Thorfinn vehemently rejects this approach. Whereas Askeladd has never really operated with honour in mind, it’s pretty much honour above all else to Thorfinn. The way he repeatedly states ‘My father was a stronger warrior!’ highlights his inability to accept that Askeladd, the inferior warrior who lost the duel, remains alive while his father had to die despite winning. To Thorfinn, his revenge is about righting this perceived injustice with the world – which means becoming the superior warrior to Askeladd and ending his life on those terms.
It is also because he feels bound by a survivor’s guilt to carry out his revenge, even though his father’s dying words warned him away from pursuing such a path. If you’ve noticed, he always stammers and enters a rage, proclaiming ‘If you hadn’t taken me hostage, my father would still be alive!’. Deep down, he feels that his decision to stowaway on the ship and consequent weakness directly contributed to Thors’ death. He’s never been able to get over it. Being able to beat Askeladd and claiming his life is also a way to alleviate the guilt and suffering, and so he tirelessly goes at it seeking to achieve revenge on conditional terms for over a decade.
Most readers would have made this assumption, and the manga never explicitly spelt it out. But it was really gratifying when the anime didn’t hold back on the punches, with Askeladd explaining to Thorfinn that he was essentially his slave for the previous decade. And as if that wasn’t enough, he mockingly expresses his gratitude towards Thors. As Thorfinn reminisces about his life since Thors died, the realisation hits him extremely hard, and his scream of helpless anguish truly tore me up. You wouldn’t expect this all to be anime original would you? But it is – with Thorfinn giving no reaction to Askeladd’s revelations in the manga. Now, this is masterful storytelling, where it is more believable for a character to react the way they did in the adaptation compared to the original. For all my gripes about how the visuals might sometimes hold things back, they’ve clearly taken the face shadowing complaints seriously and brought it to parity in recent episodes. And it’s abundantly clear that the production committee understand Yukimura’s work, allowing them to continuously uphold and amplify the qualitative essence of Vinland Saga.
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 fantastic and fresh insight on things!
Guardian Enzo’s Take
I’ve been dancing around it for most of the series, but it’s time to acknowledge the elephant in the room and just admit it – Askeladd is the main character in Vinland Saga. Not only that, but he’s the most interesting character, and it’s a pretty high bar with this cast. Now all that may change in the material the anime hasn’t reached, but the anime is what it is, and the manga is what it is. If we get a second season (I’m actually coming around to believing there’s a chance) I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.
What a complicated vipers’ nest of a man Askeladd is. He really is a true magnificent bastard in the true literary sense. I certainly don’t like him per se, but I feel as though I understand him. As well as anyone can, anyway. And what’s more I pity him, no less so than I do Thorfinn albeit for very different reasons. I’ve never felt that the smartest people were particularly the happiest as a rule – if anything the opposite tends to be true – and Askeladd is living proof of that.
It was clear from the final moments of last week’s episode (uncharacteristically recycled in the cold open here) that Askeladd was approaching this duel with Thorfinn in a much different manner than his usual. I feel as if there are times when something happens to remind Askeladd how miserable he truly is and this sets him into a funk, and the death of Bjorn at his hand is certainly one such event. While I don’t doubt that there was a part of him that mourned Bjorn and even considered him almost a friend, I think what was really bothering Askeladd here that Bjorn – a member of the race of brutes he so contemptuously looks down on – was capable of such powerful feelings for him, and he was unable to reciprocate. The episode title was “Lone Wolf”, and it could hardly fit Askeladd any better.
With someone as complicated as Askeladd, their actions are always going to be a matter of interpretation. But I truly believe he was trying to help Thorfinn here (and generally has been since the beginning) – to set him free by pushing him away once and for all. Letting off steam too – I’m sure battering the kid senseless felt good for Askeladd in that trying moment. Throwing away his sword, goading Thorfinn on, then effortlessly subduing him with his bare hands. Does anyone truly believe it would have mattered if Thorfinn had two good arms? Askleadd has his number and always has.
As for the story Askeladd told the boys (and Thorkell), it was fascinating in its own right but there were multiple layers of subtext to his telling it. How many people has Askeladd shared this with over the years, I wonder? I wouldn’t be stunned if this were the first time – there’s no indication that he’s ever loved anyone or even can love anyone apart from his mother, or that he’s had a real friend. We now know the source of the name, a little more about the nature of the Artorius myth his mother kept repeating like a mantra. But if one were to envision a backstory for a man like Askeladd, I imagine this would have hit very close the mark for most of us.
Let us never forget, Askeladd is half-Viking himself. Olaf’s blood courses through his veins just as his mother’s does. He learned a hard lesson at just 11 years old – legends don’t save people, and neither do Gods. The only thing that can save a person is another person, and he decided to be that person. And let’s not forget that in telling this story, Askeladd is giving Thorfinn the template for how to kill him (should he have the will). Askeladd is no warrior – he makes no bones about it. Killing Olaf in his sleep and framing his brother? If it serves the goal, do it. Askeladd is not only no man of honor – he holds honor in contempt, and the only God he serves is the God of practicality.
Of course Thor’s existence is a wild card in all this. I think that was the one time in all of Askeladd’s lonely, blood-stained journey that he doubted his own despairing view of the world. But then he killed Thors, which he’d been paid a lot of money to do, and that was that. Name-dropping Thors to Thorfinn here was undeniably cold as ice, but as with everything this man does it was thoroughly calculated. As with the pummelling I’m sure it felt good, but Askeladd wants to make sure Thorfinn understands he’s been wasting his life and there’s no way out on the path he’s chosen. It’s not what Thors would have wanted, and whether he kills Askeladd or not it will have accomplished nothing except destroying his soul.
So what does Askeladd want now? Does he want Thorfinn to abandon him for good, or to kill him in his sleep? His acknowledgment to Canute that the prince is better-suited to rule is more or less an admission that his own life has been a waste as much as Thorfinn’s, but he’s fully aware of that fact and has been almost from the beginning. Askeladd never liked himself and now more than ever he’s become that which he reviled. The most fascinating – and poignant – moment of Askeladd’s tale was when he bemoaned “people without beauty” popping up everywhere, because it was a reminder that he’s a man who has aspirations and fully understands the degree to which his life has been an abomination. He’s no saint to be sure, but that’s not a fate I would wish on anybody.