Everything relating to Thorfinn this episode was anime original. In the manga, he never got into a fight with random people on the street, let alone getting shunted into a prison cell. Leif never appeared either. Upon seeing the changes, I immediately realised this is what the hinted anime original ending was alluding to. From this episode alone, it would have been extremely hard to tell whether it would be a positive or negative change. As to how it played out, I’ll leave that until the next episode. But one thing I’ve definitely enjoyed with the anime is that it has consistently dropped anime original references towards Vinland throughout the series, culminating in this extremely powerful moment where Leif succeeds in making Thorfinn remember that innocent wish he’s had ever since childhood. It’s a symbolic beacon of hope and happiness in a world filled with strife and despair. Will he take up this second chance of life? Hard to imagine he would, given his single-minded conviction that has spanned across a decade. Nevertheless, it’s good to know he does have other options that exist, and that the influence of Thors has continued to live through him despite everything that’s happened.
Meanwhile, at a council, the crown’s powers are put on display today. A room of murderous brutes might mutter dark conspiracies to each other, in light of the alleged assassination attempt onto Canute. But in the presence of the king, they immediately hush up and become subservient to him. And as everyone receives rewards from Sweyn for the successful conquest of England, Askeladd watches on with a smirk on his face. Everything seems to be progressing as he’d planned. But when he went on with a gleeful internal monologue about how he’d prevailed in his game of political chess, it would be difficult to shake off the foreboding sense that something was off. That God had one final trick to play on this manipulative charlatan. And it played out in the cruelest was possible. If Thorfinn’s life goal was to exact revenge upon Askeladd, then it would be fair to say that Askeladd’s life goal would be to secure the protection and emancipation of his beloved Welsh brethren – a wish thrown into total disarray by Sweyn’s royal edict that the Danes will be launching a full scale invasion of Wales.
From the conversations between Sweyn and Floki, we know they clearly have an idea that Askeladd had some sort of relation to Wales. So it’s quite clear to see that they were testing the waters, to figure out whether it could be a weakness to be leveraged as collateral against Askeladd. And it seems they’ve hit their mark. With Canute’s chances of succession on the line, as well as the safety of his beloved Welsh brethren, Askeladd has been thrusted between a rock and a hard place. But it would be too quick to count him out, considering he’s plotted his way out of many terrible predicaments before.
Guardian Enzo’s Take
As I’ve noted before, the best epics are always deeply personal. There’s no paradox in that – for me at least, if you can’t make me feel some connection to the characters playing out the saga, it’s just a history textbook. The very best examples of the genre – The Iliad or Heike Monogatari for example – certainly bear this out. Historical epics have to have the right canvas, but that’s all those historical events are. It’s the lives of the people who made those events happen which are the actual work of art.
Maybe Vinland Saga ain’t The Iliad, but an epic it is nonetheless – and it has the advantage of a linear narrative with a relatively small number of central characters. It utilizes that advantage to full, well- advantage, giving us an intensely personal story about these indelible men (and boys). Long operating in Askeladd’s shadow, Thorfinn is finally starting to emerge from it as the full pathos of his arc kicks in. And then we have Thorkell – but I’ll get to him in a minute.
This episode takes place on two fronts, as Canute, Askeladd and Thorkell march into the council of elders sans Thorfinn. That’s because he’s both physically and mentally wrecked about his physical and mental ass-whupping by Askeladd. Eventually he has a run-in with a trio of lowlifes too zaku to make it into the council. Even half-dead and all dazed Thorfinn makes laughably easy work of these mulyaks, but it draws the attention of the local constable, who throws him into the local jail to keep the peace during the big event. I think we could all see what was going to happen next, but there’s other stuff that happens first.
This was a bit of a different Askeladd than we’re used to seeing. When the king gives Canute Mercia (once the most powerful kingdom in Britain but already in decline by this time) and generally dances to a predictable tune, Askeladd allows himself to gloat. He’s rarely been this cocky – if ever – and as if the fates are listening, he pays a heavy price for it. Sweyn’s announcement that he intends to invade Wales and crush all resistance once and for all may have only coincidentally been a broadside across Askeladd’s bow, but broadside it was. And Askleadd slips up here in a major, major way – he betrays his shock for a few moments, long enough for Floki (to whom Askeladd is especially dangerous) to take notice.
Is Askeladd slipping in his old age? Merely exhausted? Whatever it is, this news has thoroughly unhinged him as we’ve ever seen him. I also thought it a bit out of character to admit the truth to Thorkell, but I suspect he’s trying to cement their connection as much as possible because he realizes now, more than ever, how desperately he needs him. As for the big man, I’m struck – far from the first time – that he’s playing up this feckless giant persona as much as possible in order to hide just how smart he really is. When you look like Thorkell no one will ever underestimate you physically, but they might be lured into underestimating you mentally. And if you were really smart, you’d use that to your advantage…
As for Thorfinn, Leif does eventually come to visit him – as I knew he would. This was Leif’s signature moment of the story so far, and he doesn’t disappoint. He’s another one of those unsung heroes of Vinland Saga, a decent and complicated man always on the fringes of the narrative. Having failed to persuade Thorfinn to return home for his own sake, he turns it around and uses his own pledge to Thors as a weapon – that, and the promise of Vinland. The problem for Thorfinn is that for all his hopelessness and despair, he knows every word Leif says about his father is true. He knows he’s betraying Thors’ wishes with every day he walks this path, but he can’t bring himself to feel worthy of having hope.
Askeladd is the rock star here, but Thorfinn’s personal tragedy is still the spine of Vinland Saga. At some point his path and Askeladd’s must surely diverge – they have to, in order for their arcs to maintain their structural integrity. I don’t know if it’s going to happen now or later – or if we’ll see it happen in the anime at all – but it’s going to happen. Meanwhile for all Leif and Thorfinn’s emotional appeal, the lasting memory of the episode for me is the rueful smile Askeladd offers up at the last – always the scene-stealer he is. It’s a testament to the man, the mangaka, and the anime staff that so much can be communicated in just a look.
「End of the Prologue」
I was never a fan of Askeladd. I am still not a fan of Askeladd. But that only refers to Askeladd as a human being that would heartlessly sacrifice and trample on good and innocent folks to achieve his dream. In a vacuum, deconstructing him as a fictional character, I can only concede that he’s one of the best characters to have graced anime in 2019. And it’s hard not to respect his brilliant mind and single-minded determination that transformed a mere dream into an overarching reality. In short, he’s a bastard, but a glorious one at that.
Sweyn and Floki operate a gambit together. They’ve realised that Askeladd holds rather sentimental feelings towards Wales. But they vastly underestimate the ultra-nationalistic passion permeating Askeladd’s soul. Perhaps an inappropriate and sensitive parallel, but just as a Jihadist would commit a suicide bombing for their cause, Askeladd is no different. He is willing to throw away his life if it means achieving his goal. Not to mention Sweyn in all his arrogance made the colossal mistake of verbally disgracing Wales over and over again – calling it a country of slave exports. It only stands to reason that Askeladd would eventually explode – which he did – and it was a sight to behold. Without any hesitation, he lops off Sweyn’s head and proceeds to single-handedly massacre the King’s guard while proclaiming himself the rightful heir as King Arthur’s descendant. To any outsider, he would seem insane. But Canute and Thorkell both catch on that it’s part of Askeladd’s plan to legitimise Canute’s succession claim. After Canute grapples with the idea of killing another living thing, he proceeds as intended, running a sword through Askeladd, thus avenging Sweyn and legitimising his succession claim. However, Canute has another problem to contend with – Thorfinn isn’t able to see the bigger picture and has just witnessed him stealing away his life’s meaning in one fell swoop.
The anime original change elevated the adaptation above the source material, in my opinion. The production team really emphasised the tragedy of Thorfinn’s situation – that Leif had keenly offered him a path away from a life of revenge. Seeking out Vinland could have brought him salvation along the lines of what Thors envisioned – a route that could have allowed him to avoid his current fate. Now, he failed to kill the very man he’d been seeking revenge upon his whole life and has been hauled out of the King’s chamber, facing imminent charges for attempting to murder the Crown Prince. Wit perfectly adapted that heart-shattering face from the manga – the haunted face of a pitifully empty human who has been deprived of their life’s meaning. With the prologue ending in such an emphatic way, what next for our young protagonist? Canute will surely spare his life. He has commanded it. But as the person currently exercising the crown’s authority, he can’t just allow Thorfinn to get off scot free, since it would send out the wrong kind of message to his subjects. I suppose anime only viewers will have to wait for a second season to discover his fate, or jump straight to Chapter 55 of the manga if you can’t wait that long. But all I can say that the first season indeed serves as a prologue to one of the greatest character development arcs in contemporary fiction.
To conclude, Wit have had an incredible year, first proving with AoT S3 that they can transcend the source material in making their own additions while preserving its original spirit. I’m usually skeptical of anime adaptations. But now they’ve continued this trend with Vinland Saga, I can confidently proclaim they’ve got the craft of adapting manga down pat. I can’t say it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, since I felt the middle section was adapted somewhat poorly. But in no way can I detract from the first and finals thirds of the show. Those were masterpieces in their own right, and place Vinland Saga in extremely strong contention for AOTY. Askeladd spearheaded the narrative extremely hard, and most of the key characters also rose to the occasion – especially Canute, culminating in an epic narrative completed with a dramatic and worthy finale. Hopefully, the anime original shots of characters from future arcs means that we’ll be receiving a second season down the line. The sooner the better, and preferably with Studio Wit in charge. Anyway, that’s about everything I wanted to discuss. Thanks for sticking with me and Enzo till the end of this incredible journey, and I wish you all a happy new year!
Guardian Enzo’s Take
I had to seriously think about what to write in the title field, but I think this was the only direction I could go. Wit seems to be trying to break the record for how much a sequel can possibly be teased without actually being announced. Yabuta Shuuhei hinted at the possibility in a recent interview. The final episode is called “The End of the Prologue” (though to be fair, that’s the chapter title in the manga too). Someone leaked the possibility to a fairly reliably anime rumor site. And finally, they produced a short promo video (no, it’s not an announcement for a movie) teasing the next arc in the manga.
But no flokki-ing announcement.
Why is that? Maybe there’s debate in the production committee, which as we know is a formidable obstacle to anything good happening in anime. Maybe Wit’s terminally chaotic production calendar has something to do with it – a sequel to the hugely profitable Hoozuki no Reitetsu was delayed for years because of that. Maybe everyone is sitting back and waiting for BD sales numbers, or final results for how the merchandising campaign at Tokyu Hands went. Who the hell knows? I sure don’t – which leaves me rather in a bind about whether to pick up the manga where the anime left off.
One thing I can say with absolute certainty is that I’m completely invested in this story now, and will continue with it one way or the other. And the finale certainly did nothing to change that. Not being a manga reader I’m not burdened with the chore of comparing this version to the original – from what I read less was changed in the finale than many expected – but I can tell you that for me, this was a brilliant conclusion. Fittingly, as it’s been a brilliant two cours of anime – the best (when the whole two cours are considered) of the past two years, as far as I’m concerned.
What this finale also made clear (if it weren’t already) is that the main character of this part of the series is Askeladd – or should I say “Lucius Artorius Castus” (he arranges his attire in Roman fashion for the final showdown)? If it had been titled in true saga fashion this prologue would have been “The Book of Askeladd”. The largely original and sublime Thors prologue set up the larger series as a whole, for which Thorfinn is clearly the protagonist. But the character whose life and whose thoughts were the spine of these two cours was Askeladd. It really had to end with his end – nothing else would have worked. And he stormed the barricades of anime in 2019 like an army of a thousand Thorkells.
In the end, as before, it was Askeladd pulling the strings. He was the driver of all the major events in Vinland Saga so far, but while it was his deliberate actions leading up to this point, he fell afoul of his inability to conceal his passion for his homeland here. Once Floki spotted that Askeladd’s fate was sealed. He could have chosen to kick the can down the road – play along for the moment and try to figure out a way out of the trap he found himself in later. But he didn’t – he chose to provoke a confrontation and stake his life on a gamble that was almost a sure bet not to pay off.
Why would Askeladd – clearly the smartest guy in the room, no matter who else is in the room – do that? I honestly believe he was tired. The destruction of his army – which he claimed to hate – impacted him deeply. He’d become what he hated in order to try and accomplish his goals, and was tired of being that person. And he knew that even if Sweyn refused his entreaties to spare Wales (as he surely knew was a near-certainty) the fallback option was the best hope Wales had. By sacrificing himself, Askeladd could make Canute a hero – and by making Canute a hero, he could make him king. And Canute as king – especially knowing what Askeladd had done – was very likely to take a kinder view on Askeladd’s homeland than any other possible ruler of Britain.
Here again we see Thorkell being smarter than he acts. He keeps his wits about him, doesn’t panic as any of this is happening. And once it’s clear to him what Askeladd is doing, he prods Canute to be the one to strike the killing blow (“A dog should be handled by his own master”), and makes sure the boy doesn’t let his emotions put the opportunity Askeladd has given him to waste. Thorkell acts like he doesn’t understand the subtleties of politics and court intrigue, but the truth is he simply doesn’t care about them – and there’s a big difference. Now, more than ever, he’s essential to any chance Canute has to be a successful ruler.
And then, of course, we have the matter of Thorfinn. Here I gather is where the anime did make some changes, padding out his role and showing us his inner conflict in more depth (and as with all the changes they made, thank goodness). It appears he at least momentarily decides to go with Leif, to give up on the cause of revenge. But in the end he can’t bring himself to do it, and even without knowing what’s going on in the grand hall he goes to return to Askeladd’s side. Once it becomes clear what is happening, this all takes on a much greater sense of urgency of course.
It’s certainly ironic that Askeladd’s death is directly caused by Thorfinn’s intervention, just as Thors’ was. But the same truth reigns in both cases – the result would have been the same either way. Both men had made their decision to die for the sake of something they valued more than their own lives. Thorfinn doesn’t understand any of this yet of course, but perhaps he’ll come to someday. To watch Askeladd die in his arms destroys the foundations of Thorfinn’s world, but it’s not a simple matter to understand why. To say his feelings for Askeladd – and vice-versa – are complicated is the understatement of the (11th) Century.
Watching Thorfinn’s knife clatter to the ground, as all the scenes of life are reflected in it… What a beautiful imagery from Yabuta-sensei. Thorfinn has the opportunity to put the final blow to Askeladd – Askeladd urges him to. But Thorfinn can’t or won’t do it. Of course this isn’t how he imagined Askeladd’s death playing out, but there’s more to it than that. In truth this is the closest thing to a father he’s ever had, and Askeladd’s final words are not of Wales or his mother – they’re of Thors and his son. Askeladd never stops trying to push Thorfinn onto a path that will give his life meaning, right up to his final breaths. Is that any different from what a father would do?
The question of what comes next applies to the story itself and not just the anime, of course. The real killer of Thors, in spirit if not in deed, still lives. It’s pretty clear what Canute will do – rule England in his father’s place, with Thorkell at his side. But what of Thorfinn? Askeladd’s death has robbed him of the only purpose he ever allowed himself to live for, but to simply substitute Floki for Askeladd would be a hollow turn for him. Leif is still out there, and so is home – but most importantly, Vinland is out there too. That’s surely where the bird Thorfinn sees in his mind’s eye is forever flying towards, and surely where Vinland Saga will lead him eventually.