「ケティルの農場」 (Ketiru no Nōjou)
Yukimura Makoto has tapped into a very deep well here with Vinland Saga turning to the everyday lives of slaves. I don’t know for how long this is going to remain a focus, but it’s a fascinating topic that’s worthy of exploration. Slavery has existed in widespread form for most of recorded human history -we can look down our noses at our past now but we can’t erase it. Slavery – and the manner in which free people with a conscience chose to address it – is a mirror held up to reflect human nature whether we like it or not.
Ketil appears to be such a man – but I’m not yet ready to take him or this entire situation at face value. He seems to be genuinely concerned with the welfare of his slaves – one of whom is of course Thorfinn. He introduces Einar to him and informs him that Thorfinn will teach him the ins and outs of his new life. That life is clearing a forest and planting wheat – wheat which Ketil says he’ll buy from the men at market value starting with their first harvest. Once the value of what they produce is equal to their purchase price, he’ll set them free (by his declared reckoning, in perhaps as soon as three years).
Again, historical awareness breeds caution here. A man in Ketil’s shoes is under no legal obligation to be truthful to men in Einar and Thorfinn’s (shoeless) position. And what Ketil sees as kindness where slaves are concerned might not seem so kind to enlightened people today. But Ketil may certainly be all he seems, and sincere. If that’s the case Thorfinn and Einar are very lucky, because most slaveholders in the 11th Century were a lot less moderate on their outlook. That said, there are still problems – like Ketil’s retainers eating most of the food they’re supposed to deliver to the slaves, and generally treating them like trash.
For slaves, that’s par for the course (or better, truthfully). I have to assume the pair of them are getting food elsewhere or they’d surely starve on those rations and under that workload. What’s really striking here is Thorfinn’s seeming passivity, even towards Ketil’s retainers at their worst. We don’t know exactly what happened with Thorfinn between the end of the first season and the start of this one, but he acts like a man with all the fight gone out of him. But this is another element I’m not taking at face value. When Thorfinn apologetically intervenes when Einar is about to be drawn into a confrontation over the stolen food, the bullies back down – and I think it’s because they see something in Thorfinn’s eyes they really don’t like.
Another intriguing element here is Ketil’s son Olmar (Hayashi Yuu). Predictably he’s the one person Ketil isn’t nice to, but to be fair Olmar seems to deserve it. This looks like a pretty typical case of a rebellious 17 year-old and his father – Olmar professes to hate farming and expresses no desire to inherit the farm, and his father is obviously disappointed in him. Olmar fraternizes with the daughter of one of the tenant farmers (much to their delight), and dreams of being a soldier despite having no knowledge of what that actually means. It doesn’t take 20/20 vision to see all the potential angles for trouble where this kid is concerned.
There’s another potential flashpoint here, given where Einar and Thorfinn come from. Einar is not a worldly man (which is completely realistic) and when Thorfinn says he’s from Iceland that means nothing to him. But when he starts talking about what happened to his mother and sister (after the English army killed his father) Thorfinn’s eyes (again) betray the turmoil behind the calm exterior. Directly or indirectly it was Thorfinn’s people who did that, and it’ll be interesting to see how Einar responds once that connection becomes clear to him.
Slavery has become a fashionable trope in anime lately, but almost always in the vein of incredibly banal light-novel portrayals that demean the human condition merely by existing. The medium cries out for a serious, thoughtful antidote to that, and I can think of few series better equipped to provide it than Vinland Saga. Yukimura is legendary for the obsessively detailed research he does for Vinland Saga (including many visits to the areas it depicts), and should he chose to explore this topic in depth, I would fully expect the nuance and incisiveness it demands.