“The Path of Blood”
There’s still quite a gap in the timeline of Vinland Saga, even if this episode did start to fill in some blanks. One can imagine that any relationship between Canute and someone like Thorfinn would have been pretty difficult once King Sweyn was dead. But my goodness, their paths could hardly have diverged more since Askeladd’s memorable public suicide. There was a real connection between those two young men, as different as they were. And the most obvious part of it was Askeladd, whose death has been the defining moment in both of their lives.
For now, we must be content with seeing at least a bit of how Canute got from that fateful moment to where he is as the King of England. Askeladd handed him the throne on a silver platter, and paid for it with his own life. In doing so he trusted Canute a great deal. Trusted him to rise to the moment and seize the reins of power with authority. Trusted him to view the land of his people (Wales) with more temperance than Sweyn would have. On the second we have no inside info (though history books can be spoilers where big names and events are concerned). But based on the events of this episode Canute seems to have vindicated Askeladd’s confidence on the first.
The climax of the first season was in 1014, after which England was embroiled in near-constant warfare. Canute takes a different approach to war than his predecessors in one respect – he forbids the pillaging of conquered lands (though “when the cat’s away” is clearly the reality here). But make no mistake, this war lays waste the land – specifically Mercia, the setting for the events of this ep. At the time these events were playing out it was an Earldom, ruled by Eadric (Saitou Jiro). He considers himself loyal to Æthelred (Tsuji Shinpachi), scion of the royal house of Wessex, the former king who fled England with his tail between his legs but returned when news of Sweyn’s death reached him, and declared himself king again.
It’s clear that in Mercia at least, Canute’s armies have thoroughly bested Æthelred’s. Among those waiting to greet the young king on his inspection are Floki, still as square-headed and creepy as ever. And of course Thorkell, who in any other series would have been the magnificent bastard of the first season. Thorkell is furious with Canute for effectively putting a stop to his fun by negotiating with his weakened enemies, and publicly berates Canute in a way no one really ought to be able to without getting a neckline haircut. But Canute understands Thorkell, even respects him. And he knows that if and when things really hit the fan again, Thorkell in among the best weapons he could possibly wield.
The entire exchange between Canute and Eadric seems designed to show us just how much Canute has changed in two years. In that sense Askeladd’s gambit has paid off – Canute is full of backbone and cool as the other side of the pillow. Eardric tries to buy him off with a not immodest pile of silver and jewels, but Canute expressed disinterest. He wants Æthelred dead – that’s the price of his mercy for Eadric. Eadric (perhaps surprisingly) remains loyal to his king, so Canute invites him outside for a demonstration of what going to war against him means.
Assassination – via poison, no less – is almost certainly a tactic Thorkell would thoroughly disapprove of. But it gets Canute where he needs to go a lot quicker than his father’s bulldozer approach. Both Æthelred and his son and successor Endmund (Blackadder?) die of “illness” within a matter of months, by 1018 leaving Canute as (for the moment) the relatively undisputed sovereign of England. Clearly Canute has designs on being a different sort of ruler – and Viking – than the world is used to. But that hasn’t really been put to the test of everyday governance yet, and Thorkell’s admonition (“the path is paved in blood”) hangs heavily over events.
The spotlight returns to Thorfinn and Einar next week, clearly the focus of this phase of the story (they call it “Farmland Saga” for a reason, I’m sure). But there’s still much to be revealed about the threads connecting Thorfinn to Canute, even if some of them seem to have been severed. It’s also vital to understand the historical context behind the everyday life that Thorfinn is leading, because you couldn’t hide from the Middle Ages – they had a way of finding you wherever you were.