「馬が欲しい」 (Uma ga Hoshī)
“I Want a Horse”
I suspect this ep might be a pretty good test of how receptive a viewer is to “Farmland Saga”. This was, for all intents and purposes, a slice of life episode. It was one where not much of consequence happened, theoretically. Except it did, because in the daily lives of people in Thorfinn and Einar’s situation, these kinds of events are consequential indeed. It basically consisted of two elements – backbreaking farm work and men talking to each other. And in the end it was magnificent, which is a testament to the quality of the writing.
It’s also testament to how interesting those men are too (though of course that’s also testament to the writing). I haven’t yet fully decided whether Ketil was serious about giving our two heroes the chance to earn their way to freedom through farming, but we haven’t seen any evidence that he wasn’t. The problem is they’re two men trying to create a farm out of a forest, which is a monumentally difficult task. Clearing the trees is hard enough, clearing the stumps and roots is another matter. Without a horse, in fact, it’s basically impossible. And the retainers aren’t about to loan one to slaves, even though it would clearly cause them no hardship whatsoever.
Thorfinn accurately assesses the trap they’re in. We don’t know whether Ketil would approve of loaning them an equine – I’d like to think he would. But even if Einar went to him and got permission that would just piss off the retainers, who’d make the slaves’ lives even more hellish. Salvation comes from an unlikely source, the old man we saw berating Snake a couple episodes back. His name is Sverkel, and he’s played by the venerable Mugihito, 78 years young, As it turns out he’s the “Old Master”, Ketil’s father (though we won’t learn that for a while). He overhears Einar bemoaning their troubles, and offers them a solution.
Einar is initially suspicious that Sverkel is taking advantage of them (though as Thorfinn says, it’s not like that would be any different from a normal day). But Sverkel is clearly a man of integrity, and while he extracts the mens’ labor in exchange for the use of his draft horse, that’s not exploitation – it’s an honest trade. With a horse in hand clearing the stumps and at least the shallower roots is doable, and soon enough their patch of cleared land starts to resemble an arable plot. The retainers hassle the lads yet again, accusing them of stealing the horse, but once they figure out who the old man under discussion is it seems as if this is a red line they aren’t willing to cross.
One of the joys of this episode is watching the bond between Thorfinn and Einar deepen. These two are complete opposites – a farm boy and a boy soldier, a boisterous extrovert and a dark and brooding wounded animal still licking his wounds. But the joy in Einar’s eyes as Thorfinn is awestruck by every grain of farming knowledge he hears for the first time is really palpable. Right now it’s easier to see what Thorfinn gains from this relationship than Einar, but it won’t always be that way. And in any event, that’s how a lot of the closest friendships start…
The family dynamics on this farm are no less interesting. Ketil doesn’t get along with his son, and it turns out things are stormy with his father too. That’s why Sverkel lives on his own at his age, living a simple life (which his son disapproves of). Sverkel in turn disapproves of Ketil’s pursuit of wealth for its own sake – which in turn forces him to seek more wealth to fund the wealth he has (and his anxiety over it). He sees no point in owning more land than a man can protect himself – which of course would put Snake out of a job.
It was inevitable that Snake was going to turn up sooner or later once we saw Sverkel. It turns out he’s actually the old man’s grandson of course – the term “Gramps” is honorary. But these two haven’t gravitated together by accident. They bicker nonstop but there’s an undercurrent of affection to it, and it’s clear they enjoy the company of a man whose intellect they respect. It’s also clear that neither Sverkel or Snake give a crap about status – Thorfinn and Einar (returning the horse) are free to sit down and eat with them. This conversation is quite riveting for how natural it is, and an especially interesting moment was Snake’s “Right, Thorfinn?” – his way of telling him he knows a warrior when he sees one.
I don’t know who’s right about the vulnerability of the farm – whether the tributes Ketil pays to King Harald really do buy security (I rather doubt it). That may be tested in time, but for now the focus on Thorfinn and Einar’s daily lives is totally working for me. For Thorfinn to admit that Einar is a friend (Einar is shocked that it’s even a question) is a huge step on his road to accepting his humanity again. For all the intimacy of his bond with Askeladd and the kinship be briefly felt with Canute, I suspect this is the first time Thorfinn has thought of anyone as a friend since that fateful day he stowed away on his father’s ship.
I appreciated this post, Guardian Enzo. I’m glad that you are continuing to cover this great series. Thanks!