Makoto Yukimura lifted the bar for historical storytelling in Vinland Saga by presenting an amazing group of legendary individuals and blending them successfully enough to produce an innovative narrative. One of the most eagerly awaited anime sequels of winter 2023 is the second season of the Vinland Saga, which is now streaming on Netflix and Crunchyroll. The series is known for its heart for sorrow and unrelenting violence. Yukimura’s interest in Norse culture and history is deeper than it appears, as evidenced by arcane terms like the “berserker” and the work’s very title, even if the series makes many references to real-world locations and names.
The story of the anime begins with Thors Snorresson, a fearsome Viking also known as the Troll of Jom, who has abandoned the use of force and bloodshed as a way of life. He seeks safety in Iceland, where he lives in harmony with his wife Helga and their two children, Ylva and Thorfinn. While adhering to his father’s values, Thorfinn isn’t as pleased to live a modest life. His perspectives are broad, even extending to the utopian world described in the travelogues of explorer Leif Erikson.
However, the calm was short-lived. As a result of the war that breaks out between England and Denmark, Thors receives visits from familiar acquaintances. At some point during the conflict, Thors perishes, forcing Thorfinn to confront real cruelty and sadness for the first time in his life. By way of a direct allusion to Norse literature and culture, the title of “Vinland Saga” is itself a reference. Readers would want to first become familiar with the definition of the first phrase, “Saga,” before tackling it in its entirety. It is an Old Norse word that means “tale” or “history,” and it typically refers to the epic prose that was written in Scandinavia between the 12th and the 15th centuries.
The sagas, as opposed to the “Eddas,” which are known to chronicle Norse Gods and mythical events, contain tales of common heroes and their exploits. It may be because of this shift in emphasis away from mythology and toward human accomplishments that viewers of Vinland Saga have yet to see the All-Mighty Thor, his hammer, or his perpetually mischievous brother Loki. Instead, they are invited to follow the life of young Thorfinn as he leaves his home to board a ship of rambunctious Vikings.
There were five main subgenres of the old sagas, each of which focused on a certain subject. The fact that “Vinland Saga” has previously been used to refer to two works known as “Icelandic Sagas” or “Family Sagas” (slendingasögur), which are based on explorers’ trips to the enigmatic territories of Greenland and North America, may not come as a surprise to anime watchers. The term “Vinland,” which in Old Norse means “the Land of Wine,” specifically alludes to the moniker the Vikings gave North America to emphasise their explorations there.
Leif Erikson’s appearance in the anime is unmistakably a nod to the historical figure who is thought to have discovered Vinland around the year 1000 and who also appears in the Icelandic “Erik the Red’s Saga” and “Saga of the Greenlanders,” but the character of Thorfinn’s ancestry suggests that Thorfinn Karlsefni, a Norse explorer, more directly. While Thorfinn takes on a more significant role in the “Saga of the Greenlanders,” which follows Leif’s journey to North America, Leif’s persona gradually starts to wane.
According to Makoto Yukimura in an interview with Twin Engine, although the Norse author Thorfinn Karlsefni served as the model for the character of Thorfinn in the Vinland Saga, Yukimura is aiming for a more nuanced approach. Actually,” Yukimura explains, “there was once a monarch named Olaf Tryggvason who first became a slave and then rose to power again.” As a result, Olaf Tryggvason, an ambitious leader who first needed to go through hardship in order to realise kindness, serves as the inspiration for some of Yukimura’s Thorfinn.
Askeladd, one of the series’ notable adversaries, is an offspring of Yukimura’s love for Norse tradition. His name is closely associated with Askeladden, also known as Ash-lad, who appears in a number of well-known Norwegian folktales compiled by Asbjrnsen and Moe. In Norwegian folklore, Ashlad is renowned for being a smart and patient person who succeeds in spite of expectations, despite his fragile build and his position in the family. Askeladden is just twice as unpredictable as the main characters in the sagas, despite the fact that his portrayal goes against the grain of conventional mythology and depicts a hero reversed.
Askeladd’s past is connected to another legendary figure, Olaf the Peacock, an Icelandic trader who earned his moniker because of his flamboyant attire and demeanour. In the meantime, Yukimura’s preference for nuanced, well-rounded characters is also noticeable here. Due to Ashlad’s wit and Olaf’s majesty, Askeladd from the Vinland Saga manages to stand out as a more endearing antagonist who steals many of the situations he appears in.
In any examination of the Norse cultural components in Vinland Saga, the lifestyle and mindset of the Vikings should not be overlooked, just like the real-life people Yukimura draws inspiration from. Most of these characteristics are best seen in two of the first season’s events, both of which centre on the warrior known as Bjorn. These events show a hunger for discovery, a craving for riches, and a stark admiration for honour and fight.
Bjorn’s viewpoint is used to discuss the “berserker” and Valhalla. The first one alluded to is more of a literary concept, but it otherwise represents a vivid portrayal of the berserker, or “Bear-shirt” if one tries to translate the word from its original Old Norse. Bjorn, who in Scandinavian languages also means “bear,” confesses towards the end of the episode titled “Troll” that he’s curious to learn “what the Troll of Jom is composed of.” He consumes a fungus that causes him to experience overwhelming wrath as a result, and he then brutally fights his way to Thors. His hair is untidy, and his eyes are white and furious. He launches two men into the air as if they were of no weight. After all that, a composed Thors knocks him out with two punches.
The sagas frequently refer to “Bear-shirts” and “Wolf-skins” as unstoppable, shield-biting warriors who have no regard for their own safety; this not only makes them formidable foes on the battlefield but also gives them a not-so-great reputation outside of it, leading to their perception as outlaws or renegades—sometimes even cultists—in Norse societies. Nobody can say with certainty what motivated the “going berserk” (or “Berserkergang”) conduct. Nevertheless, outside the notion that it is a normal response to stress, one of the most prevalent theories for the phenomena appears to be the use of natural medicines like magic mushrooms.
In Norse literature, berserkers frequently appear; their demeanour is typically represented as fearless, their skin is resistant to arrows and swords, and their link to Odin has been mentioned multiple times. However, it’s also crucial to recognize that these descriptions border on the fantastic; in reality, the Vikings’ victories weren’t achieved by the mindless, bloodthirsty warriors depicted in episodes that capture the image of a furious Bjorn, but rather by careful fighters and meticulous strategists, manifest in the likes of Thors and Askeladd.
The combat between Bjorn and Askeladd, which takes place toward the close of the season, is yet another notable event in terms of allusions to Norse practises and philosophy. From episode 18, “Out of the Cradle,” where he was stabbed just after waking up from his berserker state, we already know that Bjorn is seriously hurt. Since he is aware that the attack would be fatal, he challenges Askeladd to a duel so that he can pass through the gates of Valhalla, the Norse mythology’s version of paradise, and die bravely in combat.
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Valhalla (also known as the “Hall of the Slain” or even the “Rock of the Slain”) is merely one of the five places the Norse thought people travelled to in the afterlife, in contrast to the unique paradise depicted by Christians. Entry into Valhalla is also not based on traditional morality. The other four are Fólkvangr (ruled by the goddess Freyja), The Realm of Ran (who attends those who pass away at sea), Gefjon (who is reputed to watch over virgins in the Prose Edda), and last but not least The Realm of Hel (the Norse underworld, often associated with the traditional Hell in Christianity). The idea of the afterlife, along with the mythical tree Yggdrasil and its nine worlds, takes on a typical complexity in Norse culture and has been the focus of meticulous study for academics from all over the world up to this day.
Bjorn expresses his desire to die a hero and be carried by Valkyries to the location held in the highest regard in his culture when he challenges Askeladd to a duel to the grave. Valhalla, which is controlled by the powerful Odin, is only a hall of heroes where warriors are asked to enlist in Odin’s army and engage in unending combat with him. The best method to ensure your entry into Valhalla is to put your life in danger and give your life so that your army can triumph. Bravery is the pattern.
Both Bjorn and the ancient Vikings of that time held this belief to be true. Additionally, Askeladd feels compelled by the same conviction to grant his friend’s dream and accept the task without hesitation. Not out of spite or to relieve the agony of the fallen warrior, but rather out of concern for Bjorn’s soul.
Mythology is not the main focus of this series, as was previously stated. However, beliefs and religious practises play an important role in a person’s life and help us understand a character’s psychology more quickly. Bjorn may not have been able to summon thunder with just his bare hands, but he was aware of the legends and had faith in miracles and gods. As a good starting point for any characterization, stating the person’s cultural background is always a good place to start. The battle-driven mentality of the century defines a big portion of who he is as a character.
Contrarily, Vinland Saga’s historical authenticity is strengthened by its subtle allusions to mythology and fantastical happenings, which help to immerse the viewer in a specific time and place. Trees may be uprooted from their foundations, and characters may perform baffling feats of parkour while leaping from ship to ship without breaking a leg, but only because the story has been written in the tradition of the old sagas, theatres of greatness known for exaggerating reality in an ardent effort to highlight the heroic deeds of their heroes. The sagas, like the anime, begin with real people and genuine events but as the story progresses, end up straddling the line between fact and fiction.
Finally, Vinland Saga presents a story that is challenging to forget or retell while still having a good understanding of historical events. Throughout the entire series, there are several allusions to real people and cultures, and more will be revealed in upcoming episodes. As he developed his story, Yukimura threw out a number of nuggets of wisdom for us to mine rather than treating it as a history lecture. That being said, I extend a sailing invitation to my readers so that we can continue to explore Norse culture through Thorfinn’s perspective.
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