The Daily Stream: The Vinland Saga Conceals A Complex Story In A Simple Revenge Tale

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Show: "Vinland Saga"

Where You Can Stream It: Netflix and Amazon Prime.

The Pitch: Based on the manga by Makoto Yukimura, "Vinland Saga" is named for 12th-century Icelandic epics. These tales chronicle Viking voyages to Vinland, the continent that would become North America. While still set during the Viking Age, the "Vinland Saga" anime starts much differently.

It begins in the early 11th century when the Danish invasion of England is in full gear. From there, it mixes history and myth. The lead is Thorfinn Karlsefni, who was a real explorer during this time period. However, the life story of the anime's Thorfinn is closer to the Norse myth of Amleth (adapted this year by Robert Eggers in "The Northman").

Thorfinn's father, Thors, was a Jomsviking who deserted after falling disillusioned with violence. After years of peaceful domesticity in Iceland, Thors' former comrades hire a pirate band to assassinate him. Thors meets his end after a duel with the pirates' leader, a man called Askeladd. Thorfinn stowed away aboard Askeladd's ship, refusing to let his father go unavenged. Askeladd makes Thorfinn a deal; if he can prove himself as a warrior, he'll give the boy the duel he wants. 

After ten years as Askeladd's attack dog, the innocent child Thorfinn used to be is gone — the only part of his childhood he clings to is his desire to walk through the fields of Vinland. Before he can go there, he has to kill the man who's been a father to him for longer than Thors himself was.

As the story goes on, it's revealed that Askeladd is more than just a simple pirate, just like there's more to "Vinland Saga" than a simple tale of revenge.

Why it's essential viewing

"Vinland Saga" is beautifully animated courtesy of WIT Studio. Yet, that never conceals the ugliness of the Viking world. Whole villages are slaughtered for plunder and the main commerce of the era is slavery. The action is dynamic, but also bloody and brutal. When limbs are sliced off (and believe me, many are) it always looks as painful as it would feel.

This is the life Thors walked away from: "a true warrior has no need for a sword." In trying to avenge Thors, Thorfinn has become everything his father hated (side-note: I'm a bit agnostic on sub vs dub with this series, but I will say, Aleks Le is just impeccable at portraying Thorfinn's anger in Netflix's English dub).

One of the best episodes depicting this violent tragedy is chapter 6, "The Journey Begins." When Thorfinn is injured, he's picked up and healed by a woman in a rural British village. He's lost his father, she's lost her son, and the possibility of a new, peaceful life exists for him. But Thorfinn has sold his soul to Askeladd, as the series' opening theme, "MUKANJYO" (translation: "Emotionless") reminds us of every episode. The episode ends with Thorfinn summoning Askeladd's band to shore with a signal fire. After Thorfinn takes in the mother's look of betrayal, he charges into the raid. The transition to the ending theme, "Torches," never hits harder.

Building a different world

"Vinland Saga" isn't told completely from Thorfinn's POV. As it goes, his object of revenge becomes just as important. Askeladd is a crafty, merciless bastard who lies with every other breath, but there's more than meets the eye to him. "Askeladd" isn't even his real name (I'll leave that truth a surprise).

The son of a Welsh slave and her Danish captor, he hates the Vikings and the English alike for the pain they've visited on his people. Growing up, he realized no one was going to save him or his mother, so he'd have to do it himself. He's repulsed by the Vikings and their brutal greed, and he has no love for even his own men (save his loyal right-hand, Bjorn). Still, if he needs to throw in his lot with men he hates to win power, he'll do it.

Askeladd claims that everyone is a slave to something and for him, it's his heritage, just like Thorfinn is to his own. Askeladd's relationship with the boy is the most complex of all. Like his other men, Askeladd is using Thorfinn for his own ends and he's dismissive towards Thorfinn's quest for vengeance. Yet, there's an occasional sense he's trying to push Thorfinn to be a better man, one that his father would be proud of.

About halfway through the season, Askeladd spots a chance to secure Wales' safety when he and his band rescue the Danish Prince Canute. From there, the battles in "Vinland Saga" started to be waged in the political realm, not just the battlefield. Since the show has invested us in the characters, though, it never ceases to thrill.

God's trials

While its main characters follow the Norse Gods, "Vinland Saga" itself is more taken with Christian mythology, especially the religion's fixation on noble suffering.

The main character of episode 14, "The Light of Dawn" is a young girl English girl named Anne. Her family are devout Christians, who dream of the Second Coming and imagine Christ smiting the Danish into hellfire. Anne is not convinced she'll see heaven; at a marketplace, she stole a ring and has hidden it in a tree outside her home. The night Askeladd and his men come to her town, Anne winds up the only survivor because she'd ducked out to look at the ring. At the episode's end, she wonders — by sparing her life, has God saved her or punished her with a denial of eternal bliss?

Canute, a Christian heir to a nation of pagans, is accompanied by Father Willibald. The priest seeks "true love" and concludes it's only found in death; humans are too tainted by selfishness to offer true love in life. Canute disagrees, disavowing not God's existence but that he tests his children with suffering. The timid prince comes out of his shell and conducts himself with purpose — to ascend to the throne and build heaven on Earth.

Will he succeed or will the weight of the crown corrupt him as it did his Father Sweyn? We'll know when season 2 of "Vinland Saga" premieres on Netflix and Crunchyroll come January 9, 2023. Like WIT's breakout project, "Attack on Titan," "Vinland Saga" will be moving over to the studio MAPPA.

Season 1's 24 episodes only adapted the first eight of the manga's 26 volumes, so you can always check out that as well. I certainly will.