The Northman and Cycles of Violence
The nature of vengeance and violence is one of the more explored topics in the popular canon. With The Northman, the audience is presented an actively critical lens on the concepts of violence, revenge, self-destruction, and destiny.
Spoiler warning and Content Warning: Contains spoilers for The Northman and discussion of sexual assault, death, slavery and extreme violence.
The Northman, directed by Robert Eggers, is an immensely engrossing film. At the same time it is an extremely disgusting look into a previous era of European civilization. The ceremonies, the viscera, the inhumanity, the savagery, the sheer depravity of the characters in the story all contribute to a world wholly distinct from what would or even could be considered proper society.
At least, that would be one way to look at it. Another, would be that “we” in the sense of the persons who exist in the world, create monsters. The story of Amleth is a thorough exploration of how revenge and justification of the revenge becomes a dogma with which monstrous actions can be justified.
One thing about the vile acts in the story is they’re on one hand fierce and visceral and yet, ignoble. The story lends itself to an interpretation that all of the blood in the world can’t really fix trauma, but for the person in the cycle, it becomes all that has value.
It is not a bold statement to say, The Northman, works to make you dislike characters.
Amleth, played by Oscar Novak and Alexander Skarsgård respectively, serves as the protagonist and begins as a loving and devoted son before he sees his father slain and vows revenge on his uncle. After escaping his uncle Fjonir’s regicide there’s time skip where the once young and presumably innocent Amleth is now a hardened Berserker, fueled by bloodlust and carnage.
Olga, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, is in turn a victim of Amleth’s violence as he is a raiding berserker who comes to her village and kidnaps her as chattel. As she is presented in the story she is mysterious claims to be a sorceress and does her best to support Amleth’s quest for vengeance.
The generation prior to Amleth is of note as his father King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke), was a slaver in addition to being a king and his uncle Fjolnir (Claes Bang), was his best warrior, and eventual usurper.
Gudrun, Amleth’s mother stood out with regards to being a bit unscrutable in her portrayal while Amleth was a child and moreover in the conclusion of the story the audience is left with more questions than answers after she has died.
Violence as a Cultural Value
Violence in The Northman, isn’t portrayed with the typical action movie eye. Death is inglorious, the killers are either beasts or cowards. There’s no glory to be found for the people in the story.
The uncle who usurped Amleth’s father’s throne was quickly removed from power by a more powerful king. Giving credence to Amleth’s father’s proclaimation that his kingdom wouldn’t last.
For all the talk in the movie of wanting to die in Battle it isn’t until the last scene, Amleth’s fight with his uncle that we see a battle that is in theory glorious. Two warriors fighting at the Gates of Hel with lava flowing around them.
But it’s not. Amleth has been stabbed numerous times by his cousin and slashed by his mother.
His uncle is well passed his prime. Between the two of them, Amleth has abandoned his “love” and his children and his uncle has just buried his own, after Amleth killed them all.
Violence in the name of vengeance. The really peculiar part of The Northman is, despite being a tale of vengeance, it is under no pretense of there being a good and evil of any of it. Morality as viewed in The Northman isn’t a spectrum of black and white and really how could it be.
Women in The Northman
Women in The Northman are curious and cunning. Little can be said about the one scene wonder the Shieldmaiden calling for stronger stock or the Valkyrie riding Amleth to Valhalla.
But the two most important women in the story, Gudrun and Olga each have their own relationship with vengeance. While the audience is able to see Olga’s descent into slavery and her resistance, Gudrun a former slave and now queen plays an entirely different hand.
Olga as we’re introduced to her is cunning attempting to sneakily stab one of the Viking invaders in her village, she recognizes Amleth immediately but over time progresses into a “love” interest for him. He sacrifices himself for her safety. In the end however, when given the choice of escaping the violence of his familial trauma, being a father to his children, and being with the woman he saved, Amleth chooses to return to battle against his family.
This can be argued was a good choice as he has slain one of his cousins and thus the cycle would continue until one side was dead, but he was sailing to an entirely new area, with family knowing his uncle wasn’t a king but a farmer. The over estimation of the threat faced can be said to be a symptom of the cycle. Amleth needed for his cousin and uncle to be a mysterious threat to his progeny to justify his scouring of their family line.
Olga, however, doesn’t seek vengeance, she chooses life and is rewarded for the decision thematic with her own survival in addition to her progeny.
Gudrun, as alluded to before, is a much different interpretation of both the myth and in relation to Olga. In the myth, she is the captured Queen, wife to Fjolnir, she knows of her son’s return but doesn’t impede him. Gudrun in The Northman is on hand antagonistic, claiming she ordered the death of the king and Amleth, that the king was a coward she never loved, since she was taken as a slave, and that Fjolnir is her true love, and Gunnar her true son. There’s also the Oedipal offer she made to Amleth, where if she killed all of his kinsmen, he could take her as his Queen, while kissing him.
Gudrun, is many things, but easy to parse is not one of them. Was she honest with her love of Fjolnir? Was she honest with her love of Gunnar? Why did she thank Amleth for her death? There are many ways to interpret her life and death and her words and actions contradict at various points in the narrative.
Most thematically dissonant between the two, Olga is spared and her children are allowed to live while, seemingly every person in Gudrun’s life has died.
Amleth viewed with a Modern Morality
Compared with a world of cinema dominated by superhero movies such as the Avengers or even more darker tinged cinematic styling in the DCEU, the protagonists modern movies are almost universally moral. The logic and justifications behind their actions are treated as beyond reproach even as the “real world” implication(s) of their actions would lead to widespread condemnation (ex. Iron Man giving assess to a worldwide drone program to a highschool student).
Compared to the worlds of the present day blockbuster, The Northman is virtually alien. Amleth, as viewed in comparison with say, Tony Stark from Iron Man or Bruce Wayne from the DCEU, exists as an anomaly. Other characters in his situation would’ve been better served cutting their losses and moving on with their children’s mother.
But that isn’t the world he lived in. That is not how he was raised.
In a world of violence, where violent acts are glorified and the alternative, to grow old peacefully is shameful, who else could Amleth be?
The story of The Northman often references destiny, the destiny given to Amleth after his father is slain, the destiny he recieves from the He- Witch. Destiny is a oft-cited reason for the decisions that Amleth makes, but the question lingers, in this world who else could he have been.
A point of comparison
In the myth of Amleth, which is the inspiration for the movie and Shakespeare Hamlet, Amleth, is much more cunning, there isn’t a mention of slavery and of course, Amleth lives. It’s a very clear good and evil narrative where the good King is rewarded, justice prevails and evil is punished.
Compare this is with the story of Hamlet, we see a darker ending in so far as the protagonist, tragic as he is, is compelled by the spirit of his Father to kill the usurper, his uncle who rules as king. In this case, evil is punished but the protagonist inherits nothing for his death. Justice is served but arguably at too steep a cost as the body count of Hamlet is far higher than that of the myth it takes inspiration from.
To draw the comparison even closer, Amleth in the Northman is not Hamlet or the Amleth of myth. The Northman isn’t the myth of Amleth, this story shows us a protagonist willfully brutalizing innocents, his comrades burning children like it’s another day at the office, turning people into property with nary a thought of the consequence of their lives.
As compared with his mythological progenitor and his famous adaptation incarnation, this Amleth could be argued is ignoble. His legacy as a prince plays little part in his revenge and is one of the first elements of his character to be discarded. Instead of fighting a wicked King as Myth Amleth and Hamlet did, this Amleth is fighting a past his prime slave holder who already lost his kingdom.
What is of note is this Amleth is written much further away from the culture the myth originated in both a temporal and a spatial sense. It could be argued this Amleth aside from the name is barely the same character with the way he goes about his quest.
To wit, Amleth swears vengeance on his wrongdoer, but no attention could be paid to those who he had done wrong until Gudrun and Gunnar. Gunnar being a child and Gudrun being his mother, both die at his hand and by his bland and while it could be argued they attacked him first he had already killed their son/brother. The “blood for blood” mentality infected the entire family and led to their ultimate destruction.
Amleth dies smiling, after having visions of his dynasty living on, and carried by a Valkyrie to Valhalla. A dying man’s fantasy as his live ebbs away and he reduced to cinders by the lava cascading around his and his uncle’s corpse.
Analyzing the Cycle
Who is to blame in the story? It’s a natural response to seeing such wanton destruction. Do we start with the King, who stole Amleth’s mother, Gudrun and allegedly forced her to bear Amleth which in turn lead her to want his and Amleth’s deaths? How much of her story can we trust, as she makes an offer to be Amleth’s queen and thanks him for her death? The uncle, Fjolnir who was a kinslayer and a poor king, but apparently a doting and loving husband and father? Do we blame the society? Who exactly instills the violence of the culture? How do you indict a society and what does that indictment actually, materially mean?
The story of Amleth is the roots of the Shakespearean classic, Hamlet. We’ve seen the story of usurper kings, their kingdoms in ruin, their stolen wives either docile and servile or awaiting salvation.
The narrative is much clearer in the old legend which makes the morality much easier to follow. But in The Northman we get a question, “Who does vengeance serve?”
If we take the perspective of Queen Gudrun, and we accept the story she told as fact, then what good was Amleth’s quest? His family was irreparably broken, and no amount of bloodletting would fix that. His societal obligations and prior trauma however force him into the cycle.
The culture as presented in The Northman is one is brutality. Children are murdered, women and men are chattel. Human sacrifice is not only permitted but wholly commonplace.
The Northman‘s core is (to Eggers credit) how really pointless the plot is. How no one involved is really made better, and how when you dedicate yourself to the destruction of an enemy no matter happened to them since they wronged you, what you must be ready to self-destruct on your own. The sad truth of Amleth’s life is even if he was completely and wholly morally justified in the actions he took, which he wasn’t, but even if he was, the ending he is granted is death. Oblivion.
He doesn’t get to see his children grow, he doesn’t get to see his “Love”, he doesn’t gain anything as he slaughters his kinsmen. And that more than anything is a powerful indictment, a true cautionary tale.
“Saxo’s Legend of Amleth in the Gesta Danorum.” British Library, https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/saxos-legend-of-amleth-in-the-gesta-danorum.
What do you think? Leave a comment.