By this point in my anime-watching career, I know what I like to watch. Historical shows aren’t my usual cup of tea. I’ve had plenty of friends that were into them, but I could never keep myself interested past an episode or two I watched just to be polite. Vinland Saga managed to catch my eye, roping me into a world of vikings and a boy named Thorfinn set on avenging his past and finding the promised land of Vinland.
A Brief Introduction
Thorfinn starts off as a helpless child. He lives with his mother, sister, and father in Iceland. It isn’t long before villagers band together to set off and become vikings, some more optimistic than others. His father Thors, also known as the Troll of Jom, is a well-respected man in his town for his tactical capabilities and exceptional combat skills. The message of a warrior not needing a sword is mentioned several times, though the meaning can be interpreted in several different ways over the course of the series.
If you know anything about vikings, they aren’t peaceful people. They live to conquer, pillage, and explore. Thorfinn’s fantasies spun from tales of Leif Erikson’s tales are less like bedtime stories than he expects.
Especially by the third episode, when the newly-assembled viking crew runs into another ship led by Askeladd, son of Olaf, who proves to be a devious and formidable opponent. At this point Thorfinn realizes this isn’t like the books, people are in real danger, and the whole saying about a man being able to fight without a sword? Absolutely untrue in such a savage world. Other vikings are out for blood and don’t think twice about killing someone. His quest as a viking to find the promised land and get away from war? Suddenly a challenge in a world ruled by war and politics. His fantasies are transformed into a harsh reality when the fatalities pile up in front of his eyes.
From this moment on, Thorfinn becomes hellbent on defeating Askeladd in a duel. His childish attempts are fruitless at best. They become repetitive and clearly no child is going to best a man nearly three times his age with years of combat experience under his belt. Askeladd is still sailing the seven seasons for a reason- because he’s good at what he does, and no child is going to stand a chance against him. The show introduces all of this in the first few episodes, setting up to a timeskip following Thorfinn surviving in the world and following Askeladd’s crew.
The hardship six year old Thorfinn goes through immediately made me think of the video game Mother 3. A tale of a child losing everything he once knew, suffering, and becoming a stronger person? Check. Thorfinn starts off a huge baby (I mean, for a six year old all you can really do is cry and do your best to fight while clinging to what you have) not unlike Lucas, the protagonist of the game. Though I can’t say Lucas becomes a ruthless killer, the two experience similar sets of growth and trauma, especially when it comes to remembering the good old days.
Not only is there one, but two sequences with kids in a flower field. The flashbacks in the show are one of the visual hilights in a Vinland Saga with lush fields and blooming colors. I feared this show would play on a visual style I hated- one where realistic things were only portrayed in dull, murky colors that blend together. Which thankfully wasn’t the case here.
Most characters get a good deal of on screen character development. You see how they become how they are for lack of a better term. Thorfinn has to learn to survive on his own after being torn from his family life back home. A majority of the characters explain their motivations and fight for what they believe in. It’s a pretty well written show in that respect.
Also, there’s an extremely emotional episode about a girl named Anne that fits nicely into the main story. While you might ask how a girl in the snow looking at a stolen ring and talking to god ties into all this, it portrays the life of someone just trying to live in a world where vikings can invade without warning. Really, it’s one of the standout parts of the series.
Arguably Askeladd is the real main character of the show despite Thorfinn’s development and growth. Askeladd leads the way to different skirmishes and conquers villages. Thofinn simply scouts, but we still experience trauma through his eyes. Askelasdd’s interactions with other captains really make the show. Not only he does transform Thorfinn, but helps other characters develop later in the anime. His backstory is told towards the end of the season and boy, is the buildup worth it even if you can’t stand him.
But what about the real vikings?
Though I can’t claim to know how historically accurate Vinland Saga is to the real stories about vikings, I can say it takes inspiration from historic figures. Thorfinn himself was an icelandic explorer who wanted to find a place to settle that wasn’t wartorn with his wife and followers, chronicled in a historical tale called The Saga of the Greenlanders. Askeladd is based upon a character from a Norwegian Folktale who starts off at the bottom, but becomes a formidable foe which is pretty fitting for his character.
Supporting characters include Thorkell, a huge man with brute strength that could rival any other human (and maybe gods) in existence. Based on Thorkell the Tall, the character is a noble man with great strength who was involved with the Jomsvikings. His character’s past is intertwined with Askeladd’s father which sounds about right considering he was known as the Troll of Jom.
Canute is Christian royalty stuck in the middle of the viking conflict. He is an interesting character- one who I pinned as too weak to survive in the world. Based off of Cnut the Great, king of Denmark, England, and Norway, Canute serves as a pivotal character who must step up to the throne or risk his life. Though he only comes in halfway through the series, he gets a great heap of development after being exposed to the roughness of the real world with war and people who want nothing but to bring him down.
I wasn’t sure what to make of Canute in the show. At first I hated his almost anime-esque reactions and quiet demeanor, but I knew he had to grow to survive in such a dangerous world. It was almost painful to watch him unable to negotiate with another group without Askeladd intervening and saving everyone from a battle. How could a boy who can barely speak without a retainer lead a battle or rule an entire nation?
Nevertheless Canute’s development is highlighted as the show goes on, but his first few scenes made me want to look away from the screen until something more exciting happened. I was almost rooting for Canute to get kidnapped and taken by another group of crusaders just so I didn’t have to see him babied. Thorfinn and Canute go at it being similar ages, but Thorfinn is a seasoned warrior at this point while Canute can barely do anything except cook for himself.
My second gripe with this show is Thorfinn himself. I love his development over the course of the series, but it felt like had plot armor to an extent. His first encounter with Thorkell? He should have gotten more than a scratch from a huge man who clearly has more strength than most of the cast. Askeladd definitely held back on Thorfinn early in the series. He was six at the time of their meeting, but even a seasoned captain such as Askeladd doesn’t need to waste his strength dueling with a child.
Thorfinn’s naruto running (for lack of a better term) is a bit much in a series that otherwise portrays most of the action realistically. Though don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t around in 1010 AD to see if he was running like that or not.
Other than that, the show is pretty solid. There aren’t any filler episodes, and even episodes with backstories of characters are done well enough to keep the viewer engaged without fight scenes.
Vinland Saga is a gripping series for those of historical shows and nonbelievers like me. It got me to watch something out of my comfort zone of artsy anime and made me actually care about the characters. The backstories? Great. The character development? Even better. You don’t become this over night.
Vinland Saga ranks up there on my anime tier list. I would give the show a solid nine out of ten. In a way it reminded me of Avatar the Last Airbender following different characters and tying it all together, which is a feeling I haven’t gotten from a show in a long time. The show is available to watch on amazon prime and runs for 24 episodes. What are you waiting for?