The story behind Robert Eggers’ ‘The Northman’ | History

Alexander Skarsgård as Amleth, wearing an animal skin hood

Alexander Skarsgård plays Amleth, a Viking prince who seeks to avenge his father’s murder.
Aidan Monaghan / Focus Features

the northerner opens with black wings over gray waters. The ravens fly over wooden ships sailing to a distant island. A boy in a red cloak, apparently the only color in the desolate landscape, stands by the shore, waiting for his father.

By the end of the film, a different shade of red has taken over the screen. As the fire burns and a battle rages under a volcano, the director Robert EggersThe tight world crumbles into nothing but smoke and blood.

In the two hours or so between these scenes, the northerner does its best to draw the viewer into a medieval landscape that is both familiar and alien, rooted in the physical world as it rises into supernatural realms they were an inextricable part of medieval Icelandic life. Cold landscapes, fantastical visions, riotous colors and violence work together to conjure up the Viking world. In fact, the long-awaited revenge story has been invoiced as one of the the majority accurate Viking movies ever made, a difficult task given the enduring popularity on the silver screen.

This level of accuracy does not come from the film’s direct focus on the “real” story. Instead, the northerner‘s goal is to capture the atmosphere of pre-modern viking worldas transmitted in the vast corpus of surviving literature of medieval Scandinavia. Far from accurate despite its fantastical elements, the film actually owes much of its authenticity to its portrayal of the supernatural.

“Us [worked] with archaeologists and historians, trying to recreate the minutiae of the physical world, while also trying to capture, without judgment, the inner world of the Viking mind: their beliefs, mythology, and ritual life,” says Eggers in a statement. “That would mean that the supernatural would be just as realistic as the ordinary in this film, because that’s how it was for them.”

the northerner is very loosely based on the story of amleta supposed (but probably fictional) Viking prince most famous today as base for William Shakespeare Village. Alexander Skarsgård plays Amleth, who seeks to avenge the murder of his father (Ethan Hawke) at the hands of his paternal uncle (Claes Bang). With the help of a slave named Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), the prince also tries to rescue his mother (Nicole Kidman) from the clutches of his uncle.

Because of its connection to Shakespeare’s masterpiece, literary historians have long sought for the origins of the story of Amleth. Although some text fragments appear in earlier sources, the best-known medieval version of the tale is preserved in a multivolume volume. history of the danes by historian Sax Grammaticus. Probably written around 1200 CE, it is a massive work, drawing in equal parts from classical literature, oral histories and tall tales from around the North Sea, regional histories written in other parts of Europe, and testimony from powerful nobles in the North Sea. court of the Danish king. Valdemar I and his son Valdemar II. (Saxo may have worked for the Archbishop of Valdemar, but whether he was personally an ecclesiastic is up for debate.)

A manuscript illustration of Amleth from the 17th century.

A manuscript illustration of Amleth from the 17th century.

Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Saxo’s version of the Amleth story will be familiar to anyone who has read Village. A man kills his brother, the king; he marries his former sister-in-law; and take the throne. The victim’s son feigns insanity or intellectual disability to allay suspicions that he is secretly plotting revenge, which, of course, he is. The son finally kills his uncle and keeps the crown for himself.

the northerner does something a little different. Co-written by Eggers and Sjon, an Icelandic poet and novelist, the film is set primarily in Iceland rather than Denmark. The story begins the same way, with a fratricide. But the real action begins when Amleth’s uncle, Fjölnir, loses his stolen throne and flees to Iceland, where he lives relatively quietly on a small estate. The fields are green. The volcano in the distance is active. And all the work is done by enslaved people from all over northern Europe.

After fleeing his island kingdom as a child, Amleth becomes a raider who participates in the gruesome slaughter of a Slavic village and the mass enslavement of the survivors of the attack. Soon, the deposed prince learns of his uncle’s move to Iceland and receives a prophecy (from none other than singer Björk) imploring him to seek revenge. Amleth pretends to be enslaved and is sent to Fjölnir’s farm, where he meets a dead jester (Willem Dafoe), acquires a magical sword, falls in love with the slave Olga of Birch Forest, and uses the supernatural and swordsmanship to put on. killing after killing.

This is not Shakespeare. Nor is it a Gladiator-as an attempt to recreate a historical drama, in other words, a live-action movie set in a specific historical moment, although not necessarily precise, where the “good guys” win in the end. The movie isn’t even an accurate retelling of Saxo’s story. Instead, he is trying to create a different, more medieval kind of authenticity by telling a story that would have been recognizable to storytellers and audiences from the Middle Ages.

Alexander Skarsgård as Amleth and Anya Taylor-Joy as Olga, both on horseback

Alexander Skarsgård as Amleth (left) and Anya Taylor-Joy (right) as Olga of the Birch Forest

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What this means is that the northerner combines elements from different types of medieval sagas, combining traditional stories about Norse families (often including convoluted revenge plots) with tales of gods, monsters, and witches to create a hybrid tale that would have fit easily into the existing body of Norse literature . In fact, Saxo himself did something similar. Just before the section on Amleth, the Danish historian recounts the god slaying Baldur with a practical historical voice.

neil pricearchaeologist at Uppsala University and author of Children of Ash and Elm: A Story of the Vikingswas one of the three historical consultants of the northerner. In an email, he says: “The people of the Viking Age inhabited an organic narrative world in which the tales changed in narrative. … There was no static canon of Norse literature at the time. the northerner is not strictly Saxo, and certainly not Villagebut something different and strange in itself”.

A key strength of the film is its ability to offer a real sense of the Viking Age. Material culture, for example, is thoroughly investigated, right down to the way medieval Icelanders lived in their landscape: their clothing, ornaments, and social structures. These details are “a way of conveying a layered view of an ancient reality on its own terms,” ​​says Price. “Most of the material culture, and even the behavior [of the characters], is deliberately left unexplained. There is no exposure in the northerner.”

The archaeologist adds: “Instead, we… are observers, confronted with a serious attempt to imagine the experience, in this case an especially extreme experience, of living in the Viking age. …The ‘supernatural’ is an absolutely integral part of this [in] that none of the spirit beings— valkyries, revenants and so on—are seen by the characters as something more than natural, an indivisible part of their world.”

19th century painting of Viking commanding slaves

A 19th-century painting by Peter Raadsig shows Iceland’s first settler, Ingólfr Arnarson, commanding enslaved people to erect a pillar.

Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

In cases where the historical sources lack details (for example, the imagination of some of the pagan rites in the film), the result still seems plausible. Price and his co-consultants, Jóhanna Katrin Friðriksdóttir Y Terry Gunnellhe made deliberate decisions about these imaginative reconstructions.

Even in a fictional story like the northerner, the Viking age is presented as a fundamentally human and messy age. Power structures were constantly changing, with petty lords calling themselves kings; sailing far and wide in search of loot, trade routes, or fertile farmland; and often loses power due to internal disputes. It is particularly important that the film shows the Vikings as slavers, deliberately uprooting people from their homes and taking them from Iceland to Constantinople. Equally significant is the film’s acknowledgment that the Vikings were capable of spectacular violence. The main characters do not meet role models. No one should leave this viewing experience wishing they were a Viking.

All this nuance is a lot to put into a 90 million dollar movie that you will need a wide audience to recover your investment. But as we discussed in our recent bookMedieval European past in general and the Viking Age in particular were both strange and familiar places. the northerner it captures a world that invites us in but forces us to ask more questions not only about its subjects but also about ourselves. As Price puts it, he and his colleagues hope the result will be “a living world, albeit a very different one and in some ways a very frightening one, something that makes us think more deeply about the people of the Viking Age, and perhaps the aspects of ourselves”. that we still recognize in them.”

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