The Northman: Vikings, Nazis, and Historical Accuracy
The man from the northis director Robert Eggers’ greatest film to date, and his commitment to a form of historical accuracy contributes to its success while feeding the worst instincts of some people who really like Viking imagery. The Vikings captivate audiences as both exotic and familiar, conquering and barbaric, idealized noble savages, pure-blooded white conquering raiders – rather than traders with links to different geographical areas and ethnic groups. They are usually portrayed as violent, which makes for an entertaining sight. They have religious beliefs that we find strange and alluring, making them prime fodder for comic book superheroes and video game characters. white supremacists in the United States and elsewhere seized on the imagery and iconography of Viking warriors as part of a fascist appeal to pure bloodlines and social Darwinism, drawing on that of Hitler adoption operas (and writings) by Wagner and drawing inspiration from the pre-Weimar Volkisch movement of the 19th century. At the same time, Vikings are legitimately fascinating, and bad people who love a good thing don’t usually make that thing any less good, even if it can cloud perceptions. Understanding history is an ongoing political process of creating meaning, and what constitutes historical accuracy changes over time. While the Nazis might imagine The man from the northhis attempt at historically accurate Vikings leads to a compelling aesthetic with much wider appeal.
In the case of The man from the northyou could say there is something primitive that makes us love stories of betrayed kings reclaiming their kingdoms. The man from the north is based on the 13th century tale Amleth’s lifeone of the stories Hamlet was based on a founding legend in Danish history by Saxo Grammaticus Gesta Danorum and the Chronicle Lethrense. The man from the north is a story of revenge, which appeals to us as an expression of presumed moral justice that often shines through the prism of spectacular violence. The Virgin Source. unforgiven. Kill Bill. John Wick. A person has had something taken, they are willing to kill to get it back. When trafficking stories of fallen royalty, these tales allow audiences to project themselves into a place of power. With The man from the north specifically, revenge is violence tied to the stately, colloquial language of honor, here wrapped in the garb of Old Norse and psychedelic mysticism.
We see these ideas and this style through the media. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, a video game that applies a Norse/Viking aesthetic (including the horned helmets Minnesota’s NFL team took from Wagner’s operas) to tell a story of nativism and independence. It’s a familiar story to anyone who has witnessed a story of the Wild West: the vanguard of a creeping empire (here pilgrims, there herders, there Nords) loses its independence to the said empire (British royalty, American businessmen, the Third Empire of Cyrodiil). Those who were once migrants develop a culture of pioneers and settlers, remaking themselves to fit into the place they have taken, only to be slaughtered by those who sent them to take it. The Viking aesthetic is there to lend prestige and intrigue to the familiar – although in this case the familiar was the old scrolls the impressive open-world fantasy of the series. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and the 2018 God of the war are more recent examples of video games entering this cultural craze. Admittedly, I was initially skeptical of the aesthetic and tied it to the rise of the far right in the US and the willingness of video game companies to ignore these implications to make money . While I doubt Ubisoft or Santa Monica Studios cares about racists liking their video games, the facts are that Assassin’s Creed had already treated [Ptolemaic] Egypt and ancient Greece, and God of the war chose Scandinavia over Egypt on their own move from Greece. At least, arguably, the former more accurately or frequently describes gender dynamics among Scandinavians that were more complicated than the stereotypical portrayal of them as patriarchal rapists and looters lets on.
More directly similar to The man from the north is the Netflix series The Last Kingdom, which begins with a boy deprived of the lands of his birthright after the Vikings kill his father. He is then raised by Vikings who are betrayed by extended relatives and returns to claim his ancestral home from his uncle. Contrary to The man from the north, however, Uhtred (Alexander Dreymond) is torn between two cultures. Uhtred also doesn’t get the sweet visions and magical realism that Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) gets, although he does briefly get Successionis Tom Wambsgans as his father. vikings and its successor series Vikings: Walhalla draw inspiration from Icelandic sagas The story of Ragnar Lodbrok and The Story of Ragnar’s Sons in addition to The man from the northis clean Gesta Danorum. The first series begins at the dawn of the Viking Age in the late eighth century, while the second begins in its twilight of the eleventh century. Alan Sepinwall mentioned the show “leans into the inherent appeal of the era”, but what is that “inherent appeal?”
It’s wild: Vikings aren’t usually imagined as neat or ornate as the Romans, Greeks, or the fantasy version of Arthurian and post-Arthurian England, though many of these depictions challenge that preconception. It’s in the strangeness: These are programs in English using Scandinavian history. It is also in heritage: That Scandinavian history intersects with that of the English. It may also be in the whiteness: misconceptions about the racial and cultural characteristics of these places drawn from nation-building from the 18th to the 20th century lead them to be unified with an imagined shared cultural past, reflecting an ideology modern racialism that did not exist in these historic settings.
What tends to be lost in depictions of premodern Europe is historical ethnic diversity – the plethora of racial groups in al-Andalus at one time, in Sicily and Venice at others; the spread of soldiers from African and Asian lands through western and northern Europe through the Roman Empire. And, to our point here, the ethnic diversity of the Vikings, although that diversity was not as clear cut as a matter of skin tones. Because movements like the Volkisch and the Nazis played a central role in shaping popular perception of the Vikings, they remain icons among white supremacists, though medievalists and pagans actively resist these associations and recover the Vikings. And, to return to video games, the trailer for the second Nordic God of the war introduced a black woman, and his studio hasn’t backed down from the wrath of the internet’s worst gamers. Robert Eggers himself mentioned that “the Nazi hijacking of Viking culture cemented my disinterest as an adult”, before a trip to Iceland and a dive into Icelandic sagas brought him back.
That said, The man from the north is no more compelled by its geography to show ethnic and gender diversity than any other film, but those ideas hang in the story more than they immediately appear. I’m pretty sure one of the first soldiers we see on horseback after Amleth helps conquer the village of Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) – the leader who shouts that they want strong slaves, not weak slaves – is a woman. Promised in the prophecy Amleth receives from the seer (Bjork) in the village is that part of his purpose is to beget a daughter, a “maiden king”. This village is located in what is now called Kievan (or Kyivan) Rus’, a northeastern European confederation of contested Scandinavian and Slavic ethnic composition in its ruling class which later conquered and incorporated the Turkic Khazar people, and which had visitors from as far away as Baghdad and traded as far as the Byzantine Empire. (In a scene soon after, Amleth’s comrades mention slaves going to Constantinople.) Of course, the current academic dismay over the Rus’ ethnic roots is tied to competing nationalisms across northern Europe and from the east. It’s important for audiences to realize that the real places these stories are based on are as complicated as today’s nation states and geopolitics, and even if The man from the north doesn’t focus on the details and the unpacking of it all, nor does it iron out the story in a Nazi-friendly way. It still seems needless to mention that the narrative film doesn’t represent the story perfectly because it rarely tries and it’s hard to succeed when it tries. But it becomes necessary to mention this when one remembers how few people have the time or inclination to read history books in their spare time.
The man from the north is a movie with a capital M; it’s beautiful to watch, a triumph of cinematography and visual effects. It has brutal action, gripping drama, and intense romance. Scenes that could be ridiculous are acted out with such seriousness and efficiency that the audience never disagrees with the film. The use of Norse alphabet title cards and pre-war rituals; the use of psychedelics by shamans; the ambiguous nature of its magic and mysticism, its dream sequences and fantasies; the fact that in its middle parts, The man from the north feels like a horror movie where you follow the monster – all of which makes for an effective and engaging movie. It’s a great example of historical fiction that grounds a legend without losing its magic. But the key word is “fiction”. Only in time will we know if this is a prime example of cultural myth-making. While it’s likely that the Nazis will appreciate the aesthetic of Norse brutality, the historical texture and narrative complexity remains. Just because the Nazis like something doesn’t mean we have to let them have it.
Kevin Fox, Jr. is a freelance writer, editor, and reviewer. He’s a former Paste intern with a master’s degree in history, who loves video games, movies, TV, and sports, and dreams of liberation. It can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.