(and Shakespeare’s Best Play)
The Northman is already being hyped by some as "the definitive Viking movie" and the "most accurate Viking film ever made." Director Robert Eggers is well known for his artistic creativity, attention to fine detail, and respect for his source material. His previous movies include The Witch and The Lighthouse. Eggers co-wrote The Northman with Sjón, the Icelandic novelist and poet, and the project immediately attracted a stellar cast. In addition, an elite team of consultants worked on the film, including Swedish University Archeology Chair Dr. Neil Price (Children of Ash and Elm and The Viking Way: Magic and Mind in Late Iron Age Scandinavia), Oxford scholar Dr. Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir (Valkyrie: The Women of the Viking World), and University of Iceland folklorist Terry Gunnell.
However, audiences do not just go to the movies for history consultants, realism, or even just for actors. They go to experience a story. The Northman is based on an authentic Viking tale so riveting that it has already been performed before by the most celebrated dramatist in the English language, William Shakespeare (in his play Hamlet).
The Northman is an adaptation of the story of Amleth, a Danish Viking whose biography survives in Books III & IV of Gesta Danorum (The Deeds of the Danes) by Saxo Grammaticus. Saxo Grammaticus (Saxo the Learned) was a court historian of Denmark who wrote his masterwork in the 12th century (a generation or two before the earliest manuscripts of the Eddas and sagas). Like the Eddas and sagas, Saxo’s work was cultivated from much older oral tradition that is now lost to us.
Following is a synopsis of the story of Amleth as it appears in Saxo Grammaticus and Shakespeare. If you have seen the film, you will agree that much of the story line has been altered from the original plot.
Amleth, Prince of Denmark, Act I
In Saxo’s account, Orvendil (or Aurvendil) was a great Viking of the noble house of Jutland (a part of Denmark today). He was a hero, a giver of rings, and a man of honor. He raided far and wide but brought most of his plunder home to his overlord, Rorik (usually identified as Hrethic of Beowulf or perhaps Rurik, the founder of the Rus’ Rurikid dynasty). Orvendil defeated Koller, a king of Norway, in single combat but then honored this foe with a magnificent burial. This was the kind of Viking he was – a drengr, or true warrior.
Rorik repaid Orvendil’s loyalty by giving his daughter Gerutha to him in marriage. Soon, Gerutha bore Orvendil a son, whom they named Amleth. So, for a time, it looked as if Orvendil had divine favor and that all would go well for him and his kingdom.
But Orvendil had a brother named Fengi who had initially ruled beside him. "Fengi was inflamed with jealousy at his success" (p. 83), and in time this grew into murderous envy. Fengi slew Orvendil by cutting his throat. He then married his widow, Gerutha, and ruled Jutland himself.
Strange as it may seem, royal widows marrying kings who had defeated their husbands in battle was pretty common in the Early Middle Ages. Emma of Normandy, Gormlaith of Ireland (wife of Brian Boru), and Olga of Kyiv all were faced with this choice. Marrying the victor was seen as a way of keeping peace in the kingdom, and the widow probably felt she had little choice. Still, we see elsewhere in Norse lore that embracing a kinsman’s killer was considered deeply dishonorable. We mention all this here because it will come up again.
Now, Amleth (who was probably a teenager then) was in a precarious position. He was obligated by love and honor to avenge his father Orvendil – but he had no power to do so. Fengi had not climbed so high by being careless, and he had replaced the men who had been loyal to Orvendil with thugs and cronies. However, Fengi did not yet dare to murder Amleth outright, lest he anger Gerutha (and attract the attention of her powerful father) and provoke his people further with a prince’s blood.
So, Amleth showed the first signs of his deep cunning: he pretended to be insane. Amleth would roll around in the dirt and sleep in the ash of his mother’s fireplace. He would mount a horse backward if they tried to take him anywhere. All his words were wild ravings (though there were many riddles and insults hidden therein). Soon, everyone either pitied him or laughed at him. Amleth was as harmless as he was witless, they thought. The heir of Orvendil was little more than an annoyance, passing his days in lethargy or folly.
Fengi alone was unconvinced. Perhaps his guilty conscience made him all the more distrustful of his nephew. He wanted Amleth gone – but he had to be discreet about it. He soon settled on a plan to use a young woman who Amleth had been in love with before his change in circumstances. Fengi set her up to lure Amleth to a secluded location where Fengi’s men could kill him. Amleth was warned by one of his last true friends, and he escaped the assassins.
Later, Fengi sent a spy to eavesdrop as Amleth is speaking to his mother so that the spy can ascertain if Amleth is indeed mad or not. Amleth stabbed the man in his hiding place. He then appealed to his mother to shun Fengi and flee to safety. Gerutha did as her son asked.
Fengi settled on a better plan, and he sent Amleth to Britain to collect tribute. Fengi wrote a message in runes (which only wise people could read at that time) to his old friend, the British King, giving instructions for Amleth’s execution.
(Saxo does not say which kingdom of Britain this might be. However, from the context, we can guess Northumbria or perhaps Strathclyde).
But again, Amleth was one step ahead of Fengi, while everyone else was unsuspecting of him. So while his captors posing as his entourage slept, Amleth changed the runes. When King of Britain received the message, he ordered that Amleth’s companions be killed immediately.
After the execution, the King held a feast. But Amleth refused to sit or eat. He said the bread was tainted with blood, the mead tasted of iron, the meat smelled of a corpse, the King was a slave, and the Queen was a maidservant. Of course, the entire assembly was ready to kill him for his insulting words. But the King was already beginning to fear Amleth, and he launched an inquiry. To make a long story short, the King found that the wheat had indeed grown on an old battlefield, that the mead was mixed with water from a well where swords had rusted, that the pork had come from a pig who had eaten a dead man, and that the King and Queen themselves were not of the lineage they thought they were. Awed by Amleth’s second sight, the King wed him to his daughter and gave him a fortune in silver.
After a year, though, Amleth decides it was time to return to Jutland and face his father’s killer. He arrived alone and resumed his feigned insanity as he walked into the great hall in the middle of his own funeral feast. At first, the guests were terrified, but then all laughed at themselves. Fengi was greatly alarmed to see him, realizing now that Amleth was either dangerously cunning or under the gods’ protection. But Amleth romped around the hall, acting an even bigger fool than he ever had. He had a sword at his waist, and because he kept playing with it, his handlers pounded an iron rivet through the scabbard and the blade so that he could not endanger anyone. Amleth continued to ramp the party up and plied the nobles with drinking horn after drinking horn until everyone was heavily intoxicated.
As the revelers in the hall – those loyal to Fengi – slept on the floor and the benches, Amleth pulled the long, heavy tapestries from the walls, draped them over the guests, and tied them fast. He then set the hall on fire.
This dark deed accomplished, Amleth went to the chamber where Fengi slept. He changed his sword with his uncle’s, then calmly stepped back and woke the King up. Fengi peered into the darkness. Amleth’s voice was calm and devoid of the madness Fengi had come to expect, and he was all the more terrified for this. Amleth told him of the hall burning and declared that he was now there to avenge his father.
Fengi leaped up and tried to draw the sword by his bed, not knowing that Amleth had changed weapons with him. But, the rivet the henchmen had driven through the blade held, and the evil man could not draw the sword to defend himself. And so, when Amleth cut Fengi down, he could not enter Valhalla.
William Shakespeare wrote The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark around 1600. Hamlet here is Amleth, with the "moving h" just a different transliteration of the name’s original runic spelling. Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest play and perhaps his best-known after Romeo and Juliet. Even after 400 years, audiences continue to be in awe of its psychological and philosophical nuance and depth. However, most people have never heard that this tale is based on the life of a Viking hero.
Hamlet is a play in five acts (taking several hours to watch) and not a history in 20 pages, so we have a great deal of elaboration and character development that Saxo could not afford. One of the most significant changes in Shakespeare's version is that while Hamlet is feigning madness, he is simultaneously experiencing a tremendous psychological crisis that renders him often paralyzed by indecision and mired down in melancholy. As a result, it is often difficult to say how much of Hamlet's actions are actual mental illness versus how much are a survival tactic.
Unnamed characters in Saxo’s history are given names, motivations, and backstories in Hamlet. Amleth’s young love is Ophelia, and she disappears in Saxo’s tale but takes her own life in Shakespeare’s. Amleth’s loyal ally is Horatio, the sounding board for some of Hamlet’s best lines. The spy sent by Fengi (Claudius in the play) is Polonius, and he is both Ophelia's father and the sire of Laertes, the man Hamlet duels to the death. Finally, the men Amleth double-crosses in Britain are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the prince’s childhood friends turned traitors.
Meanwhile, the whole Britain scene is downplayed (probably because it is not too complimentary to the British and therefore not a good look for a playwright who thrived on royal patronage). There is no Viking-style hall-burning – but instead, a more Elizabethan style duel as the play’s resolution. Given Hamlet's five acts, it may surprise some, but this version of the story is cut far short. In Saxo's Viking tale, the hero dies quite differently from Shakespeare's later rendition.
Amleth’s Final Battle
To take up Amleth's story again, as Saxo Grammaticus tells it:
The old followers of Orvendil came running as the flames of their ruler’s hall lit the sky. Amleth met them and revealed what he had done. He told them that his insanity had been a ruse and that his actions had all been to avenge his father, their former lord. The people of Jutland accepted his words and made them their leader in his father’s place. Amleth had gone from court fool to King.
Later, Amleth returned to Britain for his wife and child. The British King had sworn to avenge Fengi, his old friend, but he feared Amleth. A fierce Scottish queen had vowed to marry only a man worthy of her and kill all other suitors. The British King thought this would be an excellent way to get Amleth killed without facing him or personally killing his son-in-law, so he sent Amleth to the Scottish Queen under false pretenses. However, the Scottish Queen learned who Amleth was and what he had done. She was impressed by his bravery and character, so instead of killing him, she married him.
Now with two wives, Amleth returned to the court of the British King, who realized that he had to take matters into his own hands. He ambushed Amleth, who was traveling with a force of Vikings and Scots. Amleth’s losses were heavy. But when night fell, the wily Dane propped the corpses of his slain warriors on their horses. At dawn, the British warriors saw Amleth’s army had seemingly been reinforced, and they fled. Amleth’s Vikings and Scots pursued, routed the British warriors, and slew their King.
But even with all his cunning and strategy, Amleth’s luck could not last forever. While he was adventuring in Britain, his grandfather Rorik died. A tough Viking named Viglek took the throne of Denmark in Amleth’s absence. Amleth returned as soon as he heard but found the situation gravely turned against him. Viglek offered open battle. Amleth did not have the men to beat Viglek but knew that he must fight or lose his honor and following.
Amleth clashed with Viglek in a field in Jutland. Amleth’s Vikings and Scots were defeated, and Amleth died in battle. Viglek was then the undisputed King of the Danes. Amleth’s widow, the Scottish Queen, married Viglek, much as Amleth’s mother had married Fengi. Amleth was buried in a mound at the site of his final battle (some scholars believe this is the mound at Ammelhede in Randalsfjord), while Viglek lived in peace and died in illness.
Both Saxo and Shakespeare lament the early death of their intrepid hero – but remember that to the Viking mind dying in battle was the end a hero should have. Meanwhile, Amleth's last nemesis, Viglek, lived in peace and died in his bed. Therefore Viglek was not carried to Valhalla.
As a man who would stop at nothing to avenge his father, save his family, and take the throne that was his birthright, Amleth was fated for a tragic end. Scholars have pointed to aspects of both Odin and Loki in his character, antics, and actions. Thus, the story of Amleth – or Hamlet – fascinated Vikings and their descendants for centuries.
The Northman was released on April 22, 2022.
- Saxo Grammaticus. The History of the Danes. Books I-IX. Peter Fisher (translator). Hilda Ellis Davidson (editor and commentator). D.S. Brewer, Cambridge, 1979.
- Knight, S. (March 8, 2022). Robert Eggers’s Historical Visions Go Mainstream. The New Yorker. April 4, 2022 print issue. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2022/04/04/robert-eggerss-historical-visions-go-mainstream
- Hamlet: Sources and Analogues. Internet Shakespeare Editions. The University of Victoria. 2015. https://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/m/doc/Ham_Sources/section/Fran%C3%A7ois%20de%20Belleforest,%20Histoires%20Tragiques/#:~:text=Belleforest%20sees%20a%20Christian%20justification,for%20psychological%20insights%20and%20moralizations.
- G. Rodgers and K.E. Noer. Sons of Vikings: History, Legends, and Impact of the Viking Age. KDP, USA, 2018.