Overall ...five out of five stars from us.
But not everyone agrees. As of the writing of this article, Rotten Tomatoes is giving it 89% from the critics and only 67% from the general audience. This most likely comes from the extreme (yet historically accurate) violence and possibly the slower pace found in the middle of the movie. But as for those of you who consider yourselves true fans of Viking history and mythology, we are probably going to love it.
Is it Historically Accurate?
The Northman is an ambitious film that strives to balance accuracy with powerful storytelling to such a high degree it could only be called “experimental.” Many film critics have already weighed in on its cinematic merit. The goal of this article will be to take a brief look at the Viking history and Norse culture packed into its frames. What did they get right, and what didn’t they?
Disclaimer: What is Historical Accuracy?
Everything known about Vikings comes from a relatively narrow collection of medieval texts (none of which would be considered objective or infallible in today’s standards) and the equally limited archaeological record. Consequently, these sources must be interpreted, and interpretation is always debatable.
In addition, the Viking Age spanned nearly 300 years and spread over roughly a quarter of the globe, so naturally there was some diversity amongst Vikings and the Viking experiences. Thus, it would be impossible for any movie (even a long one like The Northman) to treat every single aspect of Vikings. As well, it would also be impossible to match the interpretation of every single 'Norse expert'.
That being said, director Robert Eggers assembled an incredible team of consultants for The Northman. More unusual, impressive, and exciting is that he listened to them. This team included Swedish University Archeology Chair Dr. Neil Price, Oxford scholar Dr. Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir, and University of Iceland folklorist Terry Gunnell. Neil Price was especially instrumental in the film, and his 2019 book, Children of Ash and Elm, could practically serve as a guidebook accompanying The Northman (and vice versa).
Warning: while we will steer around as many as possible, some minor spoilers are ahead.
Story and Setting
Some have commented that the movie reminded them of the 'Lion King'. In actuality, The Lion King story was inspired by Shapespeare's Hamlet ...and Hamlet was inspired by the story of Amlaith. And The Northman is based on the original story of Amlaith.
According to books III and IV of Saxo Grammaticus’s 12th century Gesta Danorum (Deeds of the Danes), Amlaith was a young prince of Jutland (in Denmark) who swore vengeance on his uncle who murdered his father and married Amlaith’s mother. But Amlaith was in no position to threaten a usurper to the throne, so he feigned madness for years until the right time for his revenge.
Saxo’s Amlaith inspired Shakespeare’s Hamlet. A few scenes in The Northman are homages to elements in Hamlet that do not occur in Saxo’s story (i.e., Freudian overtones, skulls that give wisdom, and so forth).
Read more about the original historical tale of Amlaith and its Shakespearean connections here.
Despite all the praise given to The Northman for being historically accurate, it only follows the original story of Amlaith in a general way. In The Northman, Amlaith’s kingdom seems to be in Norway, not Denmark. His father is murdered, but Amlaith (of The Northman) escapes to "The Land of the Rus" (which is today’s Ukraine).
Anger and rage replaces insanity as Amlaith becomes an úlfheðinn (or “wolf skin,” a battle-maddened warrior who channels the wolf spirit). False personas and subterfuge also carry over to Amlaith taking on the guise of a slave to get nearer to the object of his revenge. While Saxo’s Amlaith is probably set in the early 700s, The Northman is set in the late 800s to justify Amlaith’s uncle’s relocation to Iceland. The Northman climaxes more like Shakespeare’s version than Saxo’s, but the result is very similar.
So, the historical strength of The Northman does not lie in a verbatim retelling of an old Norse story. Instead, it lies in the authenticity of the setting, clothing, jewelry, themes and other elements.
Saga Tropes and Motifs
While The Northman retells the tale of Amlaith, it also contains inspiration and elements from many other sagas. We see the moral dilemma of fighting family to avenge family, as in Gisli Surrson’s Saga; the sports and Icelandic rural life of Njal’s Saga; and battling the undead as in Grettis Saga. There is material from the more legendary sagas, such as the malicious night spirit fears of Beowulf/Hrolf Kraki and the cursed sword motif of Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks. Nuances (like Amlaith catching a spear mid-flight and casting it back) are straight from the pages of the ancient, written Viking tales.
The berserkers and úlfheðnar (plural form of úlfheðinn) in the film are closely based on saga tropes. They operate in a group of 12 (in sagas, berserkers are the more popular bear version of the wolf-skins and are either singular or in a group of 12). They use ritual to work themselves up into their state of frenzy. The words chanted in this memorable scene are based on actual skaldic poetry, and the imagery is inspired directly by Norse engravings of Odin and his beast warriors.
Sagas say that when berserkers are done fighting, they fall into a near stupor of exhaustion, just as they do in The Northman (where we see them sitting in the middle of the despoiled village, seemingly too tired or apathetic to loot like the other Vikings are). These are but some of many touches and insights the film borrows from original Norse sources.
Lore and language alike are mined from the Eddas as well. For example, young Amlaith’s initiation scene contains lengthy quotes from Hávamál incorporated into the ritual. It seems as if no detail is too small: the Valkyrie in the film has a cloak of swan feathers, as one poem’s prologue mentions in the Poetic Edda. This same character is given filed teeth, bringing the literary and archaeological evidence (of Vikings doing likewise) together into one compelling image. Some reports state as much as 10%-15% of Viking graves included file marks on teeth.
Archaeologists call artifacts left behind (everything from broaches to buildings) “material culture” because these are objects that denote the character and culture of the peoples that made them. The team for The Northman put a tremendous amount of work into getting these details right. From the ships to the weapons to the costumes, jewelry, temples, tombs, fortifications, and longhouses are replicas of real archaeology. For the Viking fan, this aspect alone is worth the price of admission. And while there are certainly a few scenes that will trigger the usual gatekeepers, the vast majority of the film gets it right. There are far too many examples to go into here, so we will move on.
Life was rough in the Viking Age. Consequently, The Northman doesn’t hold back in depictions of murder, cruelty, abuses, and the atrocities of war. But, instead of brushing over these realities of history, the film presents them in a stark light, daring us to contemplate what our ancestors went through. These numerous scenes of violence may very well be why some walk out of the movie theater feeling disgust more than awe.
It is a sad fact that Vikings were instrumental in the medieval slave trade. Feudalism (land-based servitude) was only just getting started at this time, and the wealthy empires of Byzantium and the Islamic East ran on slave labor. The Vikings, too, relied on thralls to shore up their hierarchical society. Not only does The Northman not try to ignore this – it focuses on it. Many of the leading characters are slaves, with their tragic past, harsh present, and unjust end on dreary display for the viewer to follow. The neck irons shown in some scenes are replicas of archaeological finds. Thus, The Northman gives a fuller picture of the experiences of that age – not just the warriors and queens but the lowly and exploited as well.
Animal and human sacrifices in the film are audience-shocking, but they were essential acts of men and women desperate for the favor of their gods. Most of these depictions in the film are backed up by specific archaeological finds or textual accounts. Viking graves have been found with decapitated horses and/or other human remains that may have been considered additional sacrifices.
Religion, Magic, and Customs
The Northman offers a crash course in Norse religion, magic, and customs as archaeologists and scholars believe they were practiced in the 9th century. We say “believe” because though a good bit of Norse mythology was saved and some customs are faithfully reflected in the sagas, most of the surviving literature does not say much about how the Vikings practiced the worship of their gods. Archaeologists and scholars must put together these pieces from the surviving evidence. These include remains of offerings in temples and burials and clues from writers as divergent as Arab travelers, Christian missionaries, Icelandic storytellers, and reverse engineering from later traditions.
What emerges in the film is a visually arresting and complex system of rituals, settings, music, dancing, and sacrifices. Different types of priests, priestesses, seers, and sorcerers are depicted, including völva and galdrmen. There are lush dream/trance states showing undead draugr, sky-crossing valkyries, and Yggdrasil itself. These scenes serve as individual high points of the film, and collectively they cast a moody spell.
Throughout the film we see the characters making little distinction between the natural and supernatural worlds, just as the Vikings were known to do. Depictions of magic in the film are remarkably detailed. For example, Amlaith handles the undead guardian exactly as the sagas recommend. The sorcerer, or “he-witch,” was another example: the bearded man wore women’s clothing and tortoise brooches while holding an iron rod between his legs. This is because he was a practitioner of seiðr – the variety of magic concerned with discerning and manipulating the threads of fate. Seiðr was a gendered magic, which meant that only women were supposed to perform it. Men did this magic, too, but it was considered sexually shameful and taboo. In the Eddic poem Lokasenna, Loki accuses Odin (who learned seiðr from Freyja) of performing magic while in the guise of a woman, calling it “a pervert’s way of living.” Archeologists have found biologically male remains that were buried with female garb and the iron rod of the seeress, just as the character in The Northman.
Modern practitioners of Nordic polytheism point out that ancient rituals of blood sacrifices and war frenzies may be how the faith was practiced in the past, not necessarily how it is practiced now, just like Medieval Christianity usually does not closely match the modern form. However, the informed interpretations of the historical Norse faith depicted in the film are fascinating and insightful.
Amlaith is a worshiper of Odin in the film, devoted to him as an úlfheðinn and understandably favored by that god in return. Amlaith’s nemesis uncle is an adherent of Freyr. This is not depicted as a false dichotomy, though, but illustrates the diversity of the faith. Unfortunately, Thor, Freyja, Loki, or others are scarcely mentioned, probably due to lack of time and the need to maintain dramatic focus.
Far more than any of the costumes, props, or sets, the real contribution of The Northman is in the depiction of the Viking ethos. From an early age, the hero Amlaith is bound by unbreakable bonds of oath and honor. As a young man, he necessarily must look to his own safety, but running away from his fate makes him miserable. So once a faint chance to fulfill his oath emerges, Amlaith risks much more than death or bodily harm to take the opportunity – he risks humiliation and the risk of an ignoble end. It was probably this choice (far more dangerous to a Viking than a bold frontal assault) that made Amlaith such a fascinating character to the Vikings who first retold his legend.
Once reanimated with the quest for his family's honor, Amlaith pursues it relentlessly, turning aside even from personal happiness. “You must choose between kindness to your kin and hate for your enemies,” the seer tells him. But Amlaith spurns peace and life to follow fate into what can only be called a Viking’s happy ending. In this poignant demonstration of Viking heroic fatalism and ethos, The Northman makes its greatest contribution.
Films as audacious as The Northman are rarely perfect. However, here is a chance to see a trove of Viking lore portrayed in as faithful a way as film makers could. The more you know about Vikings, the more you will probably appreciate The Northman. We feel that movies that make such a whole-hearted attempt to be authentic should be supported, and personally, we cannot wait for a director’s cut.
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Movie Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E7wNR9sHQ2g
Filed teeth: Courtesy of the British Museum
Slave collar: https://irisharchaeology.tumblr.com/post/167693721774/an-iron-slave-collar-from-viking-age-dublin-circa
Viking burial: https://blog.britishmuseum.org/the-viking-way-of-death/