Talking about Robert Eggers’ “The Northman”

In the spring of 2018, M. and I were preparing for a week in Salem, Mass., so we watched several movies about Salem, witch trials, etc. One of them was The Witch, directed by Robert Eggers.

At the time, I had more to say about Three Sovereigns for Sarah, but I will admit that visually and experientially, The Witch stayed with me longer.

Now Eggers is back with a new “Viking blockbuster,” The Northman, and people are talking about it.

At Amor et Mortem, Anna Uroševic starts her review,

You know that a newly released film has made quite an impact on you when, hours after you’ve left the theater, you obsessively muse upon its indelible imagery and the effect of the moviegoing experience is all you seem capable of discussing with family and friends. In fact, you’re filled with missionary-level zeal in urging people you care about to go see the film as a matter of vital importance. . . .

The plot of The Northman is very straightforward, as no-nonsense as a spear hurtling towards your face (and we see plenty of those in this film): loosely based on the tale of Amleth as recorded in the 12th-century Gesta Danorum by Saxo Grammaticus, it’s a revenge narrative of a young Scandinavian prince looking to kill his uncle, the man responsible for the treacherous act of fratricide/regicide by killing the prince’s father, the rightful king.

Pagan historian Tom Rowsell was dubious at first after movies, TV series, and games created what he calls “a wave of Viking invasions of popular media, many of which, including History Channel’s Vikings series and the Assassins creed Valhalla video game, copy the ‘biker Viking aesthetic.'”

But his blog post “The Northman: Pagan Themes Explained” sings The Northman’s praises after studying its Pagan elements, even while still faulting its color scheme:

I consider this to be the best Viking film ever made and I expect it will be remembered as such for some time. But while I had hoped this would mark the long awaited end of the biker Viking-age aesthetic which has so permeated popular culture over the last decade, its tawdry mark can still be detected. Not so much in the costumes, but more in regards to the colour palette and score – the former consists of the rather familiar Hollywood medieval drabness with which historical dramas consistently deny the era’s vibrance. The score, while competently composed by Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough, and effective in keeping the adrenaline pumping while the blood flows across the screen, will date the film since it owes much to the recently invented percussion driven fusion of neo-folk, world-music and martial-industrial that has become the stereotypical “le Viking music” of our time. Widely perceived as authentic because it uses medieval instruments, the combination of far flung elements such as didgeridoos, Siberian drums and Mongolian throat singing would have been as unfamiliar to Vikings as it was to anyone before the likes of Hagalaz Runedance and Wardruna invented it some 20 years ago.

These are, however, minor quibbles with an expertly crafted film which is well cast, with actors pulling off some phenomenal performances (Nicole Kidman deserves particular praise for her role as the detestable Queen Gudrún). Eggers is certainly among the greatest filmmakers of his generation and regardless of how well The Northman performs at the box office . . .  it will be remembered as a cult classic of cinema history.

At the British newspaper The Guardian, TV-film critic Steve Rose’s whiskers are quivering over the possibility that The Wrong People might like the The Northman too much — but then here is someone who thinks that Jane Austen’s novels credibly could be used as  vehicles of far-right propaganda. The costuming of the leading characteer, Skarsgård, reminds Rose uncomfortably of Jake Angeli, the “QAnon shaman,” who had his fifteen minutes of fame on Jan. 6, 2021. Like we should ban wolf pelts forever. But he admits that The Northman is a “piece of rousing, skilfully made entertainment,” even while spending 90 percent of his review on Those People and what they might be thinking.

As another blogger wrote, it  “takes Heathen cosmology and religion seriously [which] is just a breath of fresh air.”

A Very Good History of the Vikings

It’s an academic truism that historians and archaeologists do not play well together. Historians like texts. Archaeologists like artifacts. Each profession favors its own methodology.

But there are execeptions. An archaeologist friend wrote to me last year recommending Neil Price’s Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings. Price, who teaches at Uppsala University in Sweden, blends the strands masterfully, along with some climatology, religious studies, and geography.

Why did the “Viking Age,” roughly the 8th through 11th centuries happen as it did? I have seen some people blame population growth – Scandinavia had excess people, and they had to go somewhere.

Wrong. The volcanic “Finbul Winter” — I wrote about it here — cut the Scandinavian population in half in the 530s. It was a terrible time for the Norse, the End of Civilization as They Knew It. An Iron Age version of Mad Max. Whatever the earlier cultures had been — and they included Bronze Age boat trips to Western Europe — this was literally the post-apocalypic version.

The ones who survived probably did so by forming warbands for mutual defense. There is no way that by the mid-700s there were too many people for the land.

So what grew up next were many small chieftaindoms. Pirate kings, you might say. And there was also a shortage of marriagable women, something like we see in China today after decades of the One-Child Policy and selective abortion in favor of boys.

The Big Men could have more than one wife; the poor boys were out of luck. So what is a poor boy to do? Join the jarl’s raiding crew and if lucky come back with lots of loot to impress the girl next door — and meantime, bring back a sex slave too. (So what if she only speaks Old Irish; she is not there for her conversational skills.)

Coupled with [conflict between petty kingdoms] were social pressures—the effects of polygyny creating an underclass of young men disenfranchised by the laws of inheritance and with minimal marriage prospects. A summer or two of maritime violence offered the potential for life-altering change in many directions. Lastly, there was the traditional Scandinavian worldview itself, and its weaponised expression in an assault on the Christian cultures that really were bent on its destruction (274–75).

Although it was left out of the History Channel Vikings series, the slave trade was big for them in both Western and Eastern Europe. So was fighting as mercenaries.

But there is more to Price’s big book that that. With chapters like “The Performance of Power,” “Meeting the Others,” and “Dealing with the Dead,” readers get more than raiders, kings, long ships and mead halls.

It was through the medium of sorcery, not cult, the most of the conversations with the powers were conducted. . . . At its simplest, sorcery was a means, or a method, a set of mechanisms by which people tried to influence or compel the Others to do their biding. In the Viking Age, this was a field of behaviour that lay within the real of ordinary communities rather than any kind of priestly or royal officialdom (221).

There are fascinating calculations, such as it would have taken three to four person-years to prepare the woolen yard and weave the main sail for one Vikig ship. “We might realistically speak of a year’s constant work for about thirty people to fully equip a ship and crew (387).” (Slaves probably did a lot of it, Price suggests.)  Or the wool of two million sheep annually for the sailcloth of the warships, cargo vessels, and fishing boats of Norway and Denmark.

A coin of the Viking-founded city of Kyiv (urkraine.ua).

He gives the East equal space with Western Europe (and North America) and the Mediterranean. I started this book in late February and, trying to take my mind off the news, flipped it open only to read, “According to the Primary Chronicle [Kyiv] was founded by one Oleg (Helgi), a Scandinavian relative of Rurik, who expanded the Rus’ territories along the [Dniepr] river and needed a more southerly base (426).”

That trident (tryzub) insignia you see on Ukrainian aircraft, etc. comes from the Rurik dynasty. In other words, it’s Viking.

The Viking Age, Price writes, “was a time of horrifying violence and equally awful structures of institutionalised, patriarchal oppression. . . . also a period of social innovation, a vivid and multi-cultural time, with considerable tolerance of radical ideas and foreign fairths.”

Their most respected values were ot only those forged in war but also — stated outright in poetry — a depth of wisdom, generosity, and flection. Above all, a subtlety, a certain play of mind, combined with a resilient refusal to give up.

There are worse ways to be remembered (504).

Pop Vikings, Modern Animism, and the Raven Flag

From Danish writer and animist Rune Engelbreth Larsen

The Viking Age seems to be undergoing a kind of global renaissance in various fields, spanning from popular culture to spirituality and even some misguided political trends. Often this “viking revival” manifests itself in ahistorical and superficial ways, but not always. Here I share a few thoughts on how some lesser known aspects are also slowly gaining ground and understanding: the animist perspective.

Vikings armed with “myth, music, and merchandise”!