Stories can have a powerful effect on a person. You can watch A Place Further than the Universe and feel inspired to take a trip around the world or watch I Want to Eat Your Pancreas and realize your lack of fulfilling relationships has left you as a husk gathering dust in the corner. I’m a part-time history buff, but my interest for a while had just been on ancient times. Ancient Rome and that time Alexander the Great tried taking over the world. Even though life was, objectively speaking, as big a pain to deal with a thousand years ago as it was two thousand, learning about the vikings didn’t seem like a worthwhile devotion of time. Even Skyrim, which was largely based upon Nordic beliefs, traditions, and architecture, didn’t sway my stance. Then I read Vinland Saga and found new worship and reverence for Odin and his pantheon of warmongering deities.
Vinland Saga takes place during, you guessed it, the height of the viking age, specifically in the early 11th century, when they thought it’d be a swell idea to invade England. The protagonist of this epic is Thorfinn, a moody teenager who wants only one thing in life, and that’s to kill the man who murdered his father, who is also the man who took him in and raised him after murdering his father. Their relationship’s a bit complicated, but that’s par for the course for Vinland Saga. Things are hardly ever black or white, and just when you think you’ve got a hold on its jive, it slips outta your fingers and starts doing the foxtrot.
Where do I even begin with talking about this series? How about a declaration of how much I love it? That much is obvious, since I’m writing a 4,100-word recommendation, but I’m not fooling around when I say I love this series. It’s one of the most incredible reads I’ve had in a long time, and saying I’d read just a few chapters during supper turned into two whole volumes. But no matter how much I pollute the ground with confetti for it, I can’t for the life of me pinpoint what it is which makes this series so damn good. I can take cracks at it, but the ground is too frozen to dig through to find out what’s holding it up. But to close up my laptop here would go against the viking way of style. They didn’t let a cold, resource-deprived homeland hold them down from achieving riches. They just invaded other countries.
The neatest thing about a historical series like Vinland Saga is how they do roll call for history’s most famous figures. Lief Erikson, Thorkell the Tall, and Canute the Great find roles in this series, and if you have no idea who any of those people were, that’s okay, because that’s what tangential learning’s got your back for. Thorfinn himself is even based on Thorfinn Karlsefni. It does take some liberties with events and such, some for plot reasons, some because historical records from that era are scant and in need of a critical eye. Between 1004 and 1013, the real Thorfinn had a kid, Snorri, with Gudrid Thorbjarnadottir, but by that same period in the manga, he’s still wifeless. Thorkell also disappears from the textbooks after 1023, so who knows how the manga’ll handle that?
These characters are all great in their own right, bringing something engrossing to each scene they’re in, but the character who steals the spotlight the most by far is a man entirely original to the series’s historical setting.
From onset appearances, Askeladd’s the series’s antagonist. He’s the man who murdered Thorfinn’s father and the big bad the boy’s looking to dice up into a thousand pieces, and he’s as well the leader of a band of vikings, pillaging European villages during the warmer months and wintering back at Denmark. He’s ridiculously good at fighting and will take on any job if the pay or loot is right. With a resume like this, it’s not hard to see why any morally upstanding human being would want him executed off the battlefield so that he doesn’t get to spend eternity boozing it up in Valhalla—or that’s what Vinland Saga wants you to think.
Pages turn, new panels appear, and something happens with Askeladd: we learn about him. Everything about him. His perspective on life and cultures, the identity of his parents and his harsh childhood, what he wants in life, his opinion on his men, even his own name. Askeladd may seem at the start to be a degenerate of a man, but once you start digging down into his persona, you find out what—who he really is. And at some point, despite the lives he’s cut short and the many wrongs he’s wrought, you start cheering for him.
A lot of writers struggle to make humanly convincing characters. Sometimes you get one-trait characters, sometimes you get characters who just react however the plot needs them to, and sometimes you get characters who attempt to come off as human but are just recycling plagiarized scripts. But not Askeladd. Of the thousands and thousands of characters I’ve seen across hundreds and hundreds of books, games, movies, and shows, Askeladd is easily one of the most genuinely human characters I’ve ever spent time with, and that’s exactly what he is: human. He has faults but doesn’t acknowledge them, shortcomings which drag him back, and desires which always seem too far out of reach. He’s just a man, slave to his own humanity, and one whose story could very easily be mine or yours or anybody’s.
It’s not the writing doing the heavy-lifting on its own to bring humanity to Vinland Saga’s characters. The artwork’s right there lending a sinewy, muscular hand. I cited in my Akira recommendation that Makoto Yukimura is a prime example of a mangaka done right, and all you need is to open up to any random page to see that it stands head and shoulders over the lot of manga.
Characters are drawn in a sharp, realistic manner, giving us a girthy slate of facial constructions which go beyond the generic cuteness of two large eyeballs, a straight line for the mouth, and a dot for the nose. An especial amount of attention is paid to the wrinkles and the shadows formed from the expressions made, and you can tell in an instant how a character’s skin stretches over their skull. It all teams up to not so much as compound but stratify the amount of detail pourable into an expression, showing you the precise emotional state of a character in a given panel.
I’m going to make a juxtaposition to emphasize what I’m talking about. Have a gander at this page spread in volume 4 of the Rising of the Shield Hero:
The artwork is technically great and technically beautiful, but something which always makes me pucker my lips sourly is how Naofumi and his party’s angry faces are just their happy faces but with inverted smiles and eyebrows drawn in downward slants. In fact, you could easily say they just look mildly peeved.
Now, observe the other half to my juxtaposition:
If my juxtaposition isn’t slacking on the job, the contrast between the two angry faces is enormous. You can tell that Askeladd isn’t just mad or furious—he’s pissed beyond belief. This expression of expressions is everywhere throughout Vinland Saga, bleeding through when someone’s upset and coming out in full force when they’re three nanoseconds from lobbing some bearded dude’s head off.
But Vinland Saga also uses its precision in expressing expressions to create instances where you have no idea what a person’s thinking or feeling. For instance:
What exactly is this expression? Is it anger? Bafflement? Was Askelaad struck with a sudden case of gas? This particular panel happens right after his pbb face, which adds this sense of “Did I really see that?” because of the stark difference in emotion, so the manga teases you to read onto figure out what exactly is going on in Askeladd’s head.
Since our faces convey so much information on how we’re thinking and feeling, it’s only natural that Vinland Saga, like any visual medium, would put so many of its eggs into the facial basket, but its supply of eggs is practically limitless and thus doesn’t skimp on other baskets. Characters are always drawn extremely well, from their movements to their body language, but of the thousands of panels my eyeballs rolled over while binging this series, there are three in particular which stand out to me for one reason or another. The first is the manga’s very first page spread:
Page spreads are generally reserved for the punchier moments in a manga, whether it be an impactful strike in an action sequence or an endearing character moment. Vinland Saga doesn’t just say, “Here’s a big moment, enjoy,” it surprises the reader with the reveal of what the last dozen or so pages had been building up to. Who when reading this manga for the first time was expecting scores of buff dudes heaving their longships over dry land? I know I sure wasn’t.
The second is the above pbb panel. I’m using it here as an example of one angry mother, but in the context of the story, the emotional state behind that expression is more ambiguous. I find it incredible how this expression can be packed with so much unfiltered emotion yet be a challenge to accurately discern.
Onto the third and final, which is a close-up of a girl’s hands:
Yeowzahs. If I had three guesses, none of them would be of those being a lady’s hands. If you look down at your hands, you’ll see all sorts of lines and pores in them, and it’s not easy to recreate those minute details on paper without making a pair of hands looking like they’re inflected with the plague. But that’s just it: that’s exactly the point when Vinland Saga shows this girl’s hands drawn in such a rough, rugged, unladylike manner.
The Scandinavians didn’t live in the most temperate of environments, and even the Franks and Saxons and such the vikings pirated weren’t living the 90210 lives themselves. But at no point does Vinland Saga sit you down and say, “Listen, man. Life was hard back then. You wouldn’t believe how many hours of the day people had to put in just to ensure that they had something besides snowcones for dinner.” Rather, it explains this simply by showing you a girl’s hands.
This girl is just one example of many of a favorite pastime of Vinland Saga, which is to give us insight into the lives and thoughts of nobodies as they relate to the plot at large. It’s frequent for volumes to start not with any of the main cast but with some nameless Agner and Kertin as they sit around, mulling over why people fight or if Valhalla is as hip as the cool kids make it out to be. You could technically edit out these scenes and the story at large would almost always carry on as it would anywho, but these bit player meditations in a handful of pages frame the entire message or theme behind a given conflict. These religious, moral, and nihilistic ruminations just as well are a stark contrast to the mindless slaughter prevalent whenever battle breaks out.
A trait of Domestic Girlfriend which kept me hooked as its chapters churned out is how it keeps you on its toes, though the lot of its guesswork is whether Natuso will get with girl A or girl B or if the girl C out of left field is going to snatch him up and drag him off to the nearest available bedroom for a boffing. Vinland Saga takes equal pleasure in keeping the reader guessing, but rather than revolving around teenage drama, it hands its characters axes and says, “All right, men, we’re gonna go storm that fortress over ther—Nah, just playing. We’re gonna get hammered with the king before murdering him.”
Vinland Saga is impossible to predict because its characters change faster than the writing can keep up with, and that’s the sole horse pulling the plot forward: character motivation.
It seems obvious to say, like, of course it’s the motivations of the characters which dictates their decisions and actions. Vikings didn’t just pillage villages because it seemed badass or because they had nothing better to do on a Thorsday afternoon. But I’ve read enough stories where a character’s reason for doing something are flimsy, is acting simply to appease the plot, or is there to serve some plot- or scene-related purpose, i.e., Kazuko Hashima needing to strip herself and others down for writing inspiration. Sometimes, motivation is a no-brainer, like when someone fights to save the world.
The intriguing and interesting thing about what Vinland Saga’s characters want is that sometimes what they want is sometimes a thing which hurts others. The vikings pillaged because they needed money and supplies, after all. This holds steady for just about every character and scene, no matter which you open up to. A lot of what’s going on may be shrouded in secrecy or morally ambiguity, but you can easily explain why the characters are choosing what to do by filling in the blanks: This is happening because [character] wants [thing.]
Vikings were pretty serious characters, and Vinland Saga is a pretty serious saga, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously to where it’s edgy or angsty. Actually, it came as a great surprise to me when it started inserting jokes later into the series. Thorkell becomes comedy relief as he becomes starved for a war to fight and makes a Shining reference, and it’s downright hilarious seeing Thorfinn blunder and stumble when cast into the role of adoptive father.
The comedy doesn’t distract from the overall seriousness, and it’s refreshing to see the characters react and behave in ways other than gritting their teeth when faced with all the doom and gloom in the world.
Realistically, I could go page by page through a chapter, pointing out what one page does right, what this page does really right, and that those smudges on that page are my brain splatters after my mind was blown. Y’know, the moment-by-moment details. But there’s one final big thing which needs discussing, and to not discuss it doesn’t do justice to the complete structure of the narrative. It would be like complimenting the Gothic aesthetic of the lampposts on Liberty Bridge before buggering off to the Fisherman’s Bastion. I talked about Askeladd, but I can’t stop the exceptional character conversation at him. There’s another prominent individual who becomes easily as likable and memorable, and that character is known other than the protagonist himself, Thorfinn.
When we first meet Thorfinn, he’s just a dirty, rebellious brat, skilled with daggers and capable of killing soldiers and guards without a second thought. But then the series flashes back to his childhood, and we see that he was just a normal boy. He played with the other kids, helped out around the house, and had naive aspirations of hitting the high seas and achieving hero status by felling fantastical monstrosities.
Skip the lot of the first act material and his daddy gets shot full of arrows. Since these arrows are to his entire body and not just to his knee, he can’t retire to a life as a Whiterun guard, so he bites the dust. With his final dying words, he urges his son to not become a murderous, psychopathic killer hellbent on avenging his death, and then Thorfinn grows up to become a murderous, psychopathic killer hellbent on avenging his death.
For the first four collected volumes, Thorfinn isn’t that likable of a character. He’s rude, relentless, cold, and cares only for appeasing his singular desire, even at the expense of others and the cost of their lives. I was completely, utterly dumbfounded when four thousand people marked him as their favorite character on MAL.
Eventually comes the end of Thorfinn’s time with Askeladd, the man whose life gives him his sole purpose in the world, which is to kill him. Without Askeladd around, his existence becomes meaningless, nothing urging him forward. There was just one thing he wanted, and once that’s taken away, he has nothing left to live for. He becomes hollow. An empty shell. A husk. With nothing left for him, his reason for living dying but his body still living, he’s sold into slavery and spends his days chopping away at trees, clearing land for pasture, sleeping in a bale of hay, and eating whatever little bit of his lunch hasn’t been stolen by the paid farmhands. He’s at his lowest point. Existing, but not living.
Thorfinn goes through such a swingeing change that you might look at his pathetic form, chopping wood and letting the farmhands bully him, and ask, “Is that really the murderous, psychotic killer who was hellbent on avenging his father’s death?” He’s even plagued with nightmares about the dozens, hundreds of people he’s killed with his two bear hands over the years, night after night. He screams in his sleep.
Another main character is introduced to the series for this arc. Einar’s his name, and even though he’s in the same longship as Thorfinn, there’s still life to him. He hates the torment from the farmhands, looks forward to the day when he works off his debt, and even falls for another of the slaves, a concubine to the farm owner. He’s what Thorfinn isn’t, and it’s through his friendship, support, and eventual brothership that Thorfinn picks himself back up, fills the emptiness in his soul, and devotes his life to a new purpose—founding a land far from war, where people may live in peace, tranquility, and prosperity.
A chafe of mine in video games is when you get the game’s most powerful weapon and it kicks ass but you can only use it for the final boss. A similar concept happens in stories, where the protagonist reaches the apex of their development just in time for the climax, so we don’t get to see how they handle outside situations. Manga and light novels tend to burn slowly with the character development, but the advantage inherit to their eon-long lengths is that they give the characters all the time in the world to show off how much they’ve grown since the first pages. Usually, this growing is just the hero learning how to spew fire out his nostrils, but Vinland strikes new lands by showing how a non-violent Thorfinn has to contend with the consequences of his violent past.
It takes sixteenish years, but Thorfinn finally adopts his father’s mantra that he has no enemies. However, just because he’s a changed man means every other Olaf in the Baltic Sea is, which is where much of the conflict post-slavehood springs up from. The viking age was a violent time, and Thorfinn has to negotiate warriors’ default fallback to violence with a creative backdoor to ending their duels to the death without any death, which is easier said than done when you’re running a no-violence campaign. And there to hold him accountable for his changed ways is a lady with a crossbow reminding him every seventeen steps she’ll kill him if he ever makes another human pin cushion for his knives.
Wonderfully done as Thorfinn’s character arc is, with few other works worthy of an equal comparison, there’s no real secret to its exceptionalism, no curtain hiding the support columns. It’s the hero’s journey in one of its barest forms. No twists, no gimmicks. The plot may lift you up and hurl you through several loops, but Thorfinn’s growth from an obnoxious, thoughtless teenager to a kind, considerate young man is unfiltered, genuine, and probably the greatest character arc I’ve ever seen.
Unfortunately, after all this high praise and holding Vinland Saga up on a platter made from looted silver, I have to acknowledge the fact that nothing in this world is perfect, and that includes Vinland Saga. My criticism is a teensy-weensy one, though, so it’s nothing to grab your battle-axe over, I hope.
There’s this visual motif in the series where characters who undergo a certain development gain a certain look in their eyes, with Thorfinn’s father being the archetypal example.
His name’s Thors, by the way.
Thorkell had history with Thors, having fought alongside him becoming his uncle-in-law. But then one night, Thors randomly gave up the battle path once and for all, and when Thorkell confronted him about it, he was caught off guard when seeing the changed expression in his ex-comrade’s eyes. It was enough to paralyze him.
Fast-forward several years, and Thorkell sees those same eyes again in another character, and it frustrates him. He knows there’s something up with what’s behind a person’s character when they regard the world with such eyes, but he can’t for the life of him figure that out, much as he wants to know. Then when he reunites with Thorfinn several years later and he has his father’s eyes, he just merrily pronounces, “Oh! You have your father’s eyes! Conglaturation!” This was such a sticking point to him that I was thoroughly let down seeing him just casually brush aside his previous agitation.
I don’t want to end this recommendation with a slightly off note about Vinland Saga, so I’ll make up for my transgression by discussing what has to be one of the series’s most memorable moments. Vinland Saga is a series full of great, incredible, and stupendous moments, and I could fill a composition notebook gushing about them. But time is a precious resource, so I’ll just pick one moment to spotlight, but not at random. It occurs early on but encapsulates everything this manga stands for.
It begins with a runaway slave. Desperate to escape his miserable lifestyle, he trudges through a blizzard in the thick of the night, collapsing in the snow. The following morning, Thorfinn’s older sister and Thors discover his body, stricken with frostbite and hypothermia and barely clinging to life, and so bring him into their home and work desperately to save his life. Then the slave’s master arrives.
He arrives with the specific intent to retrieve and punish his slave. The fact that he doesn’t have the strength to to lift his arm to knock on Death’s door means nothing to him. All that matters is making an example of him for his other slaves so they don’t attempt their own escapes. Thors then steps in to purchase the slave from him, offering three sheep, then four, and finally settling the negotiation at double that. He pays eight sheep for a slave who dies before the sun sets.
Of all the great moments littered throughout Vinland Saga, this is perhaps my favorite. It’s a completely illogical choice. Thorfinn’s older sister is completely in the right when she complains how awful a deal it is. Yet you can’t fault his father for the decision he makes. He’s only doing what he believes is right, what he believes will allow the slave to live his final moments in freedom, even if he never explains even to his family why he would do such a seemingly wasteful thing.
In the chapter’s final pages, they bury him. Thorfinn’s sister sobs, still upset over the terrible bargain, and Thorfinn consults his father over a recent concern of his. If their ancestors came to Iceland to escape misery, where do they go to escape the misery of Iceland?
His father has no answer for him. He only pats his son on the head as the auroras flicker above.
The vast majority of anime, manga, and light novels are simple entertainment. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but Vinland Saga has a clear message it wants to convey, and it does so beautifully through thoughtful writing, sharp visuals, and its historical setting. As I mentioned at the top, vikings weren’t on my radar, but after getting hooked on this manga, I went out and bought a book to learn about them. It wasn’t as entertaining as Vinland Saga, but it was certainly informative. It was also hilarious that the author was tremendously salty over the bad reputation vikings have, yet Charlemagne killed far more people but is hailed and revered in modern Europe.
There’s so much to Vinland Saga. So much it does right and so much it does brilliantly. It’s raw, graphic, and unabashed in its depictions of violence, but it isn’t afraid to sit back and muse over why the violence in the first place. It’s a series which knows what it wants to do, executes it with precision and care, and trusts the reader to draw the right conclusions. It’s not any one or two things which propel it to platinum quality. It’s a combination of everything I’ve mentioned, and many things I’ve left out, which add together into a whole greater than the sum of its parts.