TL;DR – During the era of Vikings, only the strong survive and if you’re after revenge then willpower alone will not get you far.
Review (warning: spoilers)
Thors Snorresson, a Jomsviking and considered one of the mightiest warriors ever, seeks an end to all the fighting and fakes his death during an epic sea battle. He flees to Iceland with his wife, Helga, and there they raise their son (Thorfinn) and daughter (Ylva) while living off the land as farmers. When you are known as “The Troll of Jom” and have spilled the blood of countless enemies, you know that becoming a pacifist and deserting your comrades goes against the Viking code. A code that is pretty simple: fight and kill until you are killed so that you can enter Valhalla.
In a sense, Thors is an aberration to all men who call themselves Vikings; who would want to be a farmer living in peace when you can go on voyages to foreign lands and kill, rape and pillage? Blood, valour and riches is all that matters. You can get peace when you’re dead.
Fifteen years later, the story unfolds during a time where war is being waged between Denmark and England. Floki, a former comrade, who discovers Thors is alive, goes to enlist him and the young men of the village by essentially threatening to wipe out the village otherwise. Thors agrees in order to protect his loved ones and the village folk. Little does he know that Floki still holds a grudge from the previous desertion and is secretly seeking Thors demise. Floki does this by striking a deal with Askeladd, a commander of a band of powerful Vikings, to ambush Thors ship at the Faroe islands.
Thors departs with the young men of the village, men that have never seen the true horrors of battle. They talk excitedly about achieving greatness, but Thors has secretly organised for the men to sail back to the village and he would go on ahead himself. This intention is reinforced when it is discovered that Thorfinn has stowed away on the ship against his father’s wishes and only reveals himself when they are at sea.
However, before Thors can navigate a return, the trap set by Askeladd is sprung. What proceeds is an exciting sequence of events where Thors methodically fights his way through Askeladd’s men without killing them. He then challenges Askeladd to a duel.
It should be noted here that Askeladd is no schmuck. His skill at sword fighting is unparalleled and he has a unique intelligence that makes him deadlier than any hulking Viking. The sword fight with Thors is one of the most breathtaking scenes in the entire anime. Thors defeats Askeladd but his son, Thorfinn, is captured by Bjorn (Askeladd’s right-hand man). Thors agrees to surrender so long as Askeladd promises to let Thorfinn and his men go. Askleadd agrees and Thors is slain by a volley of arrows.
This moment forever shatters Thorfinn’s innocence and turns his heart into a pit of despair that seeks revenge. What follows is Thorfinn following Askeladd and his men like an angry dog. Thorfinn challenges Askeladd to a duel but is easily defeated. However, Askeladd seeing Thorfinn’s potential agrees to duel him again if Thorfinn can prove himself in battle.
Much happens as Thorfinn becomes a vicious fighter that Askeladd uses in his schemes. Future duels occur between the pair but Thorfinn always loses (and Askeladd doesn’t take his life).
Vinland Saga is uncompromising, unforgiving and, at times, unbearable. The weak do not survive and the darkness that grows around Thorfinn is all-consuming. The emotional vacuum I found myself in ensured I watched all 24 episodes of the first season.
But the big question is did I enjoy it? Overall, it’s gripping and the animation is effective if not brilliant, but I wouldn’t say it’s one of my favourite animes. There were a few things that bothered me (not enough to make me stop watching it, but enough to down my enjoyment).
The first is Askeladd. He has a strange sense of honor. He agrees to the duel with Thors. If Thors wins then they go free, if Askeladd wins then he can do whatever he wants with them. Thors wins but Askeladd semi-reneges on the deal when Bjorn captures Thorfinn causing Thors to surrender and sacrifice his life. This, in itself, isn’t strange if Askeladd was a man without scruples but even though he orders his men to kill Thors, he still ends up letting the villagers live and return home (he could have killed them or captured them as slaves). And then the ongoing allowance to let Thorfinn duel him and live each time is what drives through the first season, and it’s clear that Askeladd allows this not just so he can use Thorfinn for his own ends but also because there is an underlying acknowledgement of guilt for having killed Thorfinn’s father. I get he’s not meant to be purely a villain (near the end of the series, he’s far from that), but as an elite warrior acknowledging another elite warrior in Thors, I found it puzzling that he went through with the cowardly execution.
The second is the story arc starts off with a focus on Thorfinn and his mission for revenge, but then it becomes clear that the main character isn’t him but Askeladd. His motives and personal history come to the forefront as the war between Denmark and England intensify. Thorfinn becomes a side character until the end of the season when Askeladd kills King Sweyn in an act of sacrifice (he kills the king but in turn gets killed by the king’s guards) to protect his homeland (Wales) from invasion. This sends Thorfinn into madness as he never gets to achieve his revenge. It is my understanding that the second season of Vinland Saga, like the manga, will now circle back to Thorfinn as the main character. But having the first season (and thus first story arc) focus on Askeladd, you can’t help feel that creator Makoto Yukimura did this because he found Askeladd a more interesting character while Thorfinn is just a one-dimensional moody ball of rage.
Lastly, it grated me that Askeladd never tells Thorfinn about Floki’s duplicity. If anyone should be the target of Thorfinn’s revenge, it’s Floki. But for the first season, there is never a glimpse that this will ever be revealed and Floki appears to have got away with his betrayal. I haven’t read the manga and with season two green-lit by Twin Engine, I’m hoping Floki will receive his comeuppance in some fashion.
6.5 out of 10.