This article contains massive THE NORTHman spoilers.
I will avenge you, father! I will save you, mother! I will kill you, Fjölnir! By the time The Northman concludes, Alexander Skarsgård’s wayward Viking prince has accomplished two out of the three. But was any of it worthwhile?
Before the credits roll, Uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang) is well and truly dead by his nephew’s hand; his head cleaved clean off with a massive stroke of Amleth’s arm. However, the prince without a kingdom is also slain, stabbed through what I believe is the heart and left to simmer by a lake of fire that both men recognize as Hel. Beneath their vainglorious ends also lies the body of a woman they each claim to love, Gudrún (Nicole Kidman): the mother Amleth swore to avenge but instead slaughtered alongside her youngest son Gunnar (Elliott Rose). Now their corpses are likewise left to molder, unwept and unsung.
As with Robert Eggers’ other two films, the actual plot mechanics are quite clear. This is the end of almost every revenger’s tragedy and it is in-keeping with the ancient Hamlet tale that The Northman takes inspiration from. However, as with his finales for The Witch and The Lighthouse, there is more going on than meets the eye about Amleth’s fate and why his end is a happy one, if only for him and his culture.
Nicole Kidman’s Queen Mother Who Is Not Left to Heaven
Eggers and his collaborators have not been coy about how The Northman is intentionally descended from a tale that predates Shakespeare. Indeed, Eggers told us months ago that he felt liberated to indulge his world-building eccentricities in the Viking saga because he knew audiences would be inherently familiar with the structure of a story in which the son avenges a murdered father, who in turn had died by his uncle’s hand. It informs everything from William Shakespeare’s greatest play, Hamlet, to The Lion King. However, the actual source material is far older.
“Shakespeare based his Hamlet on Saxo Grammaticus’ Prince Amleth from the 12th century,” Skarsgård tells us in a separate interview, citing a Danish historian and theologian whose tale of the vengeful nephew prince is the oldest complete version of this story we have today. “But Saxo Grammaticus most likely based Prince Amleth of Jutland, which we based our movie on, on an even older Icelandic saga from the ninth or 10th century. So it’s a really ancient tale, and it leant itself beautifully to the type of movie we wanted to make, because it’s a timeless, classic revenge story.”
All of which is true. The story of Amleth is the inspiration of Hamlet—an anglicized rewording that moves a single letter from the end of the prince’s name to the beginning. And by going back to that earlier, more medieval telling Eggers, co-writer Sjón, and Skarsgård (who is also a producer on The Northman) were able to establish an easy through-line for the audience to follow, even as their movie deconstructed that line in order to examine elements of this story that are far more psychologically debased and primal. Take for example, the relationship between Amleth and his ultimately not-so-dear mother, Gudrún.
In the most perverse scene in the movie, Amleth finally confronts his mother in her bedroom and attempts to convince her to run away with him. It’s a so-called liberation. At first she tries to ease his anger through a mother’s love, and when that doesn’t work she tries a different tact: she becomes brutally honest.
“I see you’ve inherited your father’s simpleness,” she mocks before laughing at her son and revealing it was she who convinced Fjölnir to slay his own brother. Worse still, she begged Fjölnir to also kill her son who was then but a boy.
This twist works on multiple levels, including by embracing what has been a much debated subtext read by some into the relationship between Hamlet and Gertrude: He blames her for being indifferent to his father’s death—“Frailty, thy name is woman!”—and ponders openly whether she was complicit in his murder. He is told, eventually, by his father’s ghost to leave Gertrude to Heaven. Nonetheless, there’s a raw resentment between the mother and son that audiences have debated for centuries. In the 20th century, a Freudian interpretation has grown popular. It suggests there’s a latent Oedipal jealousy in Hamlet’s fury with his uncle. He subconsciously wants to be the one in his mother’s bed.
The Northman confronts these whispers head-on by removing the ambiguity; Gudrún participated in the murder of Amleth’s father, and she is ready—if she must—to take a man whom she believes is just as vile as her late husband into her bed. Even if it’s incest.
However, this brutally utilitarian worldview does not exist because she is a vengeful harpy or a cartoonishly hateful person. She loves her second son deeply, and seems at least genuinely concerned for Fjölnir. She is simply a woman who sees these men for who they are: barbarians, and not heroes.
She survived her enslavement early in life by bearing Amleth’s father a son, and out of obligation he raised her up, replacing her chains with a crown. However, she remains shackled in this culture. And while she does seem to love Fjölnir more than either her first-born son or his father, she would be ready to forsake his memory should Amleth take his life. In a world where men hold all the power, she tries to manipulate it as best she can, and has stayed on top through multiple kings, and multiple kingdoms. She may no longer be a queen after King Harald took Fjölnir’s realm, but she is not ready to go back to being powerless.
So she’ll take Amleth to her bed if she must, revealing a twisted sense of love and hate for her own kin. All of which gets to the bigger issue with the movie…
The Toxic Cycle of Violence
Having seen The Northman twice, I’ve anecdotally heard a wide array of reactions among colleagues toward Eggers’ most brutal film to date. One curious and recurring bit of criticism though is the observation that the movie is relentlessly “macho”—that this is a movie which glorifies violence and toxic masculinity.
It’s a strange critique to my ears because of how nihilistic The Northman is in its estimation of this culture. While there is an obvious love and fascination for the Age of Vikings in the film, with Eggers’ persistent eye for detail and authenticity, the film is structured in such a way as to also revel in the futility of Amleth’s quest. He is no dithering intellectual like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but he’s no Conan the Barbarian either.
Consider the only outsider to these Norse customs in the film: Anya Taylor-Joy’s enigmatic Olga of the Birch Forest. As a “cunning person” (read: witch), she is just as pragmatic and ruthless as Amleth in achieving her aims. However, those aims are to live, to survive Iceland and slavery. Conversely, Amleth is not only on a revenger’s path, but that of a true Viking who seeks Valhalla. And the only way to reach Valhalla, at least as a follower of Odin like Amleth is, is through glorious death in battle.
In one telling scene in the movie, right after Amleth’s fateful confrontation with his mother, he returns to Olga in a rage. Olga is clearly affectionate for her lover, but she is still somewhat suspicious of his Norsemen ways. After all, he did come to her village to help an army murder, rape, and enslave her people. Notably, we never see Amleth partake in the rape of women or the burning of children too young to work during the opening raid sequence. But he also doesn’t seem particularly bothered by these horrors either. He’s a Berserker warrior who believes he is both part-bear and part-wolf. A Beowulf.
Olga too has eyes enough to see how doting Gudrún is on Fjölnir. Amleth rationalizes that his mother is feigning love to protect herself and maybe his cursed half-brother, but Olga can implicitly be seen to have other doubts. When she sees Amleth return without Gudrún, her first question is “where is your mother?” As the Viking prince rambles and reveals the blood on his fingers, she asks “Did you kill her?” Amleth is vaguely insulted. “I do not kill women,” he replies. There, again, is the insistence he is a little more humane than the most depraved of his Berserker brethren from the beginning of the movie.
But is he, really?
When we first meet Amleth, he is a little boy happy to have his father home. His relationship with his mother is cold, with her telling him to never enter her chambers without being invited. This, again, gets to the Oedipal subtext often prescribed to Hamlet, but it also speaks to a distance there. All Amleth has is admiration for his father who upon seeing him for the first time in months, remarks that the boy is too old to be so naive. He seeks to indoctrinate him into their ways through hallucinogens and violence.
When King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke) takes Amleth’s hand and dips it into his blood, Amleth sees the apparently long line of kings he’s descended from. In that vision there are no women, no mothers or sisters; it is a line of floating male corpses until we reach Aurvandil and Amleth. There’s no room for Gudrún or the King’s mother, or his mother’s mother. It’s a literal medieval patriarchy, in which women are taken, as outright slaves in both Gudrún and Olga’s experiences, and are viewed even by their sons as prizes that must be taken back.
Gudrún knows this. She sees her son, even in his innocence, as being formed by the barbarity of this Norse culture. It’s why she asked her lover to kill him along with the father. And to be fair, after Amleth has tasted blood for the first time when he takes a man’s nose in self-defense, he then hides in plain sight before Fjölnir and Gudrún by covering himself in the crimson red cloak of one of his father’s murdered loyalists. He is a stranger in his mother’s eyes because as a boy he’s already wrapped himself tight into the violent toxicity of this culture.
Which goes back to Amleth’s later insistence to Olga that he does not harm women. That turns out to be a lie after he barges again into his mother’s chambers without her permission and winds up killing both her and his half-brother. As Fjölnir is left to pitifully drag away the corpses of his murdered wife and child—the second progeny Amleth has stolen from him—there is something faintly pathetic and soulful. Suddenly, he may be as much the hero seeking revenge on the lake of fire as Amleth is in his attempts to assuage the ghost of his father.
In the end, they both look weak, trying to win a battle that began over a kingdom that is now lost, and for the right to the memory of a woman who probably loved neither of them truly, and who is also dead due to their war of attrition. There is nothing left for either man except the fire of their hate, and the taste of ash it leaves.
A Maiden King
However, this is not a strictly modern tale about the ugliness of toxic masculinity, even as The Northman clearly leaves space for that interpretation. Much like the genius of Eggers’ first film, The Witch, here is a movie that invites a 21st century understanding of the world to fill in the psychological mysteries that baffled or bedeviled its era, and yet as a story is still wholly steeped into the ancient worldviews and superstitions of its setting.
Amleth turns out to be a raging hypocritical asshole, yes, but his film is one designed to exist in the same landscape of actual Icelandic sagas that date back more than a thousand years. He exists in a world where a king’s blood has divine, magical properties, and in which visions from a Seer like Bjork’s delightful cameo speak truth: this is a journey that is destined by fate to end in battle by a lake of fire after Amleth retrieves an ancient sword of supernatural ability.
While the audience might be allowed to imagine this is all in Amleth’s head—there is that confounding shot of the dead Viking warrior’s corpse still sitting in his throne after Amleth believed they dueled—there is evidence beyond Amleth’s unreliable perspective that confirms the supernatural exists here. Consider Amleth’s escape from his uncle’s barn. Before his flight he sees ravens, a harbinger of Odin’s power, fill the structure. And when Fjölnir returns to the same barn, he too sees the vengeful ravens waiting for him—an ill-omen for a disciple of the god Freyjr. Just as his turnkey is similarly unable to unsheathe Amleth’s supernatural sword when it does not wish to be used.
So the supernatural in this world is real. Ravens mark the presence of a god; the dead can speak through beheaded corpses; and Olga can use her shrooms to make sure your bad trip ends with you taking your own life. And while Amleth’s saga may end in the mouth of a volcano, his family’s greater journey continues. When Bjork’s Seer spoke to Amleth, she said from the ashes of his revenge will rise a Maiden King—which is a pretty Viking way of saying a queen who leads her people by the sword and the ax. Hence when Amleth touches Olga’s wound and sees his unborn children, on the girl’s head rests the crown.
All of which suggests the cycle of patriarchal violence perpetuated by Amleth’s family might finally end when Amleth and Olga’s children are born.
We are given some clues about what direction this will take, with Olga sailing off to Amleth’s distant relatives in the Orkneys, which are islands part of modern day Scotland.
As no expert on Viking history, I am not sure if The Northman is suggesting that Amleth’s daughter is a figure of Viking legend. However, the context of the Orkneys and murdered family members somewhat lines up with the mythology around Aud the Deep-Minded, whose family fled to the Orkneys after the rise of King Harald Fairhair united Norway and took her father’s kingdom. For the record, this is the same Harald mentioned in the movie as being the man who took Uncle Fjölnir’s throne. As an adult, Aud took command of her own Viking crew and longships, and eventually explored and settled down in Iceland where she presided over a rich family and lands for the rest of her life, dying in her old age.
With that said, stories around Aud place her birth more in the late ninth century instead of the early 10th century, although such things could be quibbled over. There is also the story Olga of Kiev, aka St. Olga. That name should look familiar, and she was born in the early 10th century and was definitely of Slavic heritage, a la Anya Taylor-Joy’s character. The historic Olga also conquered like a Viking the Drevlians, a Slavic tribe in eastern Europe who killed her husband Igor of Kiev. As revenge, Olga burned many of them alive in plots worthy of Game of Thrones’ Red Wedding. The trail of scorched bodies she left behind also earned her sainthood from the Catholic Church given it helped disenfranchise paganism in eastern Europe.
However, The Northman’s Olga is sailing to the Northern Isles of Scotland at the end of the movie, and is about as far from a Christian as you can get, so I am unsure if this historical Olga who never left the Slavic lands is meant to be her daughter. The point is that the fictional Olga and Amleth’s child will be a queen who will perhaps not carry on the family’s bad blood.
No matter what though, whatever we think of Amleth, in his mind it is a happily ever after kind of story. He has “protected” his unborn children by slaying Fjölnir, he has kept his vow to his father that he would kill the man who killed him, and to top it all off he now gets his own glorious afterlife. And he did so by literally proving he was of more manly stuff than his uncle, cleanly severing Fjölnir’s head from his body in one swift strike while the uncle took multiple swings to kill his brother.
Viking culture was by and large obsessed with fate, believing the tapestry of life was shaped by the Norns, powerful beings who held sway even over the gods. Amleth had no choice but to follow their predetermined end for him: bloody vengeance. Only then could he be at peace and “saved,” as a Christian might say.
As teased in one of Amleth’s many visions, he longs to one day be carried to the great halls of Valhalla by a Valkyrie. The Valkyries are beautiful, supernatural women who guide the souls of fallen Nordic soldiers to either Fólkvangr or Valhalla, the latter of which is Odin’s personal great hall built solely for the use of his greatest warriors. There the dead he-men are served on by the Valkyries in every imaginable way. They drink; they feast; and they prepare. Aye, this is not a paradise of peace. It is a watering hole; a drink and lay before the war to come—before Ragnarok where all will fight in Odin’s name against fate itself.
At the end of the movie, Amleth has proven himself the greatest warrior of his family and can now take his place in Odin’s hall by being whisked to Asgard and across the rainbow bridge. If this is a Viking saga, then there can be no happier ending.