This article contains spoilers for Vinland Saga season 1.
Now that Vinland Saga has sailed on to its second arc and Thorfinn faces an uncertain future, the villain of the first arc may seem obvious—but wait before naming Askeladd.
Was the ash-smudged boy who rose to be a Viking warlord really a big bad or more of a twisted Cinderella who never got that happy ending? He was already traumatized enough in his youth when he learned something that was rightfully his, the throne of England, had been snatched from him by unfortunate circumstances. Trauma and injustice cannot excuse Askeladd’s atrocities. They can, however, give insight into what created the monster.
Askeladd pulsates with vengeance for a reason. Like the fabled Cinderella, he grew up in the ash of a smithy with a name that literally means ash lad. His father, Olaf was a stereotypical Viking who kidnapped and raped his mother, a Welsh noblewoman, when his band of hooligans invaded Wales. Lydia was one of his favorites, meaning he uses and abuses her nearly to death until his sword is at her neck. She is only spared when a preteen Askeladd charges at him with his own sword. An impressed Olaf then saves the son he almost forgot from soot and ash, bringing him to his manor with all his other bastard sons, but this is no fairy tale.
Having a place in his father’s mansion means Askeladd can finally start plotting against his abusive old man. For three years waits in the shadows to strike. He pretends to fit in with his mostly crude brothers so they can side with him, waiting for a moment of weakness when he can finally take Olaf down. You could say the “villain” spawns when he finally seizes the chance to destroy his father, and when Olaf is in a postcoital haze, no less (condolences to the woman in his bed). It doesn’t end there. He conveniently carries out the rest of his plan and frames one of his brothers, who is cannibalized by the others and ends up murdered by hanging.
Decades later, Askeladd certainly appears like a “big bad” more than a tragic figure. He seems not to care who lives or dies, but watch closely and you never actually witness him craving violence like Thorkell, who sees it as entertainment even if he does lose a few fingertips in the process. Askeladd’s wounds cut much deeper than an arrow or a spear or a sword. The invisible scars carved into his skin sometimes have him taking out his bitterness on the undeserving. This is where that wrenching scene with Thors the Troll comes in.
Does Askeladd really premeditate that ambush because he was brainwashed into following Floki’s orders based on a 15-year-old order of execution? Is it really just for loads of silver? It seems more like the order was an excuse to get rid of something else that had been stabbing at him. Think about it. Askeladd was always living in in Thors’ shadow. They were once both powerful commanders of the elite Jomsvikings, but Thors outshone them all. Thors led with honor, Askeladd with fear. Before and after his stint with the Jomsvikings, Thors is surrounded by people who love him. Askeladd? Maybe he is so blasé about death because he has no one.
What Askeladd does by tricking Thors into thinking their duel is over, just so he can unleash hidden archers on him, is nothing short of villainous. You could even argue this lying and cheating is a cowardly move. Before his past is unearthed many episodes later, someone on the outside might be inclined to think this demon who doesn’t even flinch is anything but human. Unfortunately, jealousy is too human. It could at least be partly why the chance to obliterate this shining hero and character foil tastes delicious. The silver isn’t bad, either.
It appears that Askeladd has morphed from villain to legit big bad after the fall of Thors. That duel is the epitome of the hero dying at the hands of a villain, golden valiance versus pure evil, at least those unaware of the backstory. So why doesn’t he get rid of Thorfinn? Bjorn the berserker has the boy at knifepoint right there. Regardless, Askeladd lets him go. Granted, he is indifferent about what happens to the son of Thors until he hits his teenage years and becomes a valuable human battle weapon, and even then he doesn’t care how badly he wounds him in a duel. For whatever reason, he still doesn’t want to kill him.
Whether Askeladd actually has compassion for his enemy’s son is questionable. Thorfinn is right within reach. Killing him would end the direct line of Thors, but years after the ambush on his father, Askeladd may start to identify with him as a lost soul far from home who has nowhere and no one, but whether he does is purely speculative. The more probable answer is that he saw the fighting prowess Thorfinn was developing from a young age and wants to use him as a tool against King Sweyn* so he can snatch the throne of England for himself.
*Sweyn Forkbeard, the Danish king of England who the prince succeeded. His name is mistakenly spelled “Swayn” in manga and the anime subtitles.
This is when the tragedy of Askeladd is revealed. His mother Lydia was not some random slave. She was a daughter of the royal family of Wales and supposedly a direct descendant of Artorius, the King Arthur of legend. That would make Askeladd and explain what he has really been fighting for. He is not concerned about the empty threats of meatheads like Floki, and war hardly entertains him. Towards the beginning of the anime, he claims his only known name is Askeladd. That was a clever lie delivered almost guilelessly. His name is actually Lucius Artorius Castus. This reveals why he doesn’t knife Thorfinn in his sleep or slit the prince’s throat. He needs both a fighter and a bargaining chip so he can usurp the throne.
You could probably say that using anyone for such intents is villainous. Askeladd plays dirty, as the ash in his name suggests. However, as ruthless as he is, he shows some mercy, even if it is a means to a desired end. He is the one who set Thorfinn’s arm with a splint after a brutal duel with Thorkell, though he has no qualms about fighting Thorfinn himself before the arm has healed. Still, there are so many other men he could have used for his dastardly errands, and yet he holds on to the son of the man he so unapologetically murdered years before. He surprisingly protects Prince Knut** and at least feigns respect. Your bargaining chip does need to be alive.
**Note on the prince’s name; the way it comes off phonetically, it was probably sounded out that way in katakana and then translated to English as Canute. The proper Nordic spelling is Knut.
Would Askeladd do these things if he had nothing but poison in his veins? The difference between someone like him and, say, Cinderella’s stepmother is that his backstory reflects the humanity in him, however damaged. There is no backstory on the stepmother because she doesn’t need one. She’s only there to be wicked enough that her presence brings out the heart of the heroine. Askeladd potential for heroism that is stained by both his childhood trauma and the living by the Viking sword. He kills for justice, and the defense of his right to the crown is the only reason he lashes out and slaughters so many men before finally meeting his end.
Maybe Askeladd is a psychopathic murderer. However, if you really pay attention, you can see that he is a broken man who wants to put the pieces back together. He often tries to achieve this through questionable means, but there is a heart beating somewhere beneath all that steel.
The real big bad in Vinland Saga is war. Askeladd may seem monstrous, but he is just as often the victim as he is the villain.
Vinland Saga season 2 premieres new episodes every Monday on Netflix.