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‘The Northman’ shows why the Vikings still fascinate

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The world clearly doesn’t have enough Viking movies, so here is “The Northman” to fill the gap.

Critics have called the revenge epic based on the legend of the Viking prince Amleth “two-plus hours of arthouse savagery” (NPR), “a bloody, mournful, violent tale of vengeance” (Austin Chronicle), “136 minutes of musclebound, shaggy-maned mayhem” (New York Times) and “an ineffably somber meditation on our species’ seemingly inexhaustible reservoir of savagery” (Wall Street Journal).

Phew. Is that all?

“The Northman” has actually gotten high marks from critics, and historians credit it with a detailed and subtle attempt to get the little things right about the Viking way of life and capture a world where the supernatural blended seamlessly with everyday reality. 

That and of course lots and lots of gore. 

The Vikings are enduring figures of fascination. As Arthur Herman, author of the excellent book “The Viking Heart,” argues, they represent a kind of masculine virtue that is out of fashion in our culture and a questing spirit — fearlessly venturing from Scandinavia across the seas, showing up as far west as North America and as far east as Baghdad — that is naturally awe-inspiring. Erik the Red might not have been a particularly nice person, but traveling from Norway to Iceland to Greenland showed prodigious initiative and courage. 

This image released by Focus Features shows a scene from "The Northman."
Arthur Herman argues, that Vikings represent a kind of masculine virtue that is out of fashion in our culture and a questing spirit that is naturally awe-inspiring.
Aidan Monaghan/Focus Features via AP

The Vikings also exist at such a remove of time that no one feels the need to contextualize them, despite their depredations including slavery, colonialism and theft on a vast scale. There isn’t going to be a 793 Project focused on the infamous sacking of the monastery of Lindisfarne heralding the new Viking threat to Europe (a chronicler described how the Vikings “laid everything waste with grievous plundering, trampled the holy places with polluted steps, dug up the altars and seized all the treasures of the holy church”).

What popular depictions of the Vikings tend to leave out, though, is how these Northmen or Norsemen built as well as destroyed, governed as well as marauded. They had a large hand in setting the contours of medieval Europe and creating a cultural inheritance that still shapes the West today. 

As Herman notes, the Vikings undertook a two-century campaign of mayhem before shifting into a different gear. The raids of the Vikings across Europe were powered by their signature long ships — allowing them access to any substantial waterway — and their military prowess. For a while, it seemed that they could sack or take almost any place, and that they did — London, Paris, Seville, Rouen.

This image released by Focus Features shows Nicole Kidman in a scene from "The Northman."
Vikings are famous for their aggressive behavior and exploration.
Aidan Monaghan/Focus Features via AP

Even when Viking aggression was at its height, these were still peoples who were, first and foremost, farmers and fishermen, Herman notes. Nor did they invent brutality and violent expropriation, which were the norm at the time. Eventually, though, the emphasis of the Vikings changed from raiding to trading, and they settled proto-nations of great consequence, from Normandy to Ireland to Russia. And the Vikings, so infamous for their trashing of monasteries, turned their backs on their Norse gods and embraced Christianity.

“They helped shake Europe out of its Dark Age malaise,” Herman writes, “finding innovative ways to transmit ancient Greek and Arab knowledge and science to the West, while expanding and fortifying the boundaries of Christendom, thereby laying the foundations of the medieval West.” The Viking-derived Normans became conduits for scientific and medical texts into northern and Western Europe, catalyzing “an intellectual renaissance that would sustain European civilization for the next four centuries.”

That may not be as cinematic as Vikings smiting their enemies, but it is a foundational part of the Western story. 

This image released by Focus Features shows Alexander Skarsgård, left, and Anya Taylor-Joy in a scene from "The Northman."
Historians note that “The Northman” includes detailed and subtle attempts to get the little things right about the Viking way of life.
Aidan Monaghan/Focus Features via AP

Regardless, there will always be another Viking movie because people instinctively feel what Winston Churchill wrote. If the Vikings were guilty of shameful deeds, he observed, “we must also remember the discipline, the fortitude, the comradeship and martial virtues which made them at this period beyond all challenge the most formidable and daring race in the world.”

Twitter: @RichLowry




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