Robert Egger‘ The Viking Revenge Epic, The man from the north, seems to be in direct contrast to the films the critically acclaimed director has made before. Both The witch and Lighthouse were smaller in terms of budget, distribution and reach, although The man from the north is set to be his biggest feature to date. The film boasts a significantly larger budget of $90 million and a diverse cast including Alexander Skarsgard, Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe, Claes Bang, Anya Taylor Joyand Icelandic singer Bjork to populate the brutal and immersive world he has created. Now, Eggers’ indie roots appear to have sparked mainstream success with early critics praising the film as ambitious and gripping with plenty of intense action.
The man from the north is set in Iceland at the turn of the 10th century and revolves around Norse prince Amleth (Skarsgård) who seeks revenge on his uncle Fjölnir (Bang) for the murder of his father. What follows is a story of family, revenge and Viking mysticism. Although The man from the north is written by Eggers and Icelandic poet and novelist Sjon Sigurdsson, some plot elements may seem familiar to eagle-eyed viewers. But is The man from the north a strictly fictional tale, or are there elements of truth in the story? Let’s dive deep into Eggers’ inspiration, Scandinavian folk tales and Viking lore to find out.
The Northman is a Viking version of Hamlet
The man from the north shares much of its core DNA with Shakespeare’s play. For the uninitiated, Hamlet is the story of a son whose father’s ghost orders him to avenge his murder by killing his uncle. It is a story whose basic elements can be found in many modern books and films such as The Lion King. It also appears in The man from the north as well. In this version, Alexander Skarsgård plays Amleth, the Viking version of Hamlet, Ethan Hawke plays his murdered father, King Aurvandill, Nicole Kidman plays Amleth’s mother, Queen Gudrún, and Anya Taylor-Joy plays Olga, a version of Ophelia who has supernatural abilities and also happens to be Amleth’s love interest.
Rather than imitate Hamlet beat for beat, Eggers planned to use the familiar tale as the “main story focus” before delving deep into Viking culture and lore. But good Hamlet and The man from the north share some basic similarities with Shakespeare’s text, Shakespeare himself was actually inspired to write Hamlet by Old Norse folk tale Vita Amlethi (“The Life of Amleth”) transcribed by the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus.
What is the background and plot of Vita Amlethi?
Vita Amlethi was a story that was often passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. It was not until Saxo Grammaticus recorded the story around the year 1200 as part of his extensive record of Danish history and rulers, the Gesta Danorum (“Deeds of the Danes”), which it has been immortalized in print.
The family revenge story is set in Denmark and revolves around two brothers, Horwendil and Fengo, who have a relationship full of jealousy. After killing the King of Norway, Horwendil marries his daughter, Gerutha, and they have a son named Amleth. But because he cannot overcome his envy of his brother, Fengo murders Horwendil and then also marries Gerutha, who oddly seems okay with it all.
Meanwhile, Amleth feigns madness to protect himself from his uncle Fengo’s violent tendencies, though Fengo suspects he plans revenge on him for his father’s murder. He tries to get Amleth to admit his plans by using a beautiful woman to trick him into incriminating himself, and then using a spy (whom Amleth discovers and kills) to eavesdrop on his conversations with his mother. Neither plan works, leading Fengo to make a last ditch effort to get rid of his nephew for good. Rather than kill him himself, he banishes Amleth to England with instructions for the king to execute him there. However, Amleth escapes his death sentence by using his wits, manages to return to his homeland, tracks down his uncle who believes him dead and kills him. Once his quest is complete, Amleth marries the English princess and is hailed as the new king of Denmark.
What are the similarities between Vita Amlethi and Hamlet?
The story shares more than a few similarities with Hamlet, including its characters and arcs. In both stories, there’s an evil brother who murders his brother and takes the throne, a hero who pretends to be mad to protect himself from his violent uncle, a king trying to fight his way to uncover the hero’s secrets, as well than a hero who achieves his ultimate goal of revenge. Even the names of the characters in the two stories often sound alike, like “Gerutha” in Vita Amlethi and “Gertrude” in Hamletnot to mention that “Hamlet” and “Amleth” are anagrams.
Is The Northman’s Viking setting and lore historically accurate?
Eggers did “a ton of research” to make the film’s setting, world-building, and Viking culture as authentic as possible. Most of the film takes place in Iceland, which corresponds to the migration of Norse settlers to Iceland in the 9th century. Although we have information about Viking clothing, language and practices from written accounts, it is much more difficult to perfectly recreate the settings and clothing of over 1,000 years ago. To fill in the gaps, Eggers worked with a range of Viking historians, archaeologists and linguists to ensure that the film’s Vikings matched historical accounts and that the language of the Old Norse Vikings (and their simple and direct to speak) is period accurate.
The Vikings were also notoriously brutal. They did not hesitate to practice torture, enslave their enemies or participate in ritual human sacrifices. Judging by the action-packed trailer, The man from the north seems to match their villainy and pursuit of revenge for deceased family members. But for all their ferocity, the Vikings also had powerfully strong spiritual beliefs. They believed in several afterlife realms as well as many gods and goddesses. This is represented in the film by Anya Taylor-Joy’s Olga, a character who features a touch of the supernatural to coincide with the Vikings’ belief in magic and mysticism.
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