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Newsletter | Why The Northman's Women Are The Twist In Its Tale

Newsletter | Why The Northman's Women Are The Twist In Its Tale
In a world hegemonised by the cult of masculinity, a woman is seldom seen as her own person
  • Prahlad Srihari

Last Updated: 06.31 PM, Mar 09, 2023

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This column was originally published as part of our newsletter The Daily Show on August 31, 2022. Subscribe here. (We're awesome about not spamming your inbox!)

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TESTOSTERONE DRIPS from every pore of Alexander Skarsgård’s washboard-stomached berserker and every pixel in the frame of The Northman. Blood is spilt, plenty of it. Brawn gets a forceful showcase. Bitterness is distilled to its purest masculine essence. Robert Eggers’ Viking odyssey is a mythic fever dream writ large, drawn from the medieval subconscious, straight from the heart of darkness. It is a filmic exercise attempting to split the difference between an action epic and a Shakespearean tragedy. Speaking of, Eggers borrows from the same source — Saxo Grammaticus’ Gesta Danorum — as Shakespeare did when he wrote Hamlet. Although The Northman is not an adaptation of Hamlet, the film is still in conversation with the play.

Prince Amleth (Skarsgård) shares the same motives as the Prince of Denmark. To avenge his father, save his mother and kill his uncle — is the only mantra he lives by. If Skarsgård still maintains an unhinged presence, it is not in spite of saying little else but because of it. The time Hamlet spends brooding in mournful melancholy, Amleth simply gets on with it. If Hamlet is a man of inaction, Amleth is a man of action. He knows no other way. He is so swept up in the monomaniacal desire for revenge he has no room for to-be-or-not-to-be-ing or expressing any doubt over the quest ahead. Emotional turmoil is recast entirely as physical pain, inner conflict as external. Retaliation is the name of the game, the law of the land.

In such a world, hegemonised by the cult of masculinity, a woman is seldom seen as her own person. But it’s the women of The Northman who put Amleth’s heroic endeavour in perspective. When the revenge-seeking becomes secondary to all the berserking, a seeress (played by Björk) puts him back on his path with a prophecy. A Slavic sorceress named Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) aids him in his journey, while making him realise there’s more to life than avenging, saving and killing. And when he comes to save his mother Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), it turns out she never needed saving in the first place. The question of Gertrude’s complicity in Hamlet is given an unambiguous answer in a fiery monologue that exposes Amleth’s tunnel vision. That people aren’t mere objects or checkpoints in a quest. His father wasn’t the pure embodiment of the chivalric ideal as he imagined, nor his uncle the antithesis. And his mother sure wasn’t a damsel in distress in need of rescue.

It isn’t love for his mother that sets Amleth on his obsessive path, but a rigid idea of moral duty. When Gudrún reveals the truth in a third-act twist, it recontextualises Amleth’s whole journey as a futile one. An incestuous kiss symbolically neuters his sense of worth measured via feats of masculinity. When he and his uncle duel to the death bare-naked in the crater of an active volcano, the swordfight plays like a phallic gag. Eggers mocks the framework of the male-driven revenge saga which treats women as stakes, leverage, a pawn or a prize in the battle between men before culminating in the spectacle of violence. Revenge may be the catalyst of Amleth’s transformation from a frail young man to a musclebound warrior. But through Gudrún’s words, Eggers points out the painful absurdity of living your whole life convinced you’re on some righteous quest when you aren’t.

How can a man who raids villages for a living be a hero? How can a man who doesn’t bat an eyelid when women and children are burnt alive be on a righteous quest? The Northman establishes the savage nature of the Vikings in a blistering single-take raid. The night after the raid, Amleth wanders into a temple where he encounters a Seeress. Björk makes for a chilling sight, wearing a wheat headdress and puka shells over her bleeding eyes, delivering prophetic words about his tryst with destiny, one tied to that of a Maiden-King.

When we first meet Amleth, he is a young prince awaiting the arrival of his father King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke). The excitement of Aurvandill’s arrival is soon soured by the pain of his ambush at the hands of his brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang). Amleth, who witnesses the whole coup, just about escapes from the mercenary sent to kill him. He can only watch on as Fjölnir carries a screaming Gudrún and claims her as his bride. Before he takes off on a boat, he swears vengeance on the man who beheaded his father and forcibly married his mother. Years into his exile, he has bulked up in preparation. After being reminded of his destiny by the Seeress, he sneaks onto Fjölnir’s farm posing as a slave, gains his uncle’s trust, and puts his plan to free his mother into action.

Except Gudrún isn’t looking to be freed. When Amleth confronts his mother, he finds out she isn’t a damsel in distress but a devoted wife. Kidman launches into a piercing monologue that upends  Amleth’s entire world. Gudrún paints a picture of his father as “a coward feigning to be a king” and a “lust-stained slaver” who cared more about silver and whores than he ever did about her. She was herself a slave and Amleth conceived from rape. Earlier moments in the narrative are reoriented: the screams of grief, Amleth thought he heard as Fjölnir carried her away, were in fact laughs of joy. Fjölnir wasn’t her captor, but a saviour who loved her for who she is. Their son Gunnar too was born “freely with love.” Everything Amleth believed is revealed to be a lie. All he can respond with is accusations of lies and a denial of her truth. He is so caught off-guard each word shrinks him further down, reducing him to a shadow of himself.

In a reversal of the confrontation in Hamlet, it is Amleth who seems to say: “O, speak to me no more; These words, like daggers, enter in mine ears.”

As the film’s perspective was aligned so far with Amleth’s childish fantasy, Gudrún had no interiority or perspective. She regains both in a single but powerful moment, redefining herself as not a victim but a victor. When she confesses to giving Fjölnir her blessings to kill both Aurvandill and Amleth, precisely to avoid potential quests of revenge, it reframes what Amleth had been blind to: the hero he saw his father as, the helpless woman he saw his mother as, and the villain he saw his uncle as. The confrontation is tinted with a flirtatious undertone right from beginning to end. When Amleth approaches her in her chambers raising his sword to her throat to ensure no one hears them, she murmurs, “Your sword is long.” She even attempts to seduce him with a kiss and a proposition to whisk her away as Fjölnir did. Of course, Amleth sees through the distraction.

It is no coincidence that Amleth falls for a young woman who bears some resemblance to his mother. On sneaking aboard the ship bound for Iceland (where Fjölnir and Gudrún live), Amlet meets Olga of the Birch Forest, a silvery-blonde-haired Slavic woman captured by the Viking berserkers who raided her village. Amleth was one of the raiders too. But both form an instant bond in their desire for revenge, and come to seek comfort in each other. Seeing as the world of the Vikings laid emphasis on brute strength, the women had to endure via a combination of their intellect and instinct for self-preservation. As Olga tells Amleth, “Your strength breaks men’s bones. I have the cunning to break their minds.”

If Amleth prefers barbarity, Olga prefers ingenuity. Again, she isn’t a helpless damsel, but a sorceress quite capable of defending herself with “Earth magic.” She also knows how to leverage her body as a form of weapon. Olga is Fjölnir’s hostage just as Gudrún was Aurvandill’s. When Fjölnir attempts to coerce her into having sex with him one night, she deters the attempt by smearing menstrual blood on his face. Later, Olga mixes hallucinogenic mushrooms in the stew of Fjölnir’s men to allow Amleth the distraction to save his mother.

When Amleth saves Olga’s life at one point, Olga is quick to return the favour by rescuing him from the savage beatings of Fjölnir and his men, with some assistance from a flock of ravens. Following which, the couple flee on a boat. Through a vision, Amleth learns Olga is pregnant with twins, one of whom will fulfil the prophecy of the Seeress and become the Maiden-King. Just when you think Amleth and Olga may get a happily-ever-after yet, he convinces himself his bloodline will never be secure as long as Fjölnir lives. “It was prophesied that I must choose between kindness for my kin and hate for my enemies,” he says. “I choose both.” Olga makes a tearful plea, asking him to stay. But Amleth embraces her one last time and leaps off the boat, knowing he is choosing a path that may ensure the safety of his children whom he will never meet.

Amleth will complete his quest but will not survive. Olga does, summoning the spirits to keep her and her children safe. She is afforded what Ophelia was robbed of: a future. If the prophecy of the Seeress is to be believed, Amleth’s death was nothing but the prologue in the life of the Maiden-King. The hope is, with her mother’s spiritual counsel, she may choose a more peaceful path and break the cycle of violence that binds the Vikings. The death of the patriarchy with Amleth hints at the birth of a matriarchy with the Maiden-King.

If men leave nothing but destruction in their wake, women as always are left with the terrible burden of healing the world and restoring it to balance.

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