DDirector Robert Eggers’ epic revenge The man from the north has been called the “definitive Viking movie”, but, oddly enough, no one in the movie ever says the word “Viking”. For archeology professor Neil Price, one of three historical consultants who worked on The man from the north, it looked like a win. “Not everyone who lived in the Viking Age was a Viking,” said Price, the author of Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings, a definitive account of the Viking Age, says TIME. “The people of that time were individuals, just as complicated and varied as we are. I hope this film will inspire people to think differently about Vikings beyond the usual clichés.
It’s true: The Nordic, in theaters April 22, isn’t your usual horned helmet fare. Set primarily in 10th-century Iceland, the film tells the story of Prince Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård), a royal-turned-warrior who embarks on a bloody and mystical journey to avenge the murder of his father (played by Ethan Hawke ). Thanks to Eggers’ previous films, those from 2016 The witch, set in 1690 New England and 2019 Lighthouse, set on a mysterious New England island in the 1890s, the director has earned a reputation for paying close attention to historical detail. (“He really does an awful lot of background research. I sometimes wonder if he needs advisers,” Price joked.) With The Nordic, Eggers reached a new level in his quest for historical truth, striving to perfect every detail of the film, which he co-wrote with Icelandic novelist and poet Sjón. “Let’s be clear,” Price said. “There are limits to what historians know about this time. It was a thousand years ago, so there are gaps.
Filling in the gaps was part of the fun for Price, who sent Eggers and the film crew “hundreds of images of clothing, buildings, weapons” to help them during pre-production. When he visited the Belfast set in March 2020, just before the film was put on hiatus due to COVID-19, Price said he was “overwhelmed” by the world Eggers had created. “It seems complete and layered, but it’s a world that has different values than ours, different assumptions, different beliefs, different concepts of reality,” he said. “It’s different from our reality and it’s quite scary, but you can see something of yourself there somewhere, if you want to.” Below, Price offers historical context for The Nordic.
the Hamlet link
In The Nordic, a young prince named Amleth seeks revenge on his uncle Fjölnir (played by Claes Bang) for killing his father and then marrying his mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). This plot may sound familiar to anyone who has read Shakespeare. Hamlet was actually inspired by the story of Amleth, which was a small part of a larger saga written in the early 13th century by a Danish historian named Saxo. “The assumption is that [the story of Amleth is] based on something very old, definitely from the Viking Age,” Price said. “And maybe even older than that.”
Eggers decided to set the story of Amleth in the Viking Age. He also decided to add some twists to the original saga to make it his own. “It’s a movie where you recalibrate what happens as you see it,” Price said. “Then you realize what you’ve seen before isn’t quite what you thought it was – or at least, not what Amleth thought it was.”
Are berserkers real? Depends who you ask
When audiences first meet adult Amleth (Skarsgård), he’s transformed from a little prince to a berserker, a brutal warrior who’s more beast than man. Price admits that there is a divide between scholars as to whether berserkers really existed or not. Some say berserkers are just characters from Icelandic sagas and medieval literature, while others think they were basically Viking special forces. There are even those who believe there was a supernatural element to the rituals the berserkers are said to have performed before the battle. “We know that in the Viking Age there were very clear beliefs in shapeshifting. The idea that humans physically transformed into animals, large predators like wolves and bears,” Price explained. “We have metal figurines that are basically naked men wearing skins and holding spears. They seem to be dancing.”
In stories from the Viking Age, berserkers are depicted as running into battle without armor, believing that iron could not harm them. “There are descriptions of Vikings in battle, written by the people they fought, that speak of them making noises like animals and moving like animals,” Price said. Eggers wanted to bring to life these depictions of men howling like predators in The Nordic. “Robert lets you see how Amleth’s rage absolutely consumes him,” Price said. “So you see what he does with it.”
As a Vikings pundit, Price felt it was important that Eggers didn’t try to shirk the brutality of what these men would have done. “There’s this kind of cliche of the Viking warrior and the ships and everything, but the raids with the enslavement and murder and burning of buildings full of people was very real,” he said. “The film shows that berserkers are not people you want to be. They are not admirable and they are not heroic. They are terrible.
The Night Blade Has Nothing To Do With Thor’s Hammer
In order to avenge his father, Amleth is tasked with finding a special weapon known as the Night Blade. The man from the north doesn’t give much context as to why Amleth must find this particular sword beyond its destiny. However, Price explained that Eggers was inspired “by stories in which swords are given names that create personality. These are weapons that are alive and have a biography. You know who owned them before you and what they did with them. Some of them even have some kind of strange properties.
Knowing this, you might want to compare the Night Blade to fellow Norseman Thor’s enchanted hammer Mjölnir. The Avenger’s signature weapon can only be picked up by those he deems worthy enough to wield it. Night Blade, however, is much less critical and can be used by anyone. That is, if they know the secret of the sword. “As the name suggests,” Price said. “The Night Blade can only be used after it gets dark.”
Create a Viking wardrobe from scratch
Much of what historians know about Viking clothing comes from burials. “Robert kept joking that if you could show the movie to a time traveler from the Viking Age, his first question might be, why does everyone dress like the dead?said Price. “I don’t necessarily agree, but it’s a risk.” That’s all to say: The man from the northLinda Muir’s costume designer had to get creative with her clothing designs.
Throughout the film, the characters perform rituals in which they kill an animal and splatter its blood onto their clothing. Muir found it hard to believe that the Vikings would risk spoiling their favorite going out looks, which were often made from animal furs. So she invented special clothes for the sacrifice, long white coats, which the characters wear on the bloodiest of occasions. “No one in Viking studies has looked at this idea of ritual clothing. We can’t prove it, but it really makes sense,” Price said, comparing him to Christian priests who wear ceremonial robes for special holidays. Muir’s creations encouraged Price to think about “strange things archaeologists find in burials. Now I wonder, oh maybe that’s it?” he said. “You know, this kind of strange coat that we do not understand could be their clothing of sacrifice. Who knew?
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