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The History That Inspired ‘The Northman’


Director Robert Eggers’ revenge epic The Northman has been referred to as the “definitive Viking film,” however, funnily sufficient, nobody within the film ever says the phrase “Viking.” For archaeology professor Neil Price, considered one of three historic consultants who labored on The Northman, that felt like a win. “Not everybody who lived in the Viking Age was a Viking,” Price, the creator of Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings, a definitive account of the Viking Age, instructed TIME. “The people of this time were individuals, every bit as complicated and varied as we are. This film will hopefully push people to think differently about the Vikings beyond the usual clichés.”

It’s true: The Northman, in theaters April 22, will not be your regular horned helmet fare. The movie, primarily set in Tenth-century Iceland, tells the story of Prince Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård), a royal-turned-warrior who goes on a bloody, mystical journey to avenge the homicide of his father (performed by Ethan Hawke). Thanks to Eggers’s earlier movies, 2016’s The Witch, set in 1690 New England, and 2019’s The Lighthouse, which takes place on a mysterious New England island within the Nineties, the director has earned a status for paying shut consideration to historic element. (“He really does an enormous amount of background research. I sometimes wonder whether he needs advisors,” Price joked.) With The Northman, Eggers hit a brand new stage in his quest for historic reality, striving to good even the smallest particulars within the movie, which he co-wrote with Icelandic novelist and poet Sjón. “Let’s be clear,” Price mentioned. “There are limits to what historians know about that time. It’s a thousand years ago, so there are gaps.”

Filling within the gaps was a part of the enjoyable for Price, who despatched Eggers and the movie’s crew “hundreds of images of clothes, buildings, weapons” to assist them throughout pre-production. When he visited the Belfast set in March 2020, proper earlier than the movie went on hiatus because of COVID-19, Price mentioned he was “overwhelmed” by the world Eggers had created. “It feels complete and layered, but it’s a world that has different values than ours, different assumptions, different beliefs, different concepts of reality,” he mentioned. “It is different from our reality and it’s quite frightening, but you can see something of yourself in it somewhere—if you want to.” Below, Price provides historic context for The Northman.

The Hamlet connection

In The Northman, a younger prince named Amleth seeks revenge on his uncle Fjölnir (performed by Claes Bang) for killing his father after which marrying his mom, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). That plot would possibly sound acquainted to anybody who’s learn Shakespeare. Hamlet was really impressed by the story of Amleth, which was a small part of a bigger saga written within the early thirteenth century by a Danish historian named Saxo. “The assumption is that [the story of Amleth is] based on something very old, certainly in the Viking Age,” Price mentioned. “And might even be older than that.”

Eggers determined to set Amleth’s story within the Viking Age. He additionally determined so as to add a number of twists to the unique saga to make it his personal. “It’s a film where you recalibrate what is going on as you’re seeing it,” Price mentioned. “Then you realize what you saw before is not quite what you thought it was—or at least, not what Amleth thought it was.”

Are the berserkers actual? Depends who you ask

The first time the viewers meets grownup Amleth (Skarsgård), he’s gone from little prince to berserker, a brutal warrior who’s extra beast than man. Price admits there’s a divide between lecturers on whether or not the berserkers actually existed or not. Some say the berserkers are merely characters in Icelandic sagas and medieval literature, whereas others imagine they had been principally Viking particular forces. There are even those that assume there was a supernatural factor to the rituals the berserkers reportedly carried out earlier than battle. “We know that during the Viking Age, there were very clear beliefs in shape-shifting. The idea of men switching physically into animals, big predators like wolves and bears,” Price defined. “We have metal figures that depict basically naked men wearing skins and holding spears. They appear to be dancing.”

In tales from the Viking Age, the berserkers are described as operating into battle with out armor, satisfied iron couldn’t damage them. “There are some descriptions of Vikings in combat, written by the people who they were fighting, who talk about them making noises like animals and moving like animals,” Price mentioned. Eggers wished to convey these descriptions of males howling like predators to life in The Northman. “Robert lets you see how Amleth’s rage just absolutely consumes him,” Price mentioned. “Then you see what he does with it.”

As a Viking specialist, Price felt it was necessary that Eggers didn’t attempt to shrink back from the brutality of what these males would reportedly do. “There’s this kind of cliché of the Viking warrior and the ships and all the rest of it, but the raids with the slaving, killing, and setting fire to buildings full of people, were very real,” he mentioned. “The film shows that the berserkers are not people you want to be. They’re not admirable, and they’re not heroic. They’re terrible.”

The Night Blade is nothing like Thor’s hammer

In order to avenge his father, Amleth is tasked with discovering a particular weapon often called the Night Blade. The Northman doesn’t give a lot context as to why Amleth should discover this explicit sword past it being his destiny. However, Price defined that Eggers was impressed by “stories in which swords are given names that create a personality. These are weapons that are alive and have a biography. You know who owned them before you and what they did with it. Some of them even have some sort of strange properties.”

Knowing this, you would possibly need to evaluate the Night Blade to fellow Norseman Thor’s enchanted hammer Mjölnir. The Avenger’s signature weapon can solely be picked up by these it deems worthy sufficient to wield it. Night Blade, nonetheless, is way much less judgmental and can be utilized by anybody. That is, in the event that they know the sword’s secret. “As its name implies,” Price mentioned. “The Night Blade can only be used once it’s dark out.”

Creating a Viking wardrobe from scratch

Much of what historians find out about Viking clothes comes from burials. “Robert kept joking that if you could show a Viking Age time-traveler the movie, their first question might be, why is everybody dressing like dead people?” Price mentioned. “I don’t necessarily agree, but it’s a risk.” This is all to say: The Northman’s costume designer Linda Muir needed to get artistic along with her wardrobe creations.

Throughout the movie, characters carry out rituals wherein they kill an animal and splatter its blood on their clothes. Muir had a tough time believing that the Vikings would threat messing up their favourite going-out seems to be, which had been usually constructed from animal furs. So she invented particular sacrifice clothes, lengthy white cloaks, that the characters put on throughout the bloodiest of events. “Nobody in Viking studies has looked at this idea of ritual clothing. We can’t prove it, but it’s really sensible,” Price mentioned, evaluating it to Christian clergymen who put on ceremonial robes for particular holidays. Muir’s creations inspired Price to consider the “weird things archaeologists find in burials. Now I wonder, oh, maybe that’s what that is?” he mentioned. “You know, that strange kind of cloak we don’t understand could be their sacrifice clothes. Who knew?”

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