Vinland Saga is a solidly produced, medieval action series that has some traces of Berserk nestled into its nooks and crannies. It scratches a unique itch, and can definitely fall into your shortlist of weekly “shows to watch”.
Summary [SPOILERS AHEAD]
The story opens in the late 10th century, as a talented Viking captain named Thors (pronounced “Torz”) leads an attack against enemy forces. Leaping from one boat to the next, dispatching of enemies with swift swordplay and skilled hand-to-hand combat, Thors demonstrates a strong martial prowess before being dragged underwater by an enemy. Though he’s victorious, he drops his blade in the water and swims away from the battle.
15 years later, we find that the former warrior has now taken the role as a village leader in a small, northern town. He cares for his wife, Helga, as well as his daughter Ylva and son Thorfinn. Life can be harsh, particularly with the biting cold winters, but the residents make do, and Thors runs the village with wisdom and care.
After a runaway slave makes his way to the tiny village, Thors does what he can to save him – even paying his owner, a cruel man named Halfdan, 8 young sheep (4 times the value that he was originally purchased for) to spare him being brought back and tortured in front of the other slaves.
Unfortunately, the severe weather did irreversible damage to the slave, who perishes shortly after Halfdan leaves anyways. Ylva is upset with her father for seemingly wasting the valuable sheep on a single (now dead) slave.
Shortly after navigating the incident with Halfdan and the slave, Thors’ village is visited by a warship full of intimidating-looking Viking soldiers. These men are known as the Jomsvikings – an elite band of warriors, and the very same that Thors commanded nearly 15 years prior.
Floki, another Jomsviking commander, requests an audience with Thors Snorresson, otherwise known as the “Troll of Jom”. Thors’ citizens are confused by the title, knowing little about his life before leading the village, but Thors voluntarily comes forth and sits down to discuss Floki’s business.
A fresh war is brewing with England, and Floki has come to inform Thors that his desertion can be forgiven if he returns to the battlefield. Thors appears to have no interest in killing anyone else, but Floki is less than subtle about threatening the rest of the village if Thors refuses to comply. Realizing that it was time for him to own up for his previous crime of deserting the Jomsvikings, Thors concedes.
Amidst all of this, young Thorfinn has grown more interested in his father’s history as a warrior, and when it’s apparent they will be going to sea, he begins training harder to try and join him on his warship.
There’s only one problem – he’s only 6!
Thors prepares to depart, having argued with Thorfinn about the importance of having a weapon, and the weight of taking one’s life. He seeks out his son to say goodbye, but can’t find him anywhere. After setting sail and catching the current away from the island, only then is it revealed that Thorfinn has stowed away in a barrel!
While this is happening, Floki has an audience with a man named Askeladd. He orders Askeladd to assassinate Thors as punishment for his desertion 15 years ago. At least, that’s what he claims. Askeladd is interested in the job, but also cautious, considering that Floki had an opportunity to take care of Thors himself when he sailed to his village. Still, he takes the job, and after successfully cornering Thors and his fledgeling war party in a narrow strait, prepares to do battle with him directly.
Sometimes it’s nice to have a medieval series minus all the fantastical elements of magic, elves, dwarves and dragons. Vinland Saga has a different kind of drama: not revolving around any sort of mystical prophecies or otherworldly threats, but rather focusing on the horrors of war, and one man’s desire to escape his former, blood-stained life. (Rurouni Kenshin, anyone?)
I was a fan of Thors from the opening sequence. The show wastes no time establishing the Troll of Jom as a certified badass, and while you may be initially hopeful that he’s the protagonist, we see too much of his blonde son, Thorfinn in the opening credits to ignore the reality of the situation.
As I watched Vinland Saga, I couldn’t help but think fondly of the Berserk that could have been with the right animation style. The most recent re-iteration was met with plenty of ire and resentment – the 3D models moving clunkily along, and key narrative and dialogue opportunities getting tossed to the wayside. If the new Berserk instead looked anything like Vinland Saga, we’d have a very happy fandom indeed!
The first three episodes were released at once, likely to strengthen the hook and draw potential viewers further in, but even with over an hour of narrative time, certain aspects still felt rushed. Notably, the transition from Halfdan to Floki.
Regardless, with strong animation and a solid foundation in history and locale, Vinland Saga should definitely be on your weekly watch list. Catch it on Amazon!