The History That Inspired ‘The Northman’

Director Robert Eggers’ revenge epic The Northman has been called the “definitive Viking film,” but, funnily enough, no one in the movie ever says the word “Viking.” For archaeology professor Neil Price, one of three historical consultants who worked on The NorthmanThat felt like victory. “Not everybody who lived in the Viking Age was a Viking,” Price, the author of The History of the Vikings: Children of Ash and Elm,TIME received a complete account of the Viking Age. “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 This film, which will be in theatres on April 22, does not feature the usual horned headgear fare. The film, primarily set in 10th-century Iceland, tells the story of Prince Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård), a royal-turned-warrior who goes on a bloody, mystical journey to avenge the murder of his father (played by Ethan Hawke). Thanks to Eggers’s previous films, 2016’s The Witch, set in 1690 New England, and 2019’s The Lighthouse, The film takes place in 1890s New England on an island. It is a story that has gained the director a reputation for being meticulous about historical details. (“He really does an enormous amount of background research. I sometimes wonder whether he needs advisors,” Price joked.) With The Northman Eggers hit a new level in his quest for historical truth, striving to perfect even the smallest details in 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 that time. It’s 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’s crew “hundreds of images of clothes, buildings, weapons” to help them during pre-production. When he visited the Belfast set in March 2020, right before the film went on hiatus due to COVID-19, Price said 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 said. “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 offers historical context for The Northman.

It Hamlet Connect

The Northman 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). That plot might sound familiar to anyone who’s read Shakespeare. Hamlet Actually, the story of Amleth inspired the creation of the novel. This was an excerpt of a longer saga that was originally written in 13th-century Denmark by Saxo (a Danish historian). “The assumption is that [the story of Amleth is] based on something very old, certainly in the Viking Age,” Price said. “And might even be older than that.”

Eggers decided to set Amleth’s story in the Viking Age. To make the original story his own, he also made a couple of changes to it. “It’s a film where you recalibrate what is going on as you’re seeing it,” Price said. “Then you realize what you saw before is not quite what you thought it was—or at least, not what Amleth thought it was.”

Is it true that berserkers exist? All depends on whom you ask

The first time the audience meets adult Amleth (Skarsgård), he’s gone from little prince to berserker, a brutal warrior who is more beast than man. Price admits there’s a divide between academics on whether the berserkers really existed or not. While some believe the Berserkers were merely fictional characters in Icelandic literature and medieval literatures, others think they were Viking special forces. Many believe that rituals performed by the berserkers prior to battle had a supernatural aspect. “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 explained. “We have metal figures that depict basically naked men wearing skins and holding spears. They appear to be dancing.”

The Viking Age tells of berserkers who ran into battle with no armor and believed iron couldn’t hurt 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 said. Eggers wanted these descriptions of men howling and acting like predators to be brought to life. The Northman. “Robert lets you see how Amleth’s rage just absolutely consumes him,” Price said. “Then you see what he does with it.”

As a Viking specialist, Price felt it was important that Eggers didn’t try to shy away from the brutality of what these men 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 said. “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

Amleth has been given the task of finding the Night Blade in order to exact revenge on his father. The Northman doesn’t give much context as to why Amleth must find this particular sword beyond it being his fate. However, Price explained that Eggers was inspired by “stories in which swords are given names that create a personality. These weapons are living and can be traced back to their owners. These weapons are yours to remember. You also know the history of those who have owned them. Some of them even have some sort 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 it deems worthy enough to wield it. Night Blade however is much less judgmental and can still be used by everyone. That is, if they know the sword’s secret. “As its name implies,” Price said. “The Night Blade can only be used once it’s dark out.”

Create a Viking-inspired wardrobe by hand

The burials are the basis of much of the information historians have on Viking clothing. “Robert kept joking that if you could show a Viking Age time-traveler the movie, their first question might be, Why is everyone dressing up like dead people?” Price said. “I don’t necessarily agree, but it’s a risk.” This is all to say: The Northman’s costume designer Linda Muir had to get creative with her wardrobe creations.

The film features characters performing rituals where they slaughter an animal and splash its blood all over their clothing. Muir found it difficult to believe the Vikings would ruin their go-out outfits, many of which were made out of furs from animals. Her special sacrifice clothes, long, white, cloaks were created by Muir to be worn on bloody events. “Nobody in Viking studies has looked at this idea of ritual clothing. We can’t prove it, but it’s really sensible,” Price said, comparing it to Christian priests who wear ceremonial robes for special holidays. Muir’s creations encouraged Price to think about the “weird things archaeologists find in burials. It makes me wonder. oh, maybe that’s what that is?” he said. “You know, that strange kind of cloak we don’t understand could be their sacrifice clothes. Who knew?”

Read More From Time

Reach out to usAt


Related Articles

Back to top button