The History Behind Robert Eggers’ ‘The Northman’
The revenge saga blends traditional accounts with the supernatural to convey the lived experience of the Viking age
The Northman opens with black wings over gray water. Ravens fly above wooden ships that sail toward a distant island. A boy in a red cloak—seemingly the only color in the stark landscape—stands by the shore, waiting for his father.
By the movie’s end, a different shade of red has overtaken the screen. As fire burns and a battle rages below a volcano, director Robert Eggers’ tightly packed world falls away into nothing but smoke and blood.
In the roughly two hours between these scenes, The Northman does everything it can to pull the viewer into a medieval landscape that is both familiar and strange, grounded in the physical world while soaring into supernatural realms that were an inextricable part of medieval Icelandic life. Cold landscapes, fantastical visions, riotous colors and violence work in tandem to conjure the Viking world. Indeed, the highly anticipated revenge story has been billed as one of the most accurate Viking movies ever made—a tall order given the subject’s enduring popularity on the silver screen.
This level of accuracy doesn’t stem from the film’s straightforward approach to “real” history. Instead, The Northman’s goal is to capture the atmosphere of the pre-modern Viking world, as conveyed in the vast corpus of surviving literature from medieval Scandinavia. Far from being accurate despite its fantastical elements, the film actually owes much of its authenticity to its portrayal of the supernatural.
“We [worked] with archaeologists and historians, trying to recreate the minutiae of the physical world, while also attempting to capture, without judgment, the inner world of the Viking mind: their beliefs, mythology and ritual life,” says Eggers in a statement. “That would mean the supernatural would be as realistic as the ordinary in this film—for so it was for them.”
The Northman is based very loosely on the story of Amleth, a supposed (but likely fictional) Viking prince most famous today as the basis for William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Alexander Skarsgård stars as Amleth, who seeks to avenge the murder of his father (Ethan Hawke) by his paternal uncle (Claes Bang). Aided by an enslaved woman named Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), the prince also attempts to rescue his mother (Nicole Kidman) from his uncle’s clutches.
Because of its connection to Shakespeare’s masterpiece, literary historians have long searched for the origins of Amleth’s story. Though a few scraps of text appear in earlier sources, the best-known medieval version of the tale is preserved in a multi-volume history of the Danes by the historian Saxo Grammaticus. Likely written around 1200 C.E., it’s a massive work, drawing in equal parts from classical literature, oral histories and fantastical tales from around the North Sea, regional histories written elsewhere in Europe, and testimony from powerful nobles at the court of Danish king Valdemar I and his son Valdemar II. (Saxo may have worked for Valdemar’s archbishop, but whether he was personally a churchman is a matter of some debate.)
Saxo’s version of Amleth’s story will be familiar to anyone who has read Hamlet. A man kills his brother, the king; marries his former sister-in-law; and seizes the throne. The victim’s son pretends either madness or intellectual disability to throw off suspicion that he’s secretly plotting revenge—which, of course, he is. The son eventually kills his uncle and takes the crown for himself.
The Northman does something a bit different. Co-written by Eggers and Sjón, an Icelandic poet and novelist, the movie is set mainly in Iceland rather than Denmark. The story starts the same way, with a fratricide. But the real action begins when Amleth’s uncle Fjölnir loses his stolen throne and flees to Iceland, where he lives in relative tranquility on a small estate. The fields are green. The volcano in the distance is active. And all of the work is performed by enslaved people from across Northern Europe.
After fleeing his island kingdom as a boy, Amleth becomes a raider who participates in the gruesome slaughter of a Slavic village and mass enslavement of the attack’s survivors. Soon, the deposed prince learns of his uncle’s move to Iceland and receives a prophecy (from none other than the singer Björk) imploring him to seek revenge. Amleth pretends to be enslaved and is shipped off to Fjölnir’s farm, where he meets a dead jester (Willem Dafoe), acquires a magic sword, falls in love with the enslaved Olga of the Birch Forest, and uses both the supernatural and swordplay to stage killing after killing.
This isn’t Shakespeare. Nor is it a Gladiator-like attempt at recreating a historical drama—in other words, a straight action film set in a specific, if not necessarily accurate, historical moment where the “good” guys win in the end. The movie isn’t even a faithful retelling of Saxo’s story. Instead, it’s trying to create a different, more medieval type of authenticity by telling a tale that would have been recognizable to the storytellers and audiences of the Middle Ages.
What this mean is that The Northman combines elements of different types of medieval sagas, blending traditional stories about Norse families (which often include convoluted revenge plots) with tales of gods, monsters and witches to create a hybrid account that would have easily fit into the extant body of Norse literature. Indeed, Saxo himself did something similar. Just before the section on Amleth, the Danish historian recounts the murder of the god Baldur in a matter-of-fact historical voice.
Neil Price, an archaeologist at the University of Uppsala and the author of Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings, was one of three historical consultants for The Northman. In an email, he says, “The people of the Viking Age inhabited an organic story-world in which tales changed in the telling. ... There was no static canon of Norse literature at the time. The Northman is not strictly Saxo, and certainly not Hamlet, but something different and strange all its own.”
A key strength of the film is its ability to offer a real sense of the Viking age. The material culture, for instance, is thoroughly researched, down to the way medieval Icelanders lived in their landscape: their clothes, ornaments and social structures. These details are “a way of conveying a layered view of an ancient reality on its own terms,” says Price. “Most of the material culture, and even the behavior [of the characters], is deliberately left unexplained. There is no exposition in The Northman.”
The archaeologist adds, “Instead, we … are observers, confronted with a serious attempt to imagine the experience, in this case an especially extreme experience, of living in the Viking Age. …The ‘supernatural’ is an absolutely integral part of this [in] that none of the spirit beings— valkyries, revenants and so on—are seen by the characters as anything other than natural, an indivisible part of their world.”
In cases where the historical sources are lacking in detail (for example, the imagining of some of the pagan rites in the film), the result still seems plausible. Price and his co-consultants, Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir and Terry Gunnell, made deliberate choices about these imaginative reconstructions.
Even in a fictional story like The Northman, the Viking age comes across as an era that was fundamentally human and messy. Power structures were in flux, with petty lords calling themselves kings; sailing far and wide in search of plunder, trade routes or fertile agricultural land; and often losing power to internal feuds. It’s particularly important that the film shows the Vikings as slavers, willfully ripping people from their homes and carting them around from Iceland to Constantinople. Similarly significant is the movie’s acknowledgement that the Vikings were capable of spectacular violence. The main characters don’t come across role models. No one should come away from this viewing experience wishing they were a Viking.
All of this nuance is a lot to put on a $90 million film that will need a wide audience to recoup its investment. But as we discuss in our recent book, the medieval European past generally and the Viking age specifically were places both strange and familiar. The Northman captures a world that invites us in but forces us to ask more questions not only about its subjects but also ourselves. As Price says, he and his colleagues hope the result is “a living world, though very different and in some ways very frightening, something that will make us think more deeply about the people of the Viking Age—and perhaps about the aspects of ourselves that we still recognize in them.”