Robert Eggers’ The Northman, a retelling of the medieval Scandinavian legend of Amleth, is a masterful tribute to the Viking era. Eggers recreates the world of the Vikings with painstaking attention to detail and great respect for his subject.
Eggers does not have Right-wing sympathies. He has condemned the so-called “misappropriation” of the Vikings by White Nationalists. Yet his dogged commitment to authenticity has resulted in a film of which Joseph Goebbels would approve. It would appear that Eggers immersed himself in Viking lore and history to such an extent that he became spiritually possessed and channeled the Viking ethos in a mediumistic fashion.
The legend of Amleth, upon which Shakespeare’s Hamlet is based, is described in Gesta Danorum, a multi-volume history of Denmark written by Saxo Grammaticus around 1200. It is thought to have originated from an unattested Old Icelandic source. The earliest extant accounts of the legend in Iceland date from the seventeenth century, though a similar legend is recounted in The Saga of Hrólf Kraki.
The Northman’s account of the legend of Amleth differs substantially from Saxo’s version, though the gist of it is the same. When Amleth’s father, King Aurvandill, is murdered by his jealous half-brother, Fjölnir, young Amleth flees on a boat and declares that he will avenge his father’s death. Some years later we find him in Kievan Rus’, where he belongs to a band of berserkers. After an encounter with a seeress who predicts that he will soon exact his revenge, he stows away on a slave ship headed for Iceland, where Fjölnir lives in exile, having been overthrown by Harald I of Norway.
In Iceland, Amleth becomes Fjölnir’s slave along with a Slavic girl named Olga, with whom he falls in love. He comes into possession of a legendary sword, Draugr (“undead”), after dueling with an undead spirit. He also proves his mettle in a game of knattleikr, a contact sport played by Icelandic Vikings that resembles a bloodier, more violent version of rugby, except that players wield club-like bats.
Amleth proceeds to terrorize Fjölnir and unleashes a bloodbath on the village which culminates in a confrontation between Amleth and his own mother, now Fjölnir’s wife, that results in her death as well as that of Amleth’s half-brother. Fjölnir and Amleth agree to meet at the “Gates of Hel” (the volcano Hekla) and fight to the death.
At one point in the film, Amleth and Olga escape from Fjölnir’s farm and set sail for Orkney, where Amleth has family. When Amleth kisses a wound on her neck, he has a vision that she is pregnant with twins. Seized with the realization that Fjölnir may kill his children in revenge, he resolves to kill him and swims back to shore. As both Fjölnir and Amleth both perish beside the volcano, Amleth has a vision of his wife and children and is transported to Valhalla.
The Northman has been described as “the most accurate Viking movie ever made.” This is quite plausible. All of the artifacts and clothes in the film were based on findings from Viking burials. Particularly striking were the striking hand-carved decorations in King Aurvandill’s longhouse, which were inspired by artifacts discovered with the Oseberg ship in 1904 in Vestfold, Norway. The settlements in the film were also built from scratch.
Above all, the film captures the heroic, “thumotic” spirit of the Vikings and the primal pre-Christian spirituality at the heart of their rituals and way of life. It is more than a mere exercise in historical accuracy: Eggers depicts the inner world of the Vikings in a way I have never seen on screen.
At the beginning of the film, the berserkers perform a ritualistic war dance before going into battle to unlock their shapeshifting abilities. Known for their animalistic ferocity on the battlefield, the berserkers wore bearskins and wolf pelts representing their respective animal totems. Some modern scholars have attributed the berserkers’ fury to conditions like epilepsy, rabies, and bipolar disorder. This is absurd. Eggers, by contrast, takes the berserkers seriously and stages a trance-like ritual that awakens atavistic impulses in the viewer.
The film’s stark northern landscapes and evocative soundtrack, which features traditional instruments and vocal techniques, also contribute to its ancient feel.
In another ritual, Amleth, his father, and the King’s shamanic jester inhale a hallucinogen and recite lines from the Hávamál as Amleth is initiated into manhood. Amleth sees his royal lineage manifest before him as a tree-like structure made from human veins that pulses with life. It is the most moving image in the film. His vision of the tree returns when he kisses Olga for the last time and envisions their children. The tree’s design was apparently based on an image in a tapestry from a Viking burial in Norway.
At no point does Eggers moralize on the events depicted in the film. His portrayal of violence is refreshingly direct and matter-of-fact. As in his debut film, The Witch, his treatment of magic and the supernatural eschews ironic detachment. The supernatural is woven in with the human and is part of the fabric of ordinary life. The film occupies a pagan universe in which Christians are nothing more than a strange tribe that worships “a corpse nailed to a tree.”
Amleth’s actions are not framed in moral terms; he is simply a man of honor who is resolved to do his duty. A far cry from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, he is a taciturn blond beast ruled more by thumos than reason.
Eggers seems to think that by depicting the Vikings in an authentic, human light and rejecting pulpy caricatures he is somehow “reclaiming” them from the Right, but nothing about The Northman is remotely subversive from our point of view. If anything it conveys a deeper respect for the Vikings than portrayals of them as supermen with horned helmets. And despite Eggers’ aversion to the Viking “macho” stereotype, the film upholds traditional masculinity and contains plenty of macho heroics.
There is also not one non-white actor in the film. This is admirable proof of Eggers’ unwillingness to sacrifice authenticity in the name of distancing himself from White Nationalists.
There is nothing really feminist about the film, either, despite the mention of a prophesied “maiden-king” and a brief glimpse of a female warrior. The character of Olga is strong-willed but feminine. Her earth magic complements Amleth’s “fiery sword.” Heterosexuality is glorified as the wellspring of life. Conversely, Amleth’s mother, the Lady Macbeth-like Gudrun, embodies the darker side of the female nature.
I’m sure some critics will want to see the bloodshed surrounding Amleth’s quest as a critique of honor culture or “toxic masculinity,” but that would be an oversimplification. The film is a brutally honest depiction of the destruction wrought by blood feuds, but nevertheless pays homage to Amleth’s tragic heroism. I am reminded of Greg Johnson’s discussion of honor culture in a recent podcast. Advanced civilizations cannot exist in societies where blood feuds are commonplace, but any society drained of honor is destined to wither. Given the choice, a man whose sense of honor and duty leads to destruction is worthier of admiration than one who lacks honor entirely, which is why Amleth is a tragic hero and modern man is not.
The Northman’s implicitly Right-wing themes have not been lost on some critics. Writing for the Guardian, a critic by the name of Steve Rose quakes with fear at the thought that White Nationalists might find the film appealing and that it could incite terrorist attacks. He then breathlessly praises Marvel’s Thor movies for their diverse casts and progressive messaging. One would be forgiven for mistaking this as satire:
As well as casting Tessa Thompson, a woman of mixed African, Latino and European heritage as the ostensibly bisexual Norse warrior Valkyrie, Waititi’s film [Thor: Ragnarok] dealt with narratives of displacement, enslavement, colonialism and white-male fragility. Thor’s all-powerful hammer, Mjolnir, that beloved symbol of white supremacism, is casually disintegrated by Cate Blanchett’s Hela. She then proceeds to bring down the Norse realm of Asgard, figuratively and literally.
Rose claims that the Vikings were a multicultural society — which, as Jim Goad pointed out, is a laughably euphemistic way of saying that the Vikings conquered and enslaved other European peoples. As for “gender-bending,” female warriors were rare and effeminacy was condemned.
Eggers will have to come to grips with the fact that he will always carry the taint of White Nationalism by virtue of having made a film that appeals to us, and of being a white man who cares about historical authenticity. Perhaps he will realize that there is no way of making the Vikings palatable to the Left without grossly distorting history, and that Marvel’s Thor movies are a far greater insult to the Vikings than anything a White Nationalist would ever come up with.
It’s strange that an artsy Leftist who lives in Brooklyn has made such a Right-wing film, but that is a testament to his uncanny gift for inhabiting his subjects’ universe. The Northman is a remarkable cinematic achievement and will earn a spot in the canon of films beloved by White Nationalists.
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