Vinland Saga: The Cost of Violence
Many manga series utilize violent action as their primary selling point. Illustrating scenes of epic battles and fierce combat, these series get readers’ adrenaline pumping.
It’s rare for a series to combine this action with deep ideas which force readers to question the same violence that they have been celebrating.
Vinland Saga by Makoto Yukimura does just that. The series follows the journey of the young Viking warrior Thorfinn, son of Thors as he seeks to avenge the death of his father at the hands of the pirate Askelaad.
Thorfinn and Askelaad are expert warriors, and the manga brings their battle prowess to life in its many depictions of combat and warfare.
In scenes ranging from one on one duels to largescale battles the work exhibits a unique style which draws readers in.
The combination of extremely detailed art and semi-realistic physics generates tension and creates the feeling that these characters are normal humans who can easily meet their demise with one wrong move. These scenes also feature intense gore which introduces a sense of gravity into the story and really drives home the kill or be killed nature of this world, demonstrating just how terrifying and haphazard a warrior’s life can be.
Such high quality action alone would qualify as a great read, but the manga also devotes equal time to exploring Thorfinn and the other characters’ mindsets and personal ideologies which separates this series from the rest of pack.
The manga’s driving question is how to build an ideal society on earth and what role violence plays in that society. Initially, Thorfinn is consumed by thoughts of revenge and perceives physical might as the sole determinant of an individual’s worth. His continued subservience to Askelaad is predicated on his inability to best his older foe in one on one combat.
On the other hand, Thorfinn’s thoughts are dominated by his father’s final words which he attempts to decipher as he descends deeper into a life of chaos. At the story’s outset, Thors has retired from war and pursues a pacifistic lifestyle. In his final moments, he stresses the value of peace which becomes less and less relatable to Thorfinn as his body count grows.
In the story’s first act, Thorfinn grapples with these two philosophies and struggles to find meaning in his violent life which is defined by acts of cruelty. Ultimately, violence leaves him unfulfilled as he is robbed of his revenge in a pivotal moment.
Around this time we are introduced to Thorfinn’s foil, the timid Prince Canute. Based on a historical king of England, Canute enters the story as a political prop with no personal fighting skills whom Thorfinn is tasked with protecting.
Eventually, Canute experiences an epiphany and decides that humans must create a utopia on earth since God will not do so. This realization comes with a new forceful demeanor and a willingness to take lives to accomplish his goal.
Askelaad is swept up in this movement and allows himself to be killed to aid Canute, which leaves Thorfinn emotionally scarred and bereft of purpose.
At this point the story undergoes a dramatic shift in tone and setting. In doing so, the work grants us a more complete view of Thorfinn’s mindset and becomes more of a character study.
After Askelaad’s death, the narrative jumps ahead a few years and reveals that Thorfinn has been sold into slavery and works on a farm. Unlike the fierce warrior of the prior act, Thorfinn is worn down by life and easily submits to authority.
Although a pacifistic, Thorfinn initially seems ineffectual. The series uses him to deliver its strongest argument against violence.
When tasked with solving a conflict that engulfs the farm, Thorfinn appears as if he will fight once more, but instead opts to receive one hundred punches from a fellow Viking. In a situation where his battle sense cannot help him, Thorfinn reinvents himself as the victim, bringing his character arc full circle.
Thorfinn and Canute eventually reunite with their roles completely reversed. Thorfinn preaching pacifism and Canute enforcing order through military might and beginning to succumb to the lure of power. This is a clever example of irony as Canute becomes the series’ most powerful character in spite of his pitiful fighting skills while Thorfinn, the expert warrior, refuses to fight.
Exploring this dynamic offers the work an additional chance to comment on the futility of physical power.
One of my favorite moments in the series is when Thorfinn is confronted by enemies during his journey to found a new society, and we are once again amazed by his superb fighting skills.
By including this scene, the manga forces you to grapple with your enjoyment of the violence it has been repudiating throughout its run, and it reiterates how superficially appealing graphic displays of violence can seem. While I initially felt captivated by this scene, it made me think twice for slipping back into the habit of glorifying violence.
Though many manga can equal Vinland Saga’s dynamic bursts of action, few can simultaneously force readers to question their very fascination with that same action, a trait which lends this series its brilliance.
What are your thoughts on Vinland Saga? Let me know in the comments.