Last week I attended a preview of Robert Eggers’ new film, The Northman, in Minneapolis. I got in because I’m a Viking reenactor, and some of my buddies and I went in our Viking clothes.
This isn’t a review, but I suppose I owe it to the people who sent me the pass to inform you I consider the movie a masterpiece of its kind. It’s dark (no, whatever you’re thinking, it’s darker than that), brutal, and shocking. It’s a horror movie at heart, a tale of obsession and vengeance. It’s based on the story of Hamlet, which was drawn originally from a medieval account by the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus. “Amleth,” the name of the hero in the movie, comes from Saxo. But Saxo’s hero triumphed against his enemies, while Eggers follows (and outdoes) Shakespeare in killing him off along with most of the other main characters.
I’ve been waiting all my life for a good Viking movie. One with a plot that’s not laughable, with historically authentic costumes and sets. The Northman is that movie at last. I could nitpick about this and that, but by and large they did a good job of delivering a reasonably authentic film that commands respect as a work of art.
Still, it’s not the movie I wanted.
There’s a Viking Dream abroad in our world. A dream that came to birth through the publication of the first translated Icelandic sagas in the 18th century (Sir Walter Scott was a fan and may have modeled the very form of the English historical novel on them). The classic sagas are stories written by medieval Icelanders about their Viking ancestors. These sagas, once translated, gave Europeans, who’d always had a pretty low view of the Vikings, a new “inside” perspective on pre-Christian Norse culture. And there was something there — a love of freedom (for oneself, anyway), an impulse for exploration and adventure and glorious death, that set people’s hearts afire. Something “cold, spacious, severe, pale, and remote,” as C.S. Lewis put it in Surprised by Joy. The cultural repercussions have varied widely, from Norwegian and Icelandic independence to Tolkien’s Middle Earth to some of the sillier conceits of Nazism.
The Viking Dream snagged me when I was about 12 years old, when I caught a few reruns of a syndicated TV series called Tales of the Vikings. It was produced by Kirk Douglas, who wanted to use some of the props and ships he’d left behind in Europe after filming The Vikings in 1958. Based on the few fragments I can find on YouTube, the series was strikingly dumb. But it caught my imagination. I was the kind of kid who’d be addicted to video games today. In those days we had to scrounge our own Romance, and I embraced the Vikings as mine. I devoured everything I could find to read on the subject, nourishing even then the idea that someday I’d write a Viking novel. (Which I did, more than one, but that’s another story.)
The 1958 Kirk Douglas movie, directed by Richard Fleischer, however, was several cuts above the dumb TV show. Up until last week and The Northman, I’d have told you it was the best Viking movie ever made. The production company made a genuine effort to be reasonably authentic based on current knowledge (though I don’t think Tony Curtis’ mini-tunic had any warrant even then). And though the plot was improbable, it was loosely based on semi-legendary history, the story of Ragnar Lodbrok and his sons, re-created more recently in the awful History Channel series.
But the Viking Dream flowed proudly throughout that 1958 film. There’s a gorgeous scene near the beginning where the Vikings come sailing up the fjord in their dragon ship and all the people in the village rush out to greet them. The sun is bright, the sail billows, and Kirk Douglas is swaggering for all he’s worth. That scene can still give me shivers.
There’s nothing like that in The Northman. The Northman is not a film for romantics.
About the time I saw The Northman, I was also reading Andrew Klavan’s newest book, The Truth and Beauty. It’s a work that belongs on the shelf alongside C.S. Lewis’ aforementioned Surprised by Joy. Lewis’ book describes how his youthful quest for “joy,” a sort of thrill sparked by the aesthetic delight that he discovered in Norse mythology, led him over time to faith in Jesus Christ. Klavan’s book describes a similar phenomenon, but from a different angle.
Klavan tells how, as a Christian convert, he struggled to understand Jesus’ teachings through close study of the Gospels (learning Koiné Greek to do so). His efforts to get to the heart of the thing led him, oddly, to the English Romantic poets — Wordsworth, Keats, and Coleridge on the brighter side, Byron and Shelley on the darker.
I’m not sure I entirely understand Klavan’s book (or ever will). It demands more than one reading. But as far as I can tell, he’s talking about much the same thing Lewis spoke of. Something I, in my humble way, came to when already a Christian, approaching from yet another direction.
The Romantic (as I understand it) glimpses Transcendence everywhere. The most common (and tedious) form of Romanticism is some kind of pantheism, where one glimpses God in nature. (I’m not saying such a person is wrong. I just consider this a pretty primitive variety). The Christian Romantic sees more than that — we discern Christian doctrine in nature. And not only in the nature around us. We also see it in human nature and human aspirations.
I believe [the Romantic poets] stumbled on something that is at the center of who Jesus was, what he knew and wanted us to know; the world of angels and demons, the landscape alive with miracles and magic, the life that promises heaven and puts us at risk of hell — these are not illusions from some implausible phantasmagoria that stands in opposition to reason and science and everyday experience. They are this world, this landscape, this life we are living right here, right now.
In short, the Romantics looked at godless nature, and Christian truth looked back.
Shockingly, for those with eyes to see, airy fantasies of magic and dragons and knights (and, yes, Vikings), when pondered deeply, lead to a truer, not a more fanciful view of the world. And that Romantic worldview coruscates with reflections of the doctrine of the Trinity, the doctrine of the Incarnation, the doctrine of the Atonement, and so on.
There’s none of this in The Northman. The Northman is dense with gods, imminent and even manifest, but they don’t foreshadow Christ. They’re drawn in, like ravens and wolves, by the smell of decomposition. Jesus is conspicuous here by His absence; a drop of grace would quench the story.
So, in a way, my longing for a Viking movie remains unsatisfied. Only now, instead of a good Viking movie, I’m longing for a good, Romantic Viking movie.