Movie Monday: Northmen – A Viking Saga (2014)

In the original version of this review I referred to the guy who plays the big Viking as Not Actually the Guy from Amon Amarth, but it absolutely is The Guy from Amon Amarth! I’ll be danged.

… and that should tell you what kind of a movie we’re dealing with before we even get started.


Anyway, Northmen is not based on a particular historical tale, but I’m running low on directly historical movies I can actually summon up the enthusiasm to watch. It’s your basic adventurey survival tale: some Vikings get shipwrecked, capture a princess, team up with a monk and try to get home. There’s the Nice One, the Backstabby One, the Gruff Mentor, the Big Guy (that’s the Amon Amarth guy), and so on. The princess’ dad sends a bunch of Stormtroopers out to look for her. There are fights and castles and whatever.

It’s an OK way to pass the time, or maybe to have on in the background while you’re doing something else, but there’s nothing exceptional about it. It’s 100% an “if you like this kind of thing, you’ll like this kind of thing” effort. It does have some pretty fun fight scenes, with an appropriate sense of over-the-top badassery.

Obviously, it’s set in Skyrim, like most Viking movies, from the beautiful landscapes (Germany, I guess?) to the patchy leather armour to the grime and blue light everywhere.

What is interesting is that in the opening voiceover and during the movie itself, the main character, Asbjorn, quotes a poem talking about how Vikings need to always be on the lookout for enemies and should “never sleep in a house.” I knew it sounded familiar, but despite having sort of echoes of the Havamal, that’s not what it is at all. I recognised the rhythm, although the translation is slightly different than the one I’m used to. Anyway, I remembered some of the rest of the text and was able to look it up.

The poem is from Fridthjof’s Saga, by Swedish writer (and later bishop) Esaias Tegnér. This long poem is an adaptation of a genuine medieval Norse saga, but as far as I can tell, the section being quoted, “The Viking Code,” doesn’t actually appear anywhere in the original, which, as is the way of sagas, does have a fair bit of poetry in it.

The relevant passages are this sort of thing:

Now he floated around on the desolate sea, like a
 prey-seeking falcon he rode,
To the champions on board he gave justice and law;
 wilt thou hear now the sea-viking’s code?

“Make no tent on thy ship, never sleep in a house, for
 a foe within doors you may view;
On his shield sleeps the viking; his sword in his hand,
 and his tent is the heavenly blue.

See how short is the shaft of the hammer of Thor, but
 an ell’s length the sword blade of Frey;
‘Tis enough, for your weapon will ne’er be too short if
 you dare near the enemy stay.

“When the storm rageth fierce, hoist the sail to the top,—
 O how merry the storm-king appears;
Let her drive! let her drive! better founder than strike,
 for who strikes is a slave to his fears.

It is the usual combination of medieval chivalry, Romantic foofaraw and some actual Edda material, and it goes on for quite a bit after this. Can you imagine someone from an actual seafaring culture talking that bollocks about it better to founder than to set the appropriate amount of sail for the wind? Ships ain’t free, y’know. Ironically, the bit in the film this is quoted over does in fact end with the ship foundering and most of the crew being drowned, so, y’know; maybe take Asbjorn’s advice with a pinch of salt.

And you might not think it, but for a while Fridthof’s Saga was the big thing in Swedish literature. It was a huge success in the 19th century and into the early 20th; Kaiser Wilhelm had a huge statue of Frithjof set up in Norway, people talked about its expressions of primal spirit, all that kind of thing.

Which I guess is no more than to say that the Hollywood Viking world is very much the world of Scandinavian nationalism and Romanticism; those ideas have seeped so far into how we see the middle ages in general and the Vikings in particular that it’s really, really hard to get away from them.

Movie Monday: Northmen – A Viking Saga (2014)

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