The True Story Behind The Northman

7 minute read

Director Robert Eggers’ revenge epic The Northman has been called the “definitive Viking film,” but, funnily enough, no one in the movie ever says the word “Viking.” For archaeology professor Neil Price, one of three historical consultants who worked on The Northman, that felt like a win. “Not everybody who lived in the Viking Age was a Viking,” Price, the author of Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings, a definitive account of the Viking Age, told TIME. “The people of this time were individuals, every bit as complicated and varied as we are. This film will hopefully push people to think differently about the Vikings beyond the usual clichés.”

It’s true: The Northman, in theaters April 22, is not your usual horned helmet fare. The film, primarily set in 10th-century Iceland, tells the story of Prince Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård), a royal-turned-warrior who goes on a bloody, mystical journey to avenge the murder of his father (played by Ethan Hawke). Thanks to Eggers’s previous films, 2016’s The Witch, set in 1690 New England, and 2019’s The Lighthouse, which takes place on a mysterious New England island in the 1890s, the director has earned a reputation for paying close attention to historical detail. (“He really does an enormous amount of background research. I sometimes wonder whether he needs advisors,” Price joked.) With The Northman, Eggers hit a new level in his quest for historical truth, striving to perfect even the smallest details in the film, which he co-wrote with Icelandic novelist and poet Sjón. “Let’s be clear,” Price said. “There are limits to what historians know about that time. It’s a thousand years ago, so there are gaps.”

Filling in the gaps was part of the fun for Price, who sent Eggers and the film’s crew “hundreds of images of clothes, buildings, weapons” to help them during pre-production. When he visited the Belfast set in March 2020, right before the film went on hiatus due to COVID-19, Price said he was “overwhelmed” by the world Eggers had created. “It feels complete and layered, but it’s a world that has different values than ours, different assumptions, different beliefs, different concepts of reality,” he said. “It is different from our reality and it’s quite frightening, but you can see something of yourself in it somewhere—if you want to.” Below, Price offers historical context for The Northman.

The Hamlet connection

In The Northman, a young prince named Amleth seeks revenge on his uncle Fjölnir (played by Claes Bang) for killing his father and then marrying his mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). That plot might sound familiar to anyone who’s read Shakespeare. Hamlet was actually inspired by the story of Amleth, which was a small section of a larger saga written in the early 13th century by a Danish historian named Saxo. “The assumption is that [the story of Amleth is] based on something very old, certainly in the Viking Age,” Price said. “And might even be older than that.”

Eggers decided to set Amleth’s story in the Viking Age. He also decided to add a few twists to the original saga to make it his own. “It’s a film where you recalibrate what is going on as you’re seeing it,” Price said. “Then you realize what you saw before is not quite what you thought it was—or at least, not what Amleth thought it was.”

Are the berserkers real? Depends who you ask

The first time the audience meets adult Amleth (Skarsgård), he’s gone from little prince to berserker, a brutal warrior who is more beast than man. Price admits there’s a divide between academics on whether the berserkers really existed or not. Some say the berserkers are merely characters in Icelandic sagas and medieval literature, while others believe they were basically Viking special forces. There are even those who think there was a supernatural element to the rituals the berserkers reportedly performed before battle. “We know that during the Viking Age, there were very clear beliefs in shape-shifting. The idea of men switching physically into animals, big predators like wolves and bears,” Price explained. “We have metal figures that depict basically naked men wearing skins and holding spears. They appear to be dancing.”

In stories from the Viking Age, the berserkers are described as running into battle without armor, convinced iron could not hurt them. “There are some descriptions of Vikings in combat, written by the people who they were fighting, who talk about them making noises like animals and moving like animals,” Price said. Eggers wanted to bring those descriptions of men howling like predators to life in The Northman. “Robert lets you see how Amleth’s rage just absolutely consumes him,” Price said. “Then you see what he does with it.”

As a Viking specialist, Price felt it was important that Eggers didn’t try to shy away from the brutality of what these men would reportedly do. “There’s this kind of cliché of the Viking warrior and the ships and all the rest of it, but the raids with the slaving, killing, and setting fire to buildings full of people, were very real,” he said. “The film shows that the berserkers are not people you want to be. They’re not admirable, and they’re not heroic. They’re terrible.”

The Night Blade is nothing like Thor’s hammer

In order to avenge his father, Amleth is tasked with finding a special weapon known as the Night Blade. The Northman doesn’t give much context as to why Amleth must find this particular sword beyond it being his fate. However, Price explained that Eggers was inspired by “stories in which swords are given names that create a personality. These are weapons that are alive and have a biography. You know who owned them before you and what they did with it. Some of them even have some sort of strange properties.”

Knowing this, you might want to compare the Night Blade to fellow Norseman Thor’s enchanted hammer Mjölnir. The Avenger’s signature weapon can only be picked up by those it deems worthy enough to wield it. Night Blade, however, is far less judgmental and can be used by anyone. That is, if they know the sword’s secret. “As its name implies,” Price said. “The Night Blade can only be used once it’s dark out.”

Creating a Viking wardrobe from scratch

Much of what historians know about Viking clothing comes from burials. “Robert kept joking that if you could show a Viking Age time-traveler the movie, their first question might be, why is everybody dressing like dead people?” Price said. “I don’t necessarily agree, but it’s a risk.” This is all to say: The Northman’s costume designer Linda Muir had to get creative with her wardrobe creations.

Throughout the film, characters perform rituals in which they kill an animal and splatter its blood on their clothing. Muir had a hard time believing that the Vikings would risk messing up their favorite going-out looks, which were often made from animal furs. So she invented special sacrifice clothing, long white cloaks, that the characters wear during the bloodiest of occasions. “Nobody in Viking studies has looked at this idea of ritual clothing. We can’t prove it, but it’s really sensible,” Price said, comparing it to Christian priests who wear ceremonial robes for special holidays. Muir’s creations encouraged Price to think about the “weird things archaeologists find in burials. Now I wonder, oh, maybe that’s what that is?” he said. “You know, that strange kind of cloak we don’t understand could be their sacrifice clothes. Who knew?”

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