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Manga Info

Creator: Makoto Yukimura
Genre: Historical Fiction
Length: 7 Volumes (On-going)

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Summary

+ Art is crisp and vibrant
+ Grand sweeping epic
+ Realistically portrays early Medieval life

Public Rating

Our Rating

Score of 5 out of 5
5 out of 5 · An Unequivocal Recommendation

Vinland Saga Manga Review

Written by: Frank Chavez on 10/9/2009

Introduction

Ever since they set sail from their homes in Scandinavia in the late 8th Century, the warriors, sailors, and traders known as the Norsemen or more popularly as Vikings have haunted our collective imagination. Whether vilified as barbaric raiders or idealized as noble heroic warriors the image of the Viking has informed our myths and entertainment ever since anonymous scribes first began writing about them in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. Elements of their mythology appear in Richard Wagner's opera cycle The Ring of the Nibelung and inspired aspects of JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Vikings appear as characters in dozens of plays, novels, and movies ranging from 1958's Kirk Douglas vehicle The Vikings to Michael Crichton's retelling of the Beowulf legend, Eaters of the Dead (filmed as The 13th Warrior). Viking mythology has even inspired numerous comic books, perhaps none more famous than Marvel Comics' The Mighty Thor which transformed the Norse god of thunder into a superhero. Created by Makoto Yukimura, Vinland Saga couldn't be more different. Sticking to a realistic historical setting, Vinland Saga follows the adventures of a fictional Viking warrior named Thorfinn set against the brutal rise to power of the Danish King Canute in the early 11th Century.

Review

Vinland Saga combines elements of historical research, legend, and Medieval Icelandic sagas into a story that is epic in scope and a compelling study in archetypical characters. It begins during one of the petty squabbles between feudal states that dominated much of Europe in the early Middle Ages. The legendary band of mercenaries known as the Jomsvikings have stumbled upon a fortress under siege. Sensing a chance for plunder, their leader Askeladd decides to sell their services to the attacking Frankish army. He sends a young warrior named Thorfinn to their commander to negotiate a deal. The commander accepts the Jomvikings' terms but plans to renege on the deal once the Vikings have won the battle for him. Besides, he doubts the Vikings will deliver their promised attack from the fort's lakeside -- no ship can get to the lake. The commander has obviously never seen the infamous Viking longboat or witnessed their famous battle tactics such as actually moving their ships overland when obstacles such as waterfalls are in the way. Through a combination of strategy and ferocious courage, the Vikings defeat the fort's defenders and make off with all their gold before the attacking force can even breach the front gate.

Thorfinn and Askeladd's stories are played out against a backdrop of a rapidly changing world. When the Viking age began, Thorfinn's ancestors in Norway lived in petty kingdoms that were independent from one another and the people were largely free to pursue their lives as they saw fit. In the 9th Century, Harald Fairhair began his conquest of these petty kingdoms and eventually, after his victory at the Battle of Hafrsfjord, declared himself king of the entire country of Norway. Those who refused to acknowledge his authority fled to other parts of the Viking world including the Orkney Islands, the Faroe Islands, Shetland Islands, Hebrides Islands, and the recently discovered Iceland. In Iceland, those fleeing Harald's rule established the Commonwealth of Iceland, an unusual state for the times. The Icelanders didn't have a king or other central authority figure. Instead, authority was divided between a combination of parliament and Supreme Court called the Althing and chieftains known as goõar who ruled clans or alliances known as goõorõ. The Viking sense of freedom and independence is a theme running throughout the story. It is often contrasted to the various forms of slavery such as literal slavery or even slavery to material possessions.

Not that Vinland Saga is a history lesson; it's a fictional story and a very engrossing one at that. While the story is told on an epic scale, Makoto never forgets that good stories are about characters. One of Makoto's strengths is his ability to completely humanize his archetypical characters. His Viking characters are neither brutish cavemen with swords nor idealized Wagnerian supermen but ordinary people hardened by a tough life eking out their existence. He shows the reader the lives of these people in well researched and authentic detail. You can almost hear them breathe. The Vikings don't go on their famous raids out of any sense of malice but rather out of a need to survive in an unforgiving landscape where summers are short, winters are long, and resources are in short supply. Men dream of making their fortune sailing with great leaders such as Askeladd. While Vikings are typically depicted as dimwitted brutes, Askeladd is an intelligent and cunning leader who wins battles through strategy rather than relying on simple brute strength. Not that he doesn't employ brutal violence; he's just smart about it. Although Thorfinn sails with Askeladd, he hates him. Years ago Askeladd killed Thorfinn's father in battle and Thorfinn has held a grudge ever since. He periodically challenges Askeladd to duels which Thorfinn inevitably loses due to his hotheadedness and inexperience. In spite of this, Askeladd trusts Thorfinn, Thorfinn's sense of honor and pride won't allow him to kill Askeladd outside of a fair fight and Thorfinn is an otherwise trustworthy and competent member of the crew.

We learn in a flashback that, although he may not realize it, whatever Thorfinn knows about honor and courage, he learned from his father as a child in Iceland. His father, Thors is a strange man for a Viking. Like other Vikings he is a farmer, unlike other Vikings he is not a warrior and he opposes slavery. However, years before settling in Iceland Thors was a famous warrior, a general of the Jomvikings band known as "Thors the Troll" for his aggressive fighting style. He grew tired of the killing after becoming a father so he faked his death and deserted. However, that past soon comes back to haunt him when the Jomvikings track him down for one last mission, invading England and avenging the treacherous attack on a Viking village by the Anglo-Saxons. This planned attack, may be more than it appears, the Jomvikings leader has some grudge against Thors and plans to have him killed. He tells others that it is Thors's punishment for desertion but Thors has been in Iceland for 15 years, it seems Jomvikings would have come looking for him sooner if they truly planned on executing him. When Thorfinn begs his father to take him into battle, Thors asks him why he wants to go. Thorfinn replies that he wants to kill enemies. Thors asks him, who his enemies are. When Thorfinn can't answer, Thors replies that Thorfinn doesn't have any enemies. No one in the world is his enemy. Whether he knows it or not, Thors is a man ahead of his time who has seen past the petty tribalism of his day and come to a deep understanding that there are ways to show one's courage other than fighting and conquest.

Another major influence on the young Thorfinn is the presence of the famous explorer Leif Ericson. Thought by historians to have been the first European to see the east coast of Canada, Leif is depicted as a man just past his prime. A convert to Christianity, Leif has little need for the machismo and blood lust that dominate the other men of his age. He sees sailing as the ultimate expression of courage. Sailors, he tells the boys of Iceland, do battle with the sea the way other men battle each other. Leif regales the children of Iceland with tales of voyage to the mysterious region he named Vinland (Pasture Land), a warm, grassy country inhabited by the dark skinned skraelings who were likely the ancestors of the Beothuk a tribe native to Newfoundland. Limited grazing land was one of the hardships of life in Scandinavia; Vinland with its seemingly endless pastures becomes a metaphor for freedom and paradise to many of the characters in the story. A man with enough good grazing land for large herds of cattle would be able to give up the Viking lifestyle once and for all.

Thorfinn's story is contrasted to the story of Canute. Canute is a 17 year old Danish prince who will one day grow up to be Canute the Great, King over Norway, Denmark, England, and parts of Sweden. Although known to historians as a master statesman and cunning military strategist who held together his kingdom through cultural bonds and trade rather than sheer brutality as many earlier European kings and chieftains did, when we are introduced to him in Vinland Saga, he is a timid pretty boy drawn in the bishonen style. Depicted as weak and ineffectual, he seems unable to function without the advice of his retainer Ragnar. However, after Ragnar's death, Canute develops the strong personality known from history. In this incarnation, Canute's great ambition is to create a utopia on Earth before Christ's second coming. If Thorfinn's story represents the Vikings' struggle to maintain their traditional notion of independence, Canute represents the first inkling of the modern nation state with its centralized authority and loss of freedom in exchange for stability.

Life in the early Middle Ages was brutal, nasty business and Makoto doesn't shy away from depicting the violence and grime of life in the 11th Century. The story begins with a bang, the opening pages depict armored warriors bringing a battering ram to bear against an enemy fort under a hail of arrows and crossbow bolts. Makoto's work on Vinland Saga has been compared to Kentaro Miura's work on Berserk; however, Makoto is a finer draughtsman, producing crisp, clear, and detailed art. Unlike Berserk where occasionally sloppiness makes it difficult to tell who is hitting and who is being hit, the reader can always tell what is going on in Vinland Saga. Makoto also does a better job capturing period details. His surprisingly realistic artwork eschews 19th Century Romantic clichés such as horned helmets and fur tunics for authentic details of Viking art, design, and tactics. Makoto never forgets that his story is an epic, shots of Viking ships against a seemingly endless sea and sky are common place in Vinland Saga's pages. However it's his depiction of characters that sells the story, grounding it in the reality of its times. Like the greatest cartoonists, Makoto shows us who these people are through a kind of visual shorthand. A knowledgeable reader can immediately identify the character referred to as Leif as Leif Ericson by the fact that he wears an American Indian headdress and smokes a pipe nearly 500 years before tobacco was popular in the rest of Europe. We know that Thors is brave and noble from his blocky build and square jaw but we also sense his troubled past from his dark, subtly shaded eyes.

Conclusion

Readers who have had their fill of Medieval fantasy and would like to move on to adventures set in the historical setting that inspired JRR Tolkien and many of the fantasy authors who've followed should give Vinland Saga a try. Makoto Yukimura's combination of beautiful art and solid writing transports the reader to another time and place when men and women hardened by their harsh environment struggled to build their lives against incredible odds. The story combines elements of history and legend into an epic tale grander and more sweeping than most movies in the same genre.

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