Entertainment

How Legit Is All The Viking Stuff in 'The Northman'?

The Nordic action epic is also a crash-course in Viking history.

Focus Features
Focus Features
Focus Features

Robert Eggers’ Viking action movie The Northman is steeped in all the in-depth historical research its director and cast did to prepare themselves for making it. Eggers himself is famous for going overboard on making sure his films are accurate to a certain time-famously, while the movie was still in test screenings, one viewer claimed you’d have to have “a master’s degree in Viking history” to understand any of what happens in it. That’s not exactly true of the final product, which is a pretty straightforward revenge tale of a man who witnesses his father, a Nordic king, murdered at the hands of his brother, and vows to return to the stolen kingdom one day and avenge his father’s death, becoming a bloodthirsty berserker and traveling to Iceland along the journey.

But the movie is exceedingly accurate, from the types of dwellings various social groups lived in to the weapons they used to fight each other, the ancient rituals they’d use to pass on knowledge and commune with the gods, and the depictions of historical events and places. “Everything’s drawn from source material,” Eggers explained to Thrillist. “That’s just how I like to work.” Knowing every single bit of background information isn’t crucial to understanding and enjoying the movie, but it is fun to see just how much effort Eggers and his team put in to recreate a lost world.

Amleth

Eggers knew that the only barrier to recreating the Viking world was his sources themselves, and being aware of the historical context in which they were written: “These traditions, all the sagas and the Eddas, were written down 200 years after the Viking age or later. And we imagined that the vast majority of this stuff comes from oral tradition, but how do things change? These were written by Christians, not pagans, and some of these writers clearly seem to be idolizing a pagan past a little bit, and most of them are very suspicious of it, or a mixture of both.”

If you know even a little bit of background information about The Northman, you’ve probably heard that it’s based on the same legend that inspired Shakespeare to write Hamlet. The story of Amleth is an actual Norse folktale first written down by Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus around the year 1200, but it existed in the popular consciousness well before that. In the story, two brothers are given control of Jutland, the peninsula of Denmark, and one of them marries the Queen of Norway and has a son, named Amleth (which, hilariously, means “stupid”). The other brother jealously murders his sibling, and Amleth feigns madness to stop his uncle from killing him as well, all the while planning his revenge.

Berserkers

The most famous Viking age warriors were definitely the berserkers, Odin-worshiping fanatics who were used as shock troops during battle, going in to terrify whatever township was being invaded before the actual soldiers came in and cleaned everything up. It’s theorized that the Norse berserkers are the origin of the werewolf myth in England, as they were said to have worn bear or wolf skins during battle-“berserkr” is Old Norse for “bearskin”-though no one knows for sure if they actually did or not. (There’s plenty of medieval art to support this theory, but it also could have been inspired by overblown stories of the time.) In The Northman, Amleth and his warrior gang don wolf skins as part of a pre-battle ritual, “becoming” the animals and taking on their strength.

Tree of Kings

The characters in The Northman make a lot of references to the mythical “Tree of Kings,” a sort of metaphorical birth chart in the shape of a tree that carries the royal Norse blood in its branches. Amleth has vision-flashes of the tree, which appears as a giant cosmic entity, inconceivable in size, with the souls of his bloodline hanging from the branches like fruit. It’s never referred to as Yggdrasill, the Norse world-tree, specifically in the film, but there is a very interesting connection to be made here. Scholars studying the etymology of Yggdrasill’s name don’t all agree on what it means exactly, but it’s generally accepted that it may refer obliquely to a gallows, referencing a story in the Poetic Edda in which Odin sacrificed himself by hanging from a tree (“Ygg(r) drasill” would mean “Odin’s horse,” and the “horse,” in this context, would be the tree he hung himself on). It’s fitting, then, that the souls of the Tree of Kings hang, in the movie, as if they’re attached to its branches.

Odin (or, more accurately, Óðinn, as he’s called in the movie) is all over The Northman, from the depiction of the berserker fanatics to the ravens that gather on the roofs of Fjölnir’s houses. You even see two of them, in reference to Odin’s birds Huginn and Muninn, leading the ships back home at the beginning of the movie.

The Norns

In The Northman, a lot of the action is driven by the Norns-one Norn specifically, the feather-clad “Seeress” played by Björk. Depicted as three women, not unlike the Moirai/Fates of Roman and Greek mythology, the Nordic Norns saw and influenced the fates of humans. The Seeress in The Northman is always seen spinning a thread of wool in her fingers, symbolizing the fate, or life, of Amleth and everyone around him. Eggers noted this was one of the subjects on which some source material tends to diverge:

“I had someone read the script early on who was an amateur Viking historian, who said, ‘You talked about the Norns spinning and weaving, but they saw people’s fates in a well.’ Yeah, there are some versions that just talk about the Well of Fate, but in most versions that I’ve read the Norns are spinning. Was that always a Viking age thing? Because spinning was such an important part of the material culture. But, it could be argued that there is a classical influence [i.e. the thread-spinning Fates]. How can we know?”

Iceland

Most of the action in The Northman takes place in Iceland, which is one of the locations that was settled first by Vikings, and which is now the home of an enormous portion of Norse and Viking historic material. In the movie, Fjölnir (Claes Bang) flees there with his family, Amleth’s mother (Nicole Kidman) and his half-siblings, after the kingdom he once stole from his brother was stolen from him again. Iceland had unsettled land not owned by anyone else, so anyone driven out of the Norse lands could find a place there to build a home. Amleth is assisted in his search for revenge by a blue fox, a keystone of Icelandic folklore and undoubtedly a reference to Eggers’ co-writer Sjón, who wrote a myth-influenced book titled The Blue Fox.

The movie makes numerous references to a few other locations, using the period-accurate names of the time. When we meet back up with Amleth after he flees his uncle’s kingdom, he’s a berserker fighting in the Slavic villages of the Land of Rus’, a large territory governed by the Rus’ people, a multiethnic group composed of Norsemen and Slavic, Baltic, and Finnic tribes that is now mostly eastern Russia. Anya Taylor-Joy’s character is introduced as “Olga of the Birch Forest,” a reference to her homeland of what would become Russia, as birch trees have long been a national symbol of the country.

Amleth’s sword

According to Eggers, “all the best sagas” feature the hero collecting an ancient, famous sword from a burial site, which is exactly what Amleth does in The Northman. His vision of Heimir (Willem Dafoe), his father’s old friend, leads Amleth down into an old burial mound, where he fights an undead warrior for a sword that can only be drawn in moonlight. Amleth’s sword has more than a few parallels to Skofnung, a famous legendary sword, which mustn’t be drawn in the presence of women or in sunlight, that some sagas say was owned by Danish king Hrolfr Kraki. The sword first appears when it’s stolen from Hrolfr’s grave by Skeggi of Midfirth, as Amleth must do in the movie.

Valkyries and Valhalla

One of the coolest parts of Viking history are the Valkyries, deathless female warriors who carry the souls of brave men to Valhalla, or Valhöll as it’s stylized in the movie, as their reward for dying in battle. We see a Valkyrie twice in The Northman, once as the result of a (period-accurate!) burial ceremony for a prince that ensures his wandering soul will end up in the right place, and again at the very end of the movie, when Amleth gets his reward.

The movie’s plot leans heavily on the crucial importance of dying in battle, first emphasized by Amleth’s father, Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke), when he tries to explain why he can never settle down and live out his days in peace. Amleth takes these beliefs to heart at the end of the movie, both sacrificing himself to save his family and his bloodline while also ensuring himself a seat among the souls of all the other great warriors of legend who died violent deaths, guided into the realm of the gods by a screaming woman on a flying horse.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat.

Emma Stefansky is a staff entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @stefabsky.

Entertainment

With One Orgy, 'Queer as Folk' Sets a New TV Standard

Peacock's reboot of the gay drama is finally giving queer disabled people some of the representation they've been seeking on television.

Peacock
Peacock
Peacock

Everything is ready for the orgy. The snacks and drinks are prepared, the disco ball is hanging, and there are mechanical lifts to help people in and out of their wheelchairs. As a few guests mingle and a go-go dancer gyrates, Marvin (played by Eric Graise) rolls onto the stage in his wheelchair to act as emcee. With the help of a sign-language interpreter, he kicks things off by announcing, “I know you’re all dying to tear each other’s clothes off, or to have your attendants take them off for you.” This is no ordinary orgy; it’s “#F*CK Disabled People,” the titular orgy from Episode 4 of Queer as Folk.

The Queer as Folk reboot, released this month on Peacock, is already far more diverse than the versions of the show that came before it: more racially diverse, more body types, more genders, and multiple disabled actors in key roles. Episode 4 pushes the envelope beyond almost anything seen on network TV. It’s the kind of representation that disabled viewers-and actors-have been dreaming about, centring on a queer disabled orgy and one stunningly beautiful sex scene.

Ryan O’Connell, who both co-writes and acts in the series, recognized the reboot’s potential when it came to better representing the lives of queer disabled people like himself. Key to this was sharing the screen with multiple disabled actors, including recurring appearances by Graise. Marvin’s presence had already sold O’Connell on the show when he began meeting with series developer Stephen Dunn, who had previously directed the coming-of-age movie Closet Monster. “He was like, ‘I also want you to star in it too,’ and I was like, ‘Wait, you want two disabled people?'” says O’Connell.

O’Connell grew up enjoying the sexy, soapy escapades of the American Queer as Folk, Showtime’s five-season adaptation of the British series of the same name. Amid widespread bigotry and the AIDS epidemic, the two popular shows offered a rare picture of happy gay life. But O’Connell longed for a reflection of himself on the screen. That impulse eventually led him to create Special, the Netflix sitcom about a gay man with cerebral palsy seeking love, sex, and friendship. Queer as Folk gives him another special opportunity: to tell sexy, soapy, positive LGBTQIA+ stories with an ensemble cast wherein he wouldn’t be the only disabled character. “I was so shocked in a way that was truly depressing, but it’s so rare as disabled people that we get any kind of inclusion whatsoever, let alone that there’s two of us,” O’Connell says. “Immediately, writing for the reboot, I felt a sense of ease.”For Graise, working on a show written by O’Connell was a “dream come true.” He continues, “I’d always said there needs to be a disabled person in the writers’ room, but I had no idea how significant it would be and how much it meant to me. And even Stephen Dunn has a disabled friend who Marvin is very much inspired by.”

Marvin is outgoing, even wild in his energy. When we meet him at a bar in the first episode of the series, he acts like he owns the place, flirting and serving up wicked verbal jabs with equal ease. Before we get to know him better, O’Connell’s shy, sheltered Julian Beaumont seems to fade into the background by comparison. Initially, he serves mostly as a foil to his more outgoing older brother, Brodie (Devin Way), who, in many ways, is the chaotic core around which the rest of the ensemble orbits. During the first three episodes, the brothers, along with Brodie’s on-again, off-again lover Noah (Johnny Sibilly), convert their shared New Orleans home into the epic party house known as “Ghost Fag.” It’s Ghost Fag that attracts Marvin, in the fourth episode, with the idea of hosting a queer disabled orgy. We don’t learn as much about Marvin’s background, but it’s clear he’s made himself a cornerstone of the LGBTQIA+ community despite the everyday ableism he faces.

Beyond the surface differences, Julian and Marvin couldn’t be more divergent. In addition to their differing disabilities (Marvin, like Graise, is a double amputee), they come from disparate economic classes and have radically contrasting outlooks on life. Julian protects his vulnerability with an introverted lifestyle and a carefully cultivated routine, while Marvin hides his behind a boisterous exterior. Just like real life, not all members of a marginalized group get along, or even have very much in common.

“I don’t ever try to feel the burden of representation because there’s no point-you have to write from a place of truth,” says O’Connell, who wrote Episode 4 with Alyssa Taylor. “It was really fun creatively to have these two disabled characters who are so wildly different from each other in how they conduct themselves in their relationship to disability and to sex and all those things, but also I think in Episode 4 it was really interesting to show their commonalities.”

Peacock
Peacock
Peacock

Both Marvin and Julian get laid over the course of the episode, but even before their clothes come off, the orgy scene fills the screen with something seldom seen on TV: disabled people in all their sexual glory. The scenario was inspired by a 2015 disabled sex party co-hosted in Toronto by Andrew Gurza, the show’s disability awareness consultant. After Gurza joined QaF, he mentioned the party in the writers’ room. “Mine was a lot more tame than this should be,” Gurza recalls telling them. “I’d like this to be a lot racier.”

Gurza even appears in a sex scene during the episode. “Being together on the show was an amazing moment,” says O’Connell, who cites Gurza as one of his inspirations. “He’s so honest and demands that his voice be heard and makes no apologies for that, and I try to do the same.”

As the orgy continues, both characters hook up with sex workers. It’s clear the actors and creators wanted to affirm that sex work is work. “It’s incredibly difficult work, not only the physical labour but the emotional space you have to hold for somebody to make them feel seen and heard and not judged. It makes me happy to showcase their work in a more positive light,” O’Connell notes.

Sachin Bhatt, who plays Ali, the sex worker hired by Marvin, agrees. He adds that his role is an all-too-rare example of a Southeast Asian man being sexual on-screen. “Anyone who’s not a cisgender, white male has many more mountains to climb,” Bhatt says. “So for me it was really exciting to play this sex worker because they wouldn’t typically cast an Indian for this role.”

Peacock
Peacock
Peacock

While their relationship is transactional to begin with, Ali is respectful, playful, and caring throughout his interactions with Marvin. However, his feelings for his client intensify during Episode 4 as the pair connect alone in a room at Ghost Fag. “We bonded instantly,” Bhatt recalls of Graise. “It was very important to both of us that we get the intimacy and the vulnerability right.”

For Graise, who also appeared on Netflix’s Locke & Key, that actorly connection made the sequence what it is. “We spent a lot of time kiki’ing off-set and discussing what we wanted out of this scene for both of us. The scene wasn’t just about me. It’s also Ali exploring Marvin’s body in a way that he’s never explored with anyone before, and his insecurities and trepidations about interacting with a disabled body.”

Unlike previous interactions shown between them, Ali asks to top Marvin this time-and to interact with his body in new ways. “Can I touch your legs?” Ali asks. This was influenced by Graise’s own life, as someone he dated for three years realized he’d never touched Graise’s legs. After some tender caressing, Marvin wraps his thighs around Ali and they make love. Graise’s background as a dancer is evident in his elegant movement throughout the scene, which contrasts with some of the polished, more “Hollywood”-style sequences that appear elsewhere in the series.

“Sachin and Eric really fucking landed that plane,” O’Connell says. “It was everything I want in a sex scene, which is that it was vulnerable, it was tender, it was awkward, and it was sexy.”Beyond the new Queer As Folk, it’s rare for media to let disabled people be either queer or sexy. O’Connell cited a few other examples, such as Jillian Mercado’s role in The L Word: Generation Q or the work of playwright and actor Ryan J. Haddad, but it’s sparse overall. With one episode, Queer as Folk has set a high bar for other shows to follow, and the series as a whole demonstrates how disabled actors can portray real, complex, and flawed human beings.

“A cognitive dissonance happens when we watch things on our TV screens, where, all of a sudden, we want things to be simplified,” O’Connell says. “Isn’t it art’s job to reflect humanity accurately?

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Kit O’Connell is the Digital Editor at the Texas Observer, and lives in Austin, Texas with their spouse and two cats. Follow them @KitOConnell.

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