Leave it to Vinland Saga to once again end an episode on a cliffhanger leading up to a battle, only for that battle to end up being a rather brief and one-sided affair, providing little in the way of stylish spectacle (though that headbutt was pretty dank). But again, that’s because its priorities lie elsewhere, and it’s clear by now that the richness of this show comes from its thoughtful exploration of weighty themes and the depth of its characters, with Askeladd being the standout among an excellent cast, a character so intricately layered that we’re still learning new and vitally significant things about him this late into the game.
Before delving into his backstory, though, I would like to briefly return to the question posed in the last episode regarding the sincerity of his last words to Bjorn. Personally, I would say the last episode already pointed toward Askeladd meaning what he said, but to me his actions and overall mood in this one really seal the deal, especially when it looks like he’s going to kill Thorfinn and he says with a grim face and clear sarcasm, “This has to be my lucky fucking day” (as usual, using the manga translation; the anime subtitles weren’t as good, though they do convey sort of the same thing). Clearly, there has been a crescendo of grievances for him, with Thorfinn’s foolishness and inability to learn merely compounding a bitterness that was already present due to Bjorn’s death at his hand. And that’s fascinating; Bjorn was a consummate warrior and Viking, and after this episode Askeladd’s hatred for those is now clearer than ever. Yet Askeladd still saw him as a friend, even if he probably still despised his Viking nature. Human beings can be complicated and seemingly contradictory like that, and Askeladd in particular is as complex as they come.
His chilling revelation of the fact that he committed patricide as a child was the perfect setup for his backstory, which did a stellar job of showing us how he came to be the man he is today. The myth of an old, vanished hero returning to save his oppressed people appears in many different cultures, and to Askeladd’s enslaved and abandoned mother, it was the only light in a profoundly dark existence. The legend of Artorius and Avalon may still have a place in Askeladd’s bitter heart even today, but it’s clear he’s decided to take matters into his own hands: “Someone has to do it. A person, not a hero, and not a god.” Someone has to smite the barbarians known as Vikings and restore order to the land. That is Askeladd’s wish (along with the safety and prosperity of Wales, of course) — an end to the ugly age of the Vikings and their boundless brutality.
It’s fascinating how Askeladd had the same realization and awareness as Thors, that the warring world of the Vikings is a stark, grim and hideous place. They are great foils to one another, because despite this similar beginning, they ended up acting upon that realization in completely opposite ways. Thors chose to, as the old saying goes, be the change he wanted to see in the world. But Askeladd lacked the courage to do so, and instead simply conformed to the brutality of the world that he so despised. Instead of looking for a solution, he became a part of the problem. Instead of trying, like Thors, to change and improve things or at least himself, he ended up becoming exactly what he hated most — a cruel and ruthless Viking. And as his words to Canute show, he’s painfully aware of that, which is why Bjorn was spot-on when he said Askeladd hated even himself. He’s a miserable and tragic figure, who probably feels true redemption is beyond him at this point. He just wants to use what’s left of his sad life to help Canute cleanse this ugly world, all the while being aware that, if something like a Last Judgment were to come, he would probably be deemed too vile to live as well.
As is common in a story with this kind of depth, these new insights into his character shine a new light on past events, namely Askeladd’s fateful meeting with Thors. We can now see that it’s precisely because Askeladd gave up on finding a different and better way of life in such an ugly world — and instead allowed himself to be thoroughly tainted by said ugliness — that he was mesmerized by and filled with admiration for Thors, whose manner of living showed that it was indeed possible to be noble and compassionate amidst a cold and harsh world where violence and brutality are commonplace and indeed even exalted by their culture and civilization. This is why Askeladd asked Thors to become his leader, because a man like Thors, with a nobility and grace befitting of the legends of King Arthur which Askeladd grew up hearing about, was exactly what he would have liked to be, and the kind of man he would have wanted to serve.
But with Thors obviously not accepting the offer (which must have come as no surprise), Askeladd simply continued to go with the flow of the savage world of the Vikings, despite being uniquely awareness of its ugliness. He kept conforming and drifting in a sad and empty existence, until an opportunity to finally achieve something more appeared before him in the form of Canute. Askeladd is actually more qualified than him to be the king of Britannia, yet he’s perfectly cognizant of the fact that he is the furthest thing from a noble king at this point. He’s just another Viking, not much different from the cruel and despicable men that ravaged his homeland of Wales and ruined his mother’s life (indeed, he even physically resembles his father greatly, which must surely sting). And just about all he feels he can do at this point is serve Canute and trust that he will be able to put an end to the age of the Vikings and protect his people.
As great as the cast of Vinland Saga is, this whole arc has almost come to feel like a giant character study of Askeladd, which is just as well, because his depth is unrivaled and his story is as fascinating — and tragic — as they come. And yet, the protagonist of the Saga as a whole is still Thorfinn, so I feel sort of obligated to also comment on his side of things, especially because the anime actually added a fair amount of stuff to try to make the events in this episode more about him as well. And I have to praise the staff as well as Yukimura-sensei for having the courage to write such a foolhardy and pitiful protagonist. It’s a big risk because it can easily alienate the larger audiences that want a main character that is cool and easy to like and admire, and feel uncomfortable with protagonists that are very human and very flawed, as Thorfinn is. Askeladd is too, of course, but his cleverness and competence (at everything, including revenge) make him come off as badass instead of pathetic like Thorfinn. But Thorfinn is an interesting character in his own right and obviously a very tragic figure as well, even if some viewers are too bothered by his youthful foolishness to be empathetic towards that.
His last exchange with Askeladd in this episode, as well as his moment of anguished self-reflection at the end, were anime original material, whose inclusion I can understand and believe worked well enough. I’m not sure how effective it is to have Askeladd tell Thorfinn he has been basically manipulating him to do his dirty work for him for the past decade when Thorfinn himself has already proved to be aware of this possible perception of their relationship in the past, but the “I should thank Thors” line was a good way throw salt on Thorfinn’s deep wounds right now. It might seem like a cruel thing to say, but as usual, you can’t read things superficially with Askeladd, and I believe his intentions there were very much the same as the rest of his speech — he’s trying to teach Thorfinn a lesson about the foolishness and futility of the way he’s lived his life for the past decade and to get him to wake up and stop wasting it. Think about it, if he really wanted Thorfinn to continue to be his errand boy, he wouldn’t have told him the things he did to his face. I don’t think he means the boy harm, even if he did get fed up with him during their “duel”. More than anything, Askeladd seems disappointed that the son of Thors has become a single-minded fool utterly obsessed with and blinded by revenge. And it really is about time Thorfinn starts to reflect on that himself.