Vinland Saga and Embellishment

Vinland Saga will be available on Amazon Prime. The manga is available now.

Vinland Saga is one of those series that I’ll go to bat for without fail every time it comes up – and admittedly in a few situations where I’m the one to make it come up. Naturally, I’ve been on tenterhooks about how Wit Studio’s intense animation style and especially sense of setting will translate to their upcoming adaptation of the manga’s early volumes.

In fact, more than the harsh-but-grounded depictions of war and destitution that immediately provide it with gravity, perhaps Vinland Saga’s greatest strength as historical fiction is in its carefully-chosen boundaries with respect to what and what not to adapt from the period, which author Yukimuma Makoto uses to create a distinct but spiritually faithful envisioning of 11th-century Scandinavia and Danish England:

Geography? Pinned down pretty strictly.

Culture and society? To the point of publishing pages of notes on such minutae as coinage and banquet hall floorplans in the collected editions.

But broad-reaching events? Only broadly similar such that they concur with verified accounts.

And characters? Plenty of borrowed names and deeds, with their faithfulness measured against their proximity to the main protagonist.

From the least to to the most objective traits of the period, you can see exactly where the line of veracity gets drawn, and it’s commendable how persistently it’s adhered to. Internal consistency is crucial groundwork to a digestible story, as historical fiction can fail to engage many viewers by waffling with regards to their accuracy – The Greatest Showman’s showing-and-immediately-forgetting P.T. Barnum’s relationship with his staff, Disney’s infamously selective memory with regards to its subject matter – or by being so subservient to it that any divergences stick out more strongly – such as with many films and series “based on a true story”.  In contrast, Vinland Saga creates a reliable, defined space that still leaves just enough room for its story and characters to flourish without creating dissonance in its attitude toward recorded history.

In fact, we’re shown the very edge of the series’ willingness to put a fictitious spin on the factual about the third volume (the second volume of the English edition), as it introduces Thorkell the Tall. Based on a real man, Thorkell exists within realistic bounds, albeit barely. Befitting of his title and deeds, he’s shown around seven-and-a-half feet tall; not entirely a likely stature, but certainly not impossible. While he’s also shown doing such feats as tossing logs as javelins and breaking through wooden walls, these are almost always framed as impractical acts of intimidation, and they’re balanced by a show of real human limitations such as the crippling loss of his fingers, falling twice to simple head trauma just as readily as a man half his size, and every cut to his arm remaining visible as scars years later.

How realistic are the physical feats in Vinland Saga? Two-and-a-half-meter Thorkell, but not quite a three-meter Thorkell.

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He also punches out a horse, which is another act right at the edge of plausible.

Then the story pulls in his lineage, which is shown to matter less and less with its increasing proximity to the story’s central protagonist. His family layout is portrayed as true-to-history, but therein lies a sparse spot in the witten record, as well. It’s in this fuzzy area that Yukimura edges his way in to invent a family branch under Thorkell’s barely-recorded brother, neatly tying its protagonist into the (also fairly authentic) Jomsvikings and setting up a further clash of loyalty and obligation to surface later.

And so Vinland Saga is mainly content to rewrite characters in the existing blind spots that also facilitate the growth of Thorfinn Karlsefni, it seems.

Naturally, the main character of Thorfinn dictates where the manga will and will not engage in revisionism: he’s thrown from early on into a documented invasion campaign that the plot follows rather closely, but his status as a foot soldier lets the story dig into the specifics of things like river-based sieges and supply management without touching most aspects of the campaign. At the same time, this low-level involvement neatly sidesteps the actual Thorfinn Karlsefni’s presumed lack of any involvement in the invasions of England by taking advantage of his life being largely unrecorded before his exploratory endeavors. In fact, inventing Thorfinn’s time as a soldier out of whole cloth serves to inform and deepen the later stories that do pull from his history.

Speaking of, there’s the entire character of Askeladd, pulled from a folk hero and as such also given generally fleeting interactions with recorded events as possible (which is a similarly clean way of divorcing Thorfinn from the particulars of the 1013 campaign on England). His insertion is very careful in how it is shown to brush up against certain events (such as the death of Sweyn Forkbeard) without changing their course or directly conflicting with testimony of the time. The very existence of a semi-invented character as a buffer between Thorfinn and established events allows a dramatization that affects the main character’s arc and plays into the manga’s particular story, but doesn’t generate enough dissonance that even those familiar with Viking Age history will scrutinize overly much when the manga does give us a passing glance at historical happenings.

By defining the specific gaps that the story plays in, the audience is left with just the write hinting as to what may and may not be already written for its cast. For instance, certain traits and the background of the recently-introduced Hild mark her as a dead ringer for an existing role within The Saga of the Greenlanders, but it has yet to be seen whether these are just similarities or breadcrumbs for a later reveal. And Gudrid, with as much written about her as Thorfinn, nonetheless diverges deeply from her basis due to the manga incarnation’s proximity to Thorfinn’s campaign (which also plays fast-and-loose with Lief Erikson’s life after his initial campaign to Vinland), which further puts question on the extent to which anyone in Thorfinn’s crew will draw from history.

This all creates an intriguing space right at the edge of authenticity, where the colors with which Yukimura paints the Danish empire becoming more vivid the further he gets from definitive accounts of the time.

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…just disregard this weirdo. He’s a bit of a Frankish stereotype, and is visibly a notable outlier endemic to just the first chapter.

But while the basis for its characters makes for a fun and flexible subject to examine, the manga truly shines most in its artist’s rock-solid sense of setting. As noted above, Yukimura spends plenty of time doting on internal consistency, from the details in sets like besieged fortress towns to the placement of pieces upon a Tafl (poto-chess) board. Little terms like the Althing (an early Icelandic parliament) are brought up so naturally and passingly that they’re relegated to translator’s notes at the end of a volume, almost identically to how one would see conversational terms being rolled right over in any translated work written in modern vernacular. And there’s a keen attention to detail in garments, wood-carvings, and even the trees and fields that seems superfluous at a glance, but are applied so consistently and thoroughly that they create in Vinland Saga an abundantly clear sense of era and location.

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Up to individual blades of grass and the texture of armor, every page is lovingly adorned with detail.

Even with all its lavishing of recorded events and carefully nestling its own fiction up against them, the most lasting impression Vinland Saga leaves is still  its palpable authenticity to the period. Events take place over months, not days, people die as often of illness as of wounds, and fiefdoms are entangled in household hierarchies. Vikings are shown as often to be traders and merchants as they are warriors, pulling back over time from the fierce but ultimately deeply selective tellings of their conquests. And the story only digs itself deeper in its commitment to a multi-faceted approach to the Danish kingdom in later volumes, subjecting even the mighty Jomsvikings to the effects of such things as the politics of succession.

It belies a deeper appreciation for the period from a writer in a land about as culturally and spatially removed from it as possible, and an insistence that a concept as embedded in war-mongering as “Vikings” can be only one result of a society that contained so much more. And in valuing that, Vinland Saga takes a less common approach that results in a truly commendable story.

In parting, regardless of the quality of Wit Studio’s adaptation, I recommend Vinland Saga to the reader not only for the quality of its printing (double-width, hardcover volumes are a rarity in manga publishing), but also for having to its name one of the best-executed and more complex character arcs I’ve seen in a manga to date, which I’ll leave for them to discover as it unfolds. This is a series not nearly as widely-read as it deserves, and if any combination of Viking Age history, well-told character growth, and attention to detail pique your interest, you ought to at least check if it’s carried by your local library).

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