Story/Art: Makoto Yukimura
Translation/Adaptation: Stephen Paul
Lettering: Scott O. Brown
What They Say
After the assassination of King Sweyn and the execution of Askeladd, Thorfinn lost the object of his vengeance, his sense of purpose, and his freedom. Now a broken young man, he labors far from the battlefield, clearing a forest for his slave master’s farm alongside the amiable Einar. But a sudden and brutal tragedy will shock Thorfinn out of his apathy, and force him to answer the question, “Do I still want to live?”
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers):
By all rights, Thorfinn should be dead. After Askeladd dies, he attacks Prince Canute, not knowing or caring whom he was lashing out at. Instead of executing him, Canute exiles the young warrior into slavery as thanks for his help in attaining the throne. Now Thorfinn clears the forest for his master to make way for fields, a hollow man with no purpose in life, no reason to keep on except out of habit. The man that killed his father, Askeladd, is dead, taking with him the only spark that sustained the boy through eleven years: vengeance. Now Thorfinn must find something else to live for, or succumb to the emptiness.
His life changes with the introduction of Einar, an English slave who hopes to buy back his freedom. The two stand on opposite ends of the spectrum: Einar nearly bursts with life and hope, while Thorfinn glides through the days. However, they form of a bond of mutual need that turns into friendship, and Thorfinn begins his journey out of darkness to a new life.
Whether or not he can win this new life is an entirely different matter, though. While the Scandinavians did allow for their slaves to buy back their freedom with the profits of their work, they looked down upon slaves as being lesser people. In a world where strength and power ruled the day, those without it were considered less than human. Even though people became slaves for different reasons—debt, abduction, defeat in war—free men and women looked at a slave’s position as his or her lot in life, the pattern of the skein woven before their birth, signaling a lack of strength, resolve, and worthiness. This attitude comes through in the actions of the Karls, the free farmers who also work the land. They bully the slaves (or Thralls, as they would have been called back then) and look at any success they achieve as a slight against the Gods, an inversion of the natural order of things.
The Karls represent a real danger to Einar and Thorfinn’s plan to buy their freedom, but other factors stand in the way as well, chief among them Thorfinn’s past. Every morning Einar wakes Thorfinn from a nightmare he can never seem to remember, but leaves him screaming and thrashing. The weight of his deeds and the dead that claw at his heels drag the young man down, and the emptiness it brings threatens to destroy him utterly.
The volume doesn’t just focus on Thorfinn, though. King Canute (no longer Prince) scythes through England, bearing the scar he earned from Thorfinn’s short sword. Since the last volume he burned away all signs of the weak-willed, sensitive boy. He stands now a dangerous, devious opponent determined to take what he feels is his.
I quite enjoyed seeing Canute and Thorfinn’s stories juxtaposed. They provide a nice balance to each other as the former rises while the latter sinks further and further into despair. I have no idea if the two will ever meet again, but considering how important a role Canute played in Thorfinn’s life, seeing it reach some sort of climax was satisfying. However, this is Thorfinn’s story, and the manga finally seems to realize that.
I mentioned in earlier reviews how Askeladd really stole the show for the first four volumes. He was so charismatic and interesting that I enjoyed reading about him far more than I did the pouty, rude, vengeance-obsessed boy who was ostensibly the protagonist. Askeladd died the previous issue (in about the coolest, most Askeladdiest way possible) and his absence frees the story to be about Thorfinn again, so is now a far more interesting character.
What’s interesting about Book Five is that it departs from the huge battles and violence that served as the hallmarks of the first four books. The story transitioned naturally and seamlessly from war to relative peace with the majority of the events taking place on the farm and dealing with life as a slave in Scandinavia. Some may miss the action and blood, but I find this part of the story just as exciting and fascinating as the previous parts. This is because the real story isn’t the war or Thorfinn’s need for vengeance. The real story is a boy growing up in this very different and fascinating time and culture. It’s a bildungsroman couched in the guise of a period piece, and both aspects work perfectly together.
Unfortunately, Vinland Saga, Book Five may be the last release we get here in the States. Kodansha Comics has “temporarily suspended” publication of Book Six with no further word as to when or even if it will be released. I hope it’s just delayed and not canceled as this is one of the best works of literature I have ever read. Right now I would place Vinland Saga right up there with Robert Graves’ I, Claudius, or Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. It’s a fantastic story that is beautifully told and I hope that I will be able to finish it. If you haven’t bought Vinland Saga yet, now’s the time. And while you’re at it, send Kodansha an email or two (polite emails!) saying how much you want to see it continued.
Content Grade: A+
Art Grade: A+
Packaging Grade: A
Text/Translation Grade: A
Age Rating: 16+
Released By: Kodansha Comics
Release Date: October 7th, 2014