The real Amleth: how the Viking hero of The Northman inspired Shakespeare
The Viking prince Amleth’s tale of vengeance formed a basis for Hamlet and now a feature film, The Northman. But who was Amleth and how do we know so much about him? Dr Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir uncovers the root of the story, and how The Northman thematically picks up where medieval authors left off hundreds of years ago…
Vengeance is one of the central themes in the Norse narrative tradition. Its purpose was to restore a person’s or family’s reduced honour – if an attack was not responded to, it could spell the loss of one’s place in society.
The story about the Viking prince Amleth (Amlóði in Old Norse) is one of many that centre on a character’s ruthless pursuit of vengeance despite the risks involved. The tale was likely well known in Norse culture as there are scattered allusions to it in medieval sources.
The only complete version preserved from the medieval period is one told by the Danish cleric Saxo Grammaticus in his monumental work Deeds of the Danes (Gesta Danorum), which was written in Latin in the early 13th century. This text compiles everything Saxo knew about the history of Denmark, and Scandinavia more widely, up to his day.
The Northman is a gripping revenge tale – but one with great deal of nuanced historical fact behind it. Ellie Cawthorne finds out more from Dr Neil Price, professor of archaeology and one of the film’s historical consultants | Read more
What he wrote about more recent times probably has basis in reality, but scholars agree that the first part of his work is a collection of myths and legends rather than anything resembling history. The heroes of the tales Saxo recorded in this part include the well-known warriors Ragnar Lothbrok (or Lodbrók) and Lathgertha (more commonly known as Lagertha to fans of the TV series Vikings) as well as Norse gods and mythical creatures.
- Read more | A brief history of the Vikings
How is Amleth linked to Shakespeare and Hamlet?
Saxo devotes a great deal of space to the Amleth narrative. As in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which can be traced back to this story, the young prince’s father is killed by his uncle Fengi (Claudius in Hamlet). The uncle subsequently marries his brother’s widow Queen Gerutha (Gertrude in Hamlet) while Amleth feigns madness and stays by the hearth, rolling around on the dirty floor and uttering enigmatic statements that confuse everyone.
We soon learn that his act is a ruse to fool Fengi and his courtiers into a false sense of security, and that the prince is secretly plotting to avenge the death of his father.
The rest of the story follows the power struggle between uncle and nephew. Fengi tries to get rid of Amleth by various means, but his nephew foils attempts on his life at every turn. Eventually Amleth’s opportunity for revenge arises – he gets Fengi’s courtiers drunk before slaying his uncle, burning them all inside the hall and seizing the throne.
Throughout Saxo’s story, a great deal of moral judgement is levelled at Fengi – who committed fratricide because of his jealousy towards his brother – as well as those who consort with him. Amleth delivers a long, haranguing speech to the Danes for having allowed themselves to be ruled by such an inferior king. He also complains to his mother that she stooped to marrying the man who had killed her own husband.
More like this
The real Northman: the Amleth of saga tradition
Amleth’s method of feigning madness in Saxo’s version of the story is unusual. But the tale has details and themes in common with other Norse texts. Kin-slaying, burning halls, and the young man who shamefully stays by the hearth are all found in sagas. The Icelandic Gísla saga, too, includes a scene in which the saga’s hero pretends to be a fool to escape from the enemies who hound him.
Even more widespread in Norse storytelling is the concern that people harbour a simmering plan for revenge for long periods, even years, before acting. This can either be the designated avenger himself but often, it is the chilling figure of the mother who goads a son or male relative into violence when the time is right.
In the Laxdæla saga, it falls to a mother to remind her sons of their duty to avenge their father once they are old enough, years after his killing. Saxo chose not to develop Amleth’s mother as a character and she remains silent and passive in his story. But the authors of both medieval Norse texts and The Northman explore the role that goading women lay in the cycle of bloodshed that the obligation to exact vengeance brings about.
- Read more | What was life like for Viking women?
These stories of kin-slaying, where revenge is such a central theme, reflect the Norse social structure during the Viking Age. The family was the basic social unit and there was no state or police to enforce the peace, so people were at the mercy of each other to stay alive and secure. Families formed mutual bonds through alliances and intermarriage, intended to prevent feuds. These bonds didn’t always hold, however, especially when universal emotions such as greed and jealousy – which Fjölnir is guilty of – came into play.
Amleth in The Northman
The Northman, directed by Robert Eggers and co-written by Eggers and the Icelandic author Sjón, is a spectacular feast for lovers of films and history alike. Filmed in sweeping locations, and featuring costumes and sets based on rigorous attention to historical accuracy, it tells the story of the legendary Viking prince Amleth.
In the film, Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) witnesses his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang) slay his father, the Viking king Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke). He narrowly escapes and grows up to become a Viking himself, but abandons this life to exact revenge for his father and save his mother Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman).
But Amleth discovers that his mission of vengeance is less straightforward than he thought. The film follows the obstacles he faces on his path, set against the Vikings’ distinctive worldview, ways of life and rituals.
More Vikings on screen
The Northman picks up themes where medieval authors left off hundreds of years ago, focusing on Amleth’s dogged determination to fulfil his objective and the challenges he must deal with on the way.
Rather than Saxo’s mythical-legendary world, the film is set in a recognisably 10th-century context: after his father’s murder, Amleth joins a band of Viking berserkers and goes harrying in Rus (present-day Ukraine and Russia). The fate of Gudrún and Fjölnir takes a downward turn soon after Aurvandil’s murder and, following an invasion by the Norwegian king Harald ‘Fairhair’, they must escape their kingdom, which is on an island north of Scotland. They end up in Iceland, where they live in reduced circumstances as farmers when Amleth tracks them down.
- Read more | Who are the most famous Vikings?
Saxo’s Amleth triumphantly ascends the throne after his uncle’s death and his first task is to berate his countrymen for their feebleness in failing to overthrow Fengi. But The Northman offers a more complex view on the cost of vengeance, and the film’s Amleth arrives at a crossroads where he realises that pursuing revenge will take him beyond a point of no return. His ultimate choice will engage viewers of the film just as much as those who listened to tales about Viking warriors, kings and queens hundreds of years ago.
Dr Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir is a medievalist, specialising in Old Norse history, literature and manuscripts. She is the author of Valkyrie: The Women of the Viking World (Bloomsbury, 2020), nominated for the Cundill History Prize
Enhance the festive season with a subscription to BBC History Magazine + David Mitchell's latest masterpiece UNRULY - signed and hardback!
As a print subscriber you will also get FREE access to HistoryExtra.com worth £34.99