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“You are in their world, not in ours”: How The Northman makes the Viking Age real

The Northman is a gripping revenge tale that follows Viking prince Amleth’s quest to reclaim his lost kingdom from his perfidious uncle. It’s a blood-spattered epic – 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

The Northman stars Alexander Skarsgård as Viking prince Amleth
Published: April 14, 2022 at 12:41 pm

From director Robert Eggers, The Northman is an epic, blood-splattered tale of revenge that throws viewers into the dark heart of the Vikings and their world.

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After young Prince Amleth witnesses the murder of his father, king Aurvandil, and kidnap of his mother Queen Gudrún at the hands of his uncle Fjölnir, he embarks on a quest of retribution. Spanning the 10th-century Viking world, the story follows Amleth as he vows to avenge his father, save his mother and kill his uncle.

Eggers’ tale (co-written with Icelandic author Sjón) takes its inspiration from the legend of Amleth – a story that William Shakespeare drew on when writing Hamlet – blended with elements from other Icelandic sagas and Norse myths.

We encounter seers, Valkyries, witches and monsters in an immersive vision of the Viking Age that presents fantastical elements of the Norse belief systems on their own terms.

It’s a journey that takes in a brutal berserker raid, haunting sacrificial rituals, and bone-crunching ball games, as Amleth grapples with the responsibility of fulfilling his fate.


The Northman release date

The Northman will be released in UK cinemas on Friday 15 April 2022.

American audiences will need to wait a week longer. The Northman will release in the US on Friday 22 April 2022.

The Northman trailer

The trailer for The Northman shows Amleth first as a boy witnessing his father’s murder at the hands of his uncle, then as an adult bent on revenge.

Through much of the trailer, the adult Amleth – now a formidable warrior – is heard muttering “I will will avenge you father, I will save you mother, I will kill you Fjölnir."


The Northman’s roots in real history

Dr Neil Price, professor of Archaeology at Uppsala University and one of the historical consultants on The Northman, discusses the process of recreating the Viking world on screen, and some of the historical themes that inspired the story. He was in conversation with HistoryExtra podcast editor Ellie Cawthorne

Alexander Skarsgård as Viking prince Amleth in The Northman, wearing a bearskin
The Northman sees Viking prince Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) embrace the role of berserker (Photo by Aidan Monaghan / © 2021 Focus Features, LLC)

With The Northman, director Robert Eggers said that he wanted to make “the most historically accurate and grounded Viking film of all time”. You were a historical consultant on this film. How was that experience?

It was marvellous, frankly. The Vikings have been on our screens a lot in recent years, with varied success. But Robert Eggers is a director who has become known for his attention to historical detail – not just in specifics like getting the belt buckles right, but for the atmosphere and world building of his films.

His previous films [The Witch and The Lighthouse] have been set in historical time periods about which we know an awful lot more, but the Viking Age is more than 1,000 years ago, so there's inevitably gaps in the source material.

Robert is very on board with those limitations – he understands that we can’t know every single detail. I don't think I’ve ever encountered a filmmaker so dedicated to trying to get it right. And the results are marvellous.

The Northman has an intense, immersive feel that’s distinct from any Viking film I’ve seen before. What do you think it does differently?

It tries to convey the world as the people of the Viking age saw it on their own terms and doesn't overexplain it.

As with Robert’s previous films, there are elements of what we might call the supernatural, and it's up to the viewer to decide whether they are just simply the fantasies or hallucinations of the characters, or whether it's real.

What is very clear is that for the people of the Viking Age, these things were completely real. You used the word immersive, and that's exactly what it is. You are right there in their world, not in ours.

What are the challenges of bringing the Viking world to life on screen?

The gaps in what we know – those moments when someone gives you the chance to recreate a Viking royal hall and you realise you don't know what Viking tables look like. But if we left out all of the things we’re unsure of, the actors would have been moving around in a fog.

An awful lot of what we know of Viking age clothing, for example, comes from burials. The costume team have done marvellous work. But as Robert said, it’s very possible that if a Viking-Age time traveller was to see the movie, their first question might well be: “Why is everyone dressed as dead people?” I don't think that's the case, but there's always a risk, and Robert was aware of that. There’s inevitably an element of educated guesswork involved.

More Vikings on screen

Leif Erikson in Vikings Valhalla

What happens when you come across one of those gaps in the reference material? When you realise that you don't have any evidence of what Viking tables looked like, where do you turn next?

We ask Robert to deepen the shadows! I’m joking of course, but there are very few things shown in close-up in the film that we're not reasonably sure about.

There's a lot of depth and layering that’s been done to create a kind of background authenticity which the viewer absorbs without being told about it.

For example, there's a scene in which our central character breaks into an old burial mound. All the items in that burial mound are a couple of hundred years older than everything else we see in the film.

You’re never told that explicitly, but Robert knows. That’s the kind of little detail I really enjoy.

As an academic working on this, I’ve also been made to think because of ideas coming from the production team. I was talking to costume designer Linda Muir about the scenes of ritual sacrifices. We know that the Vikings had something called blót, in which the blood of a sacrificed animal was sprinkled about with a twig. And after making all these marvellous Viking costumes, Linda pointed out that they can't have done this wearing their normal clothes – the blood would ruin them and be impossible to clean.

She had the idea that they must have had special clothes to do this ritual in – instead they wear sacrifice clothes which are stained with old blood, like a priest’s vestments. I never thought of that. And I think she's right.

It must have been really exciting, as a person who spent many years studying the Vikings, to see this world brought to life in such vivid detail?

It was amazing. It sounds a bit ridiculous, but when I visited the set in pre-production, I kept having to sit down because I was overwhelmed by the sheer scale of it. The weapons, the clothing, the jewellery – it was astonishing.

Can you see echoes of the Viking sagas reflected in the story?

I think The Northman does connect very strongly to the sagas, and Robert drew on them heavily. The idea of an inescapable fate which runs through the film is also a constant pulse through the Icelandic sagas. And many of them are about revenge – that’s something that runs very deep in this culture.

The Northman stars Alexander Skarsgård stars as Amleth and Anya Taylor-Joy as Olga
Alexander Skarsgård stars as Amleth and Anya Taylor-Joy as Olga in The Northman (Photo by Aidan Monaghan / © 2021 Focus Features, LLC)

Our central character Amleth becomes a berserker – were they real, and what do we know about their rituals?

Berserkers are figures that appear in Old Norse texts, male fighters who believe they have a shapeshifting ability and a connection with animals, usually with bears or wolves. There are descriptions of them entering an uncontrollable, berserk rage (that’s where we get the modern term “going berserk”). We’re told they fought with appalling ferocity and were used almost like Viking Age shock troops. Some early poems mention them, and there are also a number of Viking Age objects that appear to show men either dressed in wolf skins or partly transformed into animals. In later texts, they appear as stock villains.

The idea of berserkers is challenging because not all scholars believe they existed. Some see them as essentially a literary idea. Others think they were more a matter of ritual performance, a prelude to more regular battle. I think it's a bit of both – a deeply ritualised set of behaviours and performances, but also that there were actually frenzied warriors who believed themselves to be shape changers. And that's the line that is taken in the film. I think Alexander Skarsgård gives a truly terrifying performance as a berserker, and it’s shown as something that's not even admirable. This is absolute rage, it’s frightening – as it should be.

What do you hope The Northman will convey to viewers about the Viking world?

I hope that people who see the film take away an understanding that this was a world very different to our own in terms of attitudes, ideas and perceptions, but nonetheless, human. The Vikings are one of the most stereotyped cultures in world history, they are sinking under a weight of stereotypes.

Some of those stereotypes have a basis – the violence, for example, it was a violent time. But these people were not barbarians, they had sophisticated, complicated ideas. And there was beauty alongside the violence. In the end, the people of the Viking Age were individuals every bit as complicated and varied as we are. And I think that the film shows that.

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Dr Neil Price was one of the historical consultants on The Northman. He is also Professor of Archaeology at Uppsala University and the author of The Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings (Allen Lane, 2020)

Authors

Ellie CawthornePodcast editor, HistoryExtra

Ellie Cawthorne is HistoryExtra’s podcast editor. She also contributes to BBC History Magazine, runs the podcast newsletter and hosts several live and virtual BBC History Magazine events.

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