The Northman’s Surprising Twist on Male Heroism

How the brutal Viking blockbuster uses a millennia-old tale to undermine the toxic masculinity of myth.

Alexander Skarsgård as a warrior in "The Northman"
Aidan Monaghan / Focus Features; Charlie Le Maignan / The Atlantic

In the director Robert Eggers’s brutal $90 million Viking epic, a prince seeks revenge on the uncle who killed his father and married his mother. If the plot sounds familiar, it’s because the Scandinavian source material of the legend of Prince Amleth was also the inspiration for Hamlet. And like so much of Shakespeare’s work, the story has been told and retold across centuries. The iteration in The Northman achieves a kind of feral animal violence exceeding even the version starring lions. It’s also a film that uses that mythmaking in unexpected ways.

Like in his prior films The Witch and The Lighthouse, Eggers marries bleak historical realism with matter-of-fact fantasy. Characters inhabit a world of both period-accurate hardship and mythical threat—be it witch, mermaid, or simply the divine power of Viking vengeance. This blend serves to ask the question: What happens when the heroism of legend confronts the reality of its time?

The Northman’s unsentimental portrait of Prince Amleth answers with a twist that serves to undermine the particular heroism of masculinity in all its self-righteous violence across legend.

The movie joins a minor recent trend in reevaluating medieval tales with historical context, especially those whose male point of view occludes the reality of the time. Movies like The Green Knight and The Last Duel also dissect masculine heroism to great effect, and books such as Lauren Groff’s Matrix recenter the women of the era.

Staff writers David Sims, Shirley Li, and Sophie Gilbert discuss this trend on an episode of The Atlantic’s culture podcast, The Review. (They also have a lot of fun attempting to summarize the growling, barking, farting madness that is the plot of The Northman.) Listen to their conversation here:

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The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. It contains spoilers for The Northman.

David Sims: Today we are here to talk about The Northman, the new Robert Eggers movie that opened in theaters this past weekend, the $90 million art-house Viking epic from the director of The Witch and The Lighthouse. How to describe this … our producer Kevin wrote, “Shakespeare for people who love CrossFit.” I thought that was funny.

Shirley Li: (Laughs.)

Sims: Everyone is indeed in very good shape. My takeaway from The Northman is that I would not be able to keep up with these guys. But how else do you expect to row across the North Sea? You’ve got to have a really engaged core. (Laughs.)

The Northman is based on the legend of Prince Amleth, a famous Scandinavian legend that is the loose inspiration for Hamlet. And it follows the same basic beats to the extent that our editor, Jane, when she was editing my review of the movie, noted that it sounds like Hamlet or The Lion King. And I was like, “Amleth is literally Hamlet.”

It’s about a young princeling of a Viking kingdom in the late ninth century and early tenth century. He is the son of King Aurvandil, played by Ethan Hawke. And just as Amleth is getting his rite of adulthood, his father is killed by his Uncle Fjölnir, played by the Danish actor Claes Bang. The boy flees, vowing revenge against the man who killed his father and married his mother, played by Nicole Kidman. And the film is about two hours of Amleth stewing and preparing for his glorious vengeance. Its tension is in whether he’ll be diverted from this track, or is it his ultimate destiny? He’s made himself a creature of revenge. Is he going to pull it off? And of course Willem Dafoe’s shrunken head is there. He fights the skeleton at one point.

Li: (Laughs.) I feel like we’re doing a disservice to this film even trying to describe what happens in it.

Sims: I should say: This is, like, my favorite movie of the year. I love this movie.

Li: Yes, I do too. I feel like we should just be grunting and barking to explain the film.

Sophie Gilbert: We should be drinking horse blood at the bottom of a cave. (Laughs.) I mean, this is the interesting thing: Clearly the people who made this movie are fascinated with these Viking myths, and I am interested in why. Like, what is the point of this story of ritual blood drinking, blood smearing, disempowerment, decapitation, and death for everybody?

Li: I don’t know, Sophie. Don’t you ever get the urge to be feral and earthy and magical? My interpretation is that Robert Eggers has been cooped up for a while and he got a lot of money to do what he loves doing, which is treat historical texts and myths with absolute zeal and make everything onscreen almost tangible. You can almost smell how dirty everything is, or taste the blood and the smoke in the air. It’s grimy and it’s dirty and I don’t know if there’s a point aside from the maximalism. I mean, the last movie he did was about two guys cooped up in a lighthouse, and it also blurred the lines between myth and reality. This is the space that he likes playing in.

Sims: I’ve interviewed Robert Eggers. He is the kind of guy who wants to know what kind of spoon a Viking ate soup with. He’s obsessed with the most minute detail. It would be easy to make a Viking movie with guys in big horned helmets drinking and yelling at each other. It could be Hägar the Horrible, right?

Li: Or Thor.

Sims: Right, we’ve had a lot of pseudo-Scandinavian myth in our superhero films for quite a while now. And The Northman isn’t trying to convey a nastier, grittier Viking story; it’s trying to tell these kinds of tales with a little more respect and context for the actual world that they are talking about and not just making it the cover of a heavy-metal album.

Li: Yeah, I realize we’ve been laughing about it a lot, but Eggers also takes it completely seriously.

Sims: But in a good way.

Li: Exactly.

Gilbert: Though this is not a film that contains humor.

Sims: Yeah, it’s pretty light on the laughs, which is interesting because The Lighthouse is pretty much a straightforward comedy.

Li: I find The Lighthouse hilarious.

Sims: And I don’t think that’s a mistake. It’s kind of a weird romantic comedy between those two characters. But this film is more reminiscent of his earlier film The Witch, which felt like a story a Puritan was telling me about a family that left town and got messed with by witches. It’s not a metaphor or a nightmare. There’s a witch out there in the woods. And The Northman seems to have a similar straightforwardness to it about Viking times. There are moments of fantasy where he fights a skeleton, and you’ll see it’s maybe a little inflated in Amleth’s head, but it’s a movie where magic and gritty warfare are kind of on the same playing field.

Gilbert: It is a little disconcerting to see this while we’re in the middle of this huge war for no reason in which, you know, tens of thousands of people are dying. It just feels like we really haven’t evolved.

Li: The film isn’t an overt celebration of the violence, though. It points out how stupid it is.

Gilbert: It’s just kind of matter-of-fact. Nihilistic, almost.

Sims: I would say it has a bit of a point of view. Amleth goes off and becomes Alexander Skarsgård—a dream we’ve all had—with time flashing forward to him being this super-ripped warrior raiding coasts and putting villages to the sword. And he finds out his uncle and mother are living in Iceland, no longer kings of a vast kingdom but a farm, essentially.

Gilbert: Kind of a comedown.

Sims: He’s spent his whole life plotting his glorious revenge and honing himself into a living weapon and all that. And he finally gets there and there’s a sense of, What was it all for? So now I’m going to kill a farmer? And he tries to rescue his mother and she’s like, “Your dad was annoying and I never liked him. And I totally encouraged your uncle to kill him. And I’m better off, so go away.”

Li: (Laughs.)

Sims: Like, “Thanks, not interested.” And so there’s nothing particularly powerful about what he is eventually enacting, except that he pulls it off. There is a hollowness to his fate. And I do think Eggers is interested in the push and pull between whether you have to do what you’ve spent your whole life wanting to do, or [whether you can] diverge from your path. And he comes down on the side that we’re mostly stuck on these tracks.

Gilbert: I think one of the reasons I didn’t love The Northman is I’m just exhausted with masculinity running wild right now. It’s not the same time period, but I kept thinking about it in congress with a book about medieval nuns in the 12th century, called Matrix. To me, that is the exact opposite of this movie. It’s similarly dank, chilly, and mired in mud. It’s set in England. It’s cold and freezing and gory, but it’s an island of women. The author, Lauren Groff, wrote it after Donald Trump’s election because she was exhausted by the spectacle of masculinity every day, everywhere you go.

She wanted to imagine this matriarchal community. And it’s really fascinating to think about it next to The Northman, which has these men fulfilling their manly urge to rape and pillage and conquer and stab. And then, in Matrix, you have these women thinking about how they heal. I would recommend reading it, but it did highlight for me the issues I have with the, shall we say, slightly toxic masculinity at the core of this movie.

Li: Masculinity: It’s directionless!

Gilbert: We’ve made it this far without getting into his mantra. No one has said it once. And my favorite thing about The Northman was that after I went to see it, Shirley sent me a message that was three sentences, all in caps: “I WILL AVENGE YOU FATHER. I WILL SAVE YOU MOTHER. I WILL KILL YOU FJOLNIR.” (Laughs.)

Li: It’s a great mantra, but there are limits to it. You go from being a princeling to being Alexander Skarsgård and you think it’s all you want. And then the reality hits you and you don’t know what to do, so you just start pulling pranks on this farm.

Sims: Right, the opening has this little Viking bar mitzvah with Ethan Hawke, which is a lot of fun. It’s all trippy and weird and Willem Dafoe is there. And then the end of the movie is the big showdown. But the middle of the movie is this weird, ambiguous section because Amleth does seem guided by mystical fate. He’s seeing visions of Björk telling him where to go. He fights the skeleton to claim a magic sword. And he talks to Willem Dafoe’s head, which is obviously a reference to Yorick.

But at the same time, when he’s on that farm with his uncle and he’s pretending to be an enslaved person while trying to get the lay of the land, I’m immediately just thinking, What is gained by you trashing this place? Essentially, you’re going to kill a bunch of randos. What is your purpose here in this place?

Li: Yeah, he doesn’t have direction, really. He has three things in mind, but that’s not enough. Masculinity is not enough. On that thought, should we talk more about the medieval films of the past year?

Sims: I do feel like The Green Knight and The Last Duel, even though they’re hugely different films, are both trying to recontextualize life in these worlds. They’re trying to give it a little more than just the usual costume-drama treatment. The Last Duel especially is very much about how medieval courts in France had these preening egos and how warfare, when seen from another perspective, just seems ridiculous and pointless. It’s a really good movie.

Li: I really like The Last Duel. We talked a little bit about it on an episode last year. We haven’t talked about The Green Knight, but I like all three of these films. They’re all playing in the medieval space in ways that you don’t expect.

Gilbert: I like this trend. I know I’ve been talking rather boringly about books, but what do you think is the interest driving creatives to think about the medieval era?

Li: I think there’s an interest in these time periods and genre because we’ve been living in a world where rules don’t feel like rules. And medieval times, for better or worse, functioned by rules. There was a way to be honorable and there was a way to be decent. And it was all spelled out in black and white. And there’s something appealing about playing in that world.

Gilbert: Can we talk about Nicole Kidman? Because this was a part of the movie that I genuinely loved.

Li: I mean, she’s the main twist, right? Like, past that confusing middle section, she ties everything back together because she proves that one of Amleth’s target goals was futile the whole time. She doesn’t want to be saved. I love this Kidman performance. This is the Kidman I want.

Gilbert: It’s very iconic.

Li: It is. It’s Queen Nicole doing her thing.

Gilbert: And I do love that she and Claes Bang actually seem perfectly matched as this very hot, ageless couple living on a farm, not being sad that her ex-husband and son are gone.

Sims: When we see Ethan Hawke as the king early on, we’re seeing him through the eyes of this little boy who idolizes his dad. And Ethan Hawke is fairly inherently lovable, but when Nicole Kidman gives this big monologue later in the film, it’s not hard to look at him in a different light: “Right, of course a Viking king might not have been the easiest hang in the world. Like, that guy who’s always going off and conquering other towns may in fact have been a fairly unloving husband.”

Gilbert: This was the moment I particularly appreciated, because there’s the implication that she herself was enslaved, and then she bore him a son so she became his queen. She was raped by him, this paragon of kings, as he’s held up at the beginning of the movie. And there’s been a lot of this kind of historical reevaluation in fiction, particularly as it transcribes to myth.

There have been a lot of books recently telling the story of the Trojan War from the women’s point of view, which is not one that Homer truly paid that much attention to. There’s been this sort of this trend in reimagining, say, Achilles from the point of view of the women who were raped and enslaved.

And The Northman’s take on this was not subtle. It’s not done in a lot of textual depth. But it was such a good twist. It’s a really good subversion of this otherwise very standard masculine tale.

Li: I’m not familiar with the original epic transcribed by Saxo Grammaticus in The History of the Danes, so I don’t know how accurate this adaptation is, but it is Shakespearean in its DNA.

Sims: Absolutely, though Gertrude in Hamlet is not quite so nakedly happy to be married to Claudius. She accepts it, but there’s ambiguity in Hamlet as to what the situation is there. Because obviously, you’re with Hamlet through the whole play and—God love him—he’s a bit of a nutter, to use an English-ism. It does seem like part of the thing that’s driving him crazy is that he can’t understand why his mother would put up with being married to his usurping uncle.

Li: Yeah. Nicole Kidman’s character is not a complete copy of Gertrude, and Anya Taylor-Joy’s character, Olga, is not a copy of Ophelia.

Sims: Yeah, though there’s a mirroring that does happen. And Olga is the character who offers him a path from his fate. She and Amleth fall in love and are on their way to the Orkney Islands to raise a family together. And there’s this moment where he realizes she’s pregnant and he has a vision of his children as part of this family tree he’s hallucinated before.

And he’s like, “You know what? As long as my uncle is alive, we’ll always be in danger. I got to go.” That’s his excuse. He leaves her and he goes off to fight his uncle. And, spoiler alert, they both kill each other in an epic volcano fight. But I also think he has the sort of subliminal self-awareness that he’s just like his father. He’s only good for one thing. And at the end of the movie, when he’s dead, you see him entering Valhalla on a goddamn Pegasus, and he’s so happy.

And, watching this movie, I enjoyed it the whole time, and I found myself choking up. Like, he did it! The crazy bastard did it! He got to Valhalla; he got what he wanted. And it’s kind of the only fate he could have, even if it’s entirely in his head and he’s actually just a corpse melting on a volcano.

Gilbert: He lives on in legend.

Li: I do appreciate that the film does make a point not to cast him as the hero. His mother is not happy to see him. He’s directionless. He ends up finishing his revenge and you’re like, Oh, man, this fool. If you take away from this film that he’s a hero and the idea that he’s powerful, you’re missing what the film is saying about the foolishness of this endeavor.