“. . . the monster relished his savage war
On the Danes, keeping the bloody feud
Alive, seeking no peace, offering
No truce, accepting no settlement, no price
In gold or land, and paying the living
For one crime only with another.”
Rise, agents of vengeance, and in the dark of night, we shall stoke the fires of superstition and watch as our foes despair. Steel your resolve, friends, for we follow the bloody path of revenge in Robert Eggers’ The Northman.
CONTENT WARNING: Here be spoilers.
The Northman tells a familiar story: A young Viking prince (Amleth) vows to avenge his father’s death at the hands of his uncle, an uncle who marries his mother and takes over the throne. Amleth, both hardened and deeply traumatized by grief, escapes and joins a pack of berserkers, inevitably leading him to a soothsayer who reminds him of his fate: find his mother, slay his uncle, avenge the betrayal. During his desertion of the berserker pack, he meets a captive named Olga, who follows and aids him down the path of madness and revenge. In the end, Olga is cast to the waters, and no one remains standing, as revenge usually ends in scorched earth for all. Literally, in this case, seeing as the final showdown is set in an Icelandic volcano (epic, really).
“But Cassie,” I hear you say, “why did you quote Beowulf if this is clearly a retelling of Hamlet? Even the character’s name is just Hamlet with the H at the end.”
Because, as with all of Robert Eggers’ films, there’s more to it than that.
Let’s take a step back and look at The Northman in context with his other recent films: The Witch (2015) and The Lighthouse (2019). All three of these movies tell stories of superstition and the nature of demons from different points of view. In The Witch, puritanical superstition is the underpinning on which all of the events of the movie unfold. The movie begins with the family being outcast over a religious dispute, casting a pall on the family for the remainder of the movie. Misfortune begets misfortune as the family is plagued by witches, possession, and death, but much of it is framed in a way that leaves you wondering if it was actual demons or simple bad luck perceived through the lens of a highly superstitious group of people willing to chalk things like ergot poisoning and getting lost in the woods up to witchcraft. You’re left wondering if the demons were real up until the very end, and even now, when The Witch has become one of my favorite movies and I’ve seen it several times, I can’t say for sure.
By contrast, The Lighthouse’s demons are all too real, and exist both in the mind and in the world. Here, we find two lighthouse keepers isolated on their small spit of land in the middle of an unforgiving sea. Sailors are a notoriously superstitious lot, and the lighthouse keepers are no different. Things must be done in a certain way, rituals (and lighthouses) maintained specifically, birds never meant to be killed. Time, isolation, liquor, and entirely too much…ahem…alone time (I like to say this movie’s tagline should have been “Masturbating into madness”), paired with tales of mermaids and an ominous calling to the top of the lighthouse, lead to an utter breaking with reality and teamwork. The two men try to destroy each other, psychologically (in the case of Willem Defoe’s character, Thomas, who delivers the most epic curse I’ve ever heard) and physically (in the case of Robert Pattinson’s character). Throughout the film, it’s clear that something larger is at work, something much more Lovecraftian, that sets the film as a cosmic horror character study. Contrary to The Witch, it’s not a question of whether the demons in this story are real, so much as a question of whether the ones in your head or the ones in the lighthouse will get to you first.
The Northman combines the two. The superstition grounds itself in Norse mythology and pagan beliefs, and the demons are accepted as both internal and physical beings. This acceptance of the supernatural as a part of everyday life normalizes that element of horror and allows the story to focus on the horror and tragedy of grief, of treachery, of revenge. The stories of Hamlet and Beowulf are blended together in the same way: we follow Amleth’s transformation into a Shakespearian demon of vengeance within the framework and context of mythology surrounding Beowulf. By layering the two, Amleth’s deeds are all the more impressive: fated, legendary in scale, overseen by Odin himself. Which feels weird to say, considering the movie is a violent, bloody feast of revenge porn. Hardly heroic, in the classical sense of Beowulf. Justified, to an extent, but heroic? A lot of innocent people die throughout the movie, all to slate a very specific and targeted bloodlust.
Which is why I started this article with a quote about Grendel.
Beyond retelling Hamlet in a more mythical, ordained way, The Northman twists the idea of hero around by turning our hero into the monster. While Amleth is Hamlet, and while he treks under the legacy of Beowulf, he adopts the mantle of Grendel to see the tale through. A tale of Danish princes besieged by a creature answering a wrong in the only way it knows: violence. Violence sanctioned by the gods through prophecy, never truly heroic in itself, but in the way it frees future generations of the same burden of vengeance. Amleth becomes the demon he needs to be, wielding and preying on superstition to properly terrorize his traitorous uncle before their final, prophesized confrontation.
Compared to The Witch and The Lighthouse, I found the characters in The Northman to be fairly flat; their motivations are straightforward, the psychology behind them is clear, though occasionally nuanced by both grief and trauma. The Northman is less of a character study than its predecessors, but when blending two such well-known stories like Hamlet and Beowulf, you don’t necessarily need or want that same level of depth. The scale was much bigger in terms of mythology and setting, and at that height of view, it’s less about the individuals anyway. The message and imagery of the Tree of Kings woven throughout the film underlined this idea: the legacy of one’s deeds is what matters most. This plays well to both the self-destructive, seemingly futile tragedy of Hamlet and the legendary nature of Beowulf.
And I haven’t even touched on Olga as Ophelia or Heimir as Yorick, though I fear that will have to be a discussion for another day. For now, we’ll allow The Northman his hard-fought rest in Valhalla and emerge from Cassie’s Horror Corner into the light once more.