The quick explanation
The Northman falls into the “noble revenge” genre and is based on a Scandinavian legend attributed mostly to Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus and his comprehensive history of Denmark called the Gesta Danorum. The original story is historically relevant for being the source material Shakespeare adapted into Hamlet. The tale should be familiar to anyone who has seen movies like The Lion King or Gladiator. It’s a game of thrones. A king falls to a jealous brother. The hero escapes death but is exiled from their kingdom. Their time away strengthens them until the day they eventually return to overthrow the traitor. Eggers infuses this journey with equal parts realism and mythology, presenting the viewer with as much beauty as brutality. It’s a harrowing movie not really for the faint of heart or the impatient. Ultimately, Amleth’s journey of revenge gives way to his concern for the future, tied to the survival of Olga, his beloved, and their unborn children. Even though he falls in battle, he does so knowing he’s given his children an opportunity to live and thrive. For someone who spent so much of their life without love, without hope, he’s content to sacrifice himself now that his heart is full. It’s a far better reason than simple vengeance.
- Alexander Skarsgård – Amleth
- Oscar Novak – Young Amleth
- Anya Taylor-Joy – Olga of the Birch Forest
- Claes Bang – Fjölnir the Brotherless
- Ethan Hawk – King Aurvandill War-Raven
- Nicole Kidman – Queen Gudrún
- Gustav Lindh – Thorir
- Elliot Rose – Gunnar
- Willem Dafoe – Heimir
- Björk – Seeress
- Ingvar Eggert Siguròsson – He-witch
- Hafpór Júlíus Björnsson – Thorfinnr Tooth-Gnasher
- Robert Eggers – Director, Writer
- Sjón – Writer
Why it’s called The Northman
The movie is based on the Scandinavian legend of Amleth. While The Northman does deviate greatly from the source material, one of the main things unchanged is the name of the hero. So it seems reasonable to think the movie could have simply been called Amleth. But maybe they wanted to avoid people accusing it of being a copy of Hamlet? The irony being Hamlet is based on the original legend of Amleth.
There’s an argument to be made that writer/director Robert Eggers is cultivating a distinct filmography and wants to keep the movies fitting an aesthetic: The Witch (2015), The Lighthouse (2019), The Northman (2022). If he keeps to this naming convention, it will, overtime, evolve into a kind of branding and ownership of what’s a pretty classical naming structure: “The Something.” The Artist, The Birds, The Departed, The Godfather, The Terminator. If that’s the case, you wouldn’t call the movie The Amleth. That wouldn’t mean anything to anyone. You’d want to abstract the story a bit and give more of a sense of setting. Similar to how The Lion King sets expectations for lions and Africa and animals. The story of Amleth takes place in Norway and Iceland. Scandinavia. And it’s common to call people from that area Northmen. There’s a sense of roots and origin. And very much lets you know the setting.
But I think the biggest factor in the title is that it’s mythologizing. When you abstract someone or something, it builds up the sense of legend and elevates someone beyond just their identity. For example, if you were going to make a movie about George Washington, you could call it, George, or you could call it, The First President. You can feel the difference in energy, right? George is far more personal and familiar. It feels like you’re going to get to know the man himself. And maybe even like him! While The First President is heavy with responsibility. It emphasizes the founding of a government. The politics of leading.
You see a similar thing with The Natural, a baseball movie steeped in mythology. It’s all about building this legend of Roy Hobbs, the elder baseball player who is talented beyond anything anyone has ever seen. Culminating with a home run that shatters the stadium lights and rains down sparks and is full of slo-mo and awe. So opting to call this The Northman indicates a sense of mythology. Something that’s very much reinforced within the story as Eggers treats the viewer to a lot of magical stuff dealing with legacy and lineage and wizards and witches and spirits and gods. This culminates with the final fight between Amleth and his uncle, Fjölnir. The whole fight lights the two warriors in such a way that they lose all distinguishing features. They’re shadows amidst the lava and ash of a volcano. They look less like Amleth and Fjölnir and more like anonymous gods locked in an eternal battle. It’s cinematic mythologizing and it’s amazing.
So I think that sense of mythology influenced the title just as much as it influenced the filmmaking and story.
The Northman‘s themes and meaning
A lot’s revealed when you look at Amleth’s character arc. He goes from seeking revenge for the slaying of his father to wanting to protect his children. The mission is the same either way—do away with Fjölnir—but the reason shifts. When it’s purely for revenge, Amleth is nothing more than a son burdened by responsibility to his parents. Because he’s so determined to avenge his father and rescue his mother, he spends a majority of his life in battle. He seeks strength. His life is defined by anger and rage. And it makes sense when we first see the adult version of Amleth, it leads into a village raid that’s absolutely barbaric. And he leads the way. Merciless. Terrifying. He’s death incarnate.
That begins to shift once he meets Olga. He’s drawn to her. Connects with her. Confides in her. His stone heart softens. Eventually, they fall in love. Their coming together coincides with Amleth’s reunion with his mother. The Son finally is on the brink of redemption. You can imagine him imagining his mother’s joyful response, her love, her thanks, her validation of Amleth as a good son. Except that’s not what happens. She laughs at him. She tells him his father was a monster, that he’s the product of his father’s lust, not love, and that it was she who begged Fjölnir to do away with both Amleth’s father and Amleth. In that moment, Amleth the Son vanishes. That creates space for Amleth to create a new identity: husband. He doubles down on his affection for Olga and decides to forgo his revenge to build a new life with her. It’s a shift from the past to the future.
Until Olga tells him she’s pregnant. At that moment, Amleth understands that to protect his children he must end the cycle of pain between him and his uncle. Fjölnor takes out Amleth’s father, Amleth kills Fjölnir’s son, Thorir. Now Fjölnir will look to find Amleth and hurt him, Olga, and any children. There’s no ceasefire. There’s no peace. It’s eye for an eye until all the eyes are closed. That’s why Amleth returns to Fjölnir’s place and cuts down his mom, his half-brother, and, eventually, at the Gates of Hel, Fjölnir himself. Even at the cost of his own life.
When Amleth was merely after revenge, revenge was a burdensome thing that devolved Amleth into nothing more than a beast. He was a dog of war. And the people he was trying to avenge weren’t necessarily deserving of it. Amleth’s father may have been a good father but he was an awful person. And Amleth’s mother was foul and heartless herself. What did Amleth really owe them? This is an incredibly relevant question as many of us grapple with the tension between living our own lives and feeling a sense of duty to family, especially parents. Oftentimes, we alter or limit our lives just to please our parents or because we fear upsetting them. That’s not to say parents always burden their children or that there aren’t appropriate ways in which we can honor our parents. Of course there’s good. But if you let your parents define who you are, it can be prohibitive. You may never pursue the things in life you truly wish to pursue.
Once Amleth finally moves past what he thinks he owes his parents and looks instead to his own interests, he’s much more human. That violence and ugliness turns to tenderness and selflessness. The idea of creating a family elevates, motivates, and empowers. You imagine if he had never met Olga and merely sought vengeance, then that final battle with Fjölnir would have been almost empty of meaning. To the point where it’s likely Amleth would have been more willing to fall to Fjölnir’s blade. Instead, when he’s injured and down, he amps himself back up and has a second wind that leads to victory. And when he falls to his wounds and waits for the Valkyrie to take him away, there’s a sense of fulfillment. Because Amleth knows he did something for the future. That’s why he has a vision of Olga and their children. It’s not his father saying, “Good job, son! Thanks for that.” It’s his would-be wife and their progeny and the idea of his lineage moving on through time that allows Amleth to enter into Valhalla with a sense of satisfaction with his life.
In summary, I think The Northman ends up, first and foremost, concerned with past versus future. And in Amleth we find evidence of how the past can burden a spirit while the future can elevate it. And that the why of what we do is more important than what we do. Because it’s the why that defines us, not the what. And when you find the why that’s right to you, that makes you a better person, then whatever happens next is okay.
Secondary themes and meanings
Fate is certainly a major plot point in Northman and definitely has thematic weight. Early on, during the father-son ritual with Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe, and young Amleth, Heimir tells Amleth, “Now live always without fear, for your fate is set and you cannot escape it.” Specifically, at this time, Amleth’s swearing an oath to avenge his father. And a few minutes later, Fjölnir strikes, ending King Aurvandill’s life. This sets the course of Amleth’s life. Amleth had pledged, “My blade will not rest til it’s drunk the blood from his open neck!” The “his” referring to Aurvandill’s executioner.
Sure enough, Amleth’s life carries all the way to the confrontation with Fjölnir, a confrontation that ends with Amleth’s sword opening Fjölnir’s neck. So we have the initial scene that vaguely sets the course for Amleth. Then the mid-story scene with the seer who tells Amleth exactly how to find his uncle and where they will battle and that Amleth won’t survive the battle. She even says, “You cannot escape what fate the Norns have spun,” then disappears. The Norns are the Norse mythology’s deities of destiny. They’re usually depicted as weaving fate with thread and creating a tapestry.
And when Amleth is captured and imprisoned by his uncle, how does he escape? Ravens. A swarm of ravens chew his bonds and free him. This is also a Norse mythology thing. Odin, the main god of gods in that world, had ravens that acted as his messengers and scouts. Odin even has the nickname of “The Raven God”. So when we see these ravens helping Amleth, it’s essentially the gods helping Amleth to ensure his destiny goes according to plan. He even says to his uncle, “Even if you were to strike me with your sword, it would not bite. It’s not my time.” And he’s right.
It can feel like Amleth’s journey is kind of meaningless then. What say does he have in any of this? Is it what he wants or is it just fate? Is free will present? Does it matter? I think this dovetails nicely with what we talked about with the primary themes. When Amleth’s given over to his fate, to the idea of fulfilling a duty of vengeance, he’s pretty empty. But after Olga reveals her pregnancy, he’s no longer a pawn at the mercy of fate’s hand. He’s made a choice to confront his uncle. A choice that will ensure a future for Olga and their kids. In that moment, free will and destiny entwine and become something altogether different. A thing I don’t even have a word for.
But it gets back to everything I said before about the why. When you’re just looking at the what, it can be uninspiring. Empty. But as soon as there’s a why that’s meaningful and you’re invested in, the what becomes less of a big deal. Amleth would do anything he needed to do to protect his family. He’d pay whatever price. Even if it makes him a monster. Matricide. Fratricide. Parricide.
For you and me, I think it’s important to discover our whys. Even if we know what fate awaits us all, if we have a why, there’s something meaningful to be found. Whether that’s your family, your calling, whatever.
The ending of The Northman explained
So we’ve talked about how Amleth decides to forgo vengeance in order to sail to Orkney and begin a life with Olga. Until he finds out Olga’s pregnant. Amleth already knew Fjölnir, Gudrún, and, eventually, Gunnar, would seek their own vengeance against Amleth for Thorir’s demise. It’s just what people back then did. Swore revenge and went about getting it. To protect Olga and the kids, he goes back to Fjölnir’s and vanquishes everyone. We get the climactic battle on the “lake of fire” at the Gates of Hel just like the Seeress said. Amleth lops off his uncle’s head, but he also sustains mortal wounds. He lies on the ground and sees some things before passing.
In the themes section, we discussed the importance of Amleth’s choice and the character development and growth it shows. So in this section we’re going to focus specifically on his final two visions.
The first is a vision of Olga telling him the thread that binds them can never break and that she and the children are safe. It’s unclear whether this is an actual vision, whether from Olga or the gods, or simply a hallucination/wishful thinking. Given the amount of fantastic events in this movie, it’s likely intended as real. This is, afterall, mythology. We’re not supposed to doubt the legitimacy of the fantastic. Rather, we’re to buy-in on the grandness of it all. Add to it that Olga is a self-proclaimed sorceress rather than your average Birch Forest lass and it seems within her powers to send a vision to Amleth. It gives the viewer some closure in terms of “We just left her on a boat with a bunch of strange men. Will she be okay?” It seems that, yes, she’s fine. And that lines up with what the Seeress said earlier about Amleth’s daughter becoming a Maiden-King. And it also gives Amleth closure. He did a good thing. For once in his miserable life. He helped rather than simply hurt.
The second vision is the gates of Valhalla opening up and a valkyrie riding out to him. We see the gate and valkyrie. Then cut back to Amleth and there’s the light of Valhalla in his iris. Then he stops breathing. And we cut to the valkyrie returning to the gate, carrying Amleth’s body. In Norse mythology, Valhalla is heaven. It’s the home of Odin and other gods. For northern warriors, Valhalla was the it place to be. And the only way to get there was to die in battle. You couldn’t just live to old age, pass peacefully in your sleep, and wake up in Valhalla. You had to go out a warrior. Death in battle was something Amleth was pretty adamant about throughout the movie. So not only does he get the Earthly satisfaction of protecting his family, he gets the Eternal satisfaction of joining Odin and other warriors in Valhalla.
In its own weird way, it’s a pretty happy ending. Amleth’s life was full of misery. But it ended about as wonderfully as it could. Got closure with the whole uncle thing and avenging his father. Found love. Made love. Knew he would have kids. And goes to Valhalla. I think if you’d ask him to write his own demise, this is exactly what he’d envision.
About Olga. She ends up in Orkney, part of the Northern Isles of Scotland. So out of Iceland and Scandinavia altogether. You imagine she’ll find Amleth’s relatives, show them proof of her relations via the necklace and ring he leaves behind, and settle there. And something will lead to their daughter becoming not just royalty but a king herself.
In the original story, Amleth goes from Denmark to Britain and marries the daughter of the British king. Ends up also marrying a Scottish queen. And returns to Denmark with his two wives. But he falls in battle to this guy Wiglek who is the new king of Norway. But Wiglek’s child with Amleth’s first wife is named Wermund and Wermund kicks off the dynasty of Mercia.
Doing the research, I did a bit of a double take. Because it’s not even Amleth’s children who start this royal lineage. It’s the kid of the guy who defeats Amleth and marries Amleth’s wife. But it seems Eggers decided that was too complicated and simplified things by turning the whole “Kings of Mercia” detail into the “Maiden-King” prophecy and attaching it directly to Amleth. Which I think is, narratively, the right call. And would explain the importance of having Olga end up in a more Anglo-Saxon location. It’s a nod to Mercia, which was located in central England. You can imagine how their daughter would go from Ireland to England to having royal importance.
Timeline of events
- PRIOR TO THE MOVIE
- Aurvandill’s grandfather overthrows his uncle and becomes king of Hrafnsey
- Aurvandil’s father’s born.
- Aurvandil’s born. Gudrún’s born.
- Aurvandil ends up with slaves, one of which is Gudrún. They have relations, as Aurvandil does with many others. But Gudrún becomes pregnant and bears a son, Amleth, so Aurvandil marries her.
- Between Amleth’s birth and the beginning of the movie, Gudrún and Fjölnir fall in love. Eventually, Gudrún convinces Fjölnir to take the throne from Aurvandil.
- THE MOVIE BEGINS
- Aurvandil returns home. Does the ceremony with Amleth. Then Fjölnir strikes. Amleth survives but declares vengeance on his uncle and pledges to save his mother.
- Amleth ages into a warrior, a berserker with a band of Vikings that pillages for a living.
- Olga is born in the Slavic region but ends up in Iceland.
- Fjölnir loses Hrafnsey to Harald of Norway and flees to a smaller island where he and his family act as lords.
- Adult Amleth encounters the Seeress who provides information on how to find Fjölnir, saying she’s facilitating the birth of the Maiden-King.
- Amleth meets Olga.
- The two end up as slaves to Fjölnir without the uncle recognizing his nephew.
- Olga, various mystical figures, and even the god Odin assist Amleth’s journey.
- Amleth and Olga fall in love. They become pregnant.
- Amleth reveals his identity to Gudrún and learns the truth about his parents.
- Amleth has the opportunity to run away with Olga and escape his fate.
- Amleth discovers Olga’s pregnant and vows to protect their children by defeating Fjölnir.
- Despite Olga’s pleas, Amleth goes off to fight his uncle.
- He defeats his mother, his half-brother, then his uncle. But receives fatal wounds in the process.
- Before his death, he’s comforted by a vision of Olga. After his death, a valkyrie carries his spirit to Valhalla.
- AFTER THE MOVIE
- Olga gives birth to a son and daughter. The daughter grows into the aforementioned Maiden-King.
The original story of Amleth
The Saxo Grammaticus version of Amleth’s story, Lift of Amleth, is a bit wild. It starts in Jutland, which is the largest part of Denmark. Still “Northman” territory but not Iceland. Amleth’s dad, Horvendill, isn’t king but co-governor with Amleth’s uncle. The dad just goes around pillaging and plundering. The actual king of Denmark, Rørik Slyngebond, is so happy with Horvendill’s work that he marries his daughter, Gerutha, to Horvendill as a thank you. That’s Amleth’s mom. The two don’t get along. And the uncle, Feng, decides he loves Gerutha so smites Horvendill to save her. Amleth, to save his own life, acts mentally impaired. Feng thinks Amleth’s faking it so keeps testing Amleth. Eventually, Feng gets the proof he needs and tries to set Amleth up by sending him to Britain with a note to the king, a note that essentially says, “Get rid of this kid for me.” But Amleth changes the letter so it says, “Get rid of the attendants with this kid. Oh yeah, and marry the kid to your daughter.” And the king does it!
So Amleth marries the princess of Britain then heads back to Denmark to confront his uncle. The surprise being Feng thought Amleth was dead. So Amleth shows back up during a celebration of his death and essentially Red Weddings the whole thing by getting everyone drunk then setting fire to the room. Takes out his uncle, too. Now Amleth is the ruler of Jutland.
A triumphant Amleth now goes all the way back to Britain to collect his wife. Surprise, surprise. The king of Britain had a vengeance-pact with Amleth’s uncle. Which is a pretty incredible thing to have with someone. So Amleth’s father-in-law has to slay Amleth or be an oath-breaker. To get around the messiness of that, the king decides to be clever and asks Amleth to go to Scotland as a love messenger to the queen, Hermuthruda. By love messenger I mean he was to try and convince Hermuthruda to marry someone. I guess the king of Britain? What Amleth didn’t know is that he wasn’t the first love messenger. It turns out Hermuthruda didn’t like love messengers and would straight up murder them. So the English king is doing the same trick that Feng tried to do. And Amleth survives again. Hermuthruda falls in love with him. So now he has two wives. Who get along. But father-in-law decides to go through with the vengeance pact and tries to fight Amleth. But Amleth wins.
So we’ve already deviated quite a bit from what we see in The Northman. The early parts of the story are pretty similar. But everything else is pretty different. What’s kind of crazy is Amleth’s story doesn’t end with the defeat of the British king. It continues with Amleth returning to Jutland with his two wives. But there’s another enemy. Wiglek. So apparently Rørik passes away and Wiglek is the successor and new king of Denmark even though Amleth’s the ruler of Denmark’s largest land mass. These two don’t get along. Amleth thinks he can buy Wiglek off but Wiglek is one of those morality-based people and isn’t having it. He unites Denmark and raises an army against Amleth and declares war. You’d assume that history would repeat itself and Amleth would figure out a way to defeat Wiglek. But nope. Wiglek wins. Amleth becomes worm food. And Hermthruda, the Scottish queen and Amleth’s second wife, declares herself Wiglek’s prize. Imagine being down so bad that your wife leaves you for your murderer? Yeesh. Wiglek and Hermuthruda have a son they name Wermund. Wermund goes on to establish the Mercian royal family.
It’s a weird story. Amleth basically spends his life tricking people to keep them from killing him until one isn’t tricked and succeeds. The big, happy ending goes to Wiglek. Wiglek ends up the king, lives a while, has a son who creates another royal lineage? That’s pretty good.
The Northman cuts out the whole trip to Britain and Scotland thing. And the two wives. Instead, it reduces Amleth’s story to just vengeance on the uncle. Then gives Amleth a bit of Wiglek’s story with the whole Maiden-King thing, implying that movie-Amleth’s daughter will create a royal lineage. I think these are pretty good and necessary changes. If Eggers had tried to tell that original story, verbatim…it would have been a very different movie.
The Northman commonalities with Hamlet and The Lion King?
The story of Amleth was quite a popular one. But it shares some core similarities to Roman legend, specifically about how Lucius Junius Brutus helped found the Roman Republic by overthrowing his uncle, Tarquinius Superbus, the last king of Rome. That “happened” in 509 BC. While Amleth’s story dates to around the 1200s, so 1,700 years later. Maybe it really happened. Or maybe it was just a fun story that became legend. Maybe the truth is somewhere in the middle.
Somewhere along the way, Shakespeare heard the story and used it as a foundation for his play Hamlet. Just look at the character names: Amleth. Hamlet. Drop the H from Hamlet and it’s Amlet. Shakespeare, like Eggers, refined the Danish legend, removing the travel and focusing on Hamlet dealing with the death of his father at the hands of his uncle and the desire for revenge. Hamlet’s literally the prince of Denmark. And he pretends to lose his mind. And eventually avengers his father. It’s all there. Just improved by a master storyteller. You even have a character, Fortinbras, in the role of Wiglek.
And The Lion King is just “Hamlet for kids and lions.” Since Hamlet is based on Amleth, it makes sense why Eggers version, The Northman, has such similarities to these earlier works. Which is kind of interesting. The Northman feels almost derivative of a movie from 1994 and a play from 1603, but the story actually predates one by 700 years and the other by 300 some. Though, we saw how the original version of Amleth’s story is actually pretty different from what Eggers went with. Eggers still owes much to Hamlet and The Lion King—a sentence I never thought I’d write.
Why does Fjölnir want Thorir’s heart?
So Fjölnir has this whole thing where he keeps demanding Amleth give him Thorir’s heart. To the point where he misses multiple opportunities to easily rid himself of Amleth. But we’re never really told why Thorir’s heart is a big deal. I imagine it’s similar to Egyptian and Greek traditions where the deceased bring their bodies with them to the afterlife. Meaning if you remove someone’s eyes, they’d have no eyes. If you took their tongue, they’d have no tongue. So if the heart is gone, they’re not able to “live” in the afterlife. Fjölnir wouldn’t want to bury or cremate Thorir until they had the heart.
This lines up with the practice of “grave goods” in Norse burials. Essentially, if you wanted your warrior dad to have a sword in the afterlife, you’d bury them or cremate them with a sword. The Egyptians had a similar practice. Burying Pharaohs with servants, spouses, pets, gold, and more. So if they were that thoughtful in terms of superficial objects, you can imagine why Fjölnir thought the heart was so important he’d keep Amleth alive to find out where it is.
This also, I think, explains why Amleth, after the fight with the draugr, puts the chopped off head of the draugr at the butt. It’s kind of symbolic of “go to the afterlife with your head on your bum.”
Did Amleth actually fight the Draugr or not?
The sword Amleth gets is called “Draugr” but “draugr” is also the Scandinavian equivalent of a zombie. Instead of walking around, Norse draugr reside in their graves and often protect the “grave goods” buried with them. So Amleth is essentially grave robbing for the weapon.
Regarding the fight, it’s straightforward, at first. He tries to grab the sword from this corpse. But the corpse wakes up and attacks. Moonlit zombie fight unfolds. Amleth wins. Fatality. Except the camera then pans across the room and Amleth isn’t standing victorious in the light but is back before the draugr, still in the chair, holding the sword. The implication being that the fight never took place. Amleth claims the sword, the corpse crumbles, and he leaves. So the viewer is left wondering if the fight happened or not.
Given how many supernatural aspects of this movie we’re supposed to take seriously, I’d assume the answer is “yes, he did have a mind fight.” But you could also view the fight as nothing more than him coming to terms with what happens when he picks up the sword. This is his fate. He knows as soon as he gets this thing, it’s the beginning of the end of his life. Is he ready for that? Does he have the courage to walk the road that lies ahead? So the undead warrior would be his fears and doubts. Ultimately, he wins. Deciding for himself he’s ready to move forward. So he takes the sword and begins the next phase of operation: Hello Mama, Bye Bye Uncle.
So it’s either an actual physical hurdle or a mental hurdle. Either way, it’s a “fight” he had to and does overcome.
If you have more questions or anything you’d like to discuss, leave a comment! Thanks for reading.