‘England at War’ proclaims the blurb beneath a border of Viking runes. ‘The foolish King Ethelred has fled, and Askeladd’s band is one of hundreds plundering the English countryside. Yet victory brings no peace to the elderly Danish King Sweyn, who worries that his untested, sensitive son Canute will never be ready to take the throne. The king’s attempt to force his son to become a man places the young prince within the grasp of the gleeful killer Thorkell! Whoever holds Canute holds the key to the thrones of England and Denmark – and Askeladd has his own reasons for joining the fray!’
Vinland Saga’s main protagonist is sixteen-year-old Thorfinn, a young man hellbent on avenging his warrior father’s death – and on London Bridge he gets his chance to challenge the blood-crazed warrior Thorkell. Neither one walks away from the duel unscathed – although the mercurial Thorkell is left intrigued by the young warrior.
But the narrative doesn’t merely stay with the warriors, neither does it flinch from showing the horrors inflicted on the villagers and farmers. It also contrasts the lives of the women left behind in Denmark with those – especially the Christians – at the mercy of the bloodthirsty invaders. And as well as the political machinations, the ravages of the appalling winter weather play their part in affecting the way events unfold.
Thorfinn’s story takes a strange and fateful turn when Askeladd takes on the task of escorting Prince Canute. The young heir is the same age as Thorfinn, but, with his delicate air and pretty face, doesn’t impress the Vikings, especially not Thorfinn who is deputed to protect him. Taking an evasive route by land through Wales, they meet with the Welsh legate, Captain Gratianus, and glimpse something of the legacy of the long-departed Romans in the Welsh soldiers’ uniforms and their belief that the legendary warlord Artorius – King Arthur – will return one day to save the country.
With Grimdark and gritty being the current flavour of most offerings historical and historical-fantastical (see Game of Thrones) and a major exhibition about the Vikings at the British Museum, Yukimura’s Vinland Saga makes a very timely appearance in our bookshops. And Yukimura doesn’t hold back in depicting the savagery and brutality of the Norse invaders as they mercilessly pursue their goals. One fascinating character, among many, is Father Willibald, the traumatized monk who doesn’t make much sense except when plied with copious amounts of ale. What do his strange outbursts mean? He amuses his captors…but is there more to what he says than the ramblings of a drunkard?
There’s something more than a little surreal about reading a manga set in our own country in the Dark Ages. Those maps…those familiar place names: Marlborough; Gainsborough; Bath… But the mangaka has done his research extremely thoroughly and brings this blood-soaked and turbulent time of change in our history to life convincingly. His artwork is not pretty – and he doesn’t flinch from depicting the horrors of battle as well as the incongruities in moments of black humour. This is further illustrated by the inclusion of the second part of another historical bonus manga For Our End is Near which tells – very realistically- of the last days of Sohji Okita, the onetime demon swordsman of the Shinsengumi. (Any reader looking to find the romantic bishonen portrayed in Hakuoki or Nanae Chrono’s Peacemaker will inevitably be disappointed by this version which brings a quietly stoical and elegiac quality to what looks like an historically accurate portrayal.)
This handsome hardback volume (with colour plates!) contains Volumes 3 and 4 (2006-7) of the original Vinland Saga, as well as useful Translator’s Notes and an excellent translation by Stephen Paul.