Is The Northman based on a true story?

‘El hombre del norte’ arrives in theaters (‘The Northman‘), the epic film by Robert Eggers (‘The Witch’, ‘The Lighthouse’), who makes his most ambitious production to date with a budget of 90 million dollars. A feature film set in the Viking Age that recounts the vendetta of a disinherited prince, played by Alexander Skarsgård. A film that, since it tells a story set in the 9th century, raises the question of whether it is based on real events.

The film has an original script written by Eggers and the Icelandic poet and novelist Sjón Sigurdsson. The plot, very briefly, narrates the revenge of the Nordic prince Amleth (Skarsgard), who wants to execute his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang), because he intrigued and killed his father, King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke), to seize his throne, as well as marrying his mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman).

Broadly speaking, it is more than evident that the first thing that comes to mind is ‘Hamlet‘, one of the most famous tragedies of William Shakespeare. Given that the protagonist of the play was a Danish (that is, Scandinavian) prince, it is logical that this proposal be seen as a Viking version of the Shakespearean classic, the source, by the way, of such emblematic titles as ‘The Lion King’ by Disney.

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However, the story of Eggers, although it closely resembles ‘Hamlet’, delves deep into Viking culture and lore. And that is where Eggers is right, because the film goes to the root of Shakespeare’s work, inspired precisely by the popular deed of Amleth, an essential figure of Scandinavian medieval legend and whose tragic epic, on a literary level, is compared to the French the Chanson de Roland or with the Spanish Cantar de mio Cid.

The legend of Amleth, although it was of oral tradition, was collected in 1200 in ‘Vita Amlethi’, by the Danish medieval historian Saxo Grammaticus, who is credited with the 16 libreos of the history of Denmark, the Gesta Danorum. Grammaticus’ version tells that Gervendill, chief of the Jutes, was succeeded by his sons Horvendill and Feng. The first managed to seize the throne of Norway after sea to his king, Koll, and marry Gerutha, daughter of the king of Selandia, with whom he had his son Amleth.

Corroded with envy, Feng murdered Horvendill and persuaded Gerutha to become his wife. After living under the yoke of his uncle and always afraid of sharing his fate with his father’s, Amleth pretended not to be in his right mind, which served to survive until Feng discovered the lie, banishing him to the Kingdom of Mercia (England), where he was to be put to death. Although, thanks to his cunning, he manages to evade the penalty and marry the monarch’s daughter, thus initiating his revenge plan.

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It is more than evident that Shakespeare’s Hamlet bears many similarities to the Amleth legend, including his name, which is an anagram. However, regarding ‘The man from the north’, Eggers differs especially in relation to the link between Amleth and his uncle, since the disinherited prince, in the film, flees to be raised among Vikings as a berserker and is not watched by his father’s brother.

Faithful portrait of Viking tradition

On the other hand, Eggers has sought to be as faithful as possible to Viking history, which has meant centering most of the plot in Iceland, where there was an important migration of Norse settlers in the 9th century. Although there is documentation on the clothing, language and uses and customs of the Vikings, it is difficult to make a perfect recreation of the time, which dates back more than a thousand years.

To fill in the gaps, the filmmaker worked with a team of historians, archaeologists and linguists specialized in Viking culture, trying to ensure that his portrayal was as faithful as possible to what was experienced at the end of the 9th century. Proof of this is that ‘El hombre del norte’ has brutal scenes, as well as having no qualms about depicting cruelty towards the enemy, with sadistic deaths and enslavement of the survivors.

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Also in terms of spirituality, because the Vikings, before the evangelization of their people, believed in multiple gods. An example of this is the character of Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), whose similarities to Shakespeare’s Ophelia are reduced by being a sorceress in the film. Of course, to the question about whether ‘The man from the north’ is an adaptation of real events, the quickest answer is no, although such are the legends and classic works that inspired the film, which could well lead to confusion.