What is The Northman based on? For his third thriller movie, Robert Eggers goes even further back in time, for a Viking fable set a full millennium ago. Alexander Skarsgård stars in the action movie, as the aggrieved Amleth, who swears vengeance on the uncle that murdered his father to steal the throne.
Co-writers Eggers and Sjón go deep into Scandinavian myth and legend for the film, drawing from several texts. The source material The Northman is based on stretches right back into legends that inspired William Shakespeare, though the Bard’s spin on it has fewer severed heads (but only a few).
In typical fashion for the director of The Witcher and The Lighthouse, the language, backdrop, and visual tapestry are all rich in minute details to make every second vivid and engrossing. The Northman is a sum of its parts and then some – but where does it all start? What is the origin of Amleth and his quest to avenge his father and save his mother? Time to step into a longboat as we go through the waters of legend.
The Northman is the Scandinavian version of Hamlet
The Northman draws from the tale of Amleth, the precursor to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. In Shakespeare’s play, the eponymous Hamlet seeks revenge on his uncle Claudius, who murdered his father to become king of Denmark.
Versions of this story are believed to have circulated from at least the 10th century, if not before, but the earliest verifiable copies are courtesy of 12th century Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus, who included Amleth in his multi-volume manifesto on Denmark, the Gesta Denorum.
Per Grammaticus, the Viking Horvendill becomes governor of Jutland, a region in Denmark. When Horvendill is set to marry Gerutha, daughter of the king of Denmark, after a successful conquest of Norway, he’s killed by his brother Feng in a jealous rage. Feng convinces Gerutha to marry him instead. Amleth, son of Horvendill, doesn’t trust Feng, and acts like an imbecile to protect himself.
Feng doesn’t believe Amleth, and when the young prince kills a spy, he’s sent to Britain to be executed. Ever the tricky one, Amleth alters the message Feng’s men are carrying, and not only escapes death, but is given the British princess’s hand in marriage. After a time, Amleth returns to Jutland for a sham funeral in his honour, where he kills Feng, and most others.
The narrative takes a major twist here, when Amleth goes back to Britain to get his wife, and learns that Feng and the king of Britain were true bros, and bros avenge bros. Stuck in a kill or be killed situation, Amleth murders the king of Britain, and goes back to Jutland, where he eventually meets his own end on the battlefield.
Just myths: The best fantasy movies
An alternate telling exists in the text Chronicle of the Kings of Leijre, following much the same structure, except Amleth burns Feng’s servants alive instead of spiking their drinks and killing them in their sleep. They both end with Amleth’s death in conflict in Jutland.
You can find many of the trappings Shakespeare used in Hamlet strewn throughout Amleth. An unnamed step-sister used to manipulate the protagonist can be seen as a (very) rough sketch of Ophelia, Feng’s spy is close to Polonius, and the defining feature of familial revenge is prominent. Amleth is even an anagram of Hamlet – it’s all there, minus some ghostly supernatural aspects.
The Northman makes some changes to Amleth
A few specific alterations make The Northman distinct from its forebear. For a start, Amleth immediately runs away when he sees Fjolnir execute his father. There is no pretending to be stupid, he just grabs a boat and high-tails it away, promising to one day return to avenge his parents.
Another noteworthy difference is that Eggers and Sjón end the story more like Hamlet, with The Northman ending arriving after Amleth and Fjolnir’s last encounter. They duke it out at the foot of an erupting volcano, as opposed to Shakespeare’s dining hall. You’d be hard-pressed to get so much lava in the West End of Broadway, but look: the gauntlet’s been thrown now, hasn’t it?
Berserker: The best war movies
Similarly, The Northman has quite pronounced fantastical elements: the Seeress’s prophesy, Olga of the Birch Forest and her spells, and visions of Valhalla. Amleth has none, whereas Hamlet has ghosts in the opening act.
The Northman brings together the two disparate literary schools to make something that honours both. Norse mythology is clearly the primary setting and influence, while utilising Shakespeare’s sense of delivery, pacing, and structure for something that feels grand and majestic, but also very particular and human.