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From Vinland to Valhalla, From Saga to Manga

By Minjie Su

In addition to all the intriguing presentations and academic discussions, the Saga Conference is not lacking in more relaxed yet no less theme-relevant events. One of those off-venue events took place in the Nordic House (Norræna húsið), a cultural institution operated by the Nordic Council of Ministers. The event, titled ‘Valhalla and Vinland Saga: An Evening of Nordic Medieval Literature and Recent Comics’, is part of the Manga Festival in Reykjavík; it showcases of how Old Norse literature inspired mangas and animations in recent times, and how, in return, these modern recreations may shed new light on our understanding of the sagas.

The works in focus are Vinland saga, an ongoing manga series created by Makoto Yukimura, and Valhalla, a Danish comics series that can be traced back to the 1970s. Yukimura and Henning Kure, screenwriter of Valhalla, are invited as special guests, making this event truly unique and unforgettable for the manga/comics fans and the audience.

First published in 2005, Vinland saga evolves around Thorfinn Þórðarson, son of a murdered ex-warrior. Originally, Thorfinn (Þorfinnr in Old Norse) travelled to Vinland or North America in the early 11th century, in a not-so-successful attempt to establish a permanent settlement. His stories are recorded and passed down to us in Grœnlands saga (Saga of Greenland) and Eiríks saga rauða (Saga of Eirik the Red). Yukimura, however, aims to fill the gaps: he chooses to tell the part that is not unaccounted for in the sagas, for this is where the imaginative mind enjoys the greatest freedom.

One of those ‘gaps’ is Thorfinn’s motivation: why did he choose to settle in North America? Surely it would be much easier for him to explore North Europe, where he would feel more at home. Something must have happened to turn Thorfinn away from the unfamiliar but venture into the unknown.

These questions are not answered in the sagas, so Yukimura set out to find his own explanation. Thorfinn, he imagines, becomes battle-tired and feels guilty towards all those whom he has killed during all his warrior life. That is why he decides to leave Europe, for Europe is filled with great kingdoms and powerful lords – no matter where you turn, you find quarrel, strife, and war. One also needs to remember that Thorfinn’s father was a seasoned warrior who murdered other characters’ beloved and who was murdered. As a result, Thorfinn grows up in constant feud and fighting, and in the process, he not only learns how to kill but also how to forgive. To show Thorfinn’s development, Yukimura focuses on his maturation and mental development – this also fits well Thorfinn’s nickname Karlsefni, which means ‘makings of a man’. In other words, it is the journey rather than the destination that Yukimura is interested in. This is also reflected in the fact that, though the manga has been ongoing for 13 years, Thorfinn has not departed for Vinland yet; it is easy to see just how important the build-up is for the artist-interpreter.

Interestingly, the desire to fill in gaps is also behind the creation of Valhalla. Created by Henning Kure and Peter Madsen, Valhalla has been published in 15 volumes between 1997 and 2009. An animated film was made and released in 1986, which is regarded as a milestone for Scandinavian animation.

Like Yukimura, one of the goals of the creative team of Valhalla is finding motivations. Although the creators consulted the Eddas, the sagas, and archaeological evidence, they did not base their stories entirely on the sources. Rather, they borrowed lavishly from psychology and created the characters based on real people, so that the characters showed more distinctive personalities and stronger emotions.

In one of the episodes, for instance, the creators draw inspiration from Hymiskviða, which recounts Thor and Tyr’s acquisition of the giant Hymir’s cauldron and Thor’s fishing expedition for Jörmungandr, the Midgard Serpent. But why does Thor do what he does? In the version recounted in Valhalla, Thor eavesdrops on a conversation among the new einherjar and discovers, much to his dismay, that their favourite god is Tyr rather than himself. This soon leads to trouble and escalates into personal competition. Tyr challenges Thor to fish the Jörmungandr – since he has done it before, as told in the Edda, how hard can it be to do it again? Together, the gods travel to Hymir’s household. But here the story turns an unexpected and certainly untraditional turn: Valhalla’s Tyr is no Æsir but of giant blood, a fact that Tyr tries very hard to conceal both from the other gods and, more importantly, from himself – this is hinted in an earlier episode when Tyr refuses to trim his hair short, because that will reveal his pointed ears, a sign to indicate his giant lineage. As he journeys into Utgard, his repressed memory starts to wake up. Hymir, as it turns out, is Tyr’s father, who used to be very harsh with him. Unable to bear all the chaos and violence at home, the boy Tyr runs away and establishes himself as an Æsir. With Thor’s help, however, Tyr takes up the courage to face his traumatic past and learns to accept himself – after all, it is his deeds that define him, not his past. The story ends with Thor fishing up the Serpent and almost vanquishing him, but it is Tyr who gets a bigger fisher: the Midgard Serpent is in fact a metaphor for the subconscious; it represents Tyr’s repressed memory. While Thor fights against the monster, Tyr is pitched against his own demons and is eventually set free from the shackles of the past.

You can follow Minjie Su on Twitter @minjie_su 

Click here to read more articles by Minjie

Top Image: Covers of VInland Saga and Valhalla – Wikimedia Commons

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