“Summon the Shadows of Ages Past”: Negotiating The Northman’s Antimodernism
By Wilson TaylorAugust 29, 2022
This brief moment aside, Amleth, the protagonist of Eggers’s Viking epic, has committed his life not to love but to hatred — to fate and vengeance, blood and iron. In one of The Northman’s virtuosic ritual sequences, an underground session with Heimir the Fool, played by a transcendent Willem Dafoe, a boyhood Amleth vows to avenge his father should he be slain. And, after his father, King Aurvandil (a genial Ethan Hawke), is murdered by his own brother, Fjölnir (a roguish Claes Bang), who seizes the kingdom and marries the widowed Queen Gudrún (a beguiling Nicole Kidman), the hero’s arc, and the film’s, is set, as the young Amleth spurs himself to dull revenge: “I will avenge you, Father; I will save you, Mother; I will kill you, Fjölnir.”
But, of course, we’ve heard this story before — and Shakespeare did it best, even if he didn’t do it first. Adapting, in partnership with Icelandic novelist Sjón, some of the literary antecedents to Hamlet, including components of Danish writer Saxo Grammaticus’s 12th-century Gesta Danorum, Eggers’s film offers a premodern revenge tale, a studied piece of historical representation and epic tragedy, one that not only stages — but also participates in — its premodern concerns and cosmologies. Shackled by its literary citations and suffocated by self-seriousness, The Northman fabricates a simulacrum of the Nordic premodern that is rich in style but poor in spirit, haunted by Hamlet’s ghosts and with little to say about its historical period or our own.
Amleth and Olga’s encounter in the spring, then, offers a reprieve not only from the film’s spectacle of violence, but also from its stunted imagination — the rigid thread between The Northman’s opening and closing acts of king-killing. While Amleth sounds his tired beats of destiny and vengeance, Olga offers an alternative ethic to Amleth’s brutal worldview. “Could it not be,” she suggests, “that your Norns of Fate have spun another thread for you to follow?” Olga, by this point pregnant with twins (including a future “maiden king”), hopes to dissuade Amleth from his predictable quest for retribution. For a moment, the film and its hero imagine another type of journey — and another mode of representation and signification — that might evade the blood and the blade, and a finer and more interesting film flickers within the frame. Amleth even admits that he wishes to relinquish such a tedious burden, boarding a ship for the Orkney Islands, but proceeds to abandon this thought, along with his lady love, for a climactic, doubly fatal encounter with Fjölnir, in the nude, amidst the lava flows of an Icelandic volcano. It’s all a bit much.
The ambitious and imaginative Eggers cultivates entire epistemes, comprehensive discourses of being and knowing, within his films. As in The Northman, Eggers’s previous films, The Witch (2015) and The Lighthouse (2019), present their subjects without mediation or explanation. They entirely immerse audiences into totalizing, internally coherent worlds, with their own vividly rendered sensibilities and concerns. Through rigorous research and vigorous imagination, Eggers conjures the past, its terrors and thrills, its shadows and light. And this plunge into the strange, and into aesthetic and imaginative estrangement, is a core pleasure of Eggers’s art — his brazen and even bizarre summoning of an alternate or archaic mode of being, his thorough interpellation of his audience into such alien cosmologies.
Unsurprisingly, then, Eggers’s portrayals of Nordic rites and rituals are the strongest and most compelling elements of his film, when the director most indulges his instincts for the supernatural and the strange. Yet even in such expansive, imaginative moments, Eggers further tightens the film’s thematic lens on retributive violence and its cosmological significance, foreclosing other concerns or possibilities latent within the film. In one early scene, for instance, Dafoe’s hypnotic Heimir commands father and son to drink, doglike, from a bowl of broth and bones, informing Amleth that his “fate is set” and he “cannot ’scape it.” This injunction repeats in various forms throughout the film, including by Heimir’s severed head (“Alas, poor Yorick!”) and an ethereal Björk as a blind seer with shells for eyes, who further commands Amleth to follow fate and seek vengeance.
Establishing the film’s conceptual and cosmic focus, The Northman begins with an epic preamble, a prayer to warrior-god Odin, which prefaces the fatal return of King Aurvandil to his North Atlantic kingdom. Against an Icelandic volcano — imagined within the film as the “Gates of Hel” — a prophetic voice appeals to Odin to “summon the shadows of ages past, when the thread-spinning Norns ruled the fates of men” and to “hear of a prince’s vengeance quenched at the fiery Gates of Hel: a prince destined for Valhöll.” And just as the film opens in invocation, it closes in apotheosis — with the same soaring Valkyrie lifting Amleth to Valhalla, the film celebrating its own triumphalist commitment to the Nordic premodern.
But what might it mean to summon such shadows — to stage, even celebrate, the premodern within a contemporary film? In gesturing towards a premodern imaginary, Eggers participates in a powerful cultural trend, which includes his own (The Witch, The Lighthouse) as well as a slate of other recent retrospective films — including Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel (2021), David Lowery’s dark and brilliantly weird The Green Knight (2021), and even Valdimar Jóhannsson’s Lamb (2021), incidentally also co-written by Sjón. Nor is Eggers alone in his pull towards the Nordic past — consider, though, how Taika Waititi’s Thor films, with Marvel Studios, including 2022’s Thor: Love and Thunder, remix similar iconography through an exuberant register of postmodern camp, a world apart from The Northman’s self-serious and humorless slog. And unlike these other films, The Northman’s premodern aesthetic and episteme, unleavened by irony or uncertainty, collapse within our contemporary cultural, political, and cosmological landscape, offering a facile, nostalgic fantasy sapped of urgency, energy, or imagination.
For this is not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be. If the premodern haunts the consciousness of Prince Hamlet — and of Hamlet — in the form of the slain king’s ghost, The Northman wholly embraces its premodern urge. Whereas Hamlet struggles to reconcile his spectral father’s violent demands while navigating an uncertain selfhood, shorn of the sacred and steeped in guilt, within a linear, secular temporality perpetually “out of joint,” The Northman presents a premodern cosmos embroidered with the sacred, a vibrantly enchanted, fully coherent world woven with wholeness, harmony, and existential clarity. While Amleth — like his Danish predecessor — is fate- and father-bound to vengeance, Amleth rarely concerns himself with Hamlet’s all-too-modern uncertainties of mortality, will, or justice, instead bonding himself totally to a cosmic destiny. Less character than archetype, Amleth resembles a Hamlet evacuated of selfhood and interiority, a “beast cloaked in man-flesh” drained of wit, wisdom, and even words. (Much of the script, for instance, is either rendered in tedious hero-babble or in various timbres and tenors of yells, grunts, and bellows; the words “fate,” “blood,” and “kill" each appear at least twenty times.) Hamlet’s “sea of troubles” — the unsettling ethical and existential questions thrumming within the text — is uninteresting to The Northman, which suffers under an aesthetic burden that replaces Hamlet’s ambiguity with inevitability, imagination with orthodoxy, complexity with certainty.
Ultimately, the problem with The Northman lies not in its bloodiness but in its banality. (Hamlet, for all its wordiness, is an extremely bloody play.) It is a weary, stale, and flat film that refuses to challenge or cajole its viewers when it can instead bludgeon and bore them; by attempting to surpass or dismiss Hamlet, it merely drains Shakespeare’s text of its shades and saturations of meaning. Without the play’s sense of doubt or dread, and without the prince’s philosophical inclination or antic disposition — his existential depths and his rhetorical heights — The Northman offers a grotesque, conceptually stunted homage to its own premodern ethic.
Eggers’s fault, though, is less in his premodern subject than in his stance towards it. Consider, for instance, the complexity and criticality of Beowulf, which offers a curious commentary on Eggers’s premodern imaginary. (Seamus Heaney’s 2000 translation of the Old English epic informed some of Eggers and Sjón’s work with The Northman.) Inspired by Scandinavian oral tradition and composed in the same 10th century in which Eggers situates The Northman, Beowulf’s premodern elegy, with its critical interrogation of fate, heroism, and vengeance, summons a similar imaginative world as The Northman — but to divergent ends. Beowulf’s anonymous poet both conjures and critiques its masculinist hero-culture and rejects the restorative nostalgia The Northman indulges, presenting a dynamic and polyphonic premodern imaginary skeptical of its patriarchal culture and attentive to the marginalized and disempowered. And despite the poem’s various monsters, the text continually identifies human violence — and the destructive cycles of bloodshed initiated and perpetuated by vengeance — as the true threat haunting its culture and consciousness.
While The Northman seems to acknowledge such problems — King Aurvandil’s father also murdered his own uncle for the throne, and Fjölnir’s blood-begotten kingdom was conquered shortly after he seized the crown — the film is unconcerned with the implications or ethics of retributive violence. Nor does The Northman, its plot reliant on cycles of fratricide, fret about the twins growing in Olga’s womb, only one of which can claim the throne. And while The Northman concludes with the slain Amleth’s glorious ascension to Valhalla, Beowulf closes not with triumph but tragedy: the hero slain and aflame upon a pyre, his kingdom fractured and fallen, howling with the mournful wails of its people. Or consider the closing moments of Hamlet — the prince and his family dead onstage, the Danish kingdom overtaken by Fortinbras of Norway. The rest is silence.
Whereas its self-aware and critical antecedents probe some of the contradictions of their cultures and cosmologies, The Northman incuriously embraces an ethic of the Übermensch, of the blond beast: a nostalgic Wagnerian fantasy of Nordic valor, triumphalist violence, masculine vengeance, and so much sound and fury. In so doing, The Northman presents less as premodern than antimodern — as a reactionary rejection of the aesthetic and imaginative terms of modernity. Eggers’s exaltation of the Nordic premodern is, of course, shared by white supremacists, who locate in its mythos a heroic narrative of cultural tradition and societal triumph. “I’m shocked I made such a macho movie,” Eggers has shared, noting that the “rightwing misappropriation of Viking culture” nearly forced him to abandon the project.
Eggers’s apprehensions aside, in its uncritical celebration of retributive violence, patriarchal authority, and monarchical power, as well as its mystical exaltation of heroic destiny and dynastic inheritance — Amleth receives several transcendent visions of a family tree, its limbs adorned with bodies of ancestors and descendants — The Northman embraces a masculinist will to power endowed with heroic symbolism and cosmic signification. And, in brooking no distance between its camera and its character, the film itself, through its plot and theme, its sensibility and symbolism, participates in the same ethos — the triumph of blade, blood, and bloodline — as the hero and culture it celebrates. In attempting to “summon the shadows of ages past,” The Northman instead loses itself in them.
Like The Northman, Eggers’s earlier films also stage the premodern in various ways — but these American Gothics, through their self-awareness and attention to ambiguity, anxiety, and dread, present a dialectical and anxious confrontation between the modern and premodern. The Witch, for instance, reads as a damning excavation of American settler-colonialism, with the characters’ violent patriarchalism, doomed community and family, and totalizing capacity for simultaneous sin and righteousness rejecting and requiring a confrontation with Satan. And The Lighthouse, a delightfully weird piece of American absurdism, conjures a Melvillean nightmare of isolated individualism and precarious labor suffused with a symbolic imagination of Homer and Hesiod. Both films consider how the modern American project, with its catastrophic valances — its existential and eschatological intensities, its colonial and capitalist anxieties — nurtures its own destruction within itself and capsizes on the crags of the premodern.
By attending to these tensions and contradictions within our unsettled contemporary, these two films critique our troubled cultural moment — something rotten in the state of things — by revealing the dangerous myths buried beneath the treacherous landscapes of the (late) modern. Appreciative of how a modern epistemology of rationality, individuality, and historical progress quickly collapses into violence, madness, and myth, Eggers’s early films participate in a critical, dialectical project, attentive to what Adorno and Horkheimer describe in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) as the “disaster triumphant” lurking within and beneath the Enlightenment project, which persistently and violently “reverts to mythology.” While The Northman enacts and embraces this reversion to the mythic premodern, a more critical cinematic tradition stages imaginative and aesthetic gestures towards the premodern in order to articulate powerful critiques of our disjointed time.
A more fitting companion to Eggers’s dialectical project, then — and a film that helps to clarify some of the antimodern attitudes of The Northman — is Ari Aster’s sublime Midsommar (2019), which both indulges and undermines our contemporary yearning for the premodern. Also set in Scandinavia amidst a Nordic cosmological community, Aster’s film at first seems to nurture a similar antimodern longing to The Northman. If the contemporary is marred by shattered selves and splintered homes — Aster’s lurid opening sequence presents a young woman poisoning her parents and herself with carbon monoxide via the family car — the premodern expressions of the summer solstice festival, its beliefs and practices, its shared sensibility of the sacred, seem to offer a restoration of a lost wholeness, a prelapsarian unity within the self, community, and cosmos: “You will today be joined in harmony with Everything!”
As Florence Pugh’s Dani and her friends further experience the mythology and ritual of the festival, however, Aster reveals this premodern impulse to be itself monstrous, and to engender even more violence than the contemporary world they abandoned. The commune’s apparent harmony crescendoes into horror — its cosmology sustained by ritual sex, suicide, and sacrifice, its sacred texts leading to slaughter. The film closes with a blissful Dani, adorned in white and anointed with flowers, as the mythic May Queen, while her disappointing boyfriend, Christian, drugged and dressed in a bearskin, is ceremonially burned alive in a holy temple.
Our cultural nostalgia, then — our premodern yearning, our antimodern impulse, our urge towards the “shadows of ages past” — is yet another snare, another temptation lurking within our anxious and exhausted modernity. In our nostalgia we only discover further catastrophe, in our embrace of fate only bolder and bloodier myths, in our attempt to restore the past only violent destruction. To return, then, to that Icelandic spring and offer an alternate response to Olga’s hopeful question — may we spurn our fate and spin a new thread to follow, indeed. Like Hamlet, we must defy augury. The readiness is all.
Wilson Taylor is a teacher and writer interested in modern and contemporary literature and film. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island, and occasionally tweets @wilsonltaylor.
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