Thoughts on Vinland Saga Season 2 (Episodes 1-11)

What would you sacrifice in order to build a utopia? Suppose an idealistic leader, in building an ideal society, breaks the tenets of said society. Do the ends justify the means? At what point does passionate idealism break down into foolishness and arrogance?

If the above questions interest you, then the struggles of King Canute in Vinland Saga season 2 will surely appeal to you as well. The following article focuses on the themes and characters in Vinland Saga’s second season. (Note: Only the first eleven episodes are covered in this discussion.) There will be plenty to say about the main character, Thorfinn, but we’ll begin by focusing on the parallel story of Canute.

Note: I will be covering episodes 12-16 in subsequent posts in the next few days.

Canute’s Gamble and The Will of The Crown

In Vinland Saga’s first season, Canute reached personal enlightenment. He decided to pursue the kingship and create a better, less cruel world. Even if innocent people have to die to achieve this dream, Canute is willing to sacrifice them for the “greater good” of a fairer world. In season two, his story continues. Things are going well for Canute in terms of securing power, armies, and territory. However, it’s not going so well for the young king’s mental state.

It was difficult enough in season one for Canute to stand back and watch his innocent body double get assassinated in his place. But the actions he must take in the second season are even worse for him. He must constantly put on an act as a proud, cold king. He must engage in wars and pillaging as part of his royal duties. He must use underhanded means to kill other contenders for the throne. Worst of all, Canute stooped to arranging his own brother’s death. Harald, his kind older brother, had always been supportive. Nevertheless, the utopia that Canute envisioned can only have one king. It cannot risk compromise with two contenders, even if they get along currently.

This is where Canut’s mind begins to break down. He starts to see and hear visions and hallucinations of his dead father Sven. Specifically, it’s his father’s disembodied head, coming back from the grave to haunt the young king. Sven proposes that “the will of the crown” is changing Canute and driving his actions. What this means is essentially that power corrupts. The immense power a king holds over a land eventually poison’s one’s mind, filling it with greed and selfish ambition. Canute’s ambition is a better world for everyone, but to an outside observer, he’s acting just like any other self-absorbed king trying to conquer and subdue.

Interestingly, though his initial reaction was one of terror, Canute is now learning to live with the haunting voice of Sven. He doesn’t seem bothered by the idea that the old, dead king might be correct. In fact, he even laughed and said that Sven was the only true company he had anymore. From this psychological ghost, there is no need to have secrets. Additionally, Sven knows the weight of the crown, since it corrupted him, too.

Canute knows his ideals are in danger the longer he holds the throne. That’s why his plan is a serious gamble. In war and conquest, a king must take risks. Some kings, like Canute, also take immense personal risks. Can Canute establish a better world before his vision is corrupted? This young king is an idealist at heart, so if he can’t live up to his own morals and dreams, he will face a personal “death” that may be more foreboding than literal death. He is nothing if not his convictions.

Thorfinn’s Journey

At the end of season 1, Canute made sure Thorfinn wouldn’t be killed, and even offered to let him stay as a guard/soldier. At the start of the second season, Thorfinn has been sold into slavery. I may be missing some information, but it seems like there is a gap in our timeline. We don’t know exactly what happened between the death of Ascheladd and the enslavement of Thorfinn. We can presume that Thorfinn refused to work with Canute, since the young king robbed him of his revenge by killing Ascheladd. We can also safely assume that Thorfinn didn’t put up a fight when he was enslaved, based on his profound emptiness and lack of affect when we see him working for Ketil.

During the first few episodes of season 2, it’s hard to know for certain what is going on with Thorfinn. He has always been quiet, but now he lacks emotion altogether, and shows no interest in life. It almost seems like he lost his memory. However, things start to make a bit more sense in season 2 episode 4, when Thorfinn allows himself to be seriously injured by Fox the mercenary. Thorfinn is essentially volunteering to die. He also says that nothing good comes of being alive.

Either Thorfinn is deeply depressed and suicidal, or he’s so apathetic that he doesn’t care to defend himself. I think it’s some of both. The young man’s emptiness, as he eventually explains to Einar, is the absence of the hatred he felt growing up, which was the fuel for his survival. Revenge was his only purpose in life. But now, he’s been robbed of revenge, and he has grown less hateful toward the memory of Ascheladd. (The older man essentially raised Thorfinn, a indirectly.) So now, Thorfinn finds himself devoid of purpose. That’s a huge part of what Thorfinn is dealing with in season 2, but it’s not the only psychological facet worth examining.

Thorfinn is also going through two additional interrelated struggles: the painful processing of his violent past and the growing guilt that comes with it. The symptoms he experiences resemble what we would call PTSD in modern times. He suffers terrible nightmares and sometimes flashbacks, too. Remembering the pain, fear, and aggression of war brings him intense mental agony. He switches between this and complete apathy, in a strange mix of emptiness and distress.

As time passes, Thorfinn grows more comfortable with peaceful life and honest hard work on Ketil’s farm. That’s when his guilt begins to surface stronger than before. Thorfinn killed a lot of people. While he was in the thick of constant battles, it didn’t bother him. But now, he is a changed man. The dramatic turning point for change was Thorfinn’s dream of the realm of warriors and his conversation with Ascheladd therein. That was such a powerful scene. Thorfinn realizes the weight of his actions with intense clarity when he reawakens. Normally, he didn’t remember his dreams, but this one stuck out. In tears, Thorfinn makes a personal commitment to change for the better.

Ketil’s Farm

There is a lot to go over with regards to Ketil and life on the farm. First of all, the system Ketil uses for some of his slaves is interesting. The slaves are given a plot of land. After clearing the trees and making a small farm, the slaves can buy their freedom by selling their produce to Ketil. It is implied that most of the slaves are able to participate in this system. The interesting thing about this is that it’s a road to freedom provided by the slave owner himself. For its time and place in history, this system would have been progressive and relatively compassionate. It goes to show that Ketil is a kind-hearted person. This is our next subject.

Ketil seems to me to be a fascinating and unusual character. Some people might regard him as a coward because he’s so gentle and is very averse to violence. I believe his compassionate nature actually makes him courageous and unique. That being said, while Ketil is bold about some of his kindness, he also keeps secrets and uses falsehoods so that others respect him. He is terrified of someone discovering that he wasn’t an impressive warrior, contrary to the rumors.

I empathized with Ketil when he struggled with the idea of punishing the children who stole from him. In the end, he had to beat the thief to keep up appearances and to prevent his brutal son from doing the job more harshly. That’s interesting enough itself, but there’s another aspect of Ketil that makes him more complex: his relationship with the slave girl, Arnheid.

Unlike most of the other slaves on the farm, Arnheid is not permitted to participate in the slave-to-free system. In other words, she’s doomed to be a slave forever. While it’s unclear if Arnheid is a straight-up sex slave, it’s certain that she has sex with Ketil as part of her duties at least. Ketil is not a rough master, and has an emotional bond with Arnheid, who seems to return the feelings. She gently encourages him, even when he cries from stress and the weight of his insecurities. That being said, Arnheid also looks “dead inside,” and she probably wishes for freedom.

It’s interesting to me that Ketil is so dependent on Arnheid for emotional support and companionship. He’s so intent on keeping her close that he won’t even consider letting her become free. This fact prompts the viewers (or at least viewers like me) to frown on Ketil. He might be progressive and kind-hearted compared to the men around him, but he’s far from morally admirable at the same time. To sum it up, Ketil is a multi-faceted character who is easy to love for some of his traits and easy to dislike for others.

Idealism and Closing Thoughts

“What do you think, Einar? Would it be possible to rid the world of war and slavery?”
~Thorfinn, Vinland Saga season 2 episode 10

Thorfinn went from being mindlessly hateful and thoughtless as a teenager in season one to being contemplative and pacifistic as an adult in season two. He wishes to never again use violence to secure his way in the world. Violent rage is not the way of his father, the way of the true warrior. Thorfinn has undergone an enormous change, and I approve of it. However, I also wonder if he has become too idealistic. He longs for a world without war and slavery. Although yearning for such a paradise is understandable, making it a reality is virtually impossible. I worry that Thorfinn will follow his idealism straight to an early grave, but that remains to be seen.

Whether or not it will be Thorfinn’s downfall, and whether or not dying for his principles would be worth it, idealism is an extremely important theme in Vinland Saga. In the first season, the wise and idealistic morals of Thors were shown in contrast to the bleakness and cruelty of the rest of the world. In season two, things are a bit different. We saw so much of peaceful life on Ketil’s farm. As he develops his morals and thinks on his previous acts of violence, Thorfinn’s idealism begins to take center stage.

That’s all well and good for Thorfinn, but how is Canute doing? The story of Canute is almost the inverse of Thorfinn’s. Growing up, Canute was sheltered and had an extremely easy and peaceful life. As a teenager, he was skittish and never even wanted to pick up a sword. However, starting the journey with Ascheladd and Thorfinn changed him. Canute became brave and determined. His goal was to make a better world, a kingdom of men who had no need for the fickle “love” of the evil Christian God. The men of this land would live based on humanism.

Ironically, in his efforts to become king and secure land and power, Canute is violating his own ideals. While Thorfinn moved from violence to peaceful wisdom, Canute moved from peace to the slow but violent decay of his lofty ideals. It’s an interesting contrast.

All the main topics I planned to mention have now been discussed. That being said, there is plenty more potential content I didn’t even touch. Vinland Saga is the kind of anime one could write about for ages. To end things for today, I would like to give one final comment. Vinland Saga season 2 just wouldn’t be the same without the wonderful character of Einar. Although I wasn’t immediately sure this character appealed to me, he very quickly proved himself. Einar is energetic, brash, and loving, with simple desires and a genuinely good heart. his friendship with Thorfinn is beautiful. I have loved seeing his character development so far, and I look forward to the continuation.

Thank you for reading~


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