Toni, Caitlin, and special guest Annie discuss the themes of nonviolence, abolition, and the search for meaning in the first of our two-part retrospective on VINLAND SAGA!
Date Recorded: September 23rd 2023
Hosts: Toni, Caitlin
Guest: Annie Phan
0:13:03 Emptiness vs meaning
0:28:08 Forgiveness vs compassion
0:39:04 Love as a form of discrimination
0:40:54 Models of leadership
0:45:32 Ideals vs material conditions
0:47:37 Thofinn’s nonviolent resistance
1:03:23 Final thoughts
TONI: Hello and welcome to Chatty AF: The Anime Feminist Podcast. My name is Toni. I’m a contributing editor at Anime Feminist. And with me are Caitlin and Annie. Did you want to introduce yourselves?
CAITLIN: Hi, I’m Caitlin. I am one of the editors at Anime Feminist, as well as a writer at Anime News Network. I am still on Twitter, the website that I continue to deadname…
CAITLIN: … as @alltsun_nodere. Same thing on Bluesky, although I haven’t fully made that transition yet. So, yeah, happy to be here.
ANNIE: Hi, I’m Annie. And I guess I’m also on Twitter—and I will continue to call it that—as @MsPhanLearns. When I’m not working in education, I am probably watching anime or reading webcomics. And I’m also happy to be here!
TONI: And we’re here today to talk about Vinland Saga, an anime that came out in spring 2023 and really just, I think, blew a lot of people away with its storytelling and with the drastic change in tone that it took from season 1 to season 2, going much more in depth into themes about enslavement, antiwar work, nonviolent resistance, and just generally how a person lives a good life. So, we’re going to be talking about all that in just a sec. This is going to be a two-part podcast. Part one is going to focus mostly on the idea of nonviolent resistance and how it shows up in Vinland Saga and in our lives. And then part two is going to be more about the abolitionist themes that it has. But for the first bit of time, we’re going to be doing a relatively spoiler-free discussion of our general impressions and feelings about the show. Caitlin, did you want to get us started with your thoughts about the show, what was your first reaction to it, season 1 and season 2, and what your relationship is to the series?
CAITLIN: I have been kind of on a journey with this show. When I watched the first episode in, what, 2019, I wasn’t— Sorry. I loved the first episode. I loved the themes that it was laying out there, the abolitionist anti-slavery themes, the emptiness of violence that Thors was feeling that he just walked away from. And then as the season went on, there was a lot of “Wow, cool violence!” that I wasn’t connecting with. I could see the thread of the narrative, but there was just so many “And now the Viking does the crazy move, and everyone in the room hoots and hollers.” So I probably would have dropped the series way before the first season ended.
And then the second season comes along, and it starts off with the protagonist, Thorfinn, really laid low, in ways that I’m not going to go into because we want to have a relatively spoiler-free discussion. But all of the violence of the first season is just gone. Thorfinn is in a completely different place. He’s not a warrior anymore. And the theme switched over to how the violence of the first season was really just leaving him spiritually impoverished and empty inside, just like the first episode. And so, then I was really into it. But the funny thing is a lot of fans of the first season— And this isn’t the people I was watching with; they were all on board for all of the themes and the character progression and all of that.
But a lot of fans of the first season were really upset, because they were like, “Where’s the cool Vikings fighting each other? Where’s the guy who throws an ax and chops off five people’s head in its trajectory?” Or whatever. I don’t remember if that’s something that actually happened. And I’m just like, “No, you fools! You don’t get it! You don’t understand! Isn’t it so nice having a series that is staunchly anti-slavery when slavery is super common in anime these days? Isn’t it so nice having something that has actual values?” And a bunch of people were like, “No. I want to see some Vikings murder each other in really cool ways.” So, that is kind of my summation of my relationship with this series. I didn’t care for it when it was really violent and gory, but it pulled me back in when it stopped being so.
TONI: Great. Annie, did you want to tell us a little bit about your relationship with the series, what was your first impression, then how did you feel as it moved on and changed?
ANNIE: I watched season 1 fairly recently, just kind of was trying to think through different ways to explore and extend my typical go-tos in terms of anime genres, and I was wanting to dig a little bit more into the seinen category and looking at anime that’s more marketed towards young men—in Japan, at least. And so, Vinland Saga kind of came across my way as something that people said is part of the big three, with… I think it’s Vagabond and Berserk, but people said that Vinland Saga, even out of those three, distinguished itself with this anti-violence message. So I thought I’d give it a shot. I really enjoyed season 1. I love a battle shounen, and I really feel like season 1 was much more of a battle shounen. And part of it is like I enjoy really good fight choreography. I really liked how, with season 1 of Vinland Saga, the violence was certainly gratuitous but it also felt like it was situated in a larger cultural context. I think Yukimura-sensei does a really great job using this idea of Viking-era Europe as an allegory for universal themes around violence.
But that said, I was also really looking forward to see how the tone would shift because everyone was like, “Oh, my gosh, Farmland Saga,” you know, looking online. The farmland arc is incredibly different. A lot of people are gonna drop off, a lot of people are gonna hate it, but it’s just so good. So, for me, season 2 was definitely a tonal shift and I was excited but also like “Huh!” It is so drastically different that I was definitely curious about how it would pay off, and by the time you get to the latter half of season 2, I just think it’s incredible and I totally see how it’s set up by the gratuitous and unending violence of season 1. I think by the time you get to key pivotal moments in season 2, you have a broader understanding, I think, of what violence is beyond physical violence and warfare, which I think is really fascinating. So, yeah, that’s pretty much how I’m oriented to it. I think about it all the time. I miss Askeladd, but season 2 has been lovely.
TONI: I think I had a similar reaction more to Caitlin, partly just because I don’t like, very much, battle shounen. Typically I’m not super into that. The battle shounen that I tend to like tend to be ones that actually have this critique of violence, and especially critique of state violence, that are built into them. So, shows like… Chainsaw Man is one of my faves. I like Dorohedoro. I know that’s not a battle shounen but it is a battle show. But anyways, I really only started watching Vinland Saga because I saw James Beckett’s reviews on ANN about how just amazing that show was. And I was like, “Okay, I’ll check this out.” And similar to Caitlin, I found the first season dragged on a little bit. But the second season, I think there was almost not a single episode that didn’t make me cry, which is definitely saying something.
And I thought that the show had some really interesting and sophisticated ideas about the philosophical nature of love and violence and what it means to create actually meaningful community with other people. And also, I found that there were times when I was watching it and, as an organizer or as somebody who’s done anti-violence work, I found myself questioning, like, do I agree with the show’s ideas about violence? And it became a really interesting place for me to sit every week watching it and think about what I really believe in and what are my commitments as both an educator and as just a person living their life. And we’ll get more into that in a bit, but I think I’ve come down on a point where I really, really love the show, even if I don’t always agree with it. I think that it lays out its— Thorfinn’s arc is so compelling. Watching him become the kind of hero I would want to root for, when in the first season he’s really just a traumatized edgelord killer, is really compelling! And any other thoughts before we go ahead and move on to the spoiler-cast? [Chuckles]
ANNIE: I mean, I think the only thing that I would add is that, in my mind, I’ve been really seeing a parallel between Vinland Saga, especially season 1, to Attack on Titan, which to me also feels like another gratuitous violence edgelord protagonist who’s set out on vengeance, but the shift in season 2 really— I don’t know. There’s just a lot to say there about the prominence of these kinds of narratives. I think a lot of people came into the show expecting Attack on Titan but with a blonde character instead, and I think it’s a profoundly different show, which I think is really worth digging into.
TONI: Caitlin, I know you have thoughts on this. [Chuckles]
CAITLIN: I mean, I haven’t engaged with Attack on Titan in so long, man. But yeah, I think that is fair. You know, because I’m not saying that Attack on Titan doesn’t have themes, but all of those themes are presented through this lens of violence. And like Toni, I prefer battle shounen that either challenges that violence— Or not necessarily battle shounen. But if a series is going to be action oriented, I want that action to be serving the purpose of a theme that I am interested in. For example, Akudama Drive.
TONI: Oh, that’s such a good show. It’s the best. [Chuckles] The best show!
CAITLIN: I don’t know, maybe Attack on Titan has delved into things that would interest me. I just didn’t really want to watch past the first season. And I really do prefer Vinland Saga’s approach because it really looks at that emptiness straight in the face. I feel like so many series that are anti-violence are still anti-violence through violence, whereas Vinland Saga is putting its foot down and saying, “No! It doesn’t have to be like that.”
TONI: Yeah, and I think that it’s interesting because Yukimura explicitly said in a podcast, “If you want a show that’s violent, go watch Attack on Titan.”
TONI: And he clearly has a huge amount of respect for that, for the mangaka for Attack on Titan, whose name is escaping me.
CAITLIN: [crosstalk] Yeah, they’re buddies.
TONI: They are. In any case, I wanted to kind of pick up on what you were saying about this idea of emptiness, because I think that might bring us into more of the spoilerific discussion, because I think the idea of being empty is really actually at the heart of Thorfinn’s big epiphany in season 2. And I think what we’re [gonna] try to do is juxtapose Thorfinn’s epiphany with Canute’s epiphany and try to understand why these two characters have them and what they tell us. But yeah, when I think about Thorfinn’s epiphany, it’s both— So, spoiler alert now. Thorfinn’s epiphany really comes about because he doesn’t have a meaning to his life anymore. The entirety of how he constructed his life, “I’m going to avenge my father,” is ripped away from him, and then he is empty and then he has to figure out, like, “Okay, if I’m empty…” That emptiness both has a kind of nihilistic streak but also has this kind of potential to it. And I know, Annie, you’ve described his epiphany as almost becoming like a bit of a bodhisattva, right?
ANNIE: Um, yeah. I mean… Hm. Where do I start with this? I guess I should start by saying that I grew up culturally Buddhist. My parents grew up in the Thiền or Zen tradition in Vietnam, and that’s kind of what I was raised with. And since then, it’s been a regular part of my practice, and when I was in high school I attended a Japanese Zen Buddhist retreat for a week and really deepened my practice there. So it’s hard for me not to look at Japanese media without kind of seeing things through that Zen Buddhist lens or looking at the influence of Shinto philosophy. And despite the fact that season 1, especially, of Vinland Saga really tries to look at things through Canute’s Christian orientation, to me there’s a lot of underlying philosophy in the show that to me seems more oriented in Eastern philosophies. So there’s a common Buddhist phrase in, at least, the Mahayana tradition of “Emptiness is form and form is emptiness,” and I think that season 1 really deals with this lack of distinction for Thorfinn between emptiness and form, like he really is just a container for violence because he is only motivated by rage. I think he’s a pretty one-dimensional character in season 1 because of that, and in that regard, that’s how I see him as being similar to Eren Yeager from Attack on Titan. He’s formless. He just kind of has fit this mold of vengeance and rage and the narrative that’s been given to him.
And then when that motivation is taken away with the death of Askeladd, and moving into season 2, I think he continues to be this empty shell until he’s forced to confront meaning, which is that he— And this is why for me, there’s so much payoff with season 1. It looks like gratuitous violence in season 1, but then in season 2, Thorfinn’s really tasked with, like, “Wow, those are all real human beings that you murdered and murdered brutally and murdered without care or cause, and there’s no way for you to meaningfully repent with them present.” Right? So, it’s interesting how the consequences of being empty kind of come back to him in season 2. And I think about the show a lot through a Buddhist lens, despite the fact that it takes place in Europe and Buddhism is not a meaningful concept for the characters themselves. I think it’s meaningful for Yukimura and how I’m thinking about it as a Japanese text.
TONI: Yeah. I think that, for me, I really latched on to this because I thought a lot about, kind of, if one is going to move forward and create new meaning in one’s life, it’s almost like one has to not empty themselves of the previous things but almost acknowledge that the violence was meaningless to an extent, be able to come to a point of letting go of certain things, letting go of certain values but not necessarily letting go of the past, because I think those are two very different things. And if anything, Thorfinn’s epiphany requires him actually to be in really intimate connection with his past actions and almost have this intimate relationship with all of the people he’s killed. I think one really powerful moment in the series, I think, probably my favorite episode of the whole series, and, I would argue, probably many people’s favorite episode of this series is the moment where he kind of enters Valhalla and he sees his past. And then we see he gets his vision of, of course, this horrific mound of zombified bodies that are the people who he’s murdered. And as he’s climbing up out of Valhalla, which is a hell, they are clinging on to him, and he has to resist the temptation to kick them off, to push them away. I remember that— I think we were talking about that, Annie, the meaning of that image. Yeah, I don’t know, how did either of you interpret that image? What do you think that kind of meant?
CAITLIN: It did make me think of the Buddhist allegory where a spider— There’s a name for it and I can’t remember it. There’s a spider that puts down a thread of silk to rescue someone from hell. But when they try to climb up, a bunch of other people try to grab on and everyone gets dragged down. And I haven’t really teased out what I think the meaning of that connection is quite yet, but that was kind of the first thing that I thought of. I do think that Buddhist philosophy and Christian philosophy are at an interplay in this series in a really interesting way, because [of], Annie, what you were saying about Thorfinn kind of being a bodhisattva and being formless, how that kind of contrasts with the very kind of Christian perspective that you should have a sense of purpose in life. And correct me if I’m wrong. My impression is that a bodhisattva is a positive figure that letting go of a sense of purpose is something to be achieved, whereas with the Christian lens, or at least the Western lens— Because I’m not Christian. I wasn’t raised Christian, but I did grow up in the US. Someone on Twitter once pointed out that most people… just like you can be culturally Jewish or culturally so-and-so without following the religious beliefs, you can be culturally Christian and that’s what most people in the US are, and I accept that. And so, this feeling of purposelessness, to me, is a negative thing from my own cultural lens. And so, these ideas are kind of interplaying together.
ANNIE: In this one, I guess, just to be clear, a bodhisattva, at least in the tradition that I grew up in, is… The premise of Buddhism is that life is experience and life is suffering; suffering comes from attachment to things; the way to let go of your suffering is to let go of attachment; the way to let go of attachment is through the Eightfold Path. And that’s essentially the foundation of Buddhism, right? And through that, when you recognize all these things, you can become enlightened. And bodhisattvas are people who have become enlightened, and if you believe in the… Because, you know, Buddhism is an outcropping of Hinduism, you can basically choose to forego reincarnation, because if you’ve let go of suffering and these things that attach you to the earthly world, you can move on and kind of reach nirvana, rather than being stuck in suffering with everyone else, and that’s exactly the story of the spider’s thread. It’s like, “Here is your pathway forward to a world without suffering.” But bodhisattvas are like, “Okay, but if I move forward and release myself from the cycle of reincarnation without everyone else, that’s still suffering. My existence, recognizing that emptiness is form and form is emptiness, is ultimately tied up to everyone else. And so, I am going to stick around, making sure that I am here, moved by my sense of compassion, which is bodhicitta, to make sure that everyone is liberated from samsara, from suffering.” So, yeah, you’re spot on. It’s a similar concept to sainthood in the Christian tradition, but rather than being someone’s savior, you’re just like, “Nope, I’m just gonna stick around because we got shit to do.” And that’s… Yeah. But I think that you are totally right to pull out the image of the spider’s thread.
CAITLIN: Okay, yeah, because that— I’m sorry if this is what you’re gonna say and I’m interrupting, because now I see that this is Thorfinn realizing that what these people who are figures in his life—because, like, you know, Bjorn is down there—realizing that this violence that gave them purpose is keeping them in this eternal suffering. And so, he is sticking around so that he can create a pacifist society and assist people in finding a sense of purpose outside of violence, because Viking society was very based in violence. You know, I’m certainly no expert, but I know that if someone gets killed, you get revenge. But then if someone kills someone you care about out of revenge, now you have to go get revenge, and there’s this huge cycle. And so, Thorfinn losing that sense of purpose—because the person he wanted to get revenge on was killed before he could get his revenge—losing that sense of meaning has essentially freed him from that cycle. So now he is trying to help free others.
TONI: And I think Askeladd is a more complicated character than just being this representation of Viking cruelty, because ultimately, I think Askeladd is the person who helps Thorfinn to actually realize what he needs to do, which is really weird, right? Like, Thors planted the seeds, but then Askeladd is the one who’s like, “Nah, dude, this is what violence is. And if you’re going to actually live and escape this hell, here is how.” Right? And that’s really interesting to me because he’s also, of course, incredibly cruel! In the first season, he literally murders an entire village just so that he can get food for his crew. Which is not to say, like, “Have empathy for the genocider.” No, it’s more about, like, here’s somebody who maybe understands what he is doing and how it is damning him.
CAITLIN: It’s very Lady Eboshi.
TONI: Yes. I know you have a bit of a soft spot for Askeladd, Annie.
ANNIE: Yeah, well, I mean, I just think, you know, going back to this image in season 2, where Thorfinn is going through his nightmares again and is able to reach this moment where he’s thinking about Valhalla, I think it’s really important to name that Valhalla was heaven for Viking society and for Vikings in particular, that even though it’s portrayed in a really grotesque way here, it was the greatest honor to die on the battlefield and in really heroic ways, and how countercultural it then becomes for Thorfinn to turn his back on this as the thing that he should be aspiring towards. And I think that Askeladd is just a really interesting character for that, as a person who is half-Danish and half-Welsh, or, you know, Danish and Welsh, and how deeply he detested his father and the society that he was brought up in because of how harmful it was to his mother and how he is deeply violent but there’s also violence that he detests, right?
When he says he hates Vikings, I think that oftentimes that’s tied to the violence against women and specifically violence against his mother that he witnessed. So I don’t know, I just think about him as a really fascinating character, as some kinds of violence he just accepts and other things he finds abhorrent, and how that kind of informs, ultimately, his weird pseudo-father-figure status to Thorfinn. And it’s really interesting to me that this is really a figment of Thorfinn’s imagination when he visits Valhalla but he really has internalized these implicit lessons along the way from Askeladd for him to see it as this really grotesque, horrible place rather than a place he should be aspiring to fight towards.
TONI: Yeah, I mean, Askeladd is under no illusions about just how horrible the things that he’s doing is, I think, unlike many of the Vikings who have a very positive relationship to the violence they’re doing and think of it as this honor. Right? Yeah, as you said.
CAITLIN: [crosstalk] Thorkell. Thorkell just loves to fight!
TONI: I find Thorkell so fun. I don’t know why I find him fun. I just do. [Chuckles]
CAITLIN: [crosstalk] He is fun. He is fun. Don’t get me wrong. But also— I mean, and Yukimura has said that he is very childish in his love of violence. He doesn’t really think about it. He just loves to fight!
TONI: Sure does.
CAITLIN: Or, you know, if you want to go with a less childish, lovable character, Bjorn, Floki, et cetera, et cetera. You know, we could list a ton of characters. This is [a] violent world. And Askeladd, he looks at this violence and he’s like, “This is disgusting, but this is the way of the world.”
TONI: And I think that, to bring it back to that image of Thorfinn pulling up all of those people and refusing to kick them off and really being in intimate connection to the people he’s killed, honestly it was a tweet of yours, Annie, I think, that actually really helped me to understand this image, because I think you said in one of your tweets—and it was completely unrelated to Vinland Saga but it really helped me think through Vinland Saga—it’s like you said that, I think, forgiveness is not a framework that you find particularly useful anymore, but compassion is. And I think that Thorfinn, in a sense, is kind of acting out of compassion for both himself and the people who he killed and asking himself, “How do I be compassionate to myself in this moment even if under no circumstances is it really my place to forgive myself for what I did, because it was so abhorrent?”
And dragging those people up and refusing to let go of them is kind of a symbol of how he’s not forgiving himself, because he’s not letting go of the past; he’s embracing it and holding it intimately to himself. And that’s an important distinction, because it gives meaning to all the things that he does next. He says, like, “I must plant more trees than I cut down. I must protect more people than I killed.” Like, if he quote-unquote “forgave” himself for the things that he did, then he wouldn’t necessarily have that drive to do all that.
ANNIE: Hm! I love that. That’s so funny. I don’t exactly remember the context in which I tweeted that, but I definitely was thinking through themes of basically how I see forgiveness as a very Western and Christian concept. And compassion is one that I’ve grown up with more as a Buddhist concept. And for me, forgiveness assumes a power dynamic that you can’t really escape from, right? For me, someone has to have the authority to forgive you. So, I guess I think about that in the Catholic Church with indulgences, dispensations. Someone who has the authority to grant you you are forgiven for your sins, right? God forgives you for the things you’ve done wrong, the ways in which you’ve been wayward. And, yeah, so I think that it ultimately kind of is embedded within a power dynamic that’s hard to escape from, which is why I personally don’t find it useful.
And also, I mean, I guess, thinking about it from the space of being a survivor of abuse and violence, I don’t have to forgive anyone. [Chuckles] Fuck that shit, you know? That requires, again, a power dynamic that I personally don’t want to participate in, which is why, again, abolition has been so valuable for me as a space, and thinking about abolition through the framework of compassion has always been more fruitful than thinking about, like… Is there space for forgiveness in abolition? I don’t think there needs to be. So that’s kind of been my take on things, and I think that how you’re framing Thorfinn in this makes a lot of sense. I do think, similarly, he knows there’s no space for him to forgive himself, but there is space for him to live and keep living. And it is about changing his orientation and becoming a true warrior like his father and Askeladd said.
CAITLIN: Well, that does bring to mind—and now I’m pulling in the educator piece—changing attitudes towards making children say “Sorry” when they mess up, because I don’t know how it is in your spaces, but in early education, we’re really trying to move away from making children say, “Sorry,” because “Sorry” doesn’t fix anything. It just puts pressure on the other child to say, “It’s okay.” It doesn’t require anyone to try to make amends. And so, instead, we’re having them ask, “Are you okay?” and if they say no, then “What can I do to help?” and sometimes the other kid doesn’t want anything; they just want the person who did whatever to upset them to just walk away from them. And so, the idea of forgiveness being a Western Christian concept is interesting. It’s new to me. I’ve never really heard that framing before. It makes a lot of sense. Forgiveness and the power dynamic and the fact that it doesn’t really fix anything, it doesn’t really help anything, is a concept that has been very important in my life recently, so pulling it in here did grab my attention.
TONI: Yeah, and for me, I think about— Like, I think many of us have been in situations where we’ve done enormous harm to somebody, and then we’ve had to ask ourselves, “Do they even want to hear from me again? Do they give a shit about what I feel or how sorry I am to even be worth it to reach out to them to reestablish a connection that they don’t even want, for me to give them some apology that does nothing to help them?” Right? I think I’ve often come to the conclusion that it’s not worth it and it’s more worth it for me to just be a better person moving forward and kind of let that go but also hold to that past that I have had, intimately to myself, so that I can always learn from it while also not being afraid of it or running away from it. But I think that this is a very universal experience of, like, what do we do when we’ve harmed, right? What is the appropriate response, and what does it mean to actually make meaningful amends in a way that’s not expecting the other person to have this kind of affective…? I think of it in terms of affect theory, like “Everything’s gotta be great! We’ve got to come together as one!” when, actually, the tensions between us often lead to the most interesting stuff, right? So, I don’t know. I think this kind of also brings to mind… I think, maybe— Are we ready to move on to talking about Canute and what happened with Canute? Because…
CAITLIN: Oh, boy.
TONI: What happened with Canute? [Chuckles]
CAITLIN: The opposite. Canute did the opposite thing. And I think this is where we’re going to start having the Christianity-versus-Buddhism discussion get really meaty, in ways that I don’t know if I can fully contribute to. But I do think what’s interesting is that Canute is a historical figure. I mean, a lot of characters in here are historical figures. Thorfinn is a historical figure. But Canute as an actual Norse king, I think Yukimura looked at this historical figure and said, “How can I use this character and construct a biography for them in a way that interplays with this narrative that I’m creating, with all of these thematic pieces that I’m creating, while still being historical?” And so, Canute moving from this very gentle, timid, young man to this king who is just like, “Okay, I’m gonna be a strong leader, and culturally kings lead through violence and that’s just who I need to be,” is interesting. It’s not really… kind of parallel? [It’s] like perpendicular, almost, to Thorfinn.
TONI: Yeah, no, I find Canute’s epiphany really interesting, because I agree: it’s perpendicular to Thorfinn’s. I say that because he is not diametrically opposed, because a lot of the realizations that he has, I think, are directly connected to the thematic ideas of the series. Like, I think about the monk. I forget his name, but the monk talks to and helps Canute understand this idea of what is the difference between love and discrimination. And the monk argues that the love that a parent has for a child or what the parent or caregiver thinks of as love when they’re treating a child with protecting them, raising them with kindness, all this stuff, actually is in some ways a form of discrimination because they wouldn’t do the same for anybody else and they would, in fact, probably be willing to kill for that child, right? And so, is that truly love? And I think that’s very connected to Thorfinn’s realization that “I have no enemies,” right? That is the foundation of “I have no enemies.” Love that discriminates, that says that only certain people are deserving of love, is no love at all, right? Or at least not love in a transcendental sense. But then Canute takes that and is like, “You know what I’m going to do? I’m not going to discriminate because I’m going to rule over everybody and make sure everybody has the kind of kingdom that I want to create, and I will make sure it is perfect through violence.” Right? And that is such a wild way of interpreting that monk’s words and kind of twisting them into his own kind of self-conception that I find really interesting.
CAITLIN: And the thing is that Canute, before, wasn’t acting out of a sense of conscious choice to love, right? Canute, before his epiphany, was just scared of his own shadow, more or less. He was gentle, but that gentleness was born more of just fear of the world around him. And so, the time came to make a choice, almost in a coming-of-age sense, and make the choice of “Who am I going to be?” and this is who he chose to become, whereas Thorfinn, when it becomes his time to make a choice, when he finally finds some agency over his life at the end of the second season, chooses to create a land through peace.
TONI: I don’t think it’s just that he’s scared of his own shadow. I think it’s also that he’s terrified of the ramifications of his power. He’s terrified of what it means to lead through violence and terrified of how his actions and his words and what he does could impact the lives of so many people. And to kind of give an example of that, in the moment where they’re about to have that discussion with the Welsh, and Canute’s kind of terrified and isn’t ready to talk himself to them and Askeladd’s like, “What are you doing? You gotta talk to them, yourself,” I believe it’s Ragnar who’s like, “No, the prince can’t do that! That’s not what he’s ready for!” He explains himself and says, like, “If I mess this up, so many people are going to die. And that terrifies me.”
And the thing is that, ultimately, I think that is correct! He should be terrified of that! And the conclusion that he comes— The difference between him and Thorfinn, right, is Thorfinn rejects using violence to achieve those ends and rejects that power in the sense of “I’m [not] going to use violence to achieve this end. I need to find a new method.” That’s how he describes it: the other method. “I’m going to use every method I possibly can before I ever have to resort to violence.” Versus, Canute kind of resolves to be like, “Yeah! That’s what it means to be a king!” I don’t think he was incorrect to be so terrified of that kind of power, because that sort of power—I think the series is very clear—that sort of power should not exist, because it’s not worth existing. And I guess that’s where I think the show has kind of an abolitionist critique.
ANNIE: I definitely think there’s something to be said about, like— I guess maybe here I should mention how I grew up understanding bodhisattvas. There are three different models. The first model is the model of the king, the person who’s like, “Okay, to lead people out of suffering, I’m going to take the lead and take charge and model.” And I think Canute kind of can fall into that realm. There’s the shepherd, which is like, “I’m going to push everyone through and kind of herd them to freedom and liberation.” And then there’s the ferryman model, which is “I’m coming with you. We’re all going over and being released from suffering together.” So that’s something that I’ve also kind of examined Canute through, but I also think that he reminds me a little bit of— I’m thinking of the Zhang Yimou film Hero, which is a pretty particular take on the first emperor of China and how, in order to unify the people and have a land of peace, he needed to be incredibly violent. I think that’s a clear model or a template for Canute in all this. And then there’s also just the Christian notion of the savior and of salvation. So I think all those things are in interplay when I’m thinking about Canute.
I think what it is is that he kind of— I agree with you. He was right to be afraid of all that power, and then I think what he realized was that he has been born into a position of profound violence, no matter what he does or doesn’t do, people are going to poison and murder and kill in order to maintain the power structure that has led him to be born into this position in the first place, and that there’s really no escape from it except, in his mind, to completely absorb every single bit of power there could be in society and then kind of take it out with his own hand. But until that point, until no one else is available to seek out the power that he innately has been imbued with, I think that that’s kind of the approach, which is why I think there’s so much respect when the two of them come together. They really, truly do have a shared goal of a utopia and a world without violence. But being the son of a king and the most powerful man in Europe, I think Canute has envisioned it that there’s no way for me to achieve peace because my role is innately violent, so I’m going to be violent right now and as quickly as I can to reach that world without violence. So I think it’s interesting, given how they started—you know, that image of shaggy-haired Thorfinn, just a vessel for rage and violence, and Canute being this supposed pacifist but not in a principled way; he’s just afraid of the consequences of his life—and how the two of them flip in season 2 but are still trying to both make this path forward towards a utopia without violence.
TONI: What you’re saying is interesting because I think that there’s been a lot of discourse lately on narratives about people who are born into these positions of profound violence and power. I’m gonna bring up something a little bit off the beaten path, but when I think about G-Witch, which came out in, if I remember right, the same season, Gundam: Witch from Mercury, there’s a lot of people who were unsure about, like, “Okay, how on earth are they going to make it so Miorine, who was born to be the heir of the entire military-industrial complex… Can she herself find a way to dismantle that from the position of being born into that?”
And ultimately, what Miorine decides is “I’m going to abdicate that position and let other people worry about dismantling this, but also I no longer have that power.” And that’s possible for her because of the society and the culture and the space and, I think, the fight that she fights in G-Witch, versus Canute… I think Canute, it’s very questionable whether that’s even a possibility for Canute, that he could find any escape from this. And I think that part of what Vinland Saga is really about is all these different people who are trying to escape that kind of life. Like, Thors tried to abdicate a life of violence and then was pulled right back into it by the Jomsvikings. But you are not allowed to abdicate a life of violence in Vinland Saga, in most of— If you are born into that, that is what you’re going to do.
ANNIE: Just going to add that just makes me think of the inherent tensions in education when folks from outside of a community, particularly a community that has been really impacted by structural racism and structural violence… Yeah, people have this utopic fantasy of what abolition is supposed to look like, but when you actually are trying to live and breathe it in a prefigurative way and you look at these communities, many people are not allowed to abdicate from violence. And I think that’s just something that I think about a lot when I am trying to actually interact with communities and be mindful of the ways in which I’ve grown up, the ways in which I’ve learned, and the choices that are actually afforded to people, given the way society is structured around them.
CAITLIN: You know, growing up seeing narratives about gang violence, it’s so easy from the outside, from my white but not wealthy but not impoverished background—kinda on the borderline between working class and middle class—and be able to look at it and say, “Well, just don’t… Why would you even do that? Why would you join a gang? Why would you choose that life of violence?” without considering the environment that is creating these conditions where people feel like this is the life that they need to live, whether they are choosing it out of necessity or whatever. That’s kind of what comes to mind for me about saying, “Well, we want to end violence,” but also having to take into account the material conditions that people are living in that cause violence and can perpetuate the cycle of violence.
TONI: So, I think that brings us to Thorfinn’s idea of nonviolent resistance and whether that fully aligns with the manga’s, which I think is a question. I don’t think, necessarily, that Thorfinn is the mouthpiece of the mangaka entirely, although I do know the mangaka has said that he hopes that after people read his manga, they are embarrassed any time that they even consider being violent and that they find violence embarrassing. But yeah, I’m curious what you all make of Thorfinn’s view of how to resist violence. Annie, did you want to kind of get started with that? Because I know that you’re really— I know you’ve talked to me a lot about being really influenced by Thich Nhat Hahn and his anti-violence work, and I think there’s a lot of parallels between Thich Nhat Hahn and Thorfinn’s philosophies. So, I’m curious if you could speak to that or just generally what you think of Thorfinn’s idea of nonviolence.
ANNIE: Yeah, that’s a great question. I mean, I think that it’s important to remember that Thorfinn, as framed by the narrative, is like a baby nonviolent practitioner. You know, he’s literally spent the first 20 years of his life only knowing violence as a means to live. And despite how meaningful and impactful his enlightenment is, of “The path forward is through compassion” and continuing to live with this sense of compassion towards nature and people and himself, how to achieve that world is still just as new to him as it is to anybody. And on top of that, he doesn’t have anyone living to really learn from other than just kind of observing, although I do think about… I think his name is Sverkel, the father of the slave owner, right? Ketil’s father? So I think about him, in terms of what he models, as someone who could be a slave owner and has kind of chosen to abdicate that and work the land and stuff. I think there’s a lot to learn from his character.
But with Thorfinn and nonviolence and Thich Nhat Hahn, I guess that— Again, a lot of this is just kind of Zen Buddhism and thinking about… [Chuckles] recognizing that all of life is suffering and we can only just be mindful of ourselves and the impact that we have on the world. Um, what is there to say about Thich Nhat Hahn? I read a book recently about Thich Nhat Hahn’s partnership with Martin Luther King, Jr. They kind of corresponded across letters and were really respectful of each other’s work, and the idea of a beloved community is something that Thich Nhat Hahn had continued long after Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated. And I think there’s definitely parallels there between that and Thorfinn, this idea of a beloved community, and I think that Thorfinn really is trying to create the idea of it after meeting Einar and Arnheid. But I don’t know, I’m just kind of rambling at this point. He’s a baby, I think, and he’s learning. And I think there’s a stubbornness, because he makes his first mistake when he fights Snake, right? He ultimately isn’t able to save anybody. He also harms Snake in the process. He also is scarred from himself, so you kind of know it’s like, “Okay, I can’t move forward, fighting the same way that I did before.”
But I think it’s also something that he misses in and of himself. When we get to the final… you know, the trial of the 100 punches in order to be able to meet Canute, I’m like, bruh! Of course, it’s amazing that you yourself don’t land a punch on the other person, and that is such a beautiful and profound approach to nonviolence. But in some ways, that only came because of the years of experience that he had. He had to have a ton of experience knowing how to move his body and how to take a punch over and over again. And so, I think it’s pretty profound to me how he takes his years of experience of only knowing violence and is able to turn that on its head. I haven’t read the manga, but I’m anticipating that there’s going to be more moments like that going forward, and I won’t be surprised when I think that his stubbornness about nonviolence also has its shortcomings, because I think that Canute does make points about how they live inherently in a violent society and structure and there are just going to be times in which you can’t abdicate from violence, so I’m really curious about how that’s gonna play out.
TONI: Yeah, and I think that Einar himself— Einar is an interesting character, too, in that regard, because Einar is not… I don’t think Einar is as committed to nonviolence as Thorfinn is, [Chuckles] at all!
CAITLIN: No. Einar, I think, is more of a personality thing. He’s just a gentle boy.
CAITLIN: I don’t think he chooses nonviolence so much as nonviolence chooses him, a little bit like Canute, only, with Canute, it was coming from fear, whereas Einar is just… violence just isn’t who he is.
TONI: But he does fight the retainers, right?
CAITLIN: Mm-hm. Yeah! Yeah.
TONI: And Thorfinn has to pull them back multiple times from straight-up murdering people, right? [Chuckles]
TONI: And I think—
ANNIE: I mean, and he also tries to murder Thorfinn.
TONI: That is true. But he can’t go through with it, right, is the interesting thing. He can’t go through with it. And I can’t remember whether that’s because Thorfinn stops him or because he just decides it’s not what he wants to do. But I also think that Einar represents this kind of justified rage at the violence that he’s experienced. And I don’t think that the story is— There’s moments where there’s very purposeful framing in the series that parallels him and Bjorn. Right? Like, you see the whites of Einar’s eyes when he wants to murder somebody and that’s all you see, which is very clearly supposed to symbolically represent his being lost to violence in that moment, right? But I also don’t think— There’s also moments where his violence and his standing up for himself, I think, is ultimately celebrated, like the moment where Thorfinn is having his dream sequence while simultaneously Einar is trying to beat the retainers in a fight. If I remember right, I don’t think that this show really comes down on Einar for fighting back in a justified way, right?
CAITLIN: Yeah. And I mean… Because I’m not a total, total nonviolence person, you know, personally.
TONI: [crosstalk] I’m not either, at all. [Laughs]
CAITLIN: I personally believe that, sometimes, “Talk shit, get hit.”
CAITLIN: You know? Sometimes, a child punches another child and all I can say, maybe quietly to myself, maybe quietly to another teacher, not directly to the child, is “Fuck around and find out.”
CAITLIN: So I definitely sympathize more with Einar in these moments. And I think that is just kind of [a] very natural human response to certain things. And it would be overly idealistic— Even if Yukimura is bringing in a philosophy of nonviolence into his story, it would be overly idealistic to come down on a character for feeling that kind of violent rage in moments.
TONI: Yeah, I mean, I think of bell hooks’s book killing rage and how she talks about how that rage can be redirected into meaningful organizing. I also think about things like Wretched of the Earth and the history of militant resistance and violent overthrow of colonization and how important that history is and how that functions as kind of a counternarrative to what Vinland Saga is putting down. I mean, I personally don’t agree with the idea that nonviolence is necessarily the best strategy to end oppression. I mean, I don’t know, I’m kind of a hardline anarchist in the sense that I’m like, “Yeah, no, eat the rich.” [Chuckles] And I think that the confrontation with Canute is particularly interesting in that regard, and at a certain point, I’m not really sure what to make of this sense of mutual respect that Thorfinn and Canute have, [which] is, one, partly because Canute knows Thorfinn from all of the years that Thorfinn was being violent. [Chuckles] And then, there’s this kind of sense that Thorfinn is appealing to the moral precepts of the oppressor to fight the oppression, in that moment. And I don’t think that works, if I’m being real here!
So, yeah, Assata Shakur has said, “Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who are oppressing them.” Right? And I think that a lesson that Thorfinn is going to have to learn is that a lot of the people who he’s going to be confronting and fighting back against are people who he doesn’t have that connection to that he has with Canute, are people who will not give him the time of day just because he took a bunch of punches and, in fact, might actually just laugh at him and be like, “Ha-ha, you took a bunch of punches!” And that is one of the dangers of nonviolent organizing, is that you put yourself in a position where you are so vulnerable that you’re actually increasing your vulnerability. So, I have a lot of different feelings about this show’s engagement with nonviolence, even as I adore this show. Yeah, I’m curious what you make of this question, Annie, because we’ve talked a lot, off the pod, about ideas of nonviolence and abolitionism. So I’m curious what your take on all of this stuff is.
ANNIE: I don’t know if I have a take yet, but I think that fiction is absolutely the place to explore the limits of nonviolence but also the potentials of nonviolence. I attended a conference just this past week, and the closing keynote was a man named Daryl Davis. Daryl Davis was Chuck Berry’s pianist for about 32 years. And he’s kind of known, outside of that role as a musician, for being a quote-unquote “Klan whisperer.” So, he has spent a good majority of his life getting to know members of the Ku Klux Klan as a black man himself, attending Klan rallies, and, in doing so, has been able to basically deprogram, I think, over 200 Klan members. And it was just very fascinating to listen to him talk because I think he absolutely does believe that you can appeal to people’s hearts and minds, but not through persuading them, just through simply understanding them, and I was really blown away by how principled he was in really speaking to trying to look for common understanding when there is one. And he was also really clear on… do what you need to do when there is not common understanding. Right? So he was like, “You know, I’ve definitely had to put people in the hospital and defend myself and defend my family.” And sometimes it totally is impossible.
But he basically said that every missed opportunity for conversation is a missed opportunity for reconciliation. And as someone who literally shows up to Klan rallies, I was like, wow, that is really profound and challenging for me, in terms of what we can do on a day-to-day basis. So I think about that. With Vinland Saga, I think, similarly, it’s like, okay, when you’re living in this profoundly violent world, I think it’s really important to see how far nonviolence can go and see creative ways in which it is possible, because given how conditioned we are to violence, I think that what happens is most of the time we underestimate when nonviolence is not the answer. I think that we kind of preclude ourselves or prematurely foreclose opportunities when there may still be an option. So I think that that’s important coming from Thorfinn. Even if he kind of stubbornly goes in the other direction, I think it’s really important to see in narratives nowadays.
TONI: Yeah, and I think that this gets at another thing I was thinking about with regards to the show. Like, to what extent is that— That strategy, if he alone does that, that’s not going to take down the Klan, right? That’s not going to… And for every 200 people who are deprogrammed, there’s probably a whole bunch of people who are being reprogrammed, if that makes sense. But so, it’s like this kind of tension between… Those 200 people are probably going to have a lot better lives because they’re not radicalized into this horrible, horrendous ideology that harms everybody, right? And probably the people around them are going to have better lives for that, right? It doesn’t not have an impact, right? It has a meaningful impact in those people’s lives.
But in terms of the systems that produce racist violence, are these individual modes of nonviolence, resistance, necessarily productive? And I think that when I see the work of people like Martin Luther King, of course, and SNCC and the history of nonviolent resistance, that kind of points to a more collective response and a more collective strategy, which I think Thorfinn is starting to move towards in his idea of creating this beloved community and utopian idea together with other people. And I think that his act of taking those punches, if read charitably and thoughtfully, is ideally a step in the direction of being able to “And now I’ll probably be able to have this space and security where I can be able to do that collective work.”
Yeah, so, there’s a lot to talk about with this show. We’re gonna go ahead and put a pause here. But before we do, do you have any last thoughts on the show, Thorfinn and Canute, nonviolent resistance, before we wrap it up?
CAITLIN: I’m a little sad we didn’t get to talk to Leif, because I think Leif is an interesting character in this discussion as well, because he is a nonviolent figure in a society that privileges violence and he is sailing around not for conquest but just for exploration. And he’s going around trying to find this kid, and the love-and-discrimination conversation would have tied in really well with that but we’re out of time!
TONI: But don’t worry, we can talk about that next week when we talk about abolitionism, because Leif is a really interesting character when we were thinking about abolition and how a person resists enslavement or slavery. Yeah. Annie, any last thoughts?
ANNIE: Not exactly a last thought on this one, but similar to Caitlin, something that I’d love to talk about in the next segment is just digging deeper into violence against women and how that ties into these narratives around violence, nonviolence, and slavery. I think that Arnheid and how that’s— There’s just a lot to say about that in season 2 and how that relates to the physical violence that is so up front and center in season 1.
TONI: We will definitely talk a lot about our Arnheid next week because next week, we’re really going to be digging into this idea of Vinland Saga as an abolitionist show and what Vinland Saga has to say about slavery and resistance to slavery. Very excited for that.
And with that, I say let’s wrap it up! So, this has been Chatty AF: The Anime Feminist Podcast. If you like what you heard, please subscribe to our podcast on Apple Podcasts or SoundCloud. You can also rate and review us. That really helps people find us.
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CAITLIN: Come read our skeets!
TONI: Yes. And with that, thanks and see you next time for part two.