Toni, Caitlin, and special guest Annie Phan return to discuss VINLAND SAGA’s critiques of slavery, the portrayal of violence, and also some hot boys.
Date Recorded: September 23rd 2023
Hosts: Toni, Caitlin
Guest: Annie Phan
0:01:15 Hot boys
0:23:06 The myth of the good enslaver
0:37:50 Arnheid and the experiences of enslaved women
0:44:27 Slavery rooted in hate vs love
0:48:14 Portrayal of violence
0:52:16 Ideas of empire
1:00:16 Thorkel vs Ylva
TONI: Hello, everybody. 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! Welcome back.
CAITLIN: Hello. I am Caitlin. I am one of the editors at Anime Feminist as well as a reviewer at Anime News Network. You can find me on Twitter @alltsun_nodere. I know it’s a sinking ship, but I’m still clinging to those planks. I reblog things occasionally on Tumblr @all-tsun-and-no-dere. I have Bluesky as @alltsun_nodere, although I don’t use it very much yet. And yeah, excited to be here.
ANNIE: Hi, everyone. I’m Annie. I’m on social media as @MsPhanLearns, and I’m just here to hang out!
TONI: And you can find me @poetpedagogue on Twitter, Bluesky, etc., etc., etc. So, we are here for part two of our podcast about Vinland Saga. Now, we’re gonna get to the serious stuff a bit later. We have planned for some discourse around the show’s engagement with enslavement and settler colonialism, so y’all can look forward to that. But before we begin, we thought it would be best to start with—because we didn’t get enough time to talk about this, and we realized, after, y’all probably want to know—who we think are the hottest Vinland Saga boys. Who are the hottest boys in Vinland Saga? [Chuckles]
CAITLIN: Because, you see, it felt weird doing a whole podcast episode where I don’t make some kind of frivolously horny remark. So, we gotta get it in early on this one! [Laughs]
TONI: Caitlin’s gotta stay on brand, so, you know… Boys and girls, if there’s girls that people find particularly hot in Vinland Saga. I can’t speak to that, but… [Chuckles] So, Caitlin, you want to tell us some of your thoughts on these boys and girls?
CAITLIN: You know, it’s a question of who has the bigger glow-up? Is it Canute, when he becomes king and he grows a beard? Normally I’m not into beards, but he rocks it. Or is it Thorfinn at the end of Season 2, ironically, when he shaves his beard? And I really haven’t found the answer for that yet, who looks better by the end of that season. You know, like I said, normally I’m not into beards, but Canute is rocking that look.
TONI: Yeah, I find— I actually like Thorfinn with his beard and his ponytail. I think it’s kinda cute. He just looks like he’s chilling. And I’m like, I like that even though you’re going through all this shit, you just kinda look like you’re chilling. Appreciate that.
CAITLIN: [Hums unenthusiastically] I wasn’t into that look.
ANNIE: I think that Einar’s lumberjack bod is really underrated. I just think the upper bod there’s just really… And I am not someone who’s typically attracted to bodies as a demi-ace person. But aesthetically, he looks good. You know? He’s just wearing that little green tunic, and he’s got some shape and definition. From a toxic red flag standpoint, I am absolutely a Canute girlie in Season 2. And I… Oh, I also think that the sleeper hit in this is Snake.
CAITLIN: Yeah! Yeah.
TONI: [crosstalk] Yes, Snake!
CAITLIN: Yeah, that’s true. That’s true.
TONI: How can we forget him? Any character named Snake, you know that they’re probably going to be hot. Whenever they’re named that, it’s like they gotta have that kinda dark, brooding personality, but it’s still a little bit sensual, you know?
ANNIE: Yeah! Oh, “sensual” is a great word for Snake. But you know, he’s got the dark hair, he’s got the tan, he’s got the bod, he’s got the skills, he’s charming, he’s funny. You know? It’s the whole package for me.
CAITLIN: [crosstalk] He’s definitely charismatic.
TONI: But he’s also kind of bratty.
CAITLIN: But I know that you like that, Toni.
TONI: I do like that! I don’t know. Like, we were talking about Tsugaru in Undead Murder Farce, and you know, the thing about Tsugaru is I want to crush him like a bug because he makes some stupid comment. And I feel like Snake is the same way. I kind of want to crush him like a bug, but also, [Chuckles] I’m into it.
ANNIE: I think someone who I would want to crush me like a bug… Ylva.
TONI: [Chuckles] Oh, yes, her, the strongest woman. No, not just strongest woman. The strongest person, period, in the entire series, who can fell Thorfinn with a single punch, yes.
ANNIE: Yeah, if I were into power scaling in those battle shounen arguments, I feel like they’re missing out on Ylva in these conversations.
CAITLIN: You think she could take down Thorkell?
ANNIE: Oh, that’s a fun one! Mm, I feel like maybe we could come back to this. I’m gonna think about that.
CAITLIN: [Chuckles] Something to meditate on while we talk about abolitionism in Vinland Saga: could she take down Thorkell? You know, I think it’s the toss of a three-sided die between Snake, Thorfinn at the end of Season 2, and beardy Canute for me.
TONI: For me— Okay, okay, really wildcard here, really wild thing… I weirdly find Leif hot before, like when Thorfinn’s a kid. There’s something about, like—
CAITLIN: Let me pull this up. Let me remind myself.
TONI: Remind yourself of Leif Ericson? Of “hinga dinga durgen”?
CAITLIN: [crosstalk] I mean, at the very beginning of the series, you know?
TONI: That’s what I’m saying. At the very beginning of the series.
CAITLIN: Yeah, well, I have to remind myself what he looks like at that point. Uh, I could see it. The mustache is not working for me.
TONI: For me, it’s just the vibe. He just seems like somebody who’s down for anything. You know, you want to go to a party? He’ll be there. You want to go to the other side of the world? He’ll be there, right? And I like that in a man.
ANNIE: Compelling argument.
CAITLIN: Yeah, the personality, definitely. I think in terms of personality, Leif probably wins.
TONI: He’s genuinely one of the most thoughtful and nice people in the show. I mean, even when he found the other Thorfinn, Bug-Eyes, it’s not like he brought him back to the person who’s ultimately like “This isn’t the right Thorfinn.” [Chuckles] He kept him!
ANNIE: Okay, so, Toni, who else makes your final draft selection? We already heard from Caitlin. I’m curious about who makes your final three.
TONI: Okay, another really weird, wild one I’m gonna say is Bug-Eyes, just because I want to, like… I just want to pet him on the head, like “You’re a good boy.” He’s an adult now, right? I can say that.
ANNIE: Yeah, he’s older than Thorfinn by like ten years. He’s, like, in his 30s.
TONI: [crosstalk] Bug-Eyes is?
TONI: Okay. So, weirdly enough, I feel like—I have the weirdest one—probably Snake, Bug-Eyes, and young Leif. I know that’s not who anyone would expect, but they’re mine. I’m attracted to the weirdos, okay?
ANNIE: I think I’ve honed in on my final draft selection. I think I would go with— I really am just a red flag girlie, and I’m really okay with that. But I’m gonna go with Ylva, followed by post-glow-up Canute, and then taking the top spot is Askeladd.
CAITLIN: Yeah! You know what?
TONI: Okay, you need to explain Askeladd. Tell me, tell me about this.
ANNIE: I thought that that was self-explanatory in the “red flag girlie.” Like…
CAITLIN: No, I felt that. I felt that. That was very— You know, you could have said— The worst one to say for that would have been Thorkell. At least no one out here is saying Floki.
ANNIE: Oh, yeah. No, no. No.
TONI: [Obscured by crosstalk] exactly—
CAITLIN: Roll Floki’s head! [Chuckles] Put numbers on three sides of Floki’s head and roll it and then we’ll pick one… [dissolves into laughter].
TONI: No, Floki is the worst. Thorkell doesn’t have—
ANNIE: [crosstalk] No, he’s a fascist!
TONI: Floki is horrible. [Laughs]
CAITLIN: He sucks so bad.
TONI: Literal fascist.
ANNIE: And just from an aesthetic perspective, he’s not doing it for me. He’s just too rectangular, you know?
TONI: That’s exactly what I was thinking, but I couldn’t find the words.
CAITLIN: [crosstalk] No shade! You know what, if you’re a Floki-fucker, let us know in the comments, because I have so many questions. No judgment, just questions.
ANNIE: Like, I think I could understand, but I just want to hear it, because I don’t understand right now but I could; I’m open.
TONI: His face is literally a rectangle with that beard. It looks like he has two chins on either side of his face. Like, what is going on?
CAITLIN: You know, there’s no accounting for taste.
TONI: And his hair. Oh, my goodness. Wow. Yukimura really just managed to make the least attractive-looking face. Did we want to move on to— [Chuckles]
CAITLIN: [Laughs] Alright, well, we said we wanted some frivolity to start out. And guys, we got it.
ANNIE: [crosstalk] Okay, I have one more— It also feels like I can’t close this conversation, though. My last ask for you both is Thors.
TONI: Oh, Thors.
CAITLIN: Eh, would. He’s not one of my top choices, but would.
TONI: He’s too dad for me.
CAITLIN: That’s something I’ve never said in my life.
TONI: [Laughs] Long time Chatty AF listeners will understand why that was so funny to me.
CAITLIN: That’s lore. The deep AniFem lore! [Laughs]
TONI: This is the person who watched Sakugan and was like, “Well, the show seems like it might be a mess, but I got my new crush.”
CAITLIN: Yeah, unfortunately, it was not enough to keep me watching through the whole series.
TONI: What a trash show.
ANNIE: I am not sure if you all have done this before, but I do think that if you did a year-end draft selection or sweet 16 bracket of hottest anime characters across fandoms, I would be interested. I’m just saying.
CAITLIN: Oh my gosh, how would we choose, though? You would have to have subcategories. I did a dads bracket one time, way back in the day when you had to use special websites for it.
ANNIE: But anyway, I’m just saying I would tune back in.
CAITLIN: Okay. You know, at one point in that conversation, there was a really good segue when we were talking about Leif. But we had to continue being silly for a bit longer. [Chuckles]
TONI: Yeah, so, the segue was that we were talking about Leif and we were interested in this idea of… So, Leif is interesting because he seems to embody this sort of nonviolent individual response to enslavement that is clearly resisting it. He goes around and uses some of his capital to help free enslaved people who he thinks might be Thorfinn. But as we said earlier, it’s not like he goes and sends them back when he realizes it’s not Thorfinn. No, no, he still cares for them and cares about them. And I want to talk a little bit about the show’s engagement with slavery, because the entirety of the second season is about slavery, really, and the problems… well, God, “the problems with slavery,” that sounds like such an understatement, but, you know, the ways that slavery works and narratives around slavery. And yeah. I think it’s worth just situating us a little bit in the historical context. The slavery in this show is a little bit different, because this is a different era of history, than American chattel slavery, right?
CAITLIN: I know mostly that if you get into an argument with someone online about how all of these different series glorifying slavery is kind of weird and gross, they’ll be like, “Well, not all slavery is like American chattel slavery.” And then I’m just like, “I know that’s wrong. But I cannot get into an in-depth discussion about this because I don’t know enough.”
TONI: Yeah, I mean, I do think that that’s an interesting point you made earlier, is that we are in an anime landscape where it is just normal for the protagonist of the show to literally go out and buy a slave and treat them not very well—not that there’s any good way to treat an enslaved person. Right? But thinking about Rudy in Mushoku Tensei or that sort of thing or Rising of the Shield Hero. Especially in the isekai genre, this is a really common thing. And so—
CAITLIN: I have gotten to the point where if there is an isekai and I think it sounds actually kinda interesting, I will look it up and see if there… I will go to the fan wiki and search for the word “slave.” And you know what the hit rate on that is? So high. It’s so high! They can’t stop having slavery in isekai! It’s crazy!
TONI: But it is interesting, though, because that isekai genre is based around a kind of fantasy version of, approximately, this period in medieval Europe, right? But the idea of slavery in these in these isekai is built around the similar era of slavery that we’re talking about in this show, obviously, through a fantasy lens, but a lot of that fantasy was built upon Norse mythology—thinking about things like The Lord of the Rings and its indebtedness to Beowulf. And so, it’s hard to extricate, I think, this conversation from that larger discourse because this show is about exactly those kinds of slavery, right? Without the fantasy element that these isekai are about, it ends up having a very different perspective on them.
CAITLIN: Yeah! Outside of the specific slavery conversation, I think Leif is an interesting character within his cultural paradigm, not just because he is the kind of guy who goes out searching for this little boy from his village who was enslaved and accidentally buys other ones who are short and blonde and named Thorfinn but aren’t the ones he looks for and then he’s just like, “Well, here’s my son now, I guess!” [Chuckles] But also, the culture that he lives in is very focused on battle and conquest and violence, and he is out doing exploration and he’s not exploring for the sake of conquest. He’s exploring for the sake of it, for finding out more about their world. And in the very first episode, when he’s telling stories about his journeys to the children, all the adults are like, “Oh, that Leif! Him and his silly running around and not really trying to accomplish anything.”
TONI: Because the only idea of what success is is to win at war and then eventually own slaves. That’s what a young Norse child’s idea of what success is, because that’s what’s culturally considered normal in that society.
CAITLIN: Right. So I think he’s presented as this very unconventional-within-his-culture person from the very start. And that start, him plus Thors and his whole “I was just hit by the emptiness of violence one day and just walked away” and Ylva’s asking about slaves, and he’s like, “No, we will not buy a slave because it’s not our way” and rescuing slaves, it really puts the philosophy of the story right out in the open.
ANNIE: Going back to the bigger picture and, kind of, where you started about, nowadays people have a pretty limited understanding of slavery as a construct in situating different movements or structures of slavery throughout history. Because American chattel slavery, as we know, starts in, like, the 1400s with the triangle trade—and really in the 1300s, prior to that, and in the way it makes land and becomes situated as the foundation of the United States, whereas Vinland Saga takes place in the late 10th, early 11th century. It was just a very different configuration of power and empire, and there’s not exactly nation-states articulated the way that they are. There’s a little bit more shifting borders, looseness, some degree of nomadic groups like the Vikings.
And I appreciate what you’re saying about Leif being an anomaly because he is an anomaly, certainly, to the overall structure of Viking culture of domination and conquest. But even within Iceland—Thors and his wife had made their way out to Iceland to escape, at the very least, the domination of it—even the people of Iceland who are just trying to survive in a subsistence way think that Leif is strange for having bigger ideas of the world and imagination than just trying to survive the day-to-day of how hard things are in Iceland. So, I think, for a lot of reasons, he’s a really curious character for Thorfinn to meet in the very beginning and then for his role to be situated again in Season 2.
Oh, and the other thing I wanted to say around all of this, I guess, before we move forward, was that I really appreciated what both of you were saying about isekai and this fantasy relationship to Europe. I think that’s a global issue of this fantasy of medieval Europe. And what I really, really value about Yukimura-sensei and in Vinland Saga is that it is so grounded in historical fact. Like, he’s definitely having his own imagination, his own sense of play, or fudging some facts about who these characters are, how they may have related to each other. But his grounding of the economics, of the violence, of the cultural attitudes and mores and the consequences all those things have on people at the very, very top, to Canute, all the way down to the bottom, of folks who are enslaved within this system, I think is a really great antidote to the really problematic, loosey-goosey fantasy orientation we have towards that time period.
CAITLIN: Yeah. And I mean, I love me some medieval European fantasy. To be perfectly honest, I grew up reading the work of Tamora Pierce. They were a huge influence on me growing up. I read a lot of Dragonlance as a teen. I am fond of that. But also, that kind of fantasy of medieval Europe… it never existed. Yeah, this kind of glorification of medieval Europe. But yeah, I think Yukimura’s devotion to realism and thinking out these societal structures in a very realistic, grounded way while also thinking of it in a modern way is really his strength. You know, Planetes, his other big series that’s known in English, is set in the future, but it’s still dealing with a very rounded problem like collecting garbage in space. What do you do with space trash? Because that’s a really huge danger for spacefaring vessels.
TONI: And only getting worse nowadays with all the satellites that Elon Musk is launching into space. It’s only getting worse.
CAITLIN: Yeah, that are exploding. Yep.
TONI: So, did we want to talk a little bit about the kind of— I think one of the really interesting narratives in the show and one of the narratives that I think Yukimura-sensei is really trying to critique in an interesting way is the myth of the good enslaver. Ketil, I think, is very interesting, because when he’s first presented, we kind of see him as this… I think he’s presented in this way that is somewhat… not kind but reasonable. Like, he gives Thorfinn and Einar this idea that if they just work the land and make him money, he will release them and then they can choose whether or not they want to continue working for him. And other people had gone through this, so this was not a false promise, right, like Pater.
And of course, this is kind of one of the distinctions between medieval European slavery and American chattel slavery, is that no American slave could… well, as far as I know, it was very, very, very rare for American slaves to buy themselves out of slavery. Versus, you know, in medieval Europe, maybe it was more common. But I think that over the course of the show, Ketil’s relationship with morality and this idea that he can be a decent person while enslaving is more and more critiqued to the point where it just falls apart completely. I don’t know. What are y’all’s thoughts on Ketil? Because I think he’s really interesting.
CAITLIN: I think… I agree. At first it comes across like, well, thank goodness this guy is the one that owns Thorfinn and Einar because he’s gonna let them work their way to freedom and he doesn’t treat them cruelly. And the moment that fell apart— I mean, as a person with critical thinking skills, I was able to be like, “Well, hold on a second.”
TONI: [Laughs] I’m sorry. That’s just funny because so many people don’t have critical thinking skills around this stuff! Anyways, continue!
CAITLIN: I was able to say, “Well, hold on!” But the moment that it became clear that that was a false narrative within the show was when he was lying in bed with his head in Arnehid’s lap and just sobbing about how he’s under so much pressure and his life is so hard, and it’s slowly pans up to her face, and it’s completely blank, because no matter how quote-unquote “nice” he is, he owns this woman, she does not want to be there, he is raping her daily, and what he is doing to her is not love. And she hates him. She acts nice with him because that is her job as an enslaved person. And from that point on, it is very, very clear what the narrative is saying about him as someone who owns other people, other human beings, and deprives them of their choices and their freedom.
TONI: It’s very interesting because it seems like he’s trying to present himself as a poor little meow-meow. And it’s just, like, the poor little meow-meowification of enslavers, right? [Chuckles] And it’s like, “No, dude. You do not know how to stand up to your son. Also, you enslave these people!” And it’s really interesting the context in which he’s whining to her, right? Because the context is that he just beat up one— I forget whether they’re… whether they’re… Were they servants at his estate or another estate?
CAITLIN: I don’t know if they were servants, because they were caught stealing, right?
TONI: Yeah, they were caught stealing. And then he kindly offers, like, “Well, you’ll just work for me for a couple of years, just long enough that you can earn back what you stole from us.” And I don’t remember, maybe more. I forget exactly. But the point is that he’s just beat up a poor child, defenseless, with a big rod. And because his son was like, “You’re being too soft on these,” and he knew that if he let his son beat up this child, the son would literally kill him. And then he’s like, “Oh, my life is so bad because I have to do these terrible things! And that’s why you should feel sorry for me and comfort me! Wah!” And it’s like, girl! Stop! And at that point, to give him any kind of credibility, it feels a little bit like that dril tweet that’s like, “I stand corrected. I’ve just talked to my publicist and I just learned what ISIS is, and we actually do not have to hand it to them.”
CAITLIN: Do not, in fact, “gotta hand it to them.”
TONI: No. Annie, do you have any thoughts on Ketil before we kind of shift gears a bit?
ANNIE: Yeah, I do. With Ketil, I think it’s interesting, because I think one of, again, the strengths of Yukimura’s writing is that he really portrays the unique challenges from an individual standpoint—that each of these people within this worldview can barely imagine a world outside of the ones that they’ve known. I think that the two people who do it the most obviously are Canute and Thorfinn. But with Ketil, it’s interesting. Yeah, similarly, you kind of get lured into this false sense of security in the beginning that he is a kindly slaveowner who’s offering an alternative path.
I do think that what is valuable here is that Yukimura-sensei portrays, again, slavery accurate to the times, as in there were models and opportunities for some people to work their way out of slavery through… it’s called manumission, I think, when you work to free yourself, because then I think it problematizes the entire notion of slavery being a positive or a viable thing in the first place, because, yeah, like you both have said, when we get to Arnheid later, it really is clearly like, “Oh, it’s based entirely on his whim.” And any structure that’s based on an individual person’s feelings is not inherently ever going to be fair or just. So I think those are the things— Even prior to him beating the young boy, I think that there were some flags to communicate that he is not an inherently good person and is not going to be a reliable person in the structure, because of the ways in which both Einar and Thorfinn were being treated by the other former slaves. He clearly just [obscured by crosstalk]—
TONI: [crosstalk] Yes. The retainers, yeah.
ANNIE: Mm-hm. Because it doesn’t impact his bottom line whether all of Einar and Thorfinn’s work gets completely undone and that they’re bullied and stuff like that, right? Because at the end of the day, what matters is his harvest, the amount of forest that they can tear down on his behalf, and things like that. So, I think that already, from the very beginning, can call into question whether or not he’s a decent person. But I just thought it was interesting that by the time we get to what happens with Arnheid at the end, Twitter was very violently divided on this and that there was a lot of defending of Ketil and his mental state and the acts that led to that. Yeah, so I just thought it was interesting because when I’m looking at it in the beginning, there are certainly some flags about his state of humanity as an individual. And then by the time we get to the end, it calls into question both him as a quote-unquote “good slaveowner” and the entire structure of slavery in the story. So I just thought both were interesting.
TONI: Again, ISIS, you do not have to hand it to them. [Chuckles] Like, God. Were people falling for the whole poor little meow-meowification? Is that what was going on?
ANNIE: Well, yeah, I think that what happens is that you see him making these choices, I think that people do have a sense of empathy, and I think, in some ways, it’s because Yukimura sets that up for Thorfinn, right? Like, should we be feeling sad or sorry for Thorfinn at all, given the relentless amount of people that he’s murdered? So you’ve already kind of been set up in the early part of this season to be like, “Oh, we should have empathy for everybody, right?” This is a really violent, hierarchical, horrible society that they live in, and everyone’s just trying to do the best that they can.”
But then you get to Ketil and then by the end, he’s lost everything, it’s partly his son’s fault that Canute is about to turn on him, Canute has his own larger designs on the farm that have nothing to do with him as a person. So it does set up, by the time you get there, that I think people were won over by his “Poor me, my life is so horrible. Everyone else is upending all my hard work.” And I think that people… and we are conditioned to dismiss the facts that Yukimura-sensei was laying out in terms of how awful of a person he was, right? Because you also saw that in the difference between him and his father, where his dad was like, “Dude, you are getting greedy and ambitious, and you don’t have to treat people this way.” But he was clearly ignoring his dad and, again, kind of crafting this “Poor me” victimhood narrative.
TONI: Which is really interesting because you then see his son, right? His son… Well, his two sons.
CAITLIN: His terrible sons.
TONI: His terrible sons. But wildly enough, Olmar actually ends up in what Vrai has called the Nanami zone for me, of characters who just start off so horrible, just so terrible, but then grow so much over the course of the story and realize how fucked up they are, and then ultimately have some semblance of enlightenment by the end of the story! [Chuckles] Like, it’s really wild to me that of all of the characters in Ketil’s orbit, Olmar is the only one who actually seems to get it by the end of Season 2.
CAITLIN: It’s hard to overcome that societal programming. You know?
TONI: Yeah, and I think the thing is that Olmar ultimately was protected by his own cowardice, right? And I think that’s part of what’s really interesting about Olmar, is that he’s such a coward and he’s so incompetent at killing people and he’s so incompetent at being a disgusting Viking warrior or whatever, but because he’s terrible at it and because he’s completely incapable of murdering anybody, until, of course, the end, when somebody helps him do that with the little mirror trick, he’s protected from having that identity for himself and having to retroactively justify all of his decisions about murdering people over and over and over again. Now, the thing he still has to retroactively justify is his position within an enslavement system. But I do think that him not being a warrior and being a coward actually is what allows him eventually to let go of the designs of Ketil and his brother.
ANNIE: Well, it’s interesting that you point out that, in this regard, his incompetence is kind of what saves him, because I think it is, in many ways, Ketil’s competence as a slaveowner that ultimately damns him to the system. Right? Like, we’re kind of finding him at a moment in his midlife where he has successfully built his estate and, because of that, has been able to free people and, because of that, has a reputation and has all these things. I think it’s because he’s totally successful within it that when he loses all those structures, he kind of enacts the worst forms of violence through it.
CAITLIN: When you make jokes (“jokes”) about “When the revolution comes, so-and-so will be the first ones with their back against the wall,” it’s a lot harder to let go of your notions in society when you are succeeding within those structures.
TONI: Yes. You have too much invested in it. And Olmar still has things invested in it, right? So, speaking of the horrible violence that Ketil does when he’s losing everything and how he lashes out, I want to talk a little bit about Arnheid, because her arc, I think, is kind of the key to understanding a lot of the show’s relationship with enslavement, and she is also what eventually Thorfinn kind of dedicates his work, creating Vinland, to her, at the end of the second season and to creating a place where she would rather live than be literally dead. So, yeah. What are y’all’s thoughts on the way that the show presents Arnheid and the specific experiences of enslaved women?
CAITLIN: You know, I think Arnheid is really… she’s a really, really important counterpoint to Einar and Thorfinn’s enslavement because, like I said, she is not in a position where she can work herself free. She is stuck there because her labor as basically a comfort object to Ketil is not something that quote-unquote “creates value.” So even if he wasn’t treating her like this security blanket that he’ll never let go, there is no way for her to create enough value that he earned back what he paid for her, which I think is kind of an interesting way of looking at it and how women’s labor is devalued because, once again, it doesn’t quote-unquote “create value.” And yeah, he’s just… The labor that she has to do is seen as more comfortable, but it is also highly demeaning. She had a family and she was taken away from it and is being forced to do the things that she would be doing for her family with these people who have bought and paid for her.
ANNIE: I saw somewhere on Twitter at some point that someone compared Arnheid’s role in the story to be similar to Askeladd’s in Season 1—obviously in terms of personality, but in terms of her role. She is this really crucial character around which everything else is shaped, and with her death at the end of the season and Thorfinn’s inability or anyone’s inability to extract her from that situation, I think it says a lot about the society and its consequences at the time.
And I just think that’s so valuable to think through because she is so quiet, so unassuming, so sweet, right? She starts off as a love interest for Einar, and honestly I didn’t really think in the beginning that she would become such a meaningful character. And then they become friends. And then you start to see, in their interactions between Einar, Thorfinn, and Arnheid over time, the imbalances of gender and how gendered the experience of slavery is, because she’s not the only female slave on the farm but she is the one that’s considered the favorite, and even when Einar and Thorfinn are treated as Ketil’s favorites because they’re successful in tilling the field, for them, there’s still a pathway out to freedom, and for her, being the favorite is only going to entrench her more deeply in the violence and the sexual violence of it. Right? And I think that’s a deeply gendered experience of it. And I feel like the reality of what happens to her totally crushes the myth that any model of slavery is viable because there’s no model in which she was ever going to be free from him, his toxic masculinity, his desire to dominate, and on top of that, all of the vicious violence that she has to face from Ketil’s wife.
CAITLIN: Which is… You know, I think there is a degree of women being set in opposition to each other to their relationship, right? You know, the wife resents Arnheid because she is her husband’s pretty little plaything, whereas she is aging, like people do, and thus Ketil does not value her like he values Arnheid. But also, she’s a free human being.
ANNIE: Yeah, and she presents herself as such, right? She comes off as that kind of cliché cisheteronormative naggy wife. Like, she has opinions on how things should be done. She wants him to be an active participant in parenting their two shitty children.
ANNIE: Which is a very reasonable expectation to have of coparenting. And then she resents Arnheid, but Arnheid has been structured in this to literally have no sense of agency. She’s expected to not only be, like you said earlier, a comfort object, right? So it’s not just about the sex, but it’s about just being this empty blank slate for Ketil to project his… whatever, any kind of emotional experience that he has. So I thought it was interesting that you were talking about it. I think it’s really difficult to tell throughout the show whether she has any opinion until the very end, when it’s like, of course she hates him. Right? But because of how she’s forced into the position of a blank façade, I think that also perpetuates this idea that Ketil is a somehow kindly person and this is a positive position for her. And I think that people are also misled by that.
TONI: I also think it’s interesting in the context of the idea of the oppressive aspects of slavery being rooted in hate rather than love. Right? A lot of people, I think, when they think about racism, for example—I know this isn’t an American context, but I still think it’s relevant—that that racism is purely about hatred and about one group hating the other and that when we all come together, things will be better and blah-blah-blah-blah-blah. But I think that what stories like Arnheid show, if we’re really looking deeply at slavery and the structure of slavery, is that a lot of the way that enslavement and especially the way that enslaved women were treated and subjugated was through these kinds of declarations of twisted and bizarre and controlling love, and possession, through what Saidiya Hartman would describe as scenes of subjection.
But the interesting thing is Harman describes the kind of ascribing of humanity to the enslaved person as— Whatever language that the enslaver uses to describe the state of the enslaved person will always be used to reinforce that person’s enslavement. Right? And when Ketil is about to brutally beat to death Arnheid, he says, right before it, like, “I’m doing this because I trusted you.” And he’s inscribing in that moment this cruel sense of… like their relationship, he thought, was between two people, one somebody who he could trust. And now he has to literally murder her, right? And so, her subjugation is partially— The language that he’s using for her subjugation is the same language that people might say is what makes him a kind enslaver, because he views her as a person, right? But no, actually. Even as he’s ascribing her personhood, her as a being who he can trust, with thoughts and opinions of her own, he’s using that, then, to justify his brutality and cruelty and beating her half to death, because that will that she has, those thoughts must be controlled. I hope I’m not getting too much into the theory weeds, but—
CAITLIN: No, the theory’s good.
TONI: It’s so important when we’re talking about— And I think about this as a teacher, too, when we talk about our students and the idea of disciplining them and treating them as autonomous beings, are we just finding ways to make that language of our students, especially when I work with Black students, as autonomous beings as like justification for me and that’s why I need to, like, you know, control them into exactly what they need to do so that I can teach them responsibility for their actions? You know? But anyways, yeah, that’s some of my very shaggy thoughts on Arnheid. [Chuckles]
ANNIE: Well, I also think it’s interesting because— Like, when we talk about the word “violence” in both seasons, Season 1 had more physical violence, more frequent physical violence, more portrayals of it in some senses. But when I look back at both Seasons 1 and 2, I feel like the violence of Season 2 was so much more searing into my memory. Like, Arnheid, the episode where she’s beaten is just brutal. It’s just brutal in a way that I don’t think anything in Season 1 comes close to, the silence when she’s being beat and you can kind of hear the squelching and the hitting of the rod. The portrayal of it for me really calls into question any glorification of what happened prior and anything that could happen afterwards. If you don’t come out of that understanding more what Thorfinn’s trying to get at, even though he’s a little baby pacifist and trying to figure it out, I have some deep questions about your humanity.
CAITLIN: Yeah. I think your point with the violence of the first and the second season being so different… There’s no way to count the violence in the second season as fun violence, right? In the first season, it was not necessarily equals, but it was two groups of violent people coming together and doing a violence to each other, whereas here the violence is all subjugating vulnerable people. It is Olmar trying to get the guts up to just murder Thorfinn in cold blood. It is Ketil beating Arnheid to death because she tried to run away with her husband! It is so much harsher because you cannot enjoy it in the way that a lot of people did. And, you know, once again, going back to the fan reactions, there’s just… people did not appreciate that.
TONI: Yeah, and I think that part of it is just perspective. Like, the first season is through the perspective of a Viking warrior. The second season, I think, is through the perspective of somebody who’s trying to let go of that. I think it goes without saying that I like the second season more. [Chuckles] Yeah, and I think the thing is that this sort of violence, it is still relevant today when I think about the experiences of women who are in prisons and how systematically women in prisons are raped and beaten by the prison guards and how that is often justified through this cruel kind of, like, “We need to teach these women a lesson to make them responsible people. And as we’re doing it, of course, we’re going to rape them.” And I’ve talked about that a lot in the Anime and Abolition episode, but I think it bears repeating that this is not something that’s just contained to what we traditionally think of as slavery, but is a structure that is still present in contemporary experiences of women in prisons and that can contemporary experience of what is effectively enslavement, modern slavery.
A little bit more subtle of a theme of the show but one that’s still present is the idea of empire. And the show engages with empire in a couple different ways, both through the story of Askeladd and also through the story of Canute and how Canute is trying to create this gargantuan empire. And then also, there’s a more complicated relationship with settler colonialism in Thorfinn’s desire to create this new Vinland-like community in the Americas. And you know, as people who live in America under settler colonialism, it’s interesting, but I don’t know if we’re gonna go super into that. But did y’all want to talk a little bit about empire in the show?
ANNIE: Well, I think that there are two geographical sites to think this through, because the Vikings are kind of being resourced through Scandinavia, you know, Denmark, Norway, that region, and they have extended their reach to England, which is where most of our Season 1 takes place with Askeladd. And then there’s Iceland, where Thorfinn and Thors [are] from and Thors having escaped. He’s like, “I just need to find a place away from this, from the Jomsvikings, to be able to live a life of peace.”
So I think about both Iceland and England in this context of empire. When we get to England, the whole thing is about how do you dominate a place that is across the sea and what kind of relationships do you need to build with the local people for them to accept domination, how regularly do you have to raid, things like that. And Askeladd is an interesting character because in Season 1, we understand him for most of the season to just be a regular Viking, even though he does give us hints, when he meets Thors, that he’s actually not the son of a Viking but he says briefly, oh, I’m the son of, you know, his mother, who’s Welsh. And then later we find out, okay, his mother was basically kidnapped and made to be enslaved and subjugated to his father, who was a Norseman, and he hates the Vikings because of that colonial domination. So, even though he participates in it, he secretly just resents and loathes it, and we start to kind of see fissures in his character when Wales is at stake because he so deeply associates Wales with his love for his mother.
So I think all of that is interesting, right? He’s like, “Fuck England, fuck the Danes, but when it comes to Wales, I will do anything I can to protect it and keep it peaceful.” So I think it’s just interesting to kind of look at all of that. And I guess I’d be curious to how you all think that that shapes Thorfinn’s understanding in Season 2, because he has a pacifist angle but I don’t think he’s like an anti-imperialist in the way that I truly believe that Askeladd hated empire, as much as he participated in it.
TONI: Thorfinn is interesting, because when I think about his objections to Canute’s empire, I’m not sure that he was objecting enormously to Canute being a king or to Canute having the power of empire. I think he was objecting because of, partially, his relationship to that particular land, right, which of course is related to empire and settler colonialism. One of the reasons that he uses when he’s talking to Einar… Einar’s like, “What are you doing? We’re gonna get killed for this guy who enslaved us? Why are you doing this? Why are you going off and sticking your neck out for a farm where we were enslaved? What is going on here?” which I think, frankly, are very valid questions. I’m gonna be real here.
But Thorfinn says, “This land did so much for us. This space is where I…” And I don’t remember if he says exactly, specifically, that he feels indebted to Ketil, which I personally find incredibly questionable—like, no, you shouldn’t, dude—or whether he’s just talking about the land, but the way I kind of read it was “This is a space that is meaningful to me. Even if it’s not the space I’m gonna stay, it’s still a place and a community that I want to protect.” So I think that a lot of how Thorfinn views his morality is at least partly through his connection with others, the interpersonal, like, “I want to create a place where Arnheid would feel safe. I want to create a place where I can have these meaningful bonds with people that are not affected by slavery, not affected by war.”
But I don’t think necessarily that he is on principle opposed to nation-states generally and the idea of—well, if we can call them nation-states—the idea of acquiring territory, given that he and Canute speak so respectfully to each other, versus Einar, who’s just like… The implication behind everything that Einar says to Canute is “Fuck this dude,” which, honestly, I vibe with. So it’s very interesting. I don’t think Thorfinn is as simple as being entirely anti-imperialist as much as he is just wanting to create a place where people who want to escape from war can.
CAITLIN: Right, well, the thing about Vinland is people already live there, right? He’s talking about creating a society where a society already exists. So that is kind of… And he’s probably not thinking of it in this way, but that is already kind of imperialist in and of itself.
TONI: Yeah. I think that the manga is gonna get more into that, and I’m really curious to see where the manga goes with that because I haven’t read it, but I think that it’s—
CAITLIN: Have they announced another season of the anime?
TONI: You know, it makes me really mad that they haven’t.
CAITLIN: [Gasps lightly]
TONI: I’m really, really fucking upset about that.
ANNIE: They hinted it in a poster where it did, I think, the Roman numeral three within Vinland Saga, but they haven’t set dates or anything. It was just like a hint that it was forthcoming.
TONI: But yeah, I think that it’s worth noting that Askeladd’s story kind of shows a little bit more of this relationship between slavery and colonial violence, because I think Askeladd’s story just makes very explicit that slavery is a result of coloniality, right? They are dependent on each other in this society, which I think makes clear the position of the story itself.
So, okay, we’ve had plenty of thinking time, y’all. We’ve had plenty of thinking time. So I want to know, based on all of this thought, who would win in a fight, Ylva or Thorkell? Give me your takes.
CAITLIN: You know, it’s really hard to say. I think Thorkell would underestimate her at first and she could probably use that to her advantage. Thorkell has not stated a position on women fighting.
TONI: [Chuckles] I don’t think he has a position on much of anything except for…
CAITLIN: Right. Well, I mean, does he think women are inherently weaker? Like I said, would he underestimate her, or does he take her seriously as an opponent from the start? Because that could make a big difference.
ANNIE: Yeah, no, I think you’re right. I think that maybe there’s two different questions, of who would win in a fight, in which case you have to think about “Would Thorkell even agree to fight with a woman?” Does he actually believe that it’s possible? But then who could kill the other? I wholeheartedly believe that based on that, Ylva could totally kill Thorkell. I think that she [obscured by laughter].
ANNIE: I think she would be able to exploit his underestimating her and the situation to just wreck him. But whether you’d call that a fair fight or not is a different question. But I think she could do it.
CAITLIN: Yeah, listen. It cannot be easy having just a household that’s just a mother and daughter without any men in the culture that they live in. So we already knew she was tough as nails. But I feel like she’s a survivor. You know? And not that Thorkell is an honorable fighter or anything, but I feel like she fights meaner and sneakier than he does.
TONI: I feel like his entire character in the first season is like the Viking who has at least somewhat… It’s not that he has morals necessarily, but he has a code of conduct that he holds himself to. And I feel like that would fuck him up when it comes to fighting somebody like Ylva, who just has… she is pure destructive potential.
ANNIE: And that’s why she’s so attractive.
CAITLIN: [Chuckles] I think he would be into it! I think by the end of the fight, he would be like, “All right, yeah. I like this.”
TONI: “Marry me.” [Chuckles]
CAITLIN: Yeah. No, I think it would end with a marriage proposal.
TONI: It’d be like Guel— It’s kind of like Guel at the end of the second or third episode of Witch from Mercury, where he’s just like, “Well, you kicked my ass. You kicked my ass. And now, I have to ask you to marry me.”
ANNIE: To which I think she would kill him.
CAITLIN: [crosstalk] “I have to, but also, sincerely. Please marry me.”
TONI: [Chuckles] She would kill him, you said? [Chuckles]
ANNIE: I wholeheartedly believe that you’re right, it would end in a marriage proposal, and I think she would still wreck him. She’d be like, “Nah. You did not stand up for my dad when he was trying to figure this stuff out, so we’re good. I’m out.”
CAITLIN: Ooh! That’s a good point. I didn’t consider the anger, the emotional motivation. Thorkell just likes a good fight. He doesn’t really have a whole lot in terms of wants and desires other than just wanting a fight. She would probably bear him genuine ill will.
TONI: That’s true. I hadn’t even thought of that. Wow. But hey, maybe enemies to lovers, you know? Eh?
CAITLIN: [Hums thoughtfully]
ANNIE: Aren’t they also technically niece and uncle?
CAITLIN: I think they are actually relatives. I don’t think they’d care.
TONI: [crosstalk] Are they? Ugh.
ANNIE: So, like, incestuous enemies to lovers?
CAITLIN: No. No, thank you.
ANNIE: If that’s the direction? But I think I’m good! I’m good.
TONI: [Laughs] All right, well, with that, we’re gonna close this out. This has been Chatty AF: The Anime Feminist Podcast.
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CAITLIN: Thoughtful anime journalism and also sometimes discussions about who we would smash and who would kill who in a fight.
TONI: Yeah. You can’t have one without the other. If you’d subscribe to our Patreon, you will also get access to our AniFem Discord, where you can continue the conversation of who is hottest and who is nottest in anime. Our anime discussion chat is literally called anime-butt-chat, where we talk about anime butts and more.
CAITLIN: One day I was watching Code Geass, and something took over.
TONI: Mm-hm. All right, anyways. And with that, we’ll see you next time! Bye-bye.