*Spoilers ahead for Vinland Saga; if you haven’t seen the first season of the anime, please watch that before reading this article.*
The list of truly remarkable anime antagonists is much shorter than one might expect. Sure, you could list a whole ton of baddies from shounen anime, like Freeza or Pain or All For One, but those are more effective as obstacles of evil to be overcome. Very rarely do we get truly interesting, memorable, or loathsome antagonists.
Askeladd, or Lucius Artorius Castus, is one of those characters. He’s a rare example of an antagonist who walks the line between likable and despicable. You hate his guts, yet at the same time you can’t help but admire him. You want the protagonist to defeat him, but you also want to see him succeed. He’s so effectively written that just about everyone agrees that he’s the best character in the show, at least as far as I’ve seen.
So, what is it about this guy? What makes him tick? Why is Askeladd’s story the true highlight of early Vinland Saga? Let’s break it down, shall we?
The Wound: Ashen Boy
In terms of backstory, Askeladd isn’t particularly unique. He’s the bastard son of a Danish jarl and his slave, a woman from Wales. Growing up, his sickly mother would tell him stories of the hero Artorius, a legendary Roman hero and his ancestor, who would supposedly one day return to save them. However, when his now insane mother crossed his wrathful father’s path, Askeladd realized that the hero of legend wasn’t going to come back. So he did the only thing he could do: he fought.
This actually earned Askeladd some respect from his father and his half-brothers. However, that didn’t settle the hatred that had boiled in Askeladd’s heart. Always cunning and dangerous, Askeladd assassinated his father and pinned the blame on one of his brothers, thus achieving his revenge for a childhood of slavery and suffering.
Sometime before or after this event (it isn’t clear in the anime), Askeladd’s mother died. In order to fulfill her wish to return to her homeland, Askeladd took her to Wales to be buried. There, he made several friends and political connections, and he grew fond of his mother’s homeland.
These two deaths, his mother’s and his father’s, would dictate the course of Askeladd’s life. His mother’s memory drives him to do good and make the world better. His father’s gives him the ruthelessness and cunning he needs to make those goals happen.
The Want: Mother’s Home
Let’s start with what his mother gave him: a goal. And his goal is surprisingly heroic for the main antagonist of this part of the story: make the world better. Manipulate Danish politics so that a good, reasonable man takes the throne. Why does he want this? So he can protect his mother’s homeland, Wales.
In any other story, this would make Askeladd the hero. And in some ways, he still is. However, the way he goes about achieving those goals is often… less than admirable. Askeladd is willing to pay any price to get what he wants.
Even if it means becoming what he hates the most.
The Lie: Father’s Hatred
Now, let’s talk about what his father left him: hatred.
Askeladd hates the Danes, especially Vikings. In his mind, they’re all just like his father, being heartless morons who only want sex and murder. Even those in his own crew, those that followed him and fought with him for years, were the objects of his disdain. But he stuck with it because that’s what he needed to do. In order to fix the Danes, he had to become just like them.
It’s like the old saying: “When in Rome, do as Romans do.” Ironic, considering Askeladd’s heritage.
Except here’s the thing: Askeladd doesn’t hate them as much as he wants to. Even after his crew betrays him, he still shows them kindness and respect even though he doesn’t have to. He fully admits to Bjorn that he considered him to be a true friend. Hell, he admired Thors so much that he took in his son, Thorfin, despite the boy’s insistence on trying to kill him.
Loath as he is to admit it, he is still half Danish. And he despises this. He tries to reject it, to only be one. But despite it all, he is his father’s son just as much as he is his mother’s. He can’t simply choose between them.
Moreover, he shouldn’t.
The Need: Letting Go
As the first season of Vinland Saga reaches its climax, Askeladd seems to be nearing his goal. He’s made himself an invaluable ally to the exact kind of king he was hoping to find. Now he can take his sweet time planning a way to put that king on the throne. He can protect Wales and make a better, less bloodthirsty future for the Danes.
That is, until the current king declares war on Wales.
Suddenly, everything Askeladd has worked for is at risk. And the king knows it. He offers Askeladd a choice: does he protect Wales or the prince? Does he save the future of the Danes or does he save Wales? In this moment, Askeladd is essentially forced to choose between his mother and his father.
So Askeladd makes the ultimate choice: he lets go of everything. He lets go of his plans for the future. He lets go of his hatred of his father. He decides to protect both Prince Canute and Wales, to save the homes of both his mother and his father, by making the ultimate sacrifice. He kills the king, then lets Prince Canute kill him and take the throne.
Thus ends the tale of Askeladd. In the end, he became a martyr in order to achieve his goals. The only question now is: will it have worked?
Well, that’s not the only question. There is one other one left hanging: where does that leave our protagonist? Where does that leave Thorfin?
What truly makes Askeladd interesting to me isn’t just his arc, as phenomenal an arc as it is. Rather, it’s his relationship as the antagonist to Thorfin, the protagonist. Specifically, how their final scene together plays out.
Throughout the first season, Askeladd proves himself to be Thorfin’s opposite in every way. Where Thorfin is blunt and straight-forward, Askeladd is cunning and deceptive. Yet as the show draws towards its climax, the similarities between the two start to become clear. Thorfin’s quest to avenge his father is, in many ways, a reflection of Askeladd’s quest to avenge his mother.
In their final scene together, as Askeladd is dying in Thorfin’s grasp, Askeladd doesn’t antagonize Thorfin. Rather, he tries to help the boy. He asks him what he intends to do once he actually claims his revenge. He even tries to make Thorfin deliver the killing blow so that he can actually get said vengeance. With his dying words, Askeladd tries to help Thorfin so that he doesn’t become as Askeladd did, so that he doesn’t live his life chasing revenge and hatred. In his last moments, he tries to break the cycle that he himself created.
That is why I love Askeladd as a character so much. He isn’t just a phenomenal antagonist because Thorfin can’t beat him. He saw that Thorfin’s goals would lead him to destruction, and so tried to change him despite Thorfin’s wishes. He didn’t just stand in the way of our protagonist’s goal, he actively tried to change it because he knew from experience that that goal was unachievable. It’s ingenious writing that works incredibly well for the themes of the series.
I plan on reading the Vinland Saga manga fairly soon, and I’m excited to see how things will play out after that final Askeladd scene. How will our antagonist’s early demise affect the story going forward? I can’t wait to find out.
Though it had better be pretty damn interesting. Vinland Saga is gonna have to up its game without Askeladd around.