*Spoiler alert for Vinland Saga Season 1. Also, I haven’t read the manga yet, so no spoilers for anything beyond the first season of the anime, please. Got it? Everyone on the same page? Cool. Let’s go.*
As you might expect from a story all about Vikings, Vinland Saga’s first season is all about war. As such, it explores a lot of questions regarding what war does to people. How its horrors change people, why people go to war, so on and so forth. It does a great job of exploring just how terrible war is for everyone involved.
Then there’s Thorkell. Who is just having the time of his life. Or at least, that’s what he’d have you believe.
The Lie: Valhalla
When he’s first properly introduced into the story, Thorkell is essentially a mad dog. A battle-hungry man who doesn’t care whose side he’s on, so long as he gets a good fight out of it. He enjoys eating his fill (which is a lot), fighting strong warriors, and just having a good time.
In basically every way, he is a true Viking. A warrior only out to satisfy his own desires and earn his way into Valhalla, to battle alongside the gods. Greater purposes, morals, Thorkell doesn’t believe in those things. He just wants to have a good time and die in a glorious battle.
Or so he says.
The Wound and the Want: Staying Behind and a True Warrior
Now that we understand the lie Thorkell tells himself, let’s explore why he tells it.
Before the story started, Thorkell served in battle alongside Thors, the father of the series protagonist, Thorfinn. Thors faked his own death, which caused Thorkell much grief, as he considered the man a friend. However, Thorkell soon ran into Thors, alive and well, as his old friend tried to flee with his wife and baby daughter.
During this meeting, Thorkell noticed something was different about his fellow soldier. Thors had a unique look in his eye, like he understood something that Thorkell didn’t. Thors went on to say that he understands what makes a, quote, ‘true warrior’, and he begged Thorkell to keep his survival a secret before subsequently vanishing.
This meeting captivated Thorkell. He wanted to understand what Thors did, to know what a ‘true warrior’ was. In one scene later on in the show, Thorkell openly admits that he wished he had followed Thors that day, that he himself had abandoned the battle and gone with his friend to learn what he had. Alas, Thorkell never got that chance, as he only realized that’s what he wanted after Thors was long gone.
Since then, Thorkell has tried to carry on living as he is. Fighting, eating, and not having a care in the world. But beneath that smile hides emptiness and regret. Thorkell doesn’t know what it is that Thors realized, but he desperately wants to know. And that not knowing is hollowing him out inside, little by little.
That’s why he is so captivated with Thorfin when he meets him. Surely Thors’ son would understand the secret that his father did. And if nothing else, he would surely provide just as much of a challenge in battle as the unstoppable Thors. Either way, Thorkell won.
Until Prince Canute stepped into the scene.
The Need: A Leash for the Mad Dog
Thorkell’s life is aimless. He can’t have the answers that Thors had, so he tries to fill the hole within himself with battle and food and general satisfaction. But the fact that he has no concrete allegiances or goals troubles him. His life has no purpose and he knows it.
Enter Prince Canute. The man that had the ultimate aim: to create paradise on earth. To make a world without war, without suffering. He’d have to trek through oceans of blood to get there, but he was prepared to make that sacrifice. Anything to create his idealized utopia.
You might hear that and think that Thorkell would be against it. Such a world would be against his battle-hungry desires. But remember: Thorkell doesn’t truly want battle anymore. He wants whatever it was that Thors had come to understand. And when he looked at Canute, a part of him felt that same way that he did way back when he confronted Thors for the last time.
And so Thorkell allied himself with Canute. The mad dog allowed a man to put a leash on him. Because Thorkell was curious: was what this prince envisioned what Thors had described? Could he finally understand what his old friend did?
Maybe so. And if not, at least he’ll get the fight of his life out of it. So either way, Thorkell is happy.
Once again, I must reiterate: this is all written purely from the perspective of an anime-only watcher. I have no idea how Thorkell will develop in the material beyond what season one of the show covers. For all I know, he’ll become an entirely different character. This whole article is only covering his arc in the first season.
Still, what an arc it is! When I first watched the show, Thorkell was one of the least interesting characters to me. He was fun, sure, but not interesting. But the longer I stewed on his motivations and the deeper themes of the story, the more intriguing and memorable he became.
It’s just that Askeladd was so good that everyone else paled in comparison.