Robert Eggers’ newest film The Northman is a wonderful addition to the filmography of one of modern cinema’s best directors of horror and mythology. The director of The Witch and The Lighthouse returned this April with his largest budget film yet to deliver a lengthy viking epic based on the legend of Amleth — the Scandinavian legend that inspired William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
It is also a film set against 10th century medieval Europe that curiously misses the pitfalls of contemporary anti-medievalism, but not because it is pro-Christian.
The Northman is as lively an epic as you’re going to see. It is a massive piece of action filmmaking in the model of films such as Braveheart and Gladiator, with massive sets, enormous Icelandic backdrops, violent battles, and larger-than-life characters. The story is small but its stakes feel intense, and the mythological aspects of the story bring a fresh vision of the pre-Christian European world to life — including visions of animal spirits, vision quests, prophecies, hallucinations of the Norse World Tree and cameos by at least one Norse god.
This vitality sets it apart from its contemporaries. It marks a departure from the usual portrayal of the Middle Ages on film. Other anti-medieval films chafe against the constraints of medieval mysticism. Last year’s releases of director Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel, and director Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta portrayed the Medieval period as backward, superstitious, and cruel.
Benedetta portrays lesbian sexuality as a force of spiritual awakening for its protagonist, who grows closer to God the more she resists the harsh rules of the Catholic church. The Last Duel shows us a world of harsh legalism, where a rape victim is unable to find justice outside of the patriarchal hypocrisies of the church.
Organized religion is portrayed in these films as a hindrance, that obscures truth, oppresses the weak, and lacks the authenticity of pre-Christian spiritualism. The Northman though is uninhibited in its joyful presentation of Norse mythology as a vibrant and lively religion of deep rituals and energetic celebrations, where the Gods are living and responsive beings that shape the fates of men by prophesying their destinies.
The Norse pagan legends are portrayed as naturalistic and more morally liberated, where sex and violence are less inhibited by rigid moral legalism and asceticism. This is a religion where the gods don’t look upon sex as dirty. This is a religion where a violent revenge quest is rewarded by a seat in the halls of the Gods, and where witchcraft is a prophetic and useful tool against oppression.
The Northman feels more comfortable with its mysticism than the films polemicizing Christianity do, and it indulges itself more deeply in a story that affirms its main character and the culture he lives in.
Mr. Eggers speaks in his interviews of mythology as a curiosity. He portrays it in his films with total sincerity, imagining how the existence of gods, witches, and visions might bring out the best or worst of his human characters.
As he said in an interview with Den of Geeks, “there’s still dark mythology and all the kinds of things that I’m interested in… The things that may have been called superstition by the intelligentsia in the early modern period are more canon [here]…. But this is a world that embraces Pagan magic as a positive thing and an everyday thing.”
Paganism is just another mythology for Mr. Eggers, a self-proclaimed “Bushwick hipster,” to write his post-modern morality plays against. He can use witchcraft as a tool to bring out the patriarchal cruelty of Puritan Calvinist settlers on the American frontier or Greek mythology to reveal the homoerotic, Marxist tensions of his characters in The Lighthouse.
Egger’s earliest film The Witch was even praised and endorsed by The Satanic Temple, a non-theistic Satanic human rights organization that advocates against organized religion, citing the film’s portrayal of “the plight of women and outsiders throughout history who suffered under the hammer of theocracy and yet fought to empower themselves.”
Much of this is unintentional, as Eggers claims to work slavishly to tell his stories with an unbiased lens, but his prejudices seem to slip through nonetheless. When Christianity does come up in his films it is in a negative context. The only time Christianity is mentioned in The Northman is when a guard shows concerns about their Icelandic colony being infiltrated by “Christian spies.”
That religion continues to appear in these films though is revealing, in and of itself. Even if the films are polemics and propagandistic against Christianity, they capture strange dimensions and contradictions that undermine the mission of their themes. The Northman, more so than The Last Duel or Benedetta, has more than enlightenment and rationalist snobbery to scoff at the past.
As my colleague, Ethan Collins writes, “The Northman joins a recent series of medieval and fantasy adjacent films that contemplate the ways young men might interact with greatness, especially The Green Knight and Dune. The Green Knight asks how a shiftless young man might regain a combination of both greatness and goodness if he is living with a dying generation who was both good and great but did not properly pass their knowledge down to their children. Dune asks how a young man might yield greatness if he does not desire it but has it thrust upon him. The Northman asks what a young man is to do when the previous generations lovingly taught him how to be great and strong in both greatness and goodness only to have his inheritance prematurely snatched from his grasp.”
University of Chicago professor Rachel Fulton-Brown is a defender of medievalism and says that kneejerk anti-medievalism is an expression that the Middle Ages capture something about modernity that people crave, saying “What you see in the concept of the Middle Ages is a projection of all the things modernity likes to think itself it’s not. We wish we had that feeling of magical powers and mysticism. Whatever is said of the Middle Ages is something modernity wants of itself.”
Mr. Eggers himself affirms this, stating in an interview with comedian Marc Maron’s podcast, “Growing up in a secularized society, there isn’t a lot of the sublime around.” He continues, “living in a mythological system where everything around is imbued with significance is appealing to me.”
Mr. Eggers’ films speak to desires and anxieties, both pre-Christian and post-Christian. He yearns for the spiritual and sublime, a tendency it shares with contemporary Neo-Pagans and Wiccans, who yearn for spirituality outside of the strict limits of organized religion.
And It is a compelling vision to see the world of Beowulf, The Icelandic Sagas, and The Poetic Edda brought to life in The Northman, seeing a world where magic and the gods will bend to the knees of nietzschian willpower, slaying Kings and tyrants at the whim of the oppressed. Wicca is one of the fastest-growing religions in America, at least in part for that reason.
The Northman yearns for the clarity and simplicity of the pre-Christian world, while it is itself a post-Christian epic. In embracing this yearning though, he loses the core moral sophistication of Christianity and the ethical obligations it creates.
When Shakespeare’s Prince Hamlet learns of the murder of his father and has his prophetic destiny of righteous vengeance laid out before him, he goes mad trying to grapple with the implications. He wants to seek the kind of Roman or Greek justice of the great tragedies of the Pagan past — a dramatic murder followed by an honorable suicide — but he is a Christian and sees damnation at the end of that path.
Unlike the protagonist of Hamlet, who also chafes against Christianity, the lead of The Northman has no great inner conflict about the righteousness of his actions, just feeling the accomplishment and glory of battle, feeling certainty in his vengeance quest on the path to Vallhalla. He is tempted by the women in his life to seek peace and domesticity but he is honor-bound to seek glorious vengeance.
Such a result can only be affirming to the worst instincts of the post-Christian world. The naturalism of the Pagan world brings with it the baggage of bronze age ethics; a world permissive to blood feuding and destruction, reflecting our own post-Christian status quo of political violence, tribalism, and self-righteous indignation — a world where righteous revolutionaries can destroy entire cities in the name of justice, and where truth is relative.
That humanity is thirsty for truth against this backdrop is no surprise. Egger’s secular upbringing though seems to have set him up for spiritual failure, to be chaff in the wind that blows away. This is a reality Eggers reflects on in the same interview with Maron, that humanity’s patriarchal violence is a feature of humanity and not a bug, that only a vague sense of hope smooths over the reality that humanity is doomed.
Such hope is lost on him. Blessed is he that is “like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither—whatever they do prospers” – Psalm 1:3.
The Northman is a spiritual artifact of our times, well worth appreciation as a work of Pagan virtues, but also a warning. It embodies, as Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf says, “the hope of the heathens; they were mindful in their hearts of hell, nor knew their creator.”