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Viking 'Roids: The Northman, White Nationalism & Toxic Masculinity
Layla Legard , June 2nd, 2022 08:09

Is the mythologising of extreme violence in The Northman historical accuracy or merely providing succour to the toxic masculinity of the modern far right? Layla Legard investigates

It’s become a cliché that the far-right love Vikings. For that, blame 19th-century Romantic nationalism, which birthed strange monsters by connecting runes, volkisch ideals, spurious ‘Ariosophic’ theories of a supreme Germanic/Nordic/Aryan race, and the compulsion to reject the realities of modernity for an imagined ‘traditional’ life that never was. It’s bizarre that these ideas persist, but persist they do – reinvented with each generation. In the right-wing world that lies beyond conservative Christianity, the Viking looms large, entwined with sometimes contradictory, and profoundly anachronistic ideas that are pick-and-mixed to constitute manifold far-right worldviews. As it was in Europe between the wars, so it is in the globalised present.

It isn’t hard to look around and immediately see far-right appropriation of Viking culture. It has been a trope since the Nazi party incorporated into their cultural identity Romantic ideas of warrior spirit and masculine virtue, as well as the notorious Armanen runes of Ariosophist Guido von Liszt. Alongside runes the Valknut, a funerary symbol which has been attached to ideas of warrior valour, appeared many times at Charlottesville, as did the Sonnenrad, or black sun, comprised of 12 of Liszt’s sig runes: a symbol that has become widely known recently given the mainstream coverage of Ukraine’s far-right Azov Batallion (although this shouldn’t distract attention from the use of such symbols by Russia’s own paramilitaries). Elsewhere, far-right entryist groups like Operation Werewolf, an American white nationalist movement started by Paul Waggener which espouses military-style fitness training and bodybuilding, and mixes racially tribalistic self-improvement with the pagan mysticism of Waggener’s Odinist cult, The Wolves of Vinland. Operation Werewolf has global reach on social media and trade on völkisch-cum-faux-paramilitary, black metal and outlaw biker aesthetics; their ethos of masculine anti-modernity inspired by fascist idealogue Julius Evola, and romanticised notions of Viking ‘warrior spirit’.

In this respect, it feels like 2022 is exactly the wrong time to produce a Viking epic. Unless you are going to be highly informed and challenge contemporary assumptions about Nordic culture there exists the danger of unwittingly producing a film that the far-right will idolise – essentially doing their propaganda work for them. Against this backdrop, Robert Eggers, along with Bjork-collaborator and novelist Sjón decided to give it a try anyway.

While The Northman was in development, Eggers famously stated that he is “allergic” to white nationalist aspects of Viking reconstructionism and representation, saying that he wanted to make something which wasn’t all about macho stereotypes.

He failed drastically.

If I was a primary school teacher marking Eggers on his “Don’t make a film Operation Werewolf will idolise” brief, I don’t think I could even give him a good effort sticker because, unfortunately, this film is primarily about glorifying needless violence and death. It centres the most macho and depraved aspects of Viking culture whilst only giving the most perfunctory of concessions to more open-minded (and potentially more historically accurate) viewpoints about women’s positions in those societies.

It’s hard not to feel like a killjoy, heavily critiquing the politics of what is essentially a stylish action movie. It’s grubby naked Marvel with runes: insofar as Viking material culture is concerned you can just enjoy it as a fairly well-researched and aesthetically pleasing movie, if an extremely predictable and, in terms of narrative, unremarkably told, one. However to me it seemed like a missed opportunity to explore the themes Eggers discussed in the lead up to this film. If Eggers’ words suggest that he was somewhat aware of how the far-right often attaches itself to popular Viking tropes (especially those that support their ideals of militaristic, violent tribalism) then it seems odd that Alexandar Skarsgard as Prince Amleth is a grunting, hyper violent roid-rage Berserker, wearing a wolfskin in the style of QAnon Shaman, and engaging in village raids and committing atrocities with little reflection. The most conscience he displays is when we get a few shots of him looking vaguely uncomfortable when his fellow warriors are selecting the women from the village he has just raided to be raped. Thanks Eggers, means a lot. You could say this is “realism” to the period but then, Eggers is quite selective about which aspects of the world-building he commits to being genuinely realistic in.

The positives come in Eggers' passion for historical detail, and this is reflected in the faithful reproduction of costume, finds and armoury from the archeological record. The women wear authentically Viking tortoise brooches, plant-dyed fabrics and tablet weaving is depicted on screen; the warriors wear riveted chainmail and helmets based on genuine finds, made by reenactment specialists. Not everything is absolutely spot on, but it’s nice from a geeky, archaeology-fan point of view that the trouble was taken to create a convincing and visually authentic world, which grounds some of the more outlandish or gory aspects of the narrative.

Yet when it comes to portrayals of women in the era Eggers could have done better. There is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it nod to the Birka female Viking warrior, a 10th century warrior’s burial which was discovered in 1878, complete with an impressive hoard of weapons. This included a wide array of armour-piercing arrows, sacrificed horses and military board games (grave goods I could aspire to) which suggested the burial of a skilled mounted archer. Perhaps due to the cultural biases of the era in which it was discovered, grave Bj 581 was always assumed to be that of a biologically male sexed Viking warrior. It wasn’t until a 2017 genome study of the skeletal remains revealed the lack of a Y-chromosome and therefore a female biological sex – opening many possibilities about gender roles and identity in medieval Scandinavia whilst also highlighting how modern societal norms and expectations are often transposed onto archeological data. Despite the many Icelandic sagas and the Eddas referring to women warriors, these were often dismissed as mythological. Whoever this person was, whatever their gender identity – even just the posthumous life of Bj 581 is a fascinating one which, if imaginatively told, could challenge many of the tropes and biases which plague representations of Viking women in modern media.

In The Northman however, a woman warrior is seen for a few seconds, riding through the raided village and rounding up slaves – at which point the possibility of a completely different film flashed before my eyes and was gone again before you could say “Oh look, there’s Bjork cosplaying Heilung. We also get repeated dream sequences of a bizarrely weedy Valkyrie who looks like she couldn’t fight her way out of a paper bag. Sure, her teeth are carved, a nice touch in reference to some archaeological finds, but overall her appearance seems to confirm that women are only permitted to be visible in Egger’s films if they conform to his feminine ideal, regardless of the context. Is it too much to ask for women warriors to look like they could genuinely hold a sword above their heads?

Steve Rose, writing in The Guardian, portrayed the white nationalist response to The Northman as uniformly positive, which it perhaps broadly is – an all-white cast and 'traditional' gender roles would always go down well in those circles. The perceived ‘authenticity’ comes up again and again: a reviewer at New Right/Radical Traditionalist website Counter-Currents even went so far to write that Eggers’ “dogged commitment to authenticity has resulted in a film of which Joseph Goebbels would approve”. Obviously that quote didn’t make it onto the movie poster. Yet there were more ambivalent voices on the right generally, in part (and perhaps surprisingly) due to the hyper violent masculinity and the lack of focus on family. Indeed, some even go so far as to believe that the extreme violence was an intentional move by Eggers and the ‘Hollywood elite’ to discredit Vikings and, by association, white nationalists as barbaric savages.

I can completely understand anyone wanting to go and watch this film purely for the aesthetics and as a fairly faithful Viking fairytale, one as outlandish and tall as the Sagas that inspired it. But it is more difficult to disconnect from the dubious themes in the background of The Northman when considering how prevalent white nationalistic violence currently is. On 27 December 2021 Lyndon McLeod went on a gun rampage around Denver and Lakewood, Colorado in the US, killing five people and injuring two others. Examination of his digital footprint after the murders revealed McLeod’s connections with far-right pagan groups and a preoccupation with violence and ‘traditionalist’ ideals. He had written a novel which detailed the revenge fantasies he would later carry out as well as his racist, misogynistic politics – even citing Paul Waggener of Operation Werewolf, who later condemned the shooting. There are many other examples of shootings and massacres in the last five years which similarly show the influences of online radicalisation in which groups like Operation Werewolf play their part and, unfortunately, the valorisation of toxic masculinity and white supremacy in popular media inevitably feeds into these subcultures of hate. It makes it harder to enjoy films like The Northman as harmless fun when they appear to uncritically glorify similar acts of violence and revenge as mythic, spiritual journeys into immortality.

Why did Eggers articulate his discomfort about the special interest white nationalists have in the Viking era before he began shooting? Was it a limp attempt to preemptively clear him of association with the racists and white sumpremacists he knew he would attract by making this film? Despite his protestations, what he created in The Northman falls back on the most inflammatory and problematic tropes that play up to white supremacist ideals: relegating women to baby-making and scheming, while deliberately sidelining the wider cultural influences that peppered Viking culture. Eggers could easily have drawn influence from the sources that show contact with the Muslim world for example, or expanded on the documented evidence and literary sources for women in Viking times as frequently having complex and dynamic roles in society, travelling and holding positions of power outside of the home, even fighting. Eggers’ briefly-glimpsed female warrior would have been a far more compelling and original central character than once again retelling Hamlet, Amleth and The Lion King. By making these kind of superficial gestures towards acknowledging gender equality and anti-fascism Eggers has given himself permission to indulge himself in his films, making the bare minimum of effort in his script-writing to create interesting roles for women or to deviate from the nearly exclusively white cast, whilst falling back on excuses of wanting to be authentic to the time period or setting. This is not good enough. Although the right may laud it for its perceived accuracy, it’s near impossible to have an “authentic Viking” film, as there are huge gaps in our knowledge and evidence is often contradictory or coloured by modern interpretation. The Vikings were not a uniform society, they interacted with other peoples and cultures, they adapted and changed – how they are presented now will in part be representative to our own cultural biases, what we want to include, be it stereotype or genuine evidence, and what we choose to leave out. While the material culture depicted in the film is impressive and I don’t doubt that Eggers is repulsed by the potential association of his film with contemporary white nationalism and fascism, without the self-reflection and awareness of his own, possibly unconscious, biases he has unwittingly played up to many of the tropes that feed into violent tribalism and white supremacy.