Back in March, announcements about an upcoming Vinland Saga started popping up around the web, but it’s only in the last couple months that the reality of it has started to sink in for a lot of folks (myself included!). For those unfamiliar with the series, Vinland Saga is mangaka Makoto Yukimura’s second major work following Planetes (also highly recommended, but slightly outside the scope of this blog), following protagonist Thorfinn as his life falls apart around his ears and gets built back up again in the latter years of the 10th Century. Although fictionalized, Thorfinn and a significant number of other characters are real figures; his companions throughout the manga include Cnut the Great, Leif Erikson and Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir, among others. If you know nothing about Viking history, it’s a great, action packed read. If you have an interest in Viking history — like Yukimura himself does — Vinland Saga is a must read. It’s hands down one of the best pieces of Viking or Viking-adjacent fiction I’ve read and has grown volume by volume into one of my favorite pieces of fiction, period.
But just in case that’s not enough of a sell, here are 4 reasons you should definitely read Vinland Saga.
1. It’s beautiful
Although some (a lot) of the character art work is a little rough in the beginning, Yukimura started out strong with his action sequences and has only gotten stronger. Even early duels and pitched battles have an intensity and flow to them that is on par with wholly action/battle series. There’s a real sense of weight to each strike; you can almost feel the jarring thud that comes with a heavy blow. But even outside the many battle scenes, Yukimura’s art is gorgeous. No detail is skipped, no subtle markings ignored. Vinland Saga still has the honor of being home to one of my favorite panels in manga. Not because it’s dramatic or a beautiful background, but because it’s a detailed close-up of a minor character’s hands that tells readers a wealth of information about the girl they belong to.
It’s the balance between the subtleties and details that make Vinland Saga beautiful from the get-go (weird, muppet-shaped Normans in the first chapters aside), and something that makes it worth checking out for visual appeal alone.
2. It’s a love letter to the Viking era
I’ve read a lot of Viking-adjacent fiction over the years, and Vinland Saga is consistently the #1 on my list for a reason. Yukimura has put an incredible amount of love and work into his series and it shows in battle sequences, exposition, and daily life sequences alike. He’s spent time in Iceland on research trips and clearly done an incredible amount of reading on the cultures and landscapes of the era and he’s clearly as fascinated by Viking domesticity and local politics as he is by the natural drama of their warfare. There’s an intense interest on the page for all the best parts of early Nordic culture without shying away from the worst parts (and there are some pretty bad ones), which makes it the best kind of love letter of all.
3. It’s driven by a sense of exploration and wonder
It might be harder to see this outside of obvious exploration sequences, like Leif Erikson recounting his adventures or later exploration sequences, but Vinland Saga carries a sense of wonder and imagination inside of it from the very beginning. From Askeladd’s creative battle strategies in Chapter 1 to Thorfinn’s early fascination with his father’s weapons, to the titular Vinland itself, everything in Vinland Saga pushes forward out of a need to innovate, a need to know, or a need to find. This is true even for those characters seeking to find the limits of their own abilities; each time they find themselves pushed further than they thought they could go, sparks of joy (or determined frustration) light them up. In one sense, by virtue of the setting, it is a battle manga, but it is also very much a manga about what else is out there and what else humans can accomplish.
4. It’s a story about the pursuit of both external and internal peace
Although violent, Vinland Saga is not a story about violence. If anything, it’s a story of the ways in which violence carves deep physical and mental wounds not only into ourselves but into the people we love and the people who surround us. It’s a story of how brutality damages us but also a story that shows, particularly in later chapters, the necessity and even righteousness of using violence to defend those who cannot defend themselves. Treading the fine line between condemning violence and acknowledging its necessity in times of conflict is a difficult thing. Not all writers succeed. Some go too far into the “necessity” of violence and end up glorifying it for its own sake. Others slide too far in the other direction and tread so cautiously that their stories become impotent. Vinland Saga meticulously, and for the most part successfully, balances between the two. Its characters may vacillate between the two extremes, but its writing is ultimately driven by a desire for real peace — and a begrudging acceptance of the sometimes distasteful means to achieve that.
PS. RightStuf currently has all available English volumes of Vinland Saga on sale, so now is a really good time to pick it up. The Kodansha hardcovers are beautifully done, and at almost 50% off are definitely worth the price of admission.