Do you love your father? Does your father love you?
For many of us, the answer to those questions is a given: Yes, of course. But for others, the answer is complex, revealing relationships fraught with complications; or it may simply be a resounding no. Absence, abuse, neglect, adultery, divorce, and so many other actions can cause a child’s trust to break and set a curse upon him or her, one that may take decades to break, if it ever does at all.
Father-son relationships, both good and bad, form a framework for the Vinland Saga anime, and particularly through a negative one during the middle portion of this run. Episode 14 of the series opens with a shot of the bearded and partially disrobed King Sweyn of the Danes, scars crisscrossing his back. The imagery may be meant to evoke Christ, though it’s not the beloved one who went to the cross in place of mankind; instead, this is a terrible and cruel king.
Sweyn’s relationship with one of his sons, Canute, reveals his inadequacies. While he feigns a fear that the boy, whom he sent to besiege the Goliath-like warrior, Thorkell, may be dead, the king is actually hoping that this misfortune has come to pass—he ordered the prince into danger so that he will be killed, leaving the Sweyn’s other son, Harald, to be his successor.
Despite the circumstances, the timid and childlike Canute clings to the image of a good father, one who loves him without condition. Later, after being taken hostage by the pirate Askeladd, who has executed the entire populace of an English village, he kneels before a cross set at their grave, along with his guardian, Ragnar, and Willibald the priest. In a moment of despair, Willibald confesses that he doubts God’s goodness. The normally reserved Canute becomes livid, and says that he must not doubt that the Father is good. After all, as he retorts, “Every father loves his son.”
Later, a flashback helps to fill in the story between father and son. A young Canute has prepared a dish for the king, but it is not received well; Sweyn tosses the food aside, screaming at the prince for acting “like a slave.” Ragnar tries to explain away the king’s action, babying Canute as he always does, but the viewer knows the truth: While Canute is a faithful son, his father is a tyrant.
Later in the series, another father-son relationship, just as unforgiving and abusive, takes center stage. Askeladd, who like Ragnar to Canute, is somewhat a (twisted) father figure to the series protagonist, Thorfinn, recalls his own childhood. His father was a Dane who enslaved his Welsh mother. She is thrown aside and descends into madness, eventually confronting her former master. As he lifts his sword to slay her, the young Askeladd steps in. Impressed by his courage and skill, his father takes him in and trains him, but the scheming Askeladd is just biding his time. He later murders his dad and frames a step-brother. The recollection is told when Askeladd, pained by the death of his right-hand man, Bjorn, and frustrated with Thorfinn’s continual desire to duel him (Askeladd’s men killed Thorfinn’s father, Thors, years prior), explains more than emotion is required to successfully fuel vengeance. One also needs the wherewithal to follow through fully on his intentions.
Canute stands as witness during the duel between Askeladd and Thorfinn (what would be their final one). By this point, the prince has overcome his timidity and is himself scheming to commit patricide and regicide both, empowered by Askeladd and Thorkell, who have become his retainers. The change of heart occurs as Canute, previously so devout, comes to a realization regarding fatherly love, and decides to rebel against God:
“Is there no love in the hearts of men? Is anyone sane in this world? Everyone’s the the same. No one knows how to love. No one knows the meaning of life. No one knows the meaning of death. No one even knows why they’re fighting. I’ve had enough. I’m sick of it. What we lost in exchange for wisdom, the most important thing, it’s something that we’ll never get back as long as we live. We’ll never attain it. Yet, even then, you still tell us to seek it? Father in Heaven…I no longer seek your salvation. If you will no longer give us salvation, then with our own hands on this earth, we shall create our own paradise.”
Canute sees God’s silence as worth fighting against, and decides to create his own “paradise” on earth, even if it means “becoming a demon” to obtain. That line of thought falls right matches Askeladd’s, who says that no matter who you believe in as God, it’s up to humans to do the deeds, to make change happen. They both seem to believe in the watchmaker theory, that God has set the world in motion and now just observes without intervening.
It’s not reasonable for Canute for Askeladd to think this way. They grew up in a world where religion is hardly is questioned. They are knee deep in the middle ages, with the Enlightenment and its scientific values, offering a further way to think about the universe, almost a century away. And they have witnessed and been party to a violent, unforgiving world. Askeladd fully participates in it, killing the good man, Thors, among many misdeeds in his long life. But most personally, he and Canute saw cruelty up close at a young age from the very men who should be kindest to them, the men who should most closely resemble the kind, selfless Christ. And yet those men killed, waged war, destroyed, and abused them, their family, and other innocents.
And in this madness, what they’ve concluded is that God is silent. He doesn’t deliver the good from the hands of the evil. And so they both spiritually “overthrow God” by killing him, Askeladd literally assassinates Sweyn, the perverted image of Christ, by beheading him. This occurs mere days after Sweyn’s son put his belief in Christ, also perverted by poor theology, to death.
In Shusaku Endo’s classic book, Silence, he, too, investigates the question of “Why is God sometimes silent in times of great suffering?” in a historical setting, but this one hundreds of years later and across the world, focusing on the persecution of Christians by the shogunate as the Edo era begins. As violent as Vinland Saga is, Silence is even more difficult to swallow, as the government tortures and executes loving, kind Japanese believers in front of the foreign Jesuit missionaries that are their true targets. The man at the center of the narrative, the priest Rodrigues, begins to lose faith: How can God allow this to happen? The power to stop it, as is explained to him, is completely in his hands: Rodrigues need only step on the fumie, thus rejecting his faith, and the torture and violence will end.
It would be too unkind, too flippant, to give the typical church response to this question, which is that the suffering around us is mostly due to sin, and that Christ offers us freedom through his grace, though because we live in a fallen world, we may still endure pain—even terrible suffering—until one day when we walk into eternity with him. As much truth as this statement carries to believers, it doesn’t convey the image of a loving God to those who are suffering now. What of the child soldiers in Africa who are victims of violence and turned into killing machines, much like Thorfinn? Of villages wiped out across the world in acts of genocide, not too distant a scene than that of Askeladd’s killing of the peaceful Christians in Vinland Saga? Of parents who abuse their children and families and destroy their lives, as with the fathers of both Askeladd and Canute? The promise of salvation seems too far off, too unreal when someone is trying to kill a young child right now.
I see the rationale in the biblical answer, and I trust in God’s ways. I believe that the fall is our fault, that the terrible things we think and do are because of the sin we’ve committed, the sin done upon us especially by loved ones, and the sins of our society. I believe, too, that Jesus’s death and resurrection means that for eternity, for the 99.99%+ of our “lives,” we’ll live in peace and goodness. And I believe that the kingdom is here now, too, and that when we live like Christ, we can change the direction of our lives and in the lives of others.
But that doesn’t mean that I don’t wrestle with God, like Jacob did; it doesn’t mean that I don’t struggle with my own pains, and see how much more challenging life is for others, and then struggle further. My faith sometimes really isn’t faith at all—it’s a “giving up,” proclaiming that “God is good” instead of continuing to dive deeply into the problem of suffering, which is to say that I would rather follow blindly than consider issues that poke (or spear) at my faith. After all, my faith is imperfect, my mind is small, and my willingness to love is limited—which all means, I suppose, that I do need God desperately after all. On one hand, I’m like Canute, questioning and even blaming God (What response would he have given me had I been one of Job’s counselors?!), and with the other, turning to him in thankfulness and petition because I believe in his truth and have experienced his forgiveness. I am forgiven, but the human in me still fights against the holiness of my new heart and stumbles along the prideful path I’ve carved rather than the narrow but beautiful one God has laid out for me.
I think that, like Canute and Askeladd, I don’t only consider the misery of the present—I get lost in it. I forget both about the kingdom I’ll one day walk into, and also the kingdom now that fights against the evil forces of darkness all around us. Canute blames God and wants to spit in his face, but forgets the blessing he’s received, that despite the abuse at his father’s hands, he was given opportunity to be in a position to help bring peace, one which God would want for us, to a world that isn’t peaceful. The Father desires peace on earth among his creation, while more importantly offering peace to each of us in our hearts, even while we try to snatch that blessing away from one another. But then like Canute, we blame a God who doesn’t snap his fingers to make everything “perfect,” while he is actually here with us fighting by our side.
And in that way, his relationship to us is mirrored in the healthiest father / son dynamic in Vinland Saga—that of Thors and Thorfinn.
This father loves his son and protects him. This father even loves his enemies, punishing them, but still offering mercy. This father chooses death rather than to kill those he rightly should. Thors, now years (and by the finale, some 20 episodes) removed from the tale, is a good father, full of love and justice. And like the Heavenly Father, even though no longer physically in front of Thorfinn, Thors is still drawing him near, with memories of his goodness and visions that encourage him to forgive. The world has been terrible to Thorfinn, but the specter of his dad is even now trying to bring him peace. Why does Thorfinn not kill Askeladd, who he has sought vengeance on after all these years, even when the pirate is dying and tells him to drive the final knife home? It’s because that even though his hateful emotions erupt frequently, deep inside, Thorfinn has started to take his father’s lessons to heart; he has forgiven Askeladd for his crime, and further, as evidenced by how he returns to save the old man during Thorkell’s river attack and by his tears during their final goodbye, even loves him.
“Every father loves his son.” Canute’s statement isn’t true, not even about his own dad, but it is true if you add “good” into it: “Every good father loves his son.” A good father wants what’s best for his child, which isn’t riches, comfort, or even happiness, though the latter is a byproduct of the greater gift he would bestow. He wants to give his child “peace.” Thors walked away from the Jomsvikings because he desired to rear a family in peace, without war and far away from the evil of man. And even now, a decade or more after his death, he still follows Thorfinn, gently pushing to him to make peace with himself and others, to forgive.
And in these visions, Thors also does one thing in addition. He reminds his son of a dream to settle in Vinland, a world not so harsh as their Icelandic home, a land filled with green hills and rich soil. It is a place beyond the horizon, unspoiled by mankind and its violence, where suffering is no more. A perfect place. A land of peace.
The land to which the good father leads.
Vinland Saga can be streamed on Amazon Prime.