The release of the latest installment in the acclaimed manga Vinland Saga has inspired me to go back and reflect on this series. Set in the early 11th century in Northern Europe, the story in this manga focuses on the theme of atonement. The road to atonement proves to be a vicious struggle for Thorfinn, the main protagonist of the series. There are three particular scenes that I feel wonderfully examine this theme and show how great this manga is. I have provided my own translation of the original Japanese below (WARNING: some spoilers)
Thorfinn's father is Thors, and he was once one of the four great generals of the Jomsviking army. He was known as the "Troll of Jom" for his ruthless cunning in battle. However, he grew weary of war and the utter futility of it all, and decided to flee to Iceland with his family, faking his own death. Laying roots in his new home, he lives in peace raising his family in a land without war, all the while searching for what it means to be a "true warrior." However, the bad karma from his life on the battlefield eventually rears its head, and once again he must head into the fray. Thorfinn is overwhelmed with excitement upon learning of the legendary exploits of his father, and there is a really impactful scene in which Thors finds him holding the weapons he used in the past. Speaking to his son, Thors attempts to convey the answer at which he arrived (English text below Japanese screenshots; manga screenshots read right to left).
Thors: Tell me, who do you intend to kill with those?
Thorfinn: My... enemies.
Thors: So who are your enemies?
Thorfinn: Ahh... Halfdan???
Thors: Listen Thorfinn... You have no enemies.
That's true for all people. No one has any real enemies.
There's nobody that deserves to be hurt... Not anywhere.
Thors's fervent plea was essentially an oath to never to put anyone to his sword again, but it was too difficult for Thorfinn to understand. He was eager to see the "Troll of Jom" go berzerker on the battlefield, and this curiosity drives him to sneak on board his father's ship when it sets out for Europe the following day. However, they are ambushed in the Faroe Islands by a group of mercenaries hired to assassinate Thors. Thorfinn watches as his father is slain before his eyes in his duel with the Asherrad, the leader of the Viking mercenary troop. Thorfinn becomes consumed by a fiery vengeance and attaches himself to Asherrad's band, waiting for the day in which he can avenge his father's death.
Asherrad is a truly fascinating character. He takes Thorfinn in and has him work alongside his men, despite knowing that the boy seeks to kill him and avenge his father's death. In a certain respect, we see Asherrad watching over Thorfinn as he grows up much like a father would. The reverse is true for Thorfinn, with Asherrad becoming that fatherly presence in his life... only to be killed right before his very own eyes again. The scene depicting the final conversation between Thorfinn and a dying Asherrad is really touching. He attempts to convey the utter futility of a life of vengeance and ceaseless killing, much as Thors had done.
Thorfinn: Don't you go dying on me! I won't allow it!
Thorfinn: Get up! We have unfinished business to settle! You're mine to kill!
Asherrad: (To himself) This is why you've always been a handful Thorfinn.
Asherrad: (To Thorfinn) Tell me... What did you intend to do with your life after I'm gone?
Asherrad: Haha, you've never thought about that. Goes to show with you.
Thorfinn: Silence! That doesn't concern you...
Asherrad: Life's much more than this... Don't let this vengeful hate continue to hold you back...
Asherrad: Your path lies beyond the world your father found... Go forth, Son of Tors...
Asherrad: Go and become a true warrior... Son... of... Tors.
Thorfinn falls into slavery after Asherrad's death and is bought by the owner of a vast farm on the Jutland peninsula in Denmark, where he is charged with clearing the forest for new fields. The next few years of his life Thorfinn simply goes through the motions, having lost the object of revenge that he had made his sole purpose for living. Around the time he turns 20 he meets Einar, a young slave from a family of farmers, and their encounter marks a major turning point in Thorfinn's life. Einar makes an active effort to talk to Thorfinn as they go about their work on the farm, and these conversations help Thorfinn to open up. Until then, he had only known a blood-soaked existence of taking life, but his experience on the farm with Einar shows him the joy of cultivating life that in turn supports the lives of others. However, he still finds himself enveloped by the deep and dark swells of regret, and is assailed by nightmares each and every night. Wandering through this darkness, Thorfinn pledges to completely forsake violence and dedicate his life to helping the oppressed. He aims to take them to Vinland, the land far across the ocean that he heard of as a child, and create a place free of war and slavery. The scene in which he shares this newfound mission with Einar really speaks to the heart. The author does a beautiful job portraying both the remorse Thorfinn feels for his past, and his determination to atone for his sins the best he can by fulfilling this mission.
Einar: But there's people like you Thorfinn. You reject what many consider to be normal and right. Is it that strange to swear not to hurt others?
Thorfinn: At least in Norse society... People label you a coward, and cowards get left out.
Einar: That's not right.
Thorfinn: I've accepted it. There's no helping it. But it's probably best that way if I'm going to carry their burden.
Einar: Who's burden?
Thorfinn: That of the dead.
Thorfinn: I'm visited every night by the souls of those I killed. They torment me. "Why did you kill me," they ask. "How could you kill all these people--fathers, brothers, and sons--knowing the anger and hate you felt when your own father was killed?"
Thorfinn: I have to make my penance with them... taking them to a place where they can rest in peace...
Thorfinn: But I can't take it any more. This burden is too much for me to bear alone.
Einar: Do these dead souls only appear to you? Are other warriors tormented by the spirits of those they killed?
Thorfinn: I can't speak for others. In my case, I began to see them after I became a slave. Maybe we can't see them while we're still warriors.
Einar: I see. I guess it's impossible to see them while people are still warriors.
Thorfinn: It's always on my mind... finding a way to earn their forgiveness.
Thorfinn: Laying down my sword doesn't seem to be enough... That's a given.
Thorfinn: Simply promising to never kill or destroy anything does not suffice as atonement.
Thorfinn: I need to grow more wheat than what I trampled under my feet.
Thorfinn: I need to fix more houses than I burned to the ground.
Thorfinn: I need to do what I can to weed out the death and destruction I sowed with the seeds of life and creation.
While it's easy to destroy things, building them back up is much harder. Just as I wrote above, Vinland Saga seriously examines the theme of atonement. The beauty of this manga, in my view, lies in its examination of this issue. "Is complete atonement truly possible?" I hope the answer to this compelling question slowly comes to light as Thorfinn's tale continues to unfold.