Given the amount of time that has passed both within the universe of Vinland Saga as well as in the real world, it isn’t just welcome to have a whole episode dedicated to catching up to the (Former) Prince Canute, it’s downright necessary. This is a saga and a bona fide historical epic, after all, and Thorfinn was never our only protagonist, even before Einar entered the picture. If Thorfinn’s story is the dark and tragic portrait of a man who has been reduced to absolutely nothing by the buffeting maelstrom of war, then Canute’s tale is the foil that the laws of dramatics demand: He, too, lives a life driven by battle and bloodshed, but he stands to gain everything. Before, when he and Thorfinn met as little more than children, Canute was merely a meek prince. Here, in “The Path of Blood,” Vinland Saga shows us how our uncertain little prince from all those years ago carved a ruthless path of power and seized the Throne of England.
We can’t pretend that any of this is surprising, exactly, since Canute (aka “Cnut the Great”) is a genuine historical figure who ruled the lands of England, Denmark, and Norway throughout the first few decades of the 11th century. While Vinland Saga has never pretended to be anything close to a historical documentary—I do not believe there is any historical evidence from the real-life Thorfinn Karlsnefi’s life to indicate that he was ever a slave, for instance—the series has made strides to be faithful to the general tides of European history. The first season of Vinland Saga concluded in 1013, where this episode’s flashback reminds us of Askeladd’s murder of King Sweyn that landed Canute on his current path to kingship. It only takes a brief glance at any timeline or Wikipedia entry to know that (Spoiler Alert?) Canute will be the ruler of all of England within the next five years.
The interesting threads of drama lie for us in the how of it. Canute had promise as a leader back when we knew him as a boy, but to become the King of England is entirely different. After all, this is the 11th century, where matters of royal lineage and sovereign rule were genuine, bloody affairs. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on where you stand on matters of “violently wresting control of an entire country via subterfuge, brutal warfare, and assassinations), little Canute has hardened his heart even more in the years since Sweyn’s murder and Thorfinn’s exile. He makes a point to execute any of his men who commit acts of pillage and plunder, which shows us that he still has a heart and a moral code buried beneath the scowl and the scruff that permanently adorn his face now. Still, his eyes are cold and firmly locked in the direction of the destiny he is carving for himself.
I’ll be honest: I was a little worried that this episode would fall a bit flat for me. I’m a sucker for history, but I’ve been so drawn into Thorfinn and Einar’s story that I was not quite sure I was in the mood for such a sharp right turn back into the realm of kingly politicking. By his very nature, Canute is a much more inscrutable and distant character than Einar or even Thorfinn, now more so than ever, and for as fun as wildcards like Thorkell can be, there isn’t anyone in this sector of the story that I am as emotionally invested in as I am our other heroes.
Thankfully, Vinland Saga was able to draw me back in with the pure, delicious entertainment that comes from watching Canute transform into such a wonderful bastard of a king. There was never any chance that the Mercian nobles’ attempts to buy Canute off would work, but I am so glad that the show made such a meal out of Canute’s haughty, righteous dismissal of their small-minded betrayal of “King” Aethelred. Canute doesn’t want money; he wants the world, or at the very least, he wants the part of the world that he believes is already rightfully his to command: England. He is no great pretender to the throne, either, and the dramatic reveal of how much of the land he has already conquered is such a perfect supervillain move that the proceeding montage of assassinations and ascensions is just icing on the coronation cake.
While Thorfinn has spent the last half-decade wallowing in misery and self-defeat, Canute has embraced the cruelty this world demands from its rulers. If the show plans to continue to color within the lines of historical fact, then Canute the Great has many years left to get his kingdom into order. I’m not sure how or why such a storied monarch’s path will cross again with that of a forgotten slave’s, but we know Thorfinn’s saga is far from over. Our wayward warrior has his own destiny to fulfill, and I’m sure that his eventual reunion with Canute, however, it may come about, will make for quite the tale to tell.
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