There are a few movies whose endings stick with you. It's been over a month since I sat and watched The Northman, and I'm still thinking about that sword battle on the volcano. And not just that, but all the themes and storytelling that went into building up to that moment. Plus the echoes from that scene over the rest of the film. When it comes to this Robert Eggers movie, there's a whole lot to unpack. So I think we need a big post to do it.
Today I'm going to break down the ending of Eggers' Viking classic and talk about how all roads lead to Valhalla.
Watch this video from Think Story, and let's talk after.
What Happened in The Northman?
Before we get into the ending of the film, we should cover all the things that happen in the movie. It's an epic journey filled with warriors, shamans, princesses, farting, and blood.
The plot follows Amleth, a Viking prince who sets out on a quest to avenge the murder of his father. But it's more than just that. So let's talk about the plot of The Northman.
'The Northman'Credit: Aidan Monaghan/Focus Features
The Northman Plot
We open on King Aurvandill War-Raven returning from overseas. He's been out conquering and fighting. He is reunited with his wife, Queen Gudrún, and his son and his heir, Prince Amleth. We sense some tension in the kingdom and we learn King Aurvandill was hurt in battle. Seeing his own mortality, he decides his son must learn the old ways. He takes Amleth on a vision quest led by Heimir, the jester.
But after they exit the vision room, masked warriors led by Aurvandill's brother Fjölnir ambush and murder the king. Amleth can escape and hides as his village is massacred and his mother is kidnapped by his uncle. The young Amleth flees by boat, saying over and over, "I will avenge you, father! I will save you, mother! I will kill you, Fjölnir!"
We cut to years later. Young Amleth is now a berserker, raised by warrior Vikings. He's in the land of Rus, leading an attack on a village. Amleth meets a Seeress in the temple of Svetovit. She predicts that Amleth will take revenge on Fjölnir, and that his path is intertwined with a Maiden-King. Set on this course, he decides the time has come to avenge his father.
Amleth learns that Fjölnir was recently overthrown by Harald of Norway and lives in exile in Iceland. This makes him an easier target since he lacks his power. Amleth leaves the berserkers and swims onto a slave ship. He poses as a slave so that he will be taken to the exile land and sold to Fjölnir. On the ship, he encounters a Slavic slave named Olga, who claims to be a sorceress. They are fond of each other. She sees in him the power to escape, and he sees in her a connection to the hidden power that has set him on this course.
'The Northman'Credit: Focus FeaturesAmleth and the rest of the slaves are taken to Fjölnir's farm, where it is revealed that Gudrún, now Fjölnir's wife, has given him a son, Gunnar. Amleth watches his mother intently, trying to find the time to free her. But he is limited as a slave. So he works to rise in the ranks and gain the trust of the family. At night, he escapes his bindings and walks around the encampment. He talks with Olga and explores.
One night, he runs into a He-witch who helps him conjure the spirit of Heimir, who was murdered by Fjölnir. He then tells Amleth about the mystical Draugr, a magical sword that can only be drawn at night or at the Gates of Hel. Amleth sets off to find this sword. He discovers a cave where he then battles its undead guardian, the Mound Dweller. Now possessing the sword, Amleth decides he must wage battle on the camp. But he needs even more trust than before.
Amleth competes in a game of knattleikr against another farm. The game turns violent, and Gunnar, Fjölnir's son, is almost killed. But Amleth saves him. As a reward, Fjölnir's adult son Thorir tells him that he will become the leader of the slaves and also allows him to choose a woman. He chooses Olga.
That night, Amleth and Olga have sex. Together, they hatch a plan to destroy the farm and the people inside it. Over the following few nights, Amleth kills several of Fjölnir's men, dismembering them and even using their corpses to create pagan symbols. Olga mixes the men's food with a hallucinogenic mushroom so that everyone trips. It's then that Amleth enters to save his mother, but she tells him that she was originally a slave and that Amleth's conception was the result of her rape by his father. She tries to seduce Amleth. When that doesn't work, she tells him she begged Fjölnir to kill Aurvandill and Amleth, and that she prefers Fjölnir and her new son. Amleth leaves her and then kills Thorir in his sleep, and steals his heart.
After the discovery of Thorir's body, Gudrún tells Fjölnir that her son has returned. Everyone knows who to watch for in the camp. Fjölnir threatens to kill Olga for assisting Amleth, but Amleth offers to trade her life for Thorir's heart. He is captured and she is able to get away. Amleth is almost beaten to death, but tells them the prophecy says he cannot be killed yet. That night, ravens come and free him from his ropes. Olga rescues Amleth and the two escape, planning to go to Amleth's relatives in Orkney. He has a whole life ahead of him, one where he can find peace and a family.
'The Northman'Credit: Focus FeaturesThey are on a boat, leaving the land, when Amleth has a vision and discovers that Olga is pregnant with twins, one of whom will become the Maiden-King prophesied by the Seeress. Fearing that his children will never be safe if he leaves enemies, Amleth jumps overboard, despite Olga's pleas for him to remain.
He goes immediately to the farm as night falls and kills all the men who stand in his way. He also frees the slaves.
While searching for Fjölnir, Amleth is attacked by his mother and kills her. She thanks him as she dies. Gunnar also attacks Amleth, stabbing him repeatedly in the back before Amleth kills him. Fjölnir, discovering his wife and son dead, tells Amleth to meet him at the Gates of Hel, the crater of the volcano Hekla.
At the volcano, Amleth and Fjölnir engage in a swordfight. Fjölnir is decapitated, but Amleth is fatally wounded.
As Amleth dies, he has a future vision of Olga embracing their twin children, before a valkyrie appears to carry him through the gates of Valhalla.
The Northman Ending Explained
This is one of the most epic and badass movies. Its soundtrack really scores the thrills of the film.
In the final scene when Amleth fights his evil uncle, Fjölnir, we see how bloody revenge forces you to dig two graves as they fatally strike each other at the same moment. Amleth achieves his life’s goal, but pays the ultimate price. And Fjölnir finally pays the price of his bloody coup.
So what does it all mean?
'The Northman'Credit: Focus Features
The Northman Themes
At its heart, it's about the cycle of violence that destroys the world. There is always a son avenging a father, and for that reason, peace is never found. When Amleth jumps off the boat to seek ultimate revenge, he knows he has to die for his family to find peace. But there is an argument that can be made that if he was able to put the toxicity of his Viking masculinity behind him, he would be able to retire with a family, which is what Olga wants.
But there is no denying that at the end of the movie, Amleth is honored for completing his quest in a way that may not have happened if he laid down his sword. Instead, he is met by a valkyrie and flown into Valhalla. This sort of reward solidifies his actions being aligned with the way he was raised, as a Viking brute. He's fulfilled his destiny.
Does that mean there's no free will? Well, I would argue that the movie posits that we are in control of our fate, should we listen to it. Many times Amleth is shown where life would lead, but given options. He can continue to be a berserker but instead leaves for revenge. He could be a family man but instead decides that has too much risk for the safety of his family, so he departs.
I think he goes to Valhalla because, in the end, every choice he makes is a sacrifice. And those sacrifices add up.
But I'd love to know what you think of the end of the movie. Let me know in the comments.