Some moments in a life, and they needn’t be very long or seem very important, can make up for so much in that life; can redeem, justify, that pain, that bewilderment, with which one lives, and invest one with the courage not only to endure it, but to profit from it; some moments teach one the price of human connection: if one can live with one’s own pain, then one respects the pain of others, and so, briefly, but transcendentally, we can release each other from pain.
Valhalla Rising is a complex and violent film, full of beautiful, savage images and scant dialogue. What actually happens onscreen?
Nicolas Winding Refn‘s brutal tour-de-force Valhalla Rising stars Mads Mikkelsen as a mute killing machine owned by a Norse Chieftain. The Chieftain keeps him caged, barely seeing to his physical needs and trotting him out to fight to the death for money. He’s an impressive warrior, driven by a massive interior rage. Nameless, voiceless, and one-eyed, he sees visions, which help him to rebel and murder the Chieftain and his band, claiming his own freedom. A young boy (Maarten Stevenson) who fed him while he was a prisoner follows him, seeing that this strong man is the only hope he has for survival in a wild world in which he no longer has a home. This unlikely duo quickly meets up with a band of Christian converts who are embarking for the Holy Land to fight in the Crusades. Thanks to a twist of fate and a mysterious mist, they end up in the New World instead, where the morale and the newfound faith of the Christians shatter in the face of indigenous hostility and internal doubt and betrayal, while the fighter, dubbed One-Eye, undergoes a profound transformation.
This film has a great deal to say about the ambiguity of belief and the difficulty of conversion and change. It’s a bleak piece, but honest and not without a measure of hope. The main difficulty is in cracking the code and finding a way into Refn’s nonverbal language. This post is designed to delve into that language and is filled with spoilers, so I recommend watching the film first. It takes some time to digest. I’ll also admit that the ambiguity in the script leaves room for different interpretations. I would love to hear what you see.
In Norse legend, the head god Odin, also known as Wotan, forfeited one of his eyes to gain the ability to see the future. He also possessed wanderers, pouring his essence into their bodies and guiding them with his ability to see visions. We learn that One-Eye is a drifter who never remains in one place for more than five years. Odin was also a god of warlike frenzy, the kind of madness that grips One-Eye when he is faced with an opponent. As the Chieftain says, “He is driven by hate. It’s how he survives and it’s why he never loses.” For now.
The irony is that having foresight does not convey the ability to change fate, only the opportunity to take advantage of it and prepare for it. As the film progresses, we are privy to One-Eye’s visions. The screen becomes suffused in red and he seems to look out at another image of himself, curiously not a mirror image, as the absent eye stares directly at its reflection rather than being faced by a good eye. We are then treated to short clips of the next pivotal moment in One-Eye’s future, such as the finding of a lost spearhead in a pool of water– a spearhead which he will later use to escape– or his own death at the hands of native people armed with clubs.
If One-Eye is a vehicle for Odin, how do we interpret the interactions he has with other characters and the roles they represent in this grim allegory?
We have the Norsemen: violent people, afraid of the rumors of Christians coming to kill them and take their land. But it isn’t the Christians that destroy these warlords, it is the violence that they have capitalized on for many long years, symbolized by One-Eye, the surrogate of Odin. Odin has not chosen to favor the money-grubbing, cruel Norse elite, but a middle-aged slave who kills to survive, an underdog.
The next group One-Eye falls in with are the Christians. Their leader invites One-Eye to travel with them, as they could really use a killer like him to destroy infidels so that they may proclaim Christianity victorious. In return, they offer the killer salvation and forgiveness, not realizing he is an embodiment of a god they seek to destroy. These men are on their way to the Holy Land, searching for fortune and glory, which they don’t recognize as profoundly unholy things. At their core they are no different from the Norse, clinging to violence as a means of asserting control. While they may have been converted in name, they remain loveless and bloodthirsty. When the boat becomes mired in a windless mist, they revert to superstition and believe the boy traveling with One-Eye must be bringing a curse on them. As they fall on the boy in an attempt to kill him, One-Eye unleashes his lethal force to assert his dominance and save his young friend’s life.
As the mist clears, the travelers find they have sailed up the mouth of a river and are nowhere near the Holy Land. Some of the group believe they are in Hell, and that they have been taken there by One-Eye. Perhaps Odin was looking for new territory? The group’s tenuous grip on reality begins to disintegrate, perhaps infected by Odin’s madness, fear at their isolation, or by something in the mud of the riverbed. The Christians turn on one another in terrible ways, and, after constructing a cairn, One-Eye sets off with the boy on his heels. Cairns are a way of marking where you have been, for yourself and for other travelers. Who is it that Odin/One-Eye expects to follow him? Two of the Christians try to come along, but one has been mortally wounded by his best friend and the other has lost his father and cannot go on without him. Although they do not survive, these men seem to find peace, perhaps because they are hanging on to their human relationships and their compassion. All the same, death is neither easy nor beautiful.
As One-Eye and the boy reach the seashore, hoping somehow to go back home, they encounter a group of natives. These fellows have already been featured in One-Eye’s final vision, the vision of his own death. Are they enemies, or are they followers, new converts to an undetermined religion? It seems that Odin is about to use One-Eye to transform himself into the archetype of the dying god, or, perhaps, One-Eye’s hatred has finally run out. In a most Christlike and uncharacteristic fashion, One-Eye looks lovingly at the boy, reaches out to touch him, then turns and walks meekly to the native people, who raise their clubs and beat him to death. We have one last vision of One-Eye/Odin, free of his body, his spirit overseeing the scene of his own sacrifice, his journey to the New World complete. The boy looks out at the sea, knowing he can never go home, his fate uncertain.
The relationship between One-Eye and the boy drives the film. They have some sort of understanding, perhaps even a telepathic connection, as the boy is able to speak for One-Eye, who is completely mute. They are fellow travelers and sufferers and they care about each other. It is this caring that transforms gods and mortals alike into something more worthy and admirable.
Valhalla Rising makes the case that these Pagans and Christians alike are cruel men, born in a cruel time, trying to exert their cultural dominance over one another. The Christians are stand-ins for the Crusaders, who, when they could no longer sustain a “Holy War” in Palestine, turned to the Americas and brought their honed taste for torture and death with them, still doing horrors in the name of God. No creed will save humanity. The only hope is that we may be transformed and redeemed by love and compassion.
I am reminded of a verse from the Bible, I John 4:8, which states that “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” The people that know God are not always the people you would expect. They are the people that, in the end, choose love, not violence, even if that means their own death.
Outsiders inspire fear and enchantment. What does our reaction to those who are different say about us and our beliefs?
Literature and film contain shining examples of outsiders, but I doubt there are many stories in either medium that contain as many outsiders as John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. The most genuine and endearing element of the book is that every single character seems to be experiencing some form of isolation.
Irving has created a fictional town, bleakly named Gravesend, that resembles his hometown of Exeter, New Hampshire. John Wheelwright, our narrator, is the dyslexic stepson of a teacher who will follow in his stepfather’s footsteps, a lonely boy who hungers desperately to know the identity of his biological father. Owen Meany and many of the more sensational parts of the novel are fiction, but the kernel of John Wheelwright as described above is John Irving himself. What is it that Irving needs to say about his experience growing up in small town America that requires the detailed and loving construction of Owen Meany?
In comparison to the secret sufferings of most of the inhabitants of Gravesend, Owen Meany’s difficulties seem far more obvious. He is small in stature and possessed with a shrill, pre-pubescent voice. His father is in the granite business, considered disreputable and dirty, and his mother is a silent invalid who spends her days sitting by the window, staring away from the outside world. By the time we meet them, a secret belief about the nature of Owen and his birth has already impacted their lives.
Owen creates strange feelings in those around him, feelings that have less to do with Owen himself than they have to do with the person reacting to him. His smallness and fragility inspire others to either become protective of him or abuse him, his “unnaturalness” speaks to those inclined to superstition (including his own parents), and his unwavering faith speaks to those who struggle with their own faith. This effect is amplified as his life plays itself out, a life in which he will be responsible for the accidental death of his best friend’s mother and for a heroic deed which he foresaw in his own dreams. Owen gives those around him a nudge toward believing that which they were inclined to believe, but never could embrace. His life is such an authentic one that it polarizes those who come in contact with it.
What is it that Owen stands for? Perhaps that depends on where you stand. He might be the spirit of an American innocence that was lost forever in the Vietnam War, a Christ like figure who took on the sins of others to protect the innocent, or a victim of the cruelty of society, of chance, or of God himself. Perhaps he is just a symbol of Irving’s own childhood, stunted and lost, or a clever tool which allows Irving to explore not only his own painful experiences, but those of the community in which he grew up. When it comes to being polarized by Owen, we are no exception. Whatever attitudes we bring to this stunning piece of literature will be strengthened by it. John Irving does not force his beliefs upon us, but he provides us with Owen Meany, a mirror in which we may find our own faces revealed. What do you see?