Did Prince Amleth the Viking of 'The Northman' Actually Exist?

By: Mark Mancini  | 

Amleth
Alexander Skarsgård stars as Amleth in director Robert Eggers’ Viking epic "The Northman," a Focus Features release. Aidan Monaghan/©2022 Focus Features, LLC

Last weekend, Americans spent $12 million at the domestic box office to watch Alexander Skarsgård play a Viking.

Not just any Viking, mind you. In "The Northman," a new historical fantasy movie from director Robert Eggers, Skarsgård gives it his all as the fabled hero, Amleth.

For those unfamiliar with Amleth, here's a quick introduction.

Though it is unclear whether Prince Amleth actually existed, legend has it that he was the son of a Scandinavian ruler. One day, Amleth's prosperous father was killed by his own brother. Adding insult to injury, the murderous uncle went on to marry Amleth's newly widowed mother. The coup set the stage for a violent tale of madness and revenge.

Does any of that ring a bell?

If your answer is "no," then your high school drama teacher would like a word.

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"Perchance to Dream"

The Amleth story probably helped inspire one of the most quoted plays ever written: "Hamlet" (full title: "The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark"), by William Shakespeare.

Even if you've never seen this play performed onstage, you've been hearing the references all your life. "Hamlet" is packed with some of the Bard's greatest lines, like "Brevity is the soul of wit," "Neither a borrower nor a lender be" and "To thine own self be true."

Also, there's a certain monologue that every theater major in the world eventually has to memorize.

Many of Shakespeare's plays were inspired by real historical figures — see "Julius Caesar" and "Richard III." Yet there's no proof the Viking Amleth ever existed.

We can't talk about Amleth without mentioning Saxo Grammaticus ("Saxo" for short). Sometime in the early 1200s C.E., this Danish scholar finished writing a patriotic history of Denmark under the title "Gesta Danorum."

Included in the text is a retelling of the story of Amleth. This legend had been a part of Scandinavia's rich oral tradition for quite some time, a tale passed between generations by word of mouth.

Amleth
Prince Hamlet didn't get a happy ending in the Shakespeare play. And neither does Skarsgård's Prince Amleth. But at least he was pretty ripped, right?
Aidan Monaghan/©2022 Focus Features, LLC

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Man On a Mission

Saxo's version of the narrative begins in Jutland, a region of Denmark.

Once upon a time, there were two brothers named Horwendil and Fengo. Under the Danish King Rørik, they governed Jutland together as co-rulers. Eventually, Fengo murdered Horwendil, giving him full control over the region. His next move was to wed Gerutha, the wife of his dead sibling.

This outraged Horwendil's surviving son, Amleth. But the youngster was smart enough to realize that his own days might be numbered because Fengo saw him as a political threat. So, to stay alive, Amleth feigned insanity.

After killing one of Fengo's spies, Amleth was sent to England where he foiled an attempt on his life. He then returned home to avenge his father, murder Fengo and become Jutland's new ruler.

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From Saxo to Skarsgård

Prince Hamlet didn't get a happy ending in the Shakespeare play. And neither does the Amleth of Saxo's retelling.

The "Gesta Danorum" says Amleth married two brides on a return trip to the British Isles. Then he went back to Denmark, where he was killed in a battle against Rørik's successor. Tough break.

Amleth's story remained a staple of Scandinavian culture in the centuries after Saxo. Icelandic historian Thormodus Torfæus (1636-1719) wrote that he'd heard the narrative "related in Iceland by old women and such sort of people" many times when he was a boy.

"The Northman" isn't the first film to bring Amleth to the silver screen. Christian Bale played the character in the 1994 drama "Prince of Jutland," which was released in some markets as "Royal Deceit." (Amleth is referred to as "Amled" in that movie.)

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