Like Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is a story about the failures of fathers, and the ruinous directions those failures ultimately drive their children in. Valhalla’s main character, Eivor, is haunted, classically, by the death of her parents, which happens in the game’s very first moments. After a feast in which Eivor, as a child, dashes around, playfully interacting with the grown-ups, her village is raided by a competing clan, led by a villain named Kjotve the Cruel. In a futile attempt to parlay with Kjotve, Eivor’s father shamefully surrenders his life (since the Viking warrior code is to go down fighting) and is brutally murdered in front of his wife and daughter. Eivor’s mother also quickly falls. With the help of her adoptive brother, Sigurd, however, Eivor manages to escape and live on.
Sigurd must also soon weather the shame and disappointment of parental failure. A few decades after the game’s tumultuous opening, the country where they live, Norway, comes for the first time under the united rule of one king, Harald Fairhair. Like Eivor’s father earlier, Sigurd’s father, King Styrbjorn, is now faced with the choice to violently resist this inevitable hegemonizing wave or to capitulate, in order to secure the safety of his family and his tribe. When Styrbjorn bends the knee, his son Sigurd views the act as a betrayal. In relinquishing his own sovereignty to King Harald, Stybjorn also sacrifices his son’s, and in doing so provides “ … the germ of hatred which naturally belongs to the paternal relation by refusing the son the disposal of his own destiny,” as Sigmund Freud writes on the subject in The Interpretation of Dreams.
Though both fathers clearly felt that they were acting in the interests of their children, their behavior results in creating an unbreachable gap between parent and child (as is so often the case). For Eivor, without a father left alive to hate, it is his memory and legacy which she now works to reject. Our first encounter with her as an adult is in the midst of a desperate and hot-headed attempt to avenge her father by attacking his killer, Kjotve. Though she succeeds, this encounter betrays a deep-seated insecurity within her, a driving need to prove just how unlike her own father she really is.
Sigurd steps it up a notch by putting an ocean between himself and his father, who remains alive, though in a much diminished state. Together with Eivor and a loyal group from his father’s clan, he absconds to the faraway land of England, to stake his own claim, found his own settlement, and distinguish himself as sharply as possible from a now irrevocably stained legacy.
But, as the Oedipal tragedy shows, it is impossible to run from one’s own fate. Freud describes “its tragic effect,” which “ … is said to be found in the opposition between the powerful will of the gods and the vain resistance of the human beings who are threatened with destruction.” Sophocles’ play remains, after all, a warning which “ … applies to ourselves and to our pride, to us, who have grown so wise and so powerful in our own estimation since the years of our childhood. Like Oedipus, we live in ignorance of the wishes that offend morality, wishes which nature has forced upon us, and after the revelation of which we want to avert every glance from the scenes of our childhood.”
Though the revelation for Oedipus, the incestuous relationship with his own mother, differs from the events of Valhalla, the shortcomings of being unable to openly look back at their flawed childhoods curse Eivor and Sigurd just the same. In England, they seek the chance to begin a new life, by establishing a new settlement, essentially starting a new family. But these optimistic plans are still built upon corrupt foundations. Sigurd, obsessed with prospects for fame and glory—handy tools which might allow him to stand apart from his father’s grim shadow—has no interest in actually leading his settlement, leaving that particular chore to his wife Randvi, and to Eivor, who sits uneasily on his throne. Instead, he provides an eager audience to his advisor Basim, the member of a secret order, who spins a seductive yarn of ancient prophecies, of gods and their power.
All this glitter and gold exists at a level far above the day to day work that Eivor performs for much of the game. When not cleaving her way through the foot soldiers of intransigent English sovereigns, Eivor spends most of her time carefully positioning herself within the unsteady corridors of local power. She decides who to support, and who to oust, when to lend her axe, and when to stand aside. She must often ignore her own gods in order not to offend the Christian God of the nobles whose favor she hopes to curry. Over the course of the numerous Sagas which provide the game’s mission structure, and many dozens of hours, the net of politics and power Eivor weaves slowly takes its shape around England, the fog of her alliance map clears, and the dirty, piecemeal work of settling gradually pays its subtle dividends. Sigurd, meanwhile, opts for a much simpler path and gladly succumbs to fantasy over the apparent drudgery of putting down and planting roots.
Centuries after the events of Valhalla, long after the Viking invaders had stopped being Vikings, another set of conquests kicked off which bear an instructive resemblance to the diverging paths taken by Sigurd and Eivor. After conquering Northern Ireland, the British Crown sent thousands of its Scottish subjects to help subdue the unrest of Irish farmers who were being oppressed and actively displaced within their own country. In her book An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz describes the subsequent migration of these self-proclaimed Scots-Irish to Britain’s American Colonies as partially an attempt to escape “Britain’s Irish policies, which brought economic ruin to Ireland’s wool and linen industries.”
Since life on the British Isles meant scrabbling over vanishing resources amidst violent revolt and widespread famine, the Scots-Irish saw North America as a land where they could redefine themselves, just as Eivor and Sigurd looked to England after seeing doors close to them back home in Norway. Like Eivor and Sigurd, this reinvention came by way of bloody battle. Like the Vikings “ … the Scots-Irish engendered a strong set of individualist values that included the sanctity of glory in warfare,” as Dunbarr-Ortiz puts it.
The Scots-Irish also had a powerful religious motivator: Calvinism, a branch of Protestantism, which largely centers around the concept of predestination. This doctrine, according to Dunbarr-Ortiz, purports that “ … human free will did not exist. Certain individuals are ‘called’ by God and are among the ‘elect.’” Sigurd, bolstered in his religious fervor by figures like the religious fanatic Fulke, who captures, tortures and inculcates him in her prophetic beliefs, comes to see the world in similarly self-aggrandizing ways. Within this black and white morality, some men are simply destined to inherit their greatness, while others can do nothing but fail. In its simplicity this belief system allows Sigurd to turn away from the familial betrayal which first spun him so far away from his homeland. For the Scots-Irish it provided the easy groundwork for genocidal colonialism. They didn’t have to view the Americas as a nation populated by sovereign tribes with which to negotiate as much as a ripe bounty to be brutally ripped from the hands of its helpless stewards.
At a certain point in Valhalla, Eivor also has the chance to travel to North America’s coast, known to the Vikings as ‘Vinland.’ Unlike the course taken by the Scots-Irish, Eivor’s visit more closely resembles the historic Viking trips to North America made centuries earlier, which tended to be trading missions rather than the scorched-Earth colonial campaigns associated with the British colonies. The purpose of Eivor’s trip is to track down an old enemy, Gorm Kjotvesson, whose father, Kjotve, murdered Eivor’s in the game’s prologue. Eivor arrives in Vinland as a stranger. She must shed all the fancy gear and impressive weapons she’s accrued back in England, so as to stand out less during her hunt. From the local Iroquois tribe, she may purchase a few pieces of armor and weaponry, but she cannot bring them back to England. They are tools, lent willingly, to help her finish her task, not souvenirs or artifacts to be brought home and boastfully displayed. Nor is the language of any of the Iroquois ever translated for the player; Eivor does not speak their language and they do not (need to) understand hers.
All these signals make clear that this is not a place to settle or put down roots. The Iroquois are not a people to control or manipulate. And this is not a natural world to conquer and extract from. Eivor is only one visiting white devil, here to take care of another, before returning home. Carry in, carry out. After the deed is done and Gorm is in the ground, there isn’t much to do besides hop back on the longship to take the ‘whale-road’ back to England, bringing with her the few straggling laborers who had previously been under Gorm’s employ.
This approach separates Eivor from the greed and entitlement that would come later at the hands of the Scots-Irish, as well as the megalomaniacal visions harbored by her brother, Sigurd. Both parties seek to replace the lost standing in their homelands with the wealth and glory stolen from another. Both attempt to fill their emptiness, their flawed lineages with their own replacement forms of glory. Thus has cultural myth ever been born. The Scots-Irish were the unreliable narrators of their own history, claiming themselves, “ … the true and authentic patriots, entitled to the land through their blood sacrifice,” as Dunbarr-Ortiz notes.
Some of this finds echoes in the way Freud describes the child’s psyche: “The child is absolutely egotistical; it feels its wants acutely and strives remorselessly to satisfy them, especially with its competitors, other children, and in the first instance with its brothers and sisters.” In the throes of his desperate ambition, Sigurd can’t help but be threatened by Eivor. He spurns her questions and demands her absolute loyalty. The people of England, the townspeople and the farmers, the priests and the nobles alike are invisible to him. It’s the ancient alien technology buried deep beneath their feet that excites him. In its hidden power he spies an opportunity, a toehold to desperately cling to, a way to prove to himself and to everyone else that he is not his father, not a failure or a legacy-defining shame.
This headlong drive culminates back in Norway, at an alien device buried deep inside an icy cave which has the power to transport its users into a waking, endless dream. After joining the dream, Sigurd and Eivor find themselves in a vision of the Viking afterlife for warriors, Valhalla itself. Here they can spend their days feasting and battling upon endless verdant green fields, seemingly until the end of time. But Eivor’s reverie is shattered when she finds her father here. Her father, who did not die proudly, who left her an orphan, in the lurch, unsteady and unsure of her purpose.
Where Sigurd’s anger at his father drives him to leap toward fantasy and to embrace delusion, Eivor’s seems to have the opposite effect. Losing her father forces her to come to clearer terms with who she is, to select from a multitude of questionable paths. Down one path lies Sigurd’s deranged fantasies, down another endless bloody violence propping up glory for its own, pointless sake. The path Eivor has traveled up to this point is a far less prescriptive one, and largely influenced by player decisions. In my own playthrough, Eivor has held meetings with jarls, ealdorman, reeves, kings, and priests. She has helped other fractured political families reunite: helped sons learn to accept the mantle of power being passed down from their departing fathers, helped siblings and friends put aside their differences for the common good of their people. Through all this she has sought to understand the culture and viewpoints of the people she would have as allies, and learned a great deal about the country she would hold sway over.
This all still makes her a conqueror, and Eivor spends a considerable amount of the game razing and pillaging, breaking down the doors of churches, raiding their treasuries and setting fire to the thatched roofs of the surrounding huts. But there is an honesty in the way the game deals with the violence of this conquest. It shows us the brutality but it also offers us something else. Not the driven sociopathy of the Calvinist pioneers, murdering and pillaging and explaining it all away through a convenient dogma. Not the injured, childish delusion of Sigurd, who seeks godhood in order to escape his sense of shame and resentment. Instead there are places like Vinland, a method laid out for how to visit a world without tearing it apart. Instead, there’s Eivor’s careful diplomacy, finding areas of compromise from a place of mutual respect. There is a wholeness in these examples. To achieve that wholeness Eivor must mature past the blindness of her Oedipal fury, and dare, perhaps for the first time, to have hope for her future rather than fear and distrust for her fate.
Note: Vivian Chan consulted on this essay concept.
Yussef Cole, one of Bullet Points’ editors, is a writer and motion graphic designer living in the Bronx, New York. He writes primarily about how video games intersect with broader cultural contexts such as class and race. His writing stems from an appreciation of the medium tied with a desire to tear it all down so that something better might be built. Find him on Twitter @youmeyou.