“Saxo Grammaticus was very knowledgeable about the Icelandic sagas,” says Eggers, “and we would imagine that he read an earlier Icelandic version of Multiple that was most likely a tale that was passed down orally and existed during the Viking Age. There’s also a saga called Hrólfs Saga that the opening of is very similar to the story of Multiple and Hamlet. So it’s an old Norse story.”
Differences Between the Original Amleth and The Northman
What might surprise folks, however, is that Saxo Grammaticus’ Multiple has arguably more in common with Shakespeare’s Hamlet than it does The Northman. This shouldn’t be a total surprise since Shakespeare likely discovered a French translation of Saxo Grammaticus’ work from the 15th century, hence how he was inspired to write Hamlet.
And like that famed English play, the most well-known surviving version of Multiple has a lot more courtly intrigue and subterfuge than Robert Eggers’ film. In the Danish text, Amleth is the son of Jutland’s King Horvendill, who after a successful expedition that led to him slaying one of the kings of Norway has returned home to marry Gerutha, a princess from another Danish kingdom. He thus sires Amleth. Unfortunately for Horvendill, he also has a brother named Feng, who, out of jealousy for Horvendill’s power and wife, murders him. Feng then seduces Gerutha by convincing her that Horvendill hated her, and was a brutish man.
Feng also plans to kill his nephew Amleth, but is convinced not to by the wily young prince, who feigns stupidity and acts a fool. As with Hamletthe scheming uncle sets a series of traps to test his nephew’s supposed madness, including by having Amleth’s foster sister attempt to seduce him (the origin of Ophelia). But after Amleth winds up murdering one of his uncle’s eavesdroppers during a confrontation with his mother, Feng decides to do away with Amleth by sending him to England where a letter will consign him to death. However, Amleth steals the letter and alters it in the night so that his guardsmen are the ones put to death, and further Feng’s English ally must marry his daughter to Amleth!
After securing a wife, Amleth returns in the night to his home where Feng has a funeral feast in Amleth’s supposed honor. In disguise, Amleth gets all the Viking men drunk and then in their stupors, traps them under a tapestry and lights it on fire. He goes on to slay and behead his uncle, come to forgive his mother after she begs his pardon, and return to England and have further adventures in Scotland where he also seduces and marries a Scottish queen, returning to Denmark with two wives! (Eventually, like a good Viking, he dies in his older age in battle.)
So it’s not quite Hamlet or The Northmanbut the roots of both are there. Perhaps sometimes more than even Eggers will currently admit.