Thursday, 24 September 2020

Piranesi and Vinland Saga

 I experienced two culture things recently which I genuinely enjoyed and thought were good - A RARE EVENT, so I have decided to record and express that unexpected pleasure.

Susanna Clarkes Piranesi, which I listened to in Audiobook format, read by Chiwetel Ejiofor,

and Vinland Saga, an Anime which I found hidden away on Amazon Prime, the only media subscription service I use (it gets me stuff faster in Pandemic conditions).

A strange unity, both are about faith and the human struggle to create and sustain meaning and a sense of moral order in a cold even terrifying and chaotic world


Piranesi; first person unreliable narrator, adjacents are Gene Wolfes Soldier in the Mist books and House of Leaves. Though the labyrinth in Piranesi is partly wonderful, partly frightening, an awe-inspiring enfolding otherness rather than nihilistic horror. The narrator reads to us from his journals, or his journals simply speak. The journals have clearly been edited and changed, he mentions himself that there are big chunks torn out and he makes it clear from the start that he doesn't know why though initially, he thinks his memory is correct.

The narrators loss of faith in his own memory and records, the opening up of terrifying (to him) possibilities and fissures, and how he deals with and process that, is fascinating.

The narrator lives in a labyrinth of huge proportions interspersed with gigantic statues of human figures, each different, their meanings unknown. The place is huge enough that the lower floors are swept regularly by the sea while the upper floors have their own cloud formation and weather.

There is only the labyrinth, which he, the Narrator, Piranesi, calls The House. There is the sea, which sweeps though the lower halls in vast tides, and has already collapsed part of the house, but there is no shore, no land, no nation, no bedrock, no end to the house other than sea, sun and the sky, and the stars at night, just the house, more chambers and corridors and vast statues.

(Its actually a bit nice that Carceri)

So far as the narrator knows, and absolutely believes, both as natural intuition and an article of faith, the House is all there is and all there could be, and he lives his life in perfect harmony with the House, fishing in its lower halls, weaving things out of dried seaweed, carefully and painstakingly recording and predicting its tides.

We, the readers, know something is up. The Narrator has a watch, various plastic items, a sleeping bag, his journals, and there is an 'Other'. One other person in the House, who meets the Narrator every week at a regular time to discuss their important work, and who calls the narrator 'Piranesi'


Vinland Saga is an Anime in what I think is called the Shonen style? Its set in the early middle ages/late dark ages, a generation or so before the Battle of Hastings and takes place around the north sea world of the Vikings, going from Iceland to the Faeroes to Britain in this series.

The story initially follows Thorfinn, the very young son of Thors Snorrison in what initially looks like it’s going to be an exciting adventure, then looks like its going to be a serial revenge quest, then evolves into a study on revenge, hatred, fate, faith, history tragedy and meaning.

It goes through some changes!

Mild Spoilers;

Thorfinns father seems to be the classic surprisingly advanced human who acts as protagonist in a lot of historical fiction, he has a reputation as some kind of badass but currently lives as a farmer in Iceland and mainly just raises his family and is surprisingly near-pacifist and merciful to slaves. (Vinland Saga has about as much slavery and common references to slavery as actual history, the first sign that this is something slightly unusual).

Thors is a deserter from a badass mercenary band, the Joms Vikings, and they turn up in Iceland intending to recruit him by force and manipulation for the planned invasion of England.

Thors sets off and Thorfinn, maybe six or eight years old, stows away on his ship.

Will this be an exciting father/son adventure?

Well yes, in a sense, but mainly no, not at all.

Thors is ambushed in the Faeroe islands and, in an intense and extended battle of wits, skills and moral force, he is killed by Askeladd, the leader of the mercenary scumbag legion attacking him. Thorfinn survives this, swears revenge and trails after Askeladd. Unable or unwilling to kill him by assassination, he swears he will kill Askeladd in a duel and Askeladd promises him one if he can perform services on the battlefield.

Which, over years, turns into a really weird, fucked up father-son relationship with Thorfinn gradually getting better and better, Askeladd gradually getting older and slower, them duelling semi-regularly and both knowing it can only end one way, Thorfinn locked into his hatred but simultaneously getting closer to Askeladd and more like him all the time.

And that’s just the prologue to the prologue.


I have watched a handful of the more -popular Shonen anime and know a bit more about the period in question. It’s a fascinating mind collapse watching the Shonen archetypes and style collide with a really surprisingly well realised 11th century north sea setting. The fidelity to arms, armour, culture, society and hierarchies is impressive, probably more than that is the fidelity to a morality which is, maybe not exactly that of the historical people, but a hell of a lot closer than most other popular retellings.
Religion and faith are commonly edited out of these things but Vinland Saga is in large part ultimately about morality.

Canute starting off as a Bishonen-hot Anime-femme guy;

Would you believe that this characters relationship with Christianity is a central axis of the later series and that its really well done?

Thorfinn does the Naruto-run at one point (I think its an in-joke from the creators).

It’s just very 'Anime' but also very, very, 'Dark Ages/Medieval', so there is a constant low cuturespasm in watching.

Take a look at the opening bit from Youtube


Both Piranesi and Vinland Saga are about people who are trapped and either don't know they are trapped, of who can intuit it, but cannot see it, yet are trying to escape. 

(The question of whether someone can escape from a moral or physical trap which they *don't know they are in*, and how to do that, how to imagine a reality, or a moral possibility outside anything you can comprehend, is an invisible axis of both fictions.)

Piranesi's mind and memory alteration, his inability to conceive of anything outside the house, anything that is not-House, or that came before it or which will come after it, is, to us, a kind of defence or protection from trauma.

We learn as we go on that many people have been left in the Labyrinth, and all who stay there too long have gone insane and died. Piranesi may arguably have gone insane, and the person he was originally may have actually genuinely died, or changed so totally and irreversibly that we can reasonably consider it a death, but he survives and even thrives in an environment and situation that has destroyed everyone else.

In fact he is even happy, though lonely. His life is fulfilling. He weaves webs of meaning for himself and essentially develops his own proto religion/philosophy. He finds the bones of those who have died in the House and orders them, bringing them gifts of flowers and stories, talking to them so they need not be alone. He measures, records and comprehends the tides to the point that he need not fear them. He knows all the statues in the House individually, has particular feelings and intuitions about each. In a strike of intuitive brilliance, when forced to think of things which might be not-House, he makes combinations of the symbols and actions of those statues, extending them into a meta-space to comprehend what is otherwise comprehensible. He assists a lost albatross couple in building their nest. He communicates, perhaps insanely, but perhaps with real shamanic ability, with the birds which fly through and inhabit the House. He sees himself as the Beloved Child of the House. He loves his home, and his world. He seems in this isolated existence, empathic, dutiful, industrious, philosophical, even noble. In many ways he is a man totally at peace with his reality and his place within it.

We know that Piranesi is trapped, and we begin to suspect before he does that he is being manipulated. But while I hated the idea of Piranesi being used or made a slave, in some ways I did not want him to change beyond his evolved life path. Reality, our reality, would shock, ruin and perhaps destroy him, so the reader, or listener is poised between a desire for Piranesi to develop the means to escape the House, and a deep sorrow at the loss of his innocence.


Audiobooks can sometimes live or die by the relationship between the reading and the text. There are quite a few on my account which I have only got half way through because the reading just sat wrong. If someone enunciates in a slightly 'off' manner, over tens of hours of listening, that's going to drive you fucking nuts.

Anyway, Chitwell Ejiofors reading of Piranesi if fucking *lovely*. One of the neatest synthesis between reader, character and text that I have experienced. He captures the soul of this innocent, careful, intelligent and very pure soul.


It’s really hard, maybe impossible, to make a true, popular, anti-violence, anti-war fiction. Because violence is fucking cool and really handy for drama and on a screen or in a book, contained by limited time, all of its actually destructive aspects are muted.

Even to see how violence destroys you would need to build a world large, deep and morally complex enough to illuminate the fine mycelium strands of the trauma it creates, AND sustain the viewers interest and empathy in both the agents of violence AND its victims for long enough, both in actual reading/viewing time but also imagined time in the fiction, that the viewer could begin to get some sense of what violence actually does to people over time.

Well, mission at least partially accomplished I think.

All the main characters in Vinland Saga are monsters in someone else’s eyes, and in fact do act like monsters at times. Yet, all (or most) are sympathetic when seen through their own eyes. 

There are no "evil" people in Vinland Saga, though almost everyone both suffers evil and commits it. Everyones rationale for what they do makes sense, and in a resource-poor world, no-one is ever entirely safe, either from violence, disease, starvation or enslavement. Everyone to some extent is living on a knife-edge, fighting over the scraps of a fallen world, amidst ruins they know they cannot repair.
(Not only that but most of the Christians think the world is literally going to end in about 20 or so years.)

"Revenge, tis a fucked up thing." - A Movie Protagonist.

Like ritualised gladiatorial child murder and high speed death races, revenge is one of those things people in fiction tell each other is bad while, from the evidence of that same fiction, its actually fucking BASED.

Watching Thorfinns gradual decay into someone so frozen in the instant of their trauma that it gradually degrades them into something awful and broken, is almost viscerally unpleasant, especially past the mid point of the series.

It is kind of fucking cool to begin with. The sheer willpower to survive, relentlessness and Throfinns gradual self-challenging and mastering new powers is kinda fun. But as we learn more and more about the characters, motivations and experiences of all the people linked in this great wheel of fortune, it turns more and more into a tragedy of meaningless hate.

This is made worse by the fact that literally everything Thors tried to teach his son is about not entering the cycle of death, hate and violence which he escaped from.


It’s one of the more impressive feats of popular fiction to take the guy who, in initial episodes looks like he is going to be Starscream; a scheming snakelike sidekick to the main enemy, and to slowly reveal more and more of him, in more and more complex situations, until he is something close to a terrible hero, the main character of the series.

Askeladd is the obverse side of Thors surprisingly-enlightened historical protagonist. Like Thors he is a badass, and he is highly intelligent, knowledgeable enough about the history of his world (at one point he delivers to a torture victim a brief history of the cyclic invasions which shaped Britain as justification for his own actions) and perceptive enough of its moral nature that he is one of the few people who can see the boundary of the way-things-are and realises how totally *fucked* everything is, and how trapped everyone in this world is.

He's also deeply alienated from his own culture by childhood trauma. Brilliant, manipulative, but wise enough to recognise in Thors someone who's intelligence and perception match his own, but who has found a way to live without surrendering his moral core. He tricks and manipulates Askeladds crew go from evil heavys, to cheery pirates, adventurous mercenaries, to soldiers to outright cold killers of innocents (but then they always were). Thorfinn betrays the woman who saved his life by lighting the fires to bring Askeladds raiders to the shore of her home. Two describe their own love as something like the love of god in a cheeky comedy interlude just before the Yule episodes.
The Yule episodes - which I won't spoil for you here.


The main characters of Vinland Saga are all intelligent, perceptive people facing a world shaped by chaos, violence and death. We slowly learn about each of them that, in their own way, they are trying to deal with the trauma of their experiences and reaching for some way to make meaning out of the horror around them.

Thorfinn is locked into his crushing revenge cycle with his dark father figure. Askeladd is poisoned by memories of he and his mothers lives as degraded slaves. Canute, the Price they get tangled up with, is deeply religious and crushed by the fact his Father essentially views him as a tool, and by the total lack of any justice or meaning in the world around him. Each of them is learning at different times to either hold on to, re-create, or surrender some inner totem or distant faith in *something* that might lend purpose and meaning to their lives.

Piranesi, in his unending labyrinth, has built his web of meaning and purpose, more perfectly than anyone in "Vinland", but we know it can only exist inside his fractured reality, and we know he himself is on a course to break out of that reality, and escape into a larger, but darker one where his purity will likely not survive.

Well, they are pretty good fictions. Worth a look if you get a chance and both likely to appeal to readers of this blog.


  1. Agreed, Vinland Saga is very good!
    I'd also point out, in a show that is somewhat anti-violence, the one character who is entirely pro-violence comes off as (sometimes subtly, sometimes totally) insane. At least, to me.

  2. For another anime/manga in a similar strain as Vinland Saga I would unironically recommend Attack on Titan (nobody on the internet understands this)

    1. Because of the occidentalism, the relationship to violence? (I've only seen the first series and the plot after that seemed a bit too labyrinthine and 'shonen' so I didn't go on with it).

    2. For padded pacing and some other direction issues I'd recommend the manga over the anime. While there are some excellent animation sequences (personal favourite is every time a titan shifter straight up explodes into a giant up through every tissue layer) they are outweighed. Can recommend site for same if interest is piqued by the end of this comment.

      So far as the labyrinthine, shonen stuff goes on, there's one major twist and a tendency for the plot to be pushed forward mostly by big set-piece battles, but the overcome difficulties by shouting about them/believing in the power of friendship and whatnot are relegated to the first anime season iirc.

      Reading your review, it struck me that Attack on Titan is something of a modern mirror to the pre-modern Vinland Saga, both at their core about the cycle of violence and the desire to escape it, but where Vinland Saga is more about personal vendettas, personal loyalties, family/dynasty, Attack on Titan is more about race- & nation-building, the security dilemma, realpolitik and ideological justifications for it feeding into each other in an escalating nightmare. Also, Eren's and Thorfinn's arcs are essentially inverted. Can go into more detail but not sure how you feel about spoilers.

  3. One of the funny things about violence is that over time it can psychologically bind together the people who engage in it against one another. People are familiar with the atrocity as cement, where people in a group commit unforgivable violence and have their fates bound together as a result. What people are less familiar with is the relationship between two people who engage in violence *against one another*, and what develops in their minds over time. People who fight inhabit a different world together.

    Over time, they begin to see the other person as being closer to them in some way than the average person, or more capable of understanding the part of them that is capable of violence, or understands the pain, danger and potential loss of face that comes with it. Respect between adversaries can develop that way.

    You’ve probably had a friendship or respect develop with somebody after a personal struggle. It doesn't have to be a physical fight, it can also be a serious, angry dispute.

    Even if it's somebody you hate, and who you've engaged in serious or potentially deadly violence against, you may wish for reconciliation with them. Not only to end the threat of violence but to gain somebody in your life who understands violence, and has respect for it and what it means.

    That's maybe one reason for violence inside of gangs, military units, tribes. Not only to establish dominance, but also to build mutual regard and an understanding of the capacities of those in your immediate circle. It might be like an impromptu measure of muscle strength, testosterone and determination, things like that, and also as a way of establishing lasting peace; no one wants another potentially deadly dispute, even somebody who’s likely to win.

    And so over time there's a kind of softening in the mind towards somebody who you once fought. It's certainly true that soldiers sometimes kill someone and then afterwards, even if they say they would do it again, will talk about how they felt some kind of kinship with the one they killed. Or if not kinship exactly, the potential to know them. In another life or another world, and a lack of hatred.

    Sometimes there is hatred, sometimes you get “I only felt recoil” but again, sometimes there is regard. There's respect for the savage abilities of the enemy and their toughness, which often far exceeds your average countryman.

    As a corollary to that, one would think that experiences of violence would reduce tolerance for violence or a desire for violence because of its zero sum character. But if that's true in the short term, in the long term I don't think it does that. Mostly it increases tolerance or appetite for violence.

    Revenge is a potent motivator. It's like a blood-glue that reconstructs the shards of your world, darker but complete once again. Even a 21st century man might be willing to go to his grave like a samurai for revenge under the right circumstances; it awakens the mythic, tragic hero figure inside. Figures like that are always waiting, sleeping and forgotten, but appear in our stories so we think they’re fictional.

    Revenge often does provide psychological closure. An act of revenge physically expressed can bring about a conclusion to an open end in the mind, or prove to the protagonist that they're capable of acting in the face of being wronged. That they have the ability to act in the world, and create final outcomes. Whereas the feeling of helplessness was what was initially very traumatizing.

    When first betrayed or damaged or attacked it was like their story went off the rails. And then the revenge once taken is like taking back the pen of the story, and writing a conclusion to some unfinished business. And if he hasn’t been killed or captured, the protagonist is more whole inside.

    1. Interesting and I don't necessarily disagree but, how do you know?

      "Revenge often does provide psychological closure." - do you know that is true?

    2. Yes, it can do so if it’s properly directed. There's a story about a guy in the 1700s whose whole family was slaughtered by Native Americans, and when his unit took a bunch of civilian captives he went through and tomahawked everyone of them. Afterwards he sat down and cried because he didn't feel any better. His action was misdirected.

      Everything I wrote about is something I've felt, and I made some fairly substantial claims so I will explain how I know. In high school my group had this little gang war thing where whenever we'd see this other group from another school there would be a fight; one time we had a situation where these guys ambushed us at a campfire at night so we couldn't see shit, they just came out of the darkness like wraiths, but they'd followed *me* and as a result one guy from my school who was just a bystander got all his teeth knocked out and his lips cut in half vertically like the Predator. Afterwards he blamed himself for what happened to him; for pulling his phone out to call the police. That haunted me for years, until I found their ringleader at a party, slipped into the middle of his gang and knocked him out, which I'd resolved to do so before I even entered the house because it would have been worth it to achieve some measure of control over fate even if it meant getting knocked out and having my head stomped on; this was a real consideration because several guys from my school had recently gotten airlifted to the hospital after a fight with this group. One of our guys had broken a guy's arm with a BJJ move, but the rest of that guy's buddies ran and got baseball bats from their cars and beat them until they felt better then left. So when I finally escaped from the house party I ran up the block with blood streaming from my face laughing, because there was a great psychological weight lifted from my mind; revenge had proven to some primitive part of my psyche that I wasn't helpless even though the deck had been stacked against me, and it resolved the business of years. I hadn’t been able to think my way out of it. I mentioned the tragic hero figure; I don’t generally embody an archetypal figure, but I could viscerally feel that figure and that story on that day. I didn’t care what happened to me as long as I could have closure.
      Afterwards, it also gave me space to appreciate the situation and let go of my hatred, which made room for the other feelings I described in the initial post. None of this was “rational” but that's how it worked in my mind, and psychologically it was more real than anything else.

      I’ve heard these sentiments echoed in some way in other people’s stories; the feeling of helplessness to save your friends, a regard/hate dichotomy with the enemy, a burning (or void-cold, helpless) need for closure and for cause/effect in the universe. I used to be in the airborne infantry and currently do psychology for the military and it’s well known that both helplessness during trauma and the experience of murderous malevolence (the “wind of hatred” in Grossman’s terms) can both shatter or otherwise massively disrupt someone’s mental model of the world. People sometimes take insane risks to prove themselves after a failure or avenge themselves or their friends, because the thought of living with the weight of the unfinished business is too much; this is when “duty is heavier than a mountain; death is lighter than a feather.” In this case it’s a duty imposed on you by your psyche.

  4. In 'Sunless Skies' game (finished before Clark's novel was published) there is also Piranesi, and given that they both draw from the same well, it is interesting to compare how both the book and the game work with a theme of the prison.
    In the game, Piranesi can be seen both from outside (as a place of impossible angles and 'certainly bigger on inside') and inside, both as a visitor and (if certain events take place) as a prisoner.

    Initially, a player most likely enters it as a visitor, and are shown around in guided tours. Without being a subject to the prison itself, it doesn't look so bad at first: four of the local wardens/guides who call themselves chaplains insist they are guiding the inmates to the change suitable enough to leave Piranesi, instead of keeping them inside.

    The prison's idea that however close the exit might be the prisoner only can leave Piranesi after experiencing enough alteration - bodily, mentally, in identity and in forth way - that they are considered to be a different person. When seen as a visitor, 'change' doesn't look that bad in the principle (losing something, getting something), but if the player ends up a prisoner, the 'change' (as it plays narratively and in mechanics) turns out to be in vast part loss and/or conformity; reduction more than just change. There are a few instances of people getting something 'positive' from it, but it is very rare occurrence and more of the subversion or a stroke of luck.

    Each of the chaplains is previous prisoner of Piranesi, and their initial identities/entities were vastly different; about one of them it is said they were 'extinguished' by Piranesi and others don't really fare any better; the most monstrous of wardens, for example, urges a horrific physical deformity because it allows to keep the identity/mind/ethics mostly intact.

    So it is interesting to me to compare it to the novel, with its similar theme of entrapment, conformity and loss/change.

    1. Interesting, I've noticed the theme in a lot of Genre fiction where, of those who get altered by 'X' (usually a bad thing), the most physically changed are also the most inwardly unaltered while those least physically changed are the most twisted inside. I wonder where it comes from, some kind of basic karmic law of equivalent exchange perception in mankind?

    2. Probably yes: in order for the change to occur something somewhere has to be diminished and/or added. People tend to compartmentalize different sides of a being (body/mind/spirit), so in this light it looks logical to haul the change onto just one aspect of being, leaving the rest intact.

      It is also easier to write, I think, than communicating vessels model (where the change in one of the connected vessels makes the water level on others vessels adjust as well): the author doesn't have to think through how the change would affect the being on multiple aspects, instead just making one as a primary focus.

      With 'most horrid physical change -> least inwardly altered' it also kind of calls to the experience all humans have, i.e. being sick, as a lot of minor sicknesses that people experience through life don't change them too much. Physical mutation should be more compared to terminal or critical illness, which does change a person in all aspects, but again, maybe writers don't want to think through such drastic change that might leave the character unrecognizable?

  5. I've just finished reading Piranesi. I suppose I don't have a great deal to add to the above.
    I can imagine Chiwetel Ejiofor's reading voice being very good for it.
    It might be the fact I read this carefully, chapter at a time, rather than devouring it as quickly I could, but it's a restful book. Piranesi's wonder is infectious (whatever the grounds for it). It is perhaps odd that no matter how many books I read with technically wondrous sights, this made a greater impact. The fact of detachment may work in Piranesi's favour; the House is not appalling, nor does it demand a moral response.

    1. Relevant radio discussion-
      Free Thinking: Piranesi and disturbing architecture