Come, friends, I bid you to sit around the fire with old Jarl Jacob as he spins his tales; stay a while and listen.
Now I have that out of my system, the purpose of this article will be to discuss History Channel’s television series Vikings and see how it holds up not just in terms of the source material but when compared to historical records of the Old Norse. You may or may not remember my fascination with the culture from my article about The Originals and, not to worry, I will only be focusing on the major features and will avoid going into a massively pedantic rant about fictional characters. Again. Probably.
If you’re still reading after the above paragraph (and want to continue reading) then we are now best of friends forever and ever.
By the way, I’ll be covering material on the three seasons released at time of writing so there will probably be a few spoilers ahead. On the other hand, the source material has been out for roughly 8 centuries so you really can’t complain.
Vikings, for those of you who don’t know, is a historical drama of Irish-Canadian collaboration created by Michael Hirst for the History channel. The bulk of the material featured is inspired by “Ragnars saga Loðbrókar” (the Saga of Ragnar Loðbrók) and “Ragnarssona þáttr” (Tale of Ragnar's sons). Naturally, the show follows the exploits of Ragnar and his compatriots as he rises from the beginnings of a simple farmer to become the greatest Norse hero of the age.
The tale immediately deviates from the source material as the first season starts with the Norse invasion of Lindesfarne in 793, a feat that in the show was engineered by Ragnar (played by Travis Fimmel), in an obvious effort to bring in some historicity and synchronise the start of the season with the start of the Viking Age.
Before we get started let’s have a look at ol’ hairy-breeches himself:
This is the kind of thing you’d expect from a show set around medieval times, especially after the prevalence of fantasy shows such as Game of Thrones trying to reinforce the idea that nearly everyone wore clothes limited to fifty shades of brown, especially the peasants. In reality, however, the average Norseman would have looked like this:
Clothing aside, the show tries to give as accurate a representation of Norsemen as possible. No-one is quite sure what kind of hairdos the menfolk sported but opinion is united that they very much took care of their barnets[link], with a man’s hair being very important to him[link]. Because of this the styling department made an effort to give the actors fairly neat and elaborately tied/braided hair, with the added attempt to construct something that would fit inside a helmet (though you rarely see the Norse characters wearing them).
Another interesting point to raise is the tattoos so many of the characters have. Although there is no conclusive evidence that the Norse inked themselves, there are some eyewitness accounts from the time that appear to support it, so the show decided to run with it for the sake of visuals.
Utilising the idea that they would portray scenes from their mythology, some of the men are sporting particularly impressive pieces, such as these ones on Ragnar’s brother Rollo’s (Clive Standen) shoulders, depicting the wolves Sköll and Hati chasing the sun and the moon through the sky.
“What about Ragnar himself?” you’re probably not asking, “How historically accurate is he?”
Well, dear readers, the short answer is pretty much: we don’t know.
Although the sagas do place Ragnar as being involved with a lot of historical events, especially the early raids in England and the sacking of Paris (as featured in the show), there is very little that proves he did those things, let alone existed. Many historians believe that Ragnar was created by 12th-century scholar Saxo Grammaticus in order to attribute a bunch of confusing or contradictory events to a single man, thus making his work a bit tidier. Whether he existed or didn’t, the show is based on the sagas rather than pure history so it doesn’t matter too much.
However, I may have a bone to pick about his family life (I can hear you groaning, stop it). First of all, let’s talk about his wives. This may seem a return to my pedantic ways but these women are formidable characters in the sagas in their own rights and their sons grow to be important figures in genuine history.
Possibly the most important one, who doesn’t appear in the show whatsoever, is Þóra Borgarhjǫrtr (or Thora Town-Hart for us Anglophones). When Ragnar was a young man, he heard of a maiden (Thora) being held captive by a giant snake that spat venom and, whilst most of us would say “Nope” and call it a day, the ingenious Norseman found himself some hairy hide trousers, boiled them in pitch, drew them through sand, and then left them to dry and harden in the sun.
It was this item of cutting-edge fashion that helped protect him from the serpent’s venom and earned him the hand of Thora and the moniker “Loðbrók” (Hairy breeches). Unfortunately Thora died young, but not after bearing him two boys, Erik and Agnar.
In huge contradiction to this, however, the show starts off with Ragnar married to Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) who was actually first wife in the sagas and whom Ragnar divorced to marry Thora (but that’s a different story), already with a prepubescent son and daughter (Björn and Gyða) despite the sagas stating Lagertha bore him one son, Fridleif, and two unnamed daughters. At this point in the series Ragnar already has his name Lodbrok but is still just a farmer/warrior, so what the Hel happened to Thora? It seems the poor girl got excluded from the series entirely.
Let’s move on to Ragnar’s second wife in the show and third in the sagas, Aslaug (AKA Aslög, Kráka, Kraba, and Randalin, for whatever reason).
Aslaug (played by Alyssa Sutherland) is supposedly the daughter of the Valkyrie Brynhildr and King Sigurd Fafnisbane, so thus a being of great beauty and wit. In the show we see her already in a prominent position, with a small entourage who seduced Ragnar away from Lagertha, but in the sagas she is described as having been lived as a beggar right up until she met Ragnar in order to hide her prestigious lineage. In the sagas she bore Ragnar five sons: Ivar, Björn, Sigurd, Hvitserk and Ubbe.
Wait… didn’t I just mention Björn?
In the series, Björn (Alexander Ludwig, with Nathan O'Toole as young Björn) is still Ragnar’s son but by Lagertha, whereas the other four are still all by Aslaug though in the wrong order. Most notably is the fact that in the series Ivar is the youngest child, whereas in the sagas he is consistently portrayed as the oldest and the greatest of Aslaug’s sons, older in fact than Björn. At the time of writing Ivar is still a young baby but Björn is close to 20 years old. Confused yet?
I have no idea what the reasons for these decisions might be. Perhaps they didn’t want to confuse things with another wife for Ragnar and just decided to put some of Thora’s traits into Lagertha to simplify things? That would make sense, but it does nothing to explain the shuffling around of the sons.
If the series goes the way it is and we see the Great Heathen Army invading Britain then we’ll have some trouble. You see, in the sagas (and history) Ivar the Boneless (Old Norse: Ívarr hinn Beinlausi) was one of the greatest commanders of the GHA, leading his band of hairy Scandis to conquer York, Thetford, and Nottingham. Historians also think he may have even invaded Dublin and created a long dynasty of Irish kings. Whatever the case, he can’t do all of that when he hasn’t even said his first word yet.
Björn Ironside was also a major player in the GHA so perhaps the intention is to roll all of achievements of Ragnar’s sons into one bear-shaped package, thus eliminating the need for the audience to follow multiple characters of similar traits. Who knows (because I sure don’t), but it does seem to work for the show.
Whilst we are near to the subject, I’m going to discus perhaps the most controversial feature of the show: shieldmaidens.
Lagertha is depicted in both the show and the sagas as an arse-kicking machine of a woman and is famed for it too. She was constantly in the thick of things alongside male warriors, described as having “a matchless spirit though a delicate frame” by Saxo, and eventually killed her arsehole of a second husband and took over his earldom (jarldom?). It was her courage and prowess as a warrior that attracted Ragnar to her in the first place.
We see a fairly large ratio of women fighters in the Viking warbands of the show, but what kind of percentage would have we found in real history? Would there have been any at all?
Naturally, opinion is very, very divided as to the prevalence of female warriors but the majority seem to agree that there were at least some. The biggest problem comes from the major historical sources being written by Christian monks at least two hundred years after the events they depicted, who generally held the view that women doing traditionally male things was decidedly pagan and thus would have attempted to tone it down a bit.
Further muddying the waters of history is that when the majority of burial mounds were being excavated during the archaeological excitement of the 1800s, this Christian perspective was still rather prevalent so when female skeletons were found alongside a bunch of weapons it was generally assumed that there should have been a male skeleton that was somehow missing.
Another big problem in identifying these warrior women is that previous archaeological processes for sexing a skeleton (sounds horrifyingly naughty) have broken down when faced with females who have lived lives of hard activity (like fighting) as the wear on the bones has given them almost male characteristics. Of course the prevailing bias towards warrior graves being exclusively male prevented people from looking closer.
Until someone did. A fairly recent study performed by Shane MacLeod of the University of Western Australia decided to revaluate a bunch of burials found in the Danelaw and tried out modern osteological processes on the skeletons of fourteen hitherto-presumed males, and discovered something rather incredible.
Out of those fourteen, six were found to be actually female.
Now that’s a bit of a small sample size to be jumping to conclusions but even extrapolating that data and erring on the side of caution there is no doubt that women warriors were a lot more common that people thought. It may have even been as common as portrayed in the show, who can say, but one thing can be said for sure: even if Lagertha was completely made up for the sagas (like Ragnar may have been) there was a whole host of arse-kicking ladies worthy enough to be her.
Aside from the above, one of the biggest flaws that the show makes is the assumption that the 8th century Norse were completely unaware of the British Isles. At that point they were very much aware of their neighbours, with previous trade and contact being the very reason they were able to locate Lindesfarne monastery as a location worth raiding in the first place.
Along similar lines we see a ten-year or so gap in the series between the above raid and the siege of Paris, whereas in reality the two events were separated by a gap of ninety-two years! The latter was largely orchestrated by Göngu Hrólfr (Rollo the Walker) who, as mentioned above, is Ragnar’s brother in the series yet the two are in no way related in the sagas.
However, Rollo is a genuine historical character and his real-life involvement in raiding Paris led to him being given the duchy of Normandy. In fact, the man is the great-great-great-granddaddy of William the Conqueror, meaning the Norman conquest of England in 1066 was just another Viking invasion, this time with French accents.
As a television series Vikings does a great job at depicting everyday Old Norse life even if it gets things wrong, like showing the Jarls as being autocratic leaders rather than democratic (actually a very big deal, read about it), and the town seer being male rather than female (known as a “vǫlva” in Old Norse) as most practitioners of magic were thought to be.
The writing is highly compelling and the characters are fully fleshed out and portrayed to a superb degree, allowing the audience to be drawn into their world. The petty squabbles of the community become enthralling and we feel sympathy for a bunch of people whom history has often portrayed as nothing more than bandits and marauders.
An interesting quirk of the show which first helped enamour me to it was that during the encounters the Norse have with the English (and later the Franks) the characters deliver their lines in Old Norse or Anglo-Saxon respectively, depending on the viewpoint, serving the emphasise the difference between these two peoples and further immerse the viewer in the history of the show.
In one memorable scene the monk Athelstan (George Blagden), who lived with Ragnar after being captured at Lindesfarne, is acting as translator for a conversation between King Ecbert of Wessex (Linus Roache) and Lagertha, neither of who spoke each other’s language at the time. This led to a fantastic dialogue of Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse that enabled you to see the slight similarities in the languages yet also appreciate just how foreign these people are to each other.
Though the battles tend to fall short in historicity (lack of formation fighting), the methods used by the individual are fairly accurate, and nevertheless the combats are a delight to watch, relying on force of character rather than the overwhelming spectacles seen in most fantasy epics.
All in all the show is definitely worth watching if you can put aside any historical pedantry and just enjoy it. Hey, if I can do it then you certainly can.
And remember, friends: Byrði betri berrat maðr brautu at en sé manvit mikit vegnest verra vegra hann velli at an sé ofdrykkja öls.