If you haven’t had the chance to watch this show, you’re missing out. Sure, critics will say that it isn’t entirely historically accurate, but this is mostly because it borrows from several conflicting Viking sagas as well as pagan mythology. Weaving Scandinavian legend and lore into events detailed in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, all while maintaining a tenuous balance between Christianity and Paganism, is no small feat. Ragnar’s conflicts with the Anglo-Saxons (and often with his own people) allow for a compelling juxtaposition of two worlds, one grasping for the future and the other for the past, each as beautiful and barbaric as the other. Historical Easter eggs are scattered throughout for the discerning scholar, but the show is entirely accessible to those for whom figures like Odin and Sigurd are not the topics of casual conversation. This is in part because strategic re-tellings of Nordic lore bring everyone up to speed.
So far, the only annoying thing about the inclusion of the lore has been my reaction to it: “Oh! I know this one! And then Loki makes an arrow out of mistletoe and…!”
…And then I realize I’m acting like my youngest daughter and spoiling things. So I figure if I’m going to do that, a blog review might be a better platform than my living room.
That was your one chance to run before the SPOILERS. Continuing on will also make you subject to my opinion, which can be a forceful thing. You’ve been warned.
Vikings has plenty of action with all its flying axes and forbidden romances, but I find that when a television show manages to hook me, it’s because of the characters. With that in mind, let’s take a look at each of my favorites.
First off, Travis Fimmel demonstrates how a beard and some chainmail can transform someone who looks like this:
Into Ragnar Frickin’ Lothbrok:
If you’re into this show, you both love and hate this guy. He has an infinite capacity for forgiveness, as displayed when he accepts Rollo back after his betrayal, but he is arguably also the most ruthless character as well, demonstrated by his blood eagling of that creepy necrophiliac and wannabe Hamlet, Jarl Borg. He loves his family to distraction, except for when he cheats on his first wife, Lagertha, with this thing:
Aslaug. From what I’ve gathered from those who are watching the show with me, nobody likes Aslaug. Ragnar doesn’t even like Aslaug. Why, then, does he ruin his seemingly healthy marriage with Lagertha (when she isn’t beating the crap out of him) to mess around with something that reminds me of the swamp witch from Legend:
And bears Ragnar mutant children like Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye:
And Ivar the Boneless:
The answer comes from the Viking sagas. Ragnar and Lagertha appear in the sagas independently of Ragnar and Aslaug, and their relationship ultimately ends because Ragnar doubts Lagertha’s feelings for him–due to her attempt to KILL him with a hound and a bear when he sought her hand in marriage. (Remember Ragnar telling Bjorn that story in season one?) Lagertha, despite their divorce, does indeed come to Ragnar’s aid in the sagas and provide military support. Her continued presence in Vikings is not just based on viewer feedback but also on source material.
In Ragnar’s sagas with Aslaug, however, she is the mother of all his notable children, including Bjorn Ironside (Lagertha’s son in the show), and Ivar the Boneless is actually their oldest child. Most of these children were iconic figures in their own right, and their “great heathen army”, led by Ivar the Boneless, nearly conquered England after their father’s death. Alfred the Great, King of Wessex and later all of England (who just showed up as a baby in season three), finally put a stop to their raids by granting them land in the Danelaw.
The difficulty here is that Bjorn, Ivar, Sigurd Snake-In-The-Eye, and some of Ragnar’s other sons are historically documented figures (Ivar actually ruled Ireland and Bjorn terrorized the Mediterranean), whereas Ragnar and Aslaug, like her parents Sigurd Fafnir’s-Bane and Brunhilde, are legendary figures comparable to the British King Arthur and Morgan Le Fay. Whether Ragnar Lothbrok really existed or if these Viking warriors simply wanted to claim distinction through an unusual birth, as is common in most hero stories, is a matter for debate. In either case, however, the daughter of a great hero and Valkyrie bearing monstrous children to a rags-to-riches king made for a compelling story 1,200 years ago, and it continues to do so now.
In a nutshell, the gross seer with the face like the inside of a hot dog wasn’t lying.
Ragnar’s children DO become more famous than him, so unless the History Channel REALLY wanted to revise history and mythology into commercially driven drivel, it was necessary for Ragnar to enter into this second marriage in order to establish the children who would later cause so much documented trouble for Western Europe.
Still, this betrayal made me hate Ragnar for awhile. Now, I see him as a character who feels trapped by prophecy, much like Shakespeare’s Macbeth. As Ragnar explains in season three, he was fated to become a king and have many sons, but what he wanted–farming and family–was never part of his destiny.
Lagertha starts out Vikings as the epitome of feminism in the dark ages, inspiring women to become shield maidens and knavish men to keep it in their pants. This meme encapsulates our feelings about her in seasons one and two:
After Ragnar’s indiscretions with Aslaug, Lagertha divorces her unfaithful husband and leaves the fiefdom with her son in the a scene that would have impressed even the God-fearing wives of the British Isles–wait, besides being warriors, Viking women had rights? They could divorce, own property, and even become a Jarl/Earl? Lagertha does all of these things, and it isn’t just the History Channel trying to pull in female viewers. Lagertha’s accomplishments here essentially mirror those told in the sagas, with the difference being that she is more politically powerful in the lore. Unlike in Vikings, when she comes to Ragnar’s aid in the sagas, she does so with 120 ships. Or, as this meme so eloquently puts it:
Unfortunately, the tail end of season two and season three seem to be going the same way as Game of Thrones, with Lagertha screwing everything in sight to please fans of sexual gratuity–despite obviously still loving Ragnar, who obviously does not love Aslaug the serpentine mutant baby factory any more than the fans do. I understood her jumping in bed with the King of Wessex, who doesn’t seem to care about crossing any kind of boundary, least of all the borders of his kingdom. He is, after all, a king with his own Roman bathhouse (how do they keep that thing so clean?), a transgressive Christian at best, and kind of a smooth talker. But then she starts messing around with the douche bag that stole her land and title while she was away in England, and while her son lies gravely injured? Seriously? I’d rather see her hook up with Rollo, who has sacrificed plenty for her in the series and has a good relationship with her son.
Now that I’ve brought up Rollo, I should probably explain why that relationship can’t happen.
Rollo is Vikings’ token berserker. Berserkers were known to cut themselves before battle, wield giant weapons, and not bother with shields or armor. The most famous berserker, of course, is this guy:
Rollo seems to share some other properties with the ol’ canucklehead: he’s ostracized from society, he’s an alcoholic, he’s quick to anger, he never gets the girl…and of course there’s the whole mutant healing factor thing. Remember when Rollo got his face slashed to ribbons by Gabriel Byrne? It looked pretty permanent…
But by season three, they’re totally healed, Wolverine style:
It’s too bad for Bjorn that his whiny, Avril Lavigne lookalike wife doesn’t have the same mutant power…
Man, she’s a mess.
Anyway, Rollo’s berserker status in the show is really just a means to an end. He needed to be single when he got to Paris. He has a princess to marry and a dukedom to establish–namely Normandy, which was given to the historical Rollo by King Charles the Simple (what a name!) in 911 AD to prevent future attacks on the French capital.
This Rollo, whose origin is contested, probably wasn’t the brother of the legendary Ragnar Lothbrok, nor was Ragnar the chieftain under which Rollo fought when their forces first laid siege to Paris. After a few buy-offs, which only led to raids in Burgundy, Rollo returned to Paris as the then leader of the Viking army and was reportedly given Princess Gisela’s hand in marriage as well as the Dukedom of Normandy, which he had conquered, in exchange for allegiance to the king. When King Charles was deposed, Rollo went a-raiding again, and Normandy grew even larger. Its greatest expansion, of course, was in 1066, when Rollo’s descendant, William the Conqueror, defeated the Anglo-Saxon forces at the Battle of Hastings and the Normans took over England.
The historical Rollo is arguably the ancestor of the British monarchy from 1066 onward, including the current royal family. His line, through William the Conqueror, was also responsible for introducing knights to England, the major advantage that made the battle of Hastings such a massacre for the Anglo-Saxons under King Harold II.
In Vikings, Rollo is constantly passed over for leadership despite his obvious prowess in battle. His dejected ambitions cause him to making emotional decisions (like betraying his brother) that lead to him being shunned by all of Scandinavia. But patience, ye mountain of hairy muscle. Like the triple-ugly seer told him, “Oh Rollo, if you truly knew what the gods have in store for you, you would go down now and dance naked on the beach.”
Those Nordic gods do seem to work in mysterious ways, like randomly showing up and having an affair with Aslaug and then screwing over the most devout follower on the show, the ever-mischievous Floki.
Floki might be on the chopping block because there’s no historical evidence for his existence, unless, as some believe, he is Loki in human form. Some evidence points to this conclusion, such as his miraculous knowledge of how to build ships and siege towers, his demand that Helga name their daughter after Loki’s first wife (Angrboda), and his apparent shapeshifting/magical control of animals that allowed him to sneak past Rollo–by way of doggy distraction–to murder Aethelstan as a sacrifice to the gods.
Rather garnering the favor of the gods, this move so far seems to have brought about disaster for Floki, who is played by Gustaf Skarsgard, one of the few actors on the show of actual Scandinavian origin. His father is the legendary Stellan Skarsgard, so between his origins and acting, it’s no wonder Floki appears to be the most authentically Viking character in the series. And he’s everywhere.
When monasteries are pillaged…
When people need a little alone time…
When pastoral, pagan weddings of simple elegance make the Christian ceremony look like a funeral…
When battlefield “surgeries” become necessary…
…Floki is there.
Whether he is the god Loki or not, whether he is favored or shunned for his human sacrifice, one thing about Floki is certain. He’s there for product placement.
He’s also, you know, totally insane, but that’s one of the things that makes him so endearing. As one Tumblr user put it:
Here’s hoping the raids in Paris don’t ruin these two. Helga has been very patient with a husband who brings more joy to the viewers than his wife.
Vikings airs on Thursday nights on The History Channel. Seasons one and two are currently available on Hulu, and season three is available on the History Channel’s website.
No, THC isn’t paying me for this plug. I just really enjoy the show, and I think that most people who are interested in history and good writing will as well.