Religion, Raids and Ragnar(ök): Series One of ‘Vikings’
by Ross Crawford
MINOR SPOILERS for Series One of Vikings.
It would be fair to say that not many of us expected much from Vikings. The History Channel is not exactly famed for high quality serialised drama. It’s infinitely more well-known for its laughable insistence that the ancient world’s architectural triumphs are so hard to comprehend they can only be the work of ALIENS! It’s the only rational explanation!
It is with pleasure then, that Vikings ended up being such a welcome surprise. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been quite so unexpectedly enjoyable, as a quick glance behind-the-scenes reveals a creator of considerable pedigree, Michael Hirst. He is of course responsible for Elizabeth, Elizabeth II: The Revenge of the Spanish Armada (sorry, The Golden Age) and most pertinently perhaps, the breakout hit, The Tudors. In these examples, Hirst plays fast-and-loose with history, prioritising narrative-flow above all else. You will find little slavish accuracy here history fans, most ‘facts’ are quickly sacrificed upon his altar of high drama. Yet while they may not be strictly credible in the minutiae of historical detail, they more importantly feel authentic and stay relatively true to the broader historical reality. Indeed, Hirst’s fast-paced and ever-so-slightly blasé approach to history ends up being a perfect fit for the lively world of the Vikings.
Other than how gorgeous it looks–the rugged landscape of Ireland doubling convincingly for early medieval Scandinavia–the most initially striking facet of Vikings is how deliciously weird it is. Sometimes this is intentional and sometimes it is not. The opening moments of the show exhibit both aspects of this ‘weirdness’. A brief, bloody skirmish introduces us to Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel), and the strange northern otherworld he inhabits. We are first met with a close-up shot of Ragnar’s piercing blue eyes before he springs into combat, every bit a physical manifestation of a Viking warrior. As introductions go, this swift, brutal fight is rather thrilling and immediately sets a grim tone. However, much of this intense atmosphere evaporates in the aftermath of this conflict. Ragnar surveys the battle-ground and catches a glimpse of an old man wearing a long cloak and a wide-brimmed hat (the typical attire of Odin when in Midgard). To make sure we definitely understand the reference, we are hit with a few more glimpses of the old man and Ragnar even helps us out with a hushed whisper of ‘Odin’. The All-Father then crouches down before one of the fallen warriors and calls forth a dubious CGI Valkyrie to swoop down and yank this chosen combatant to the halls of Valhalla. Needless to say, such cheesy literalism immediately feels out-of-place in this otherwise grounded interpretation of the vikingr.
Such moments are thankfully scarce however and this willingness to flirt with the weird is much more successful at other points in the show. The second episode, ‘The Wrath of the Northmen’, culminates in the infamous raid on Lindisfarne Monastery–which incidentally is so convincingly realised it may even supplant Hark! A Vagrant‘s rendition as my internal head-canon. During the raid, Ragnar’s perpetually untrustworthy brother, Rollo, enters the house of an infirm old man. He pours him a cup of water from a golden jug on his bedside table and allows the old-timer to quench his thirst. Then, without a word or a second glance, Rollo walks straight out with said golden jug and cup, clearly the only items of any value in the house. Compellingly, Rollo’s motivation for this brief act of kindness before his guiltless theft is never explained.
This sense of mystery and unknowability extends to his brother, our main protagonist, Ragnar. Even by the end of this first series, we are never entirely sure what drives him. It is quickly established that Ragnar is one of those Great Men, someone fated to make a huge impact on the world. Forever with a smirk tugging at his mouth, he acts as if certain his place in history is guaranteed. He almost seems to know the outcome of every event before it happens. In this way, he fully inhabits and accepts the fatalistic outlook weaved into Norse religion. Yet what of his true motivations? We know he is ambitious, we know he loves his family and we know he wants all of the sons, yet much further than that is pure speculation. So, refreshingly opaque, Ragnar is an endlessly fascinating character.
This brings us onto the strongest aspect of Vikings: its depiction of religion. Historical fiction in general has a tendency to treat contemporary religion with little seriousness or reverence. With a knowing wink to the modern audience, the religious motivations of characters are condescendingly undermined. Although not the only culprit, Ridley Scott’s historical films, most notably Kingdom of Heaven and Robin Hood, tend to feature securalised, atheistic lead-characters, presumably with the intention that the audience will more readily empathise with this worldly outlook. Yet more often than not, this blatant anachronism chafes with the historical backdrop. Vikings’ triumph is its ability to engage directly with the Norse religion, with respect and without patronising. We are never given any indication whatsoever that Ragnar is a non-believer. At times his faith is tested and he is curious about the Christian world, yet he is clearly a fervent devotee of the Æsir.
Consequently, the absolute best moments of the series are when Ragnar and Athelstan, a Christian monk captured at Lindisfarne, attempt to grapple with one another’s belief systems. This culture clash makes for scintillating viewing. For example, in episode five, ‘Raid’, Athelstan, feeling increasingly comfortable and perhaps too confident in Ragnar’s company, asks him what the Gods tell him of his future. In a flash of sudden anger at this perceived impudence, Ragnar snarls, “And what do you know of our gods?”. Athelstan is understandably cowed. Later in the series, Athelstan begins to acclimatise to Norse culture ever more, to the extent of adopting appropriate clothing and a stylish, knotted-beard. Yet just as he seems to be wholly converted, the grimmer aspects of the culture, such as human sacrifice, cause him to recoil.
In many ways, Athelstan’s slow, unsteady conversion mirrors our own. By episode seven, ‘A King’s Ransom’, incidentally the highlight of the series, we are so used to the Norse way of life that the arguably more familiar Christian world now feels alien. Ragnar and his cronies are invited to feast at the behest of King Aella of Northumbria. The pomposity of the Christian court, so humourless and solemn, is just as laughable to us as it is to Ragnar and his followers. The Northumbrians may bear the brunt of the joke here, yet the Christian characters are not portrayed as irrational fools either. Some of the Northumbrian court believe Ragnar and his followers are heralds of Satan or sent by God as punishment for their sins. Unlikely as this may sound, these concerns are not laughed away as senseless fear mongering but treated as a legitimate, and from their viewpoint, even logical. And much like Ragnar, Athelstan’s spiritual beliefs are tested, nearly to breaking point in ‘Sacrifice’, yet crucially, he never renounces his faith. Essentially, instead of taking the easy way out with irreligious main characters, Vikings challenges the viewer to engage with the theological context of both of these cultures.
This strong attention to detail extends to the generally thrilling battle-sequences, that again manage to elucidate on the differences between Norse and Northumbrian culture. Once again in ‘A King’s Ransom’, the Northumbrians try to outsmart Ragnar on multiple occasions yet he is always one step ahead with a perfect counter. The Viking approach to combat is workmanlike, efficient and unflinchingly brutal, as shown when Ragnar’s raiding party ambushes the Northumbrians in the dead of night, casually setting fire to their tents and killing them as they sleep. Solid military tactics are also paramount to the Vikings, as shown in the magnificent battle on the beach in ‘Trial’. Relying on their training and their experience, Ragnar’s band of hardened warriors defeat superior numbers thanks to a coordinated, disciplined and thus seemingly impervious shield-wall. Rollo’s recitation of a Viking war-poem in the middle of this battle is an admittedly badass, yet still believable touch. Uniformly well-shot and well-paced, the action-sequences are a real highlight of Vikings. Rather than merely breaking-up dialogue scenes, they provide a significant insight into Norse culture in their own distinctly no-nonsense way.
We’ve already discussed the brilliance of the enigmatic, Ragnar Lothbrok, yet the show is populated with many other lively characters. Pictured above, Floki, behaves as his name would suggest: he is a devious trickster, full of manic, unhinged energy. Wholly unpredictable, he laughs when others would cower. But he is much more than mere comic relief. Acting as an embodiment of Norse religion, he holds naked, burning antipathy towards Christianity. Sometimes this is manifested in the gleeful defacement of ornate crosses, to the horror of nearby Christians. Yet his reaction takes a much more sinister turn when one of the main Norse characters accepts baptism from the Northumbrians. Floki cannot conceal his fury at the ceremony, scowling with open hatred and refusing to bow before the newly christened Norseman. Ragnar and Athelstan generally exhibit an open-minded approach to each other’s religion: they have disagreements but on the whole, they are both receptive and eager to learn. But a darker side of this clash of cultures is shown through Floki’s vehement and uncompromising loathing of all things Christian.
Other secondary characters round out the show and provide added depth to the world. Lagertha, Ragnar’s wife, is both a devoted mother and a fierce shield-maiden: cross her at your peril! The old warrior, Tostig, has watched all his friends die before him, abandoning him to a lonely life on Midgard. He longs to die in battle so that he may join his comrades in the halls of Valhalla.
Unfortunately, not all of the characters are quite so compelling. If Vikings has one major flaw, it’s the largely one-dimensional antagonists, such Jarl Haraldson and King Aella. Even Rollo, an otherwise fiery presence, is unusually tiresome whenever he makes an ill-advised attempt at out-scheming his infinitely more wily brother. The half-hearted political intrigue often brings the brisk pace of the show to a shuddering halt. One almost wishes the many conspiracies and duplicitous plots were abandoned in favour of a riveting, hour-long conversation between Ragnar and Athelstan! However, this niggle may well have resolved itself by the end of this first series, with the emergence of a villain (or two) more worthy of Ragnar’s attention.
Overall, the first series of Vikings is an impressive achievement. It creates a convincing, lived-in world, inhabited by characters who do not pander to modern moralism. Most notably in their approach to religion, they behave believably and consistently. Put simply, they behave like Vikings. The show could have coasted by (in a longship) on the inherent cool factor of its historical setting, yet it takes significant risks, trusting the audience to keep-up with the swift narrative. Moving into its already-commissioned second series, if Vikings can maintain its moody atmosphere and create more plausible, compelling antagonists, then it could be something very special indeed.
And to think I managed to get through this entire review without mentioning horned-helmets even once!
Oh, wait. Damn.