Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Vikings - a historical fantasy series?

The History Channel series Vikings is a fabulous saga full of exiting characters, good action, and realistic Viking settings. In four episodes we have followed Ragnar Lothbrok (played by Travis Fimmel). So far I’m impressed. Just as Ragnar at the end of episode four is preparing for more action, so am I.

The Lothbrok character is built on the sagas of Ragnar Lodbrok, who was a legend even in the late Viking Age, and definitely when the sagas were written half a millennium after Ragnar’s death. Despite being shown on History Channel, Vikings is not a historical series in a strict sense; it is rather a new version of the ancient Ragnar Lodbrok legend. In order to tell a good story, the series even tends to be rather unhistorical.

Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel)
The settings in the series are mostly credible. The characters’ appearances: their clothing, haircut, jewellery, weapons, and attitudes are very realistic, along with the houses, ships and the natural surroundings. The main conflict between the aging Earl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne), afraid of losing his power, and the young and ambitious Ragnar is also a classic one. But the way the conflict is presented in Vikings is very imaginative:  Ragnar wants to sail west over the sea to a fabled country rich on booty and spoils: England. The earl denies him this perilous voyage and calls the rumours of England delusive.

The notion that the islands in the west (Ireland, Britain, and Faroe Island) at this time should have been unknown to a Scandinavian earl is of course pure fantasy. Around the entire North Sea there had been trade and cultural contact for centuries at the time when the story in Vikings is set. Some historians even speak of a long Viking Age starting with Hygelac, who is a Scandinavian king in the Old English poem Beowulf. Beowulf commemorates the feats of the Anglo-Saxons’ Danish and Swedish ancestors. It is obvious that people in Scandinavia would have known about “England”, as it is called in the series (long before the name was established).

Floki (Gustaf Skarsgard)
However, how the early Vikings sailed and navigated the open sea is still not fully established. It is quite OK that, in order to build a creative and knowledgeable character, Ragnar is given credit for having invented a new way of navigating the sea. It is less credible that the otherwise wonderful character Floki (Gustaf Skarsgard), more or less on his own, in secret builds a Viking ship. The building of such a ship was a major undertaking, requiring lots of people and different kinds of craftsmen.

Lagertha (Katherin Winnick)
That Ragnar and his crew quite accidently land at Lindisfarne is another improbable part of the story. Prior to sacking of Lindisfarne in 793, Scandinavians had been raiding in other parts of Britain for years. Rumours would have spread back home, and the following raids would have been well planned. The earl’s opinion that the island in the west is an illusion and that Ragnar’s voyage leads into the unknown are devices and unhistorical elements in Vikings storyline, used to create conflict, action and adventure.

But who cares? I don’t. I enjoy the series’ settings, the characters, their conflicts, their love and loyalty, the rivalry between brothers, the perfectly balanced use of mythological and mystic elements, the realistic battle scenes, the shield wall, and all the rest. I do as the real Vikings did: I regard the stories of the old heroes as "lying sagas": fantasy and entertainment. Vikings is a historical fantasy series.  And good entertainment indeed. I’m prepared for more action.

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