Yum, look at all those good -looking Scandinavian actors on a dragon-headed boat. All you need for a good Viking popcorn thriller.
Greetings and Salutations! So I am sorry I haven’t been around for a little bit, but I have busy with my life and binge watching the show The Vikings on the History Channel. And this article will be exclusively focused on the latter.
So I need to get this off my chest. For as long as this show has been around, and for as long as I have told people that I study Viking history, I have gotten people asking me whether I have seen the show and what I thought about it. Now, I had seen the first episode when it first aired and I was rather unimpressed, in part because I wanted to be unimpressed. I mean, this is the History Channel, known for “Ice Road Truckers” and “Ancient Aliens.” I didn’t expect it to be good history. So I made up my mind to not like the show and to not watch it, because I had to be obstinate about something everyone else liked. (I did this with Harry Potter and Frozen too, by the way.) Recently, however, I realized that the popularity of this show illustrates that the general public has an interest in Viking History and that I should know something about the show in case it comes up in conversation (AGAIN). So, I gave in and started watching The Vikings, and I am REALLY enjoying it, though not for the reasons you would expect.
As a fantasy writer, I would say that this show is well written, engaging, and full of interesting character development. The characters in this story seem real and I am genuinely interested in their life stories. The writers take an honest look at human society and portray people that are not perfect, but understandable. The women characters are as strong as the men and people are evaluated based on their actions and personality, not by facts of birth like their gender or class station. This is all excellent stuff.
As a historian, I have mixed feelings about The Vikings. On the one hand, the writers of the show get a lot of the cultural aspects of the Viking world correct. The History Channel even posts videos of their research to prove it. I applaud them for making extra videos on Viking ships, shield maidens, and archeological evidence, as it allows viewers who are curious about the history to learn more. That being said, other aspects of the show are not accurate at all. In some cases, like with Viking clothing and hair styles, we don’t have a lot of evidence available from the period and the creative designers for the show had to come up with something. In other cases, the evidence is there and, for whatever reason, they deliberately ignore it. Perhaps this is for theatrical effect, but it angers me! History is just as cool, if not more so, when it is done accurately. In any case, myth and fact often get intermingled in this show, and this does a disservice to the viewer as well as to the history and culture it claims to represent.
However, I would say that the Norse Sagas also mix fact and fiction fairly frequently. And it is this idea that really intrigues me.
You see, stories like Egil’s Saga, Grettir’s Saga, Hrolf Kraki, and Beowulf were thought of as histories by the Vikings who wrote them down. There is a huge debate in the historical community about how much of these stories were based on actual history, with some historians dismissing the historical content of the sagas entirely while others arguing that a shadow of actual history still remains. (For more on this latter point, see the two articles by Jesse Byock in the endnotes). But why does it matter? Well, Beowulf was considered to be just a poem for several decades, but it is now considered a work of fiction which is based on some historical fact. Several battles in the poem are believed to actually have occurred in the sixth century, according to written and archaeological sources. The location of Heorot, furthermore, is generally believed to be in Lejre, Denmark because of the mead hall found there which dates from roughly the same period as the poem. Other Viking hall finds in Denmark illustrate that Viking kings there ruled in a similar fashion as Hrothgar during the Viking Age. Was Beowulf a real person? That is up to debate. But are the politics and cultural norms presented in the story based on actual historical practices? The evidence says yes.
The way I read the sagas is that, at a minimum, they show Viking culture: how they lived, what they believed, and how politics operated. Are all the names, locations, and facts always correct? Well, it depends. Modern scholars believe that some saga authors deliberately placed kings and other famous figures anachronistically together to make a better story, just like we do today. King Arthur is an excellent example of this phenomena, as he has been placed in Celtic England, Roman England, and High Medieval England, when really we are not 100% sure King Arthur even existed. This pseudo-historical phenomena can also be seen in the modern movies The Patriot, Gladiator, and Braveheart.
Ragnar Lohtbrok is another example of a pseudo-historical figure of Viking lore, like Sigurd the Dragan-Slayer and Beowulf. I have not read Ragnar’s Saga personally, as I studied the latter part of the Viking Age (900-1100) and not the 700-800s when Ragnar was supposed to have been running around. But from some preliminary secondary source research that I did it seems that historians lump Ragnar into the same category as Sigurd the Dragon-Slayer: a highly mythical hero figure who is credited by the Vikings as being the father of several real historical figures. That is not to say that there wasn’t a Ragnar who did some of the raids to which the sagas credit him. There is evidence from written sources at the time that Ragnar “Hairy Breeches” was a real person. (Yes, that is what “lothbrok” means.) But like Sigurd Dragon-Slayer, the fact is so deeply intermingled with fiction that even in the later Viking Age these stories had become pseudo-mythical. Sigurd and Ragnar are sort of the King Arthurs of the Viking world, to put it bluntly. (And this is why I chortled cynically when Aslaug says in the show that she is the daughter of Sigurd. I was like “yeh, and I’m the Queen of England.”)
What makes the show even more like a Norse Saga is that there are other very real historical figures in the show, such as King Horik I and King Ecbert. Horik I was a king of Denmark in the ninth century who raided into Charlemagne territory and resisted conversion to Christianity when Harald Bluetooth, one of his relatives and co-rulers, converted in 826. Ecbert was really king of Wessex in the ninth century, and he fought with the kings of the other English kingdoms as well as with Viking raiders. So the timing for both of these kings with the general plot of The Vikings show is roughly accurate, although the fact that Horik is from Denmark and the show is set mostly in Sweden is a little iffy. Nevertheless, the show gets a few things right history-wise. I would hope so, being that it is on the History Channel.
So, should you watch the show The Vikings? I would highly recommend that you do, unless you are a little squeamish about violence, blood, and sex. (Which I can understand.) But I would recommend that when you do watch the show keep a watchful eye out for historical inaccuracies. I will be spending several more blog posts discussing what the show does right and wrong, but I encourage you to look up things too. Sadly, we cannot get full accuracy from a TV show and also expect high ratings in this day and age. Yet, I do find it very intriguing that the show has turned into a kind of modern Norse Saga, with some factual integrity but also with some highly mythical elements. So, if nothing else, I would watch the show for that.
For more on this topic:
The History Channel’s Website. Check out the section entitled “Secrets of the Vikings.” Also, you can watch Season 2 there.
Byock, Jesse L. “Saga Form, Oral Prehistory, and the Icelandic Social Context.” New Literary History, Vol. 16, No. 1, Oral and Written Traditions in the Middle Ages (Autumn, 1984), pp. 153-173.
Byock, Jesse L. “Social Memory and the Sagas: The Case of ‘Egils saga’.” Scandinavian Studies, Vol. 76, No. 3 (Fall 2004), pp. 299-316.
A very interesting article on the violence in the show: http://www.medievalists.net/2015/02/18/vikings-brutal-bloodthirsty-just-misunderstanding/
(I apologize that I cannot find all of the sources for my information above at this time. I have a lot of things in my head and I cannot always remember which idea goes with which source. I recommend reading the front articles in the Penguin Classics editions of the sagas if you want to learn more about how sagas are read by modern scholars.)