Hollywood vs History: The Vikings (on History Channel)


In the last decade television (particularly the “Premium” cable networks) has been the best forum to find really good historical drama. “Rome” (2005-2007), The Tudors (2007-2010), ”The Borgias” (2011-present): Rather than trying to cram the life-and-times of some great historical personage into a 2 hour feature film, the television mini-series format allows 10 hours per season, and multiple seasons to tell the story!

As these things go, the new History Channel television mini-series, “Vikings” is very entertaining fare. As a history lesson, however, it’s rather thin (and confused) gruel.

This commendable look at the life and adventures of the legendary Viking chieftain Ragnar Lothbrok is LOTS of fun to watch. Well cast, acted, and produced “Vikings” serves up a terrific vision of Dark Ages Scandinavian society. While not always accurate, it “rings true” in most respects.

The broad canvass looks good: the recreations of 8th century towns and the interiors of homes and long-halls, and particularly of Viking ships (a marvel in their own age) are both sumptuous and impressive in their detail. As a story, it holds together extremely well, masterfully written by veteran historical dramatist Michael Hirsh.

Where it goes wrong is in keeping its historical facts straight.

Strength of Shield Maidens (3 min)

Fighting beside their men, Lagertha and the other shield maidens of the North face both death and glory.

Ragnar Lothbrok (or Lodbrok) was a semi-legendary character. His life and gunnar_stabkirche_hyledeeds are recorded in his own sagas,  the Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok  (Ragnars saga loðbrókar) and the Tale of Ragnar’s Sons (“Ragnarssona þáttr”); written in the 13th century (four centuries after the events described). He is also mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, briefly, as the father of three warrior-chiefs who led “The Great Heathen Army” that invaded England in 865.  Finally, Ragnar and his famous sons are also mentioned in the Heimskringla saga, and in Saxo Grammaticus’ “History of the Danes“.

Enough, clearly, to warrant acknowledgement as at least a semi-historical character. Where the history ends and the legend begins is more difficult to discern.

Ragnar was a 9th century leader of Viking expeditions, that much seems apparent. Historians credit him with, among other exploits, the sacking the city of Paris in 845AD. He died around 865AD, when, shipwrecked on the Northumbrian coast of England, he was captured and executed by the Northumbrians. His killing was credited with inspiring his sons to invade England, seeking retribution.

In “Vikings”, we meet Ragnar Lothbrok (played by the intense and compelling Travis Fimmel) as a young man. He is ambitious and farseeing. He plans an independent expedition to the west, across the North Sea; sailing in a ship of unique design and using a proto-compass/sundial (actually used by the Vikings) to help successfully navigate the open ocean.

His ambitions put him at odds with his chieftain, Jarl (or Earl) Haraldson (well-played by the veteran actor, Gabriel Byrne); who sees the upstart Ragnar as a threat to his authority.

Defying his Jarl, Ragnar sails west; and in the story he “discovers” England. Sailing along the shore, he comes to the island monastery at Lindisfarne. Historically, the Viking Era began with the sacking of the monastery at Lindisfarne, in 793AD.  In “Viking”, this attack is credited to our hero, Ragnar.

Herein arises the first historical problem with “Viking”.

In the series, we meet Ragnar as a man in his mid-late 20s. If he were the leader of the raid on Lindisfarne, as the series portrays, then he would be an elderly man in his 70′s when the historical Ragnar Lothbrok led the Viking fleet that sacked Paris in the 840′s. He would then have to be a very unlikely 90+ year old Viking when he died in Northumbria, twenty years later!!

However unlikely, as a plot point putting Ragnar at Lindisfarne and making him the father of the Viking Era is brilliant. Michael Hirsh, who wrote “The Tudors”, is an accomplished and talented story teller; if one that never lets historical accuracy interfere with his story!

The timeline of “Vikings” isn’t its only problem, however. The storyline has Ragnar discovering a way across the previously unexplored North Sea, to raid England; utilizing a new and unique boat design (the prototype for future Viking longships). In the story, the Vikings are unaware of the lands to the west. Some voice the opinion that only the end of the world lies that direction.

Unfortunately, this is far from the historical truth. Scandinavian seamen had been sailing the North Sean and raiding the British Isles and the coasts of Western Europe since the Roman times. The English themselves had come from Denmark and northern Germany in the 5th and 6th century AD to conquer “Britain”; sailing in earlier versions of the longships later employed by the Vikings. So, to suggest that England and the lands to the west of Denmark were unknown to Ragnar and his people is simply silly.

I was also taken by the lack of armor on the part of Viking warriors. The Vikings wore shirts of mail or leather in battle; as well as iron helmets. These are wholly lacking in “Vikings”; except amongst their English enemies. The suggestion is that the Vikings disdained armor, or were not advanced enough to make it. Neither was the case.

But this is to pick nits in an otherwise excellent historical series.

The conflict between the young, ambitious Ragnar and the aging, unscrupulous Jarl Haraldson drives the plot of the series’ first season (thus far). It leads to Ragnar slaying the Jarl in combat, and becoming himself Jarl of his people. According to the saga, Ragnar was a king of parts of Denmark and Sweden. So this first assumption of power may be our series’ protagonist initial steps toward his eventual kingship.

“Vikings” is rich in supporting characters: Canadian-born actress Katheryn Winnick as Ragnar’s shield-maiden wife, Lagertha (who really “sells” the role); Clive Standen as his motivationally opaque brother, Rollo; and vikings-promo-2_13Swedish star  Gustaf Skarsgard as Ragnar’s half-mad friend, the boat builder Floki.

However rich the supporting casts is,  the success of ”Vikings” (and I think it will be a very big success) rests squarely on the well-muscled shoulders of its main character and star.

Australian  Travis Fimmel is one of those rare animals: a male model who can also act. Like fellow former Calvin Klien underwear model, Mark Wahlberg, Fimmel is much more than just a pretty face (or chiseled abs). He commands every scene, and is wholly believable as the young Ragnar. We, the audience, can readily see that he will grow into the legendary Viking leader we know Ragnar Lothbrok to have been.

If you enjoy historical drama but were suspicious of “Vikings”, you can relax and tune-in. You will not be disappointed.