I’ve had a few people ask me what I think about the new History Channel show, Vikings. All I can say is…it’s complicated.
When I watch historical movies or television shows based on a time period in which I’m familiar, it’s hard for me. I watch with an eye towards historical accuracy, not just with setting and costumes, but on the history itself. Quite honestly, knowing the time period can ruin a movie for me, if it’s not accurate…which they almost always are not!
Now, to Vikings. [SPOILER ALERT!] The story begins in 793, and is about a young viking named Ragnar Lothbrok, who wants to sail WEST and plunder what he believes is a land ripe for picking. His chieftain, the Earl Haraldson, wants to play it safe and sail East, yet again. The ships are the Earl’s so what he says, goes. Ragnar balks at going east; as he says, the people in the east are as poor as he is. Ragnar calls a meeting with some friends (in secret), and they all vow to travel west with Ragnar…as equals. You see, not only did Earl Haraldson shoot down Ragnar’s idea to sail west, he is also crazy, paranoid, and greedy.
Ragnar does have one card up his sleeve–he’s got a sunstone. He can navigate his ship using a dial and if the sun is not shining, he can use the sunstone to cast a reflection to help him guide the ship. Ragnar has a ship built (by a crazy boatbuilder named Floki), gathers his band of not-so-merry men, and heads west. Of course, the going is rough; they think the god Thor is angry with them, but eventually they make it to England–the island of Lindisfarne to be exact. They slaughter most of the monks, sack the monastery, and take a few prisoners to sell into slavery. That is where the second episode ends, with one of the beleaguered monks pondering his fate.
For the most part I enjoyed the show. I liked the look of it and the feel. This is not an attempt to make Vikings into some touchy-feely group of misunderstoond men. They are brutal. The first scene is a battle scene with Ragnar and his brother Rollo killing some men from the east. The monks at Lindisfarne fare no better. Even though the monks are unarmed, Ragnar’s band of Vikings slaughters them mercilessly. The Vikings are there to plunder the monastery, plain and simple, which is exactly right historically. The monastery of Lindisfarne was one of the first places in England to be attacked by Vikings. At least the show got that right.
The scene at Lindisfarne was actually my favorite of the two episodes. Usually when movies depict Vikings, they land, jump out of their boats and run screaming, brandishing their weapons, laying waste to everything in sight. These Vikings were a little more circumspect. They walked to the monastery–armed, but wary. They approached the gated building carefully. Then they broke down the gate with their axes and wreaked havoc. After the slaughter of the monks, we are given a little levity. These burly Vikings enter the chapel to find gold, jewels, and treasures beyond their reckoning. But they are confused…why aren’t the treasures locked up? Hidden? Rollo barges in and exclaims that there are NO WOMEN! The Vikings also don’t understand why these monks worship a god that is dead. How can this god help them or protect them if he’s dead? Our Vikings are confused. It’s a little sweet.
Back at home, the Earl is going paranoid crazy. He kills one of his own cronies. He kills the blacksmith who forged Ragnar’s anchor. We, of course, expect big trouble for Ragnar when he gets back.
One thing I like is that Ragnar is a likeable guy. He’s also a killer, slaver, and thief. It’s a great juxtaposition.
There are lots of little historical inaccuracies, but I won’t get into them. Why spoil it for those of you who don’t care!
The one big problem I have (other than the silly mohawk Ragnar’s son sports) is the characterization of Earl Haraldson. First, there is his name. Men didn’t go by their last names at that time, at least not in Scandinavia. He might have been called by his first name and then identified as Haraldson (Harald’s son), but he would not have gone purely by his last name. But that is a small matter. His characterization is the big mistake. His character is the stereotypical bad guy. He’s got no redeeming qualities. He’s the evil, twisted, Sheriff of Nottingham type, complete with a henchman! He lords over this little village like a medieval lord of a much later period.
In 8th century Scandinavia, politics and power didn’t work that way. The earl and the men of the village and surrounding areas would have been equal, with the earl “more equal”. He may have been richer and more powerful than the other men, but he would have treated them with respect. He would have been generous to the men who went raiding with him, giving them plenty of the spoils. If not, they would surely have decided someone else needed to lead them (and been well within their rights to do so), and they would have had the means to make it happen. They would not have been bullied by a single man and his lackey. They were Vikings!
Plus, a real earl of that period would surely not have killed his blacksmith out of anger that he’d made an anchor for someone else. Blacksmiths were extremely valuable men and not to be thrown away. It’s not like blacksmiths were lining the village streets! Who else was going to forge the axes, swords, shields, and other necessities of Viking life? Killing the blacksmith…lame.
So that’s it. I think the show has potential. I’m going to keep watching, unless Earl Haraldson’s character becomes too much inaccuracy for me to bear!