When the History Channel debuted Vikings, a series based on the exploits of literal legend Ragnar Lothbrok, in 2013, station executives across America surely shared a single thought: “Why did I think of that?” After all, not only are the epic poems of Scandinavia written in the 10th to 12th centuries loaded with hundreds of pages’ worth of free material, but the Viking tales are just full enough of sword-fighting and political machinations (sex and violence!) to remind the viewer of Game of Thrones.
Comparisons between Game of Thrones and Vikings are mostly limited to tone (sex and violence!), however: History Channel’s Vikings has much more in common with past HBO-produced serials such as Rome and Tombstone. With the example set in those series, Vikings viewers rarely see a quarter of an episode pass without an explicitly bloody act, while the sexy stuff … hoo boy. The History Channel folks may be restraining themselves vis-à-vis producing actual soft-core porn, but both the healthy innuendo and threats of sexual assault are rife in Vikings. So by the end of season one, our hero and his wife try to bag the house slave in a threesome? This is *not* your father’s History Channel.
Vikings centers on the exploits of Ragnar Lothbrok, a Viking warrior/explorer of near-myth who may have lived in the late 8th/early 9th centuries – see below for more on Ragnar’s quasi-biography. The series’ premiere episode is dated very specifically to 793 AD, in the early days of Viking expansion and what would ultimately become known as the Viking Age of Europe. Season two jumps forward four years to 797 or so. (For the sake of comparison, Iceland would be colonized by Viking explorers in 874.)
Established right from the go in Vikings episode 1: Ragnar (Travis Fimmel) may be quite good at killing, but he’s the sensitive father of Björn (Nathan O’Toole) and a daughter who … OK, Ragnar’s not all *that* sensitive. He’s also a lusty lover of rumpy-pumpy with his proto-Swedish bombshell wife Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) and/or others. Lagertha is a particular victim of tone-setting in series one, portrayed as a sex machine who fends off rapists as well as Ragnar’s ominous brother Rollo (Clive Standen) in her free time – she’ll spend much of the first two seasons getting threatened and/or beaten on.
(Representative dialogue from Lagertha in episode one: “I wanna ride you like a bull. A wild bull.” Now, wait, is she the wild bull or is he? Has she consorted with bulls – *wild* bulls – before? WTF?)
In series one, Ragnar is pursuing his wacky dream of finding new lands to the west to explore (read: pillage), but the conniving Earl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne) is closed-minded in classic villain fashion and for purely personal reasons seeks to quash Ragnar’s ambitions. Naturally, the charming and plucky underdog fulfills his wanderlust and explores (read: wreaks havoc in) new lands; series two through four see much plundering and looting (sex and violence!) thereafter.
Despite running on the History Channel, Vikings is clearly a dramatic presentation first and thus some liberties with the historical record are taken. On the plus side, the method of pre-compass navigation depicted is nicely done, and the inclusion of rock-crystal lenses as a tool to facilitate voyages is an excellent nod to key archaeological findings of 1999 – clearly the show’s producers did their homework.
Unfortunately, demands of traditional TV narrative swamp other aspects of historical accuracy. The Earl Haraldson character has been called out by many a critic for sheer impossibility, as pre-Viking Nordic cultures were already practicing an early form of democracy on the township level, rather than the sort of autocratic rule of serfs much of Europe was practicing during the Dark Ages.
Ragnar’s early drive to find lands to the west and the general ignorance of the existence of the British Isles is more or less bunk as well. In fact, 793 AD marks the first recorded incident involving organized Viking plunder of a British village, namely Dorset. Unless, of course, Ragnar-of-the-series was actually dreaming of Shetland, Orkney and/or the Hebrides, territorial acquisitions taken by Vikings prior to the settlement of Iceland in the 9th century.
Furthermore, the exquisite tortures of a barbaric death penalty may be much preferred by the dastardly earl and make for compelling television, but the Nordic sagas tell of many guilty of homicide whose sentence was banishment.
In some respects, Vikings creator/producer was correct when he answered questions of historical accuracy with “no one knows for sure what happened in the Dark Ages.” Specialist historians themselves are still engaged in a debate as to whether the Ragnar depicted in the sagas was exaggerated (and to what extent), was meant to serve as a sort of composite character or if he existed at all.
The most enduring reason for the fascination of Ragnar Lothbrok even before Vikings debuted in 2013 is that he literally is the bridge between myth and history. The sons he is acknowledged to have sired in epic poetry – Ivar the Boneless, Björn Ironside (the innocuous-unto-wimpy son of the series who in real life became quite the badass in pillaging bits of southern Italy, Sicily and North Africa), Halfdan Ragnarsson, Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye, and Ubba – are bona fide historical personages.
Making matters even more complicated, at least four of the potential six men which may comprise the Ragnar character in poetry are themselves vaguely defined in historical terms.
Having said this, Vikings may be called out on one inconsistently from the accepted mythology: Namely that Björn is in fact the son of Ragnar’s second wife Aslaug, who doesn’t appear in the series until young Ironside is into puberty.
What was the initial reception to the Vikings' series?
But what’s a little accuracy got to do with popularity? Certainly the most successful of any recent History Channel series of any sort, Vikings has seen a steady rise in critical acclaim, viewership and series length. The latter has resulted in a full-on two-part, 20-episode season for 2016, way up from the nine epsiodes commissioned for season one.
Though no Game of Thrones in the ratings, numbers like the 4.6 million who watched the debut episode of season three are surely enviable for sub-HBO cable networks. And Vikings’ cult following is as strong as anything which debuted on American TV in the 2010s.
Time will tell how long the Vikings production team is interested in continuing the story of Ragnar Lothbrok, but here’s to hoping the final episode gives us the truly epic (so to speak) fate of Ragnar: So the final fates of Walter White and Tony Soprano were memorable? Ha!According to some sagas, King Aelie of Northumbrian (hey, he’s in this show!) sentences Ragnar to death by throwing him into a pit of snakes.
Until then, there’s always plenty of Dark Ages-style sex and violence…
Official website: http://www.history.com/shows/vikings