Review: Vikings (History Channel series)

Vikings is a historical drama television series written for The History Channel in the United States and Canada, and was aired online on Lovefilm in The UK on 24 May 2013. The series was filmed in Ireland and is based on the stories and sagas of the legendary Norse hero Ragnar Lodbrok.Image

The plot of the series follows Ragnar as the protagonist and portrays him as a Viking farmer from the beginning, we then see him show himself to be a great warrior who is destined for greatness. Ragnar has a dream to discover other civilizations across the sea to the west, but the local ruler, Earl Haraldson wants to prevent this. Ragnar challenges the Earl and makes an enemy of him early on in the story. However, Ragnar appears confident in his ability to sail west despite the powerful Earl opposing him. He has support from his family, particularly his wife, Lagertha the shieldmaiden, who is as skilled a fighter as he is. There is also his brother Rollo, who supports him as his partner in their voyage to the west, but also appears to be plotting to betray Ragnar behind his back. They are also joined on their voyage by a group of warriors Ragnar gathered to raid their destination of England, including Floki, a gifted shipbuilder who builds the ship they sail. When they reach their destination, another character of the main cast joins them, or is rather forced to join them; an Anglo-Saxon monk named Athelstan who they capture as a slave. Ragnar decides not to sell him when they return and keep him for information on the mysterious lands of England. The rest of the first season covers Ragnar raiding England again, and eventually his efforts to overthrow Earl Haraldson.

As mentioned earlier, the plot of the series is inspired by the sagas about Ragnar Lodrok. Most notable of these are the 13th century sagas Ragnars saga Loðbrókar and Ragnarssona þáttr. These Norse legendary sagas are partially fictional tales based on the Norse oral tradition and were written down around 200 to 400 years after the events they describe. Further inspiration is taken from historical sources of the period, such as the records of the Viking raid on Lindisfarne such as in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The series is set in the early years of the Viking age, starting in 793 AD.

The series tends to depict the Vikings in a highly realistic manner that is perhaps generally uncommon in depictions of Vikings in popular culture. There appear to be very little presence of historical inaccuracies; however there are some critics that have tried to point out some inaccuracies in the representation of Viking Age government. Lars Walker, in the magazine The American Spectator criticized its portrayal of Viking Age government as autocratic rather than essentially democratic. Joel Robert Thompson criticized the show’s depiction of the Norse peoples’ supposed ignorance of the existence of the British Isles, and the use of the death penalty instead of outlawry as a punishment for heinous crimes. These criticisms can be easily refuted if we look at the character of Earl Haraldson; he is shown to be a selfish, paranoid leader, and it is clear that these inaccuracies come from him. The portrayal of government as autocratic is only shown in this one case where Haraldson is the Earl, and this is clearly because that is his particular nature as a leader. So it is not necessarily the view or the meaning of the series that the whole of Viking age society was like this. The other criticisms can also be refuted because Haraldson was a paranoid man, who did not want other people challenging his leadership by disobeying him and sailing west to England rather than to the east, where he wanted to raid each summer. This could lead to him trying to keep people believing that there is nothing worth raiding to the west. The use of the death penalty can clearly be explained as part of  Haraldson’s cruelty as a leader, and his paranoia means that he doesn’t want any traitors to believe they can get away with anything against him. The execution scene early in the series is also shown as unusual, when many of the characters were shocked as to the brutal way that it was carried out.

The writer for the series has admitted that he ‘had to take liberties’ with the historical accuracy of the show. However, having already been based on Viking sagas, which fundamentally take liberties with the truth, this can be forgiven. The series also clearly depicts the Vikings in a far more accurate, while also interesting way, than many other depictions of Vikings in popular culture, and surely that is at least a step in the right direction if it is not perfectly accurate. Overall Vikings depicts so many aspects of Viking society and life in such accurate and yet entertaining ways that it is most definitely one of the best historical dramas I have ever seen.

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