If you are a fan of historical fiction, whether on the page or on the screen, you will be well familiar with the conflicting emotions of anticipation and dread which accompany a new release in the genre. On the one hand, historical fiction offers cultural landscapes and dramatic narratives which are all the more rich and compelling for being based in the facts of the past. On the other, however, the same historical integrity which breaths life into the story must be balanced with the requirements of character development, dramatic effect (and, in the case of film, budgets).
When managed correctly, the effects can be stunning–read Dorothy Dunnett for an outstanding example of the genre–but all too often a story will end up without enough historical land to stand on, and no narrative oomph to redeem itself. Such has been the case with most recent attempts at portraying the northern fringe of mediaeval Europe on screen, as demonstrated by the most recent Beowulf and The 13th Warrior, both of whom have more in common with the genre of epic fantasy than with historical fiction (although Antonio Banderas, at least, is entertaining.)
This lack is especially disappointing because northern Europe, of all areas, possessed the most developed and accessible narrative tradition of the Middle Ages in the form of the sagas. Although these sagas have accuracy issues of their own, they nonetheless represent a startling level of artistic accomplishment, relating sea-voyages, feuds, and inter-generational strife (all candidates for good television) with a nuanced understanding of human nature. With so much material, its hard to understand why a good fictional representation of the Viking Age has yet to make it to the silver screen.
With the premier of the History Channel’s new show Vikings on Sunday, however, things may be beginning to change. The series is one of two forays–maiden voyages, if you will excuse the pun–into the waters of scripted drama for a channel known more for their reality bargain hunting shows than their history. My expectations–and those of several other historically inclined friends–were commensurately low. Despite a few minor quibbles and one major dispute with the historical interpretation, however, I actually came away impressed.
The core of the story is a classic rendition of the clash between an ambitious young man and the conservative attitudes of his older leader; in this case, farmer and sometime-raider Ragnar and his earl Haraldson, who dispute over the target of the summer raids. These and other characters were surprisingly well-delineated (if not overly original), and well integrated into their social world. Aesthetically, too, the show delivered with timbered halls, properly muddy hems, and a glowering Scandinavian landscape.
But what about the history? For me, this aspect of the show was much more mixed. On the one hand, this first episode centred around the genuine concerns of mediaeval Scandinavians: land disputes, loyalty to a liege, and the difficult business of growing into adulthood. Some details, however, simply didn’t fit. Earl Haraldson, for example, calls Ragnar to a private audience during an important gathering, eating alone like a mob boss in the back room of a nightclub rather than presiding over the feast he is hosting–taking the conspicuous out of conspicuous consumption. In another scene, Ragnar pays for the services of a shipwright in coin, when I would have liked to see hack-silver–a distinctive use of bullion for payment that could have lent verisimilitude.
These small details, however, hardly detract from an enjoyment of the show. One glaring error in the premise of the plot–and indeed the whole worldview ascribed to the show’s characters–was far more disappointing. This is the dispute between Earl Haraldson, who wishes to raid in the Eastern Baltic, like every other year, and Ragnar, who wants to explore the unknown lands and fabled riches of the west. From further elaboration in the show, it becomes clear that ‘west’ does not mean Iceland, Greenland, or even Vinland in the New World (all places explored by Scandinavian sailors), but the British Isles.
We are asked to believe that these remained, until the 8th century, unknown to Scandinavian seafarers.
This is rather improbable. Even in the ‘Dark Ages’ the North Sea was a small, well integrated kind of place. The Angles, Saxons, and Jutes had settled the British Isles from their homes around modern Denmark in the 5th and 6th centuries, and Frisian traders were active in the trading ports (called emporia or wics) that spanned from the Thames to Russia. Given these centuries of transmarine interaction, it is nearly impossible to imagine the Vikings as utterly ignorant of Britain and Ireland.
Despite this rather disappointing failing in the premise of the show, which feeds back into the worn stereotype of the ignorant Middle Ages, I know I’ll be following the unfolding adventures of Ragnar. This most recent interpretation of the Viking Age may not be perfect, but I hope at least that it encourages others to follow where the History Channel has led. After all, there’s plenty more history where this came from.
Did you tune in to Vikings? What did you think?