History TV: First Voyage with Vikings

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.)

The stereotype of Vikings as romanticised barbarians has remained strong in popular culture. Painting of Apollinary Vasnetsov via Wikimedia.

The stereotype of Vikings as romanticised barbarians has remained strong in popular culture. Painting of Apollinary Vasnetsov via Wikimedia.

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.

13th century manuscript of Njall's Saga, via Wikimedia.

13th century manuscript of Njall’s Saga, via Wikimedia.

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.

Viking silver from the Cuerdale Hoard, held in the British Museum. © Jorge Royan via Wikimedia

Viking silver from the Cuerdale Hoard, held in the British Museum. © Jorge Royan via Wikimedia

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.

Model of the mediaeval trading town of Birka, Sweden; (Holger Ellgaard via Wikimedia)

Model of the mediaeval trading town of Birka, Sweden; (Holger Ellgaard via Wikimedia)

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?


14 thoughts on “History TV: First Voyage with Vikings

  1. I liked it, but had mostly the same problems as you. Especially I found it unlikely, in this time period that Britain would have been unknown in any part of Scandinavia, it also struck me as possibly a bit late for the introduction of the keeled longship with a stepped mast, but I don’t know that.

    • My sense is that they telescoped a lot of very long developments into the lifespan of a single generation in order to have this great out-of-nowhere, driven-by-the-ingenuity-of-a-single-man effect. It’s not a terrible thing, but it also didn’t seem very necessary. Surely the Vikings are already exciting enough?

      • I think you may well be right. I hadn’t thought of that. And yes, I certainly think they are. But I always have, at least since Magnus Magnusson’s book came out.

        I’m just finishing up mine which will link to yours in the morning, mine also has a bit about “The Bible” but otherwise is very similar.

        History should have tried this years ago, these are both good, and they could have saved themselves a lot of ridicule.

  2. Heh, I skimmed through this show yesterday. It was okay. A lot of historical shows don’t quite master the art of making their characters act as a person would have in that time. Historical fiction has to be done well to be appealing to history nerds. Otherwise, I prefer either history or fantasy. I really liked the History Channel better when it focused on good old documentaries, but nowadays its trying to appear “cool” by making shows such as “Ax Men.”

    • I have to admit, most of their shows no longer appeal to me. I’m just glad to see them attempting to return to their roots a bit with a series actually set in the past. It also avoids both the Tudors and the 19th century, which differentiates it from most other historical/period drama in English.

  3. Thank you very much for a well-written article and a communicated sense that there are, indeed, people like me, who can be literaly freaked out because of the historical mistakes in the pseudohistorical fiction. I have not seen the Vikings and I am not sure yet if I am going to: the teaser you’ve shared appears to correspond with quite a number of clichés: doomless blue eyes of the main character, a love scene (I have once read that there was a rite among the vikings: if a man wanted his woman to get pregnant with a boy he had to – at the moment of sexual climax! – show her his ax. D’you think the guy does that in the film?:D). I presume, the series will have quite a simple narrative structure based on the most common Proppian functions, some of which are clear from the teaser: a hero setting off for adventures, being banned, then probably celebrated, there’s a love line, etc. So, what I’m trying to say: please, tell me that the film has smth else to offer apart from some historical mistakes you’ve mentioned and boring narrative structure? For I would like to watch smth historically-refreshing.

    • So far no, there is no awkward weapon-baring during sex, although there is (regrettably) awkward pillow-talk aplenty.

      I can’t tell if the series is worth watching from your perspective, but what I would say is that every story, when stripped to the bones, becomes a stereotype. What makes one hero-archetype worth watching is the way in which it was told, and so far with Vikings I’m willing to go along for the ride. I wouldn’t call it a great show, so far, but it promises to be at least decently entertaining. Speaking only for myself, I would rather watch an imperfectly realised piece of historical fiction than be stuck in the land of contemporary dramas (like the HBO show Girls).

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  5. I’m so glad you included the painting by Vasnetsov! What we really need next is a good (and historically accurate) ‘Varangarians in Russia’ or ‘Vikings in Kievan Rus’ series. Unfortunately every age seems bent on interpreting past periods through its own ways of seeing, speaking and behaving. This has been bothering me more and more lately, whether it’s historical fiction, dramatic film or even plain old ‘history’. Nothing more disconcerting than hearing 8th century Norsemen, for example, sound like refugees from 21st century London or Los Angeles.

    • That would be an excellent series! I also wish someone would adapt the Saga of Erik the Red (and the Viking voyages to the Americas) into a film. I think the Viking voyages are so interesting because of the combination of seagoing adventure and cross-cultural encounters, and I wish someone would bring that richness to the screen!

      At the same time though, it’s always difficult to separate our perceptions of the past from our present environment. For example, sooner or later any worthy depiction of the Vikings would have to confront the ethics of colonisation, the contrasts between a cosmopolitan trading environment and the destructive raiding, etc. I feel that film- and tv-adaptors should be excited about inhabiting a world with such a rich tapestry of ideas and events attached, but mostly it seems that they fail to take up the challenge.

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  7. I watched the first four episodes with eagerness and I can only say I am heartily bored. All the characters seem to be simplistic, the plots non-existent and people have bee bracketed into ‘good’ and ‘evil’ very clearly. Also, no one acts natural. Historical accuracy is the least of this show’s problems.

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