Note: This originally appeared in the print-only TV Guide of The Marshall Independent.
Kine die, kin die
And so at last yourself:
But this I know that never dies
How dead men’s deeds are deemed.
- Hávamál: The Words of Odin the High One, from the Elder Edda
“Vikings” is I believe, the first venture of the History Channel into historical drama.
The gold standard for Viking movies is still, “The Vikings” with Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis, based on a book by Edison Marshall. The movie begat a TV series, “Tales of the Vikings” (1959-1960).
Everybody loves Vikings, which is kind of odd and paradoxical. On the one hand, you have a people who were energetic, active, and wonderfully bold. They had a robust sense of humor, the laughter of free men. The mostly dealt justly with each other, and women probably had more rights in their society than anywhere else, or at any other time until the present.
On the other hand, for a couple of centuries these admirable people liked to take annual sea voyages down to Europe where they’d steal anything that wasn’t nailed down, rape everything in skirts, and kill anyone who got in their way, or sometimes just for fun. (I’d tell you what “carving the blood eagle” was, but not before lunch.)
“Vikings” is the story of the beginning of the age of Viking raids in the ninth century, told as the story of the semi-legendary Ragnar Lodbrok (Travis Fimmel), known to history as “Ragnar Hairybreeks.”
Ragnar and his wife the shieldmaiden Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick), and his brother Rollo (Clive Standen) are progressive, forward-looking Vikings who want to discover new lands to plunder. They are opposed by the backward-looking Earl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne), who wants to keep raiding the poverty-stricken Baltic coast.
“A furore Normanorum, libera nos Domine!” medieval monks prayed. “From the fury of the Northmen, deliver us Oh Lord!”
Deliver us Oh Lord, from writers who can’t be bothered to get their history right!
There is so much that could have been done with this. They have the scenery down. They built a Viking village whose authenticity you can almost smell, and one very cool longship,
They have an outstanding cast. In particular Katheryn Winnick, a Canadian actress of Ukrainian origin who looks like she carries genes from the Viking kingdom of Kiev. She is also an accomplished martial artist and pulls off the role of a warrior woman to perfection.
There is in the first episode, a law case that ideally should have set the stage perfectly. A man kills an enemy in a dispute that would ordinarily have called for weregild, the blood money paid to the family of someone you’ve killed, even if it was self-defense.
But in this case, the killer passed by three houses before he announced the killing, and thus is technically guilty of “secret murder” a heinous crime. A very nice touch indicating someone has done their homework.
Unfortunately, they’ve got too many things in here which are just flat absurd.
Ragnar has learned how to use a sun disk and a sun stone. The first is a wooden plate with a peg in the middle. You float it in water and take note of the length of the peg’s shadow at noon, which gives you a pretty good idea of longitude. The latter is a piece of crystal which polarizes light, enabling you to see the sun through heavy clouds.
They follow this up with the absurd notion that the Vikings didn’t know about the existence of England, except as legend!
The ninth century was when Vikings and their Irish thralls colonized Iceland!
They make Earl Haraldson out to be a scary, semi-psycho who rules with an iron fist and terrifies everybody.
In reality ninth century Viking society was very decentralized, with local chieftains jealous of their independence and quick to speak their minds, even to their kings.
When Ragnar returns from the first raid into England with booty, and a captive monk who speaks their language, Earl Haradson demands all of the treasure as compensation for their having disobeyed him.
No earl wielded that kind of authority to begin with, and while a chief might claim a share of the spoils, no one could have gotten away with taking it all.
And as for the Saxon monk, Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon were probably close enough for the Viking and the monk to talk to each other with a little practice anyway.
I’m sorry, there is much to like about this series, but there are too many sour notes that spoil it and can’t be fixed within the constraints they’ve written themselves into.