As Season 4 of Vikings is readying to raid our TV screens, we will try and show how their writer Michael Hirst and his team of historical advisers do not limit their endeavour to Norse Mythology, royal genealogies and other sagas. Indeed they stray far away, deep into the recesses of time. As we say a long, long time ago …
Vikings, the TV series from History Channel is rightly lauded for its attempt at giving a true feel of the Early Medieval period later years. On one side of the time line we have the eponyms Vikings: North Men from Scandinavia, the very last group of people participating into the Age of Migrations (an expression in tune with the series synopsis), a period set between the Fall of the Roman Western Empire 476 AD and 1095 with the Council of Clermont and the Crusades and on the other side the Christianized people of the South possibly less enthusiastic at warfare (Charlemagne demurs) importantly belonging to the culture of the Written word allowing not only archives but scientific development and engineering. One may dream of the ‘what might have been’ if their seafarers had been able to keep records like the Christian monks.
The first three seasons have seen the show going to Denmark, Northumbria, Wessex before ending up in a Carolingian Paris. In the series, (semi-legendary) Ragnar Lothbrok has survived Death handed to him by monks in the scriptoria of Bertin Abbey among others. His brother Rollo has met his fate in the form of an offer in Dukedom (911 AD Normannia?) and mate under the guise of Gisla, a descendent of Charlemagne (though Frankish annals do not mention this lady unlike Norman ones).
We all agree that Lagertha the shieldmaiden, as she may boast to be, has a doubtful biological existence unlike the House of Wessex, but it must be said that Alfred the Great’s parentage is loaded with many more elder brothers without any stain of bastardry. We are happy to confirm late Carolingian kings were hapless and hopeless but we resent the clumsy trick depicting Christians intolerant like some weird West Saxon proto-Ku-Klux-Klan brotherhood.
It remains that all the above shows a careful attention to authenticity and real history does not cater for legends, isn’t it.
Why fairy tales then? Does this show alter a semi-legendary status in favour of a stamped certificate of reality? Is it guilty of an alternate version of History in capital letters or does it incorporate well known tales giving them a new lease of life? Or is it like the Greek myths of yore a testimony to eternal plot twists?
Some tales have a long life. Consider the Blood Eagle episode (watching it was gruesome but on par to some recent medical reality shows), one can debate at length. Was it another attempt of Christian priests to darken a bit more the reputation of an ethnic group which is remembered to this day by the expression Rape and Pillaging or did Vikings engage in an eerily thoracic surgery without anaesthetics like the Aztecs did minus the Sun pyramid? Unless Archaeology provides us with physical proof (a skeleton with open ribs would be nice), we shall not know. Yet this torture is now a classic staple of any fiction related to the Barbarian Times of Northern Europe. The Myth is unproven. Sine non vero e bene trovato as they say. Michael Hirst did not have much choice here. Where he has probably erred outside of caution was when he walked down the lane of Christians crucifying the apostate monk. It is his right to say he has found this mentioned in some obscure chronicle; it is the duty of Clio lovers to ask into which such a find was made. But this is not why we agree or disagree with the show. Importantly, this is not what we are talking here.
Vikings does not limit itself in breathing a new life into a Viking urban legend: it gives a nice twist on a much more historically sound myth. I name Troy: Troy as in the Trojan War down to the deus-ex-machina in the shape of a wooden horse or here a wooden casket yet with the same result.
Remember your Homer then compare and contrast.
- Two siblings at logger’s head each king by their own right or would be: Mycenae and Sparta.
- A fleet of cruel Achaeans eager to plunder a rich city seemingly more advanced culturally speaking.
- A weak old king along a princess who is not keen on surrendering mirroring King Priam and lucid Cassandra.
- Agamemnon, spouse of the angry Clytemnestra compares easily with the devious King of Kattegat and his unfaithful queen Aslaug. A Queen just as adept as Medea in the dark arts as she is a volva (Norse witch)
- King Menelaus is luckier than Rollo still on the look-out for a crown to grab; like the Spartan though, Rollo is just as unlucky in love. Helena was in love with Trojan Prince Paris where feisty Princess Gisla fighting for the city of Paris is disgusted by her Norse betrothed.
Kudos to the props masters who have given life to what the historian advisers have imagined in their reconstruction of Carolingian Paris. Aside the astonishing invention of a hill in the middle of the very flat Isle de la Cite (take it from a Parisian it is flat), we were able to recognize Romanesque churches gracing Cologne Rhine banks and a revisited Aachen Dom. Then Ragnar came casting himself as the Trojan trick, springing from his death-bed to get his band of ruffians inside the impregnable walls of the fabled capital. Franks were twice humiliated as not only they had wasted good money to bribe the raiders into leaving without damage but were shown to have forgotten about Troy. As any French historian can tell you, Franks have this myth that they are Trojans (if we are to believe the Chronicles of Fredegar written in the late 7th century).
I imagine Michael Hirst was chuckling as he was writing the episode which should have been called Luna since the original anecdote is given to Hasteinn a Viking jarl who confused Rome and the Italian City of Luna through the very same manner. Let us admire how this Grecian Homeric theme has been woven smartly into the fabric of that semi-fictional show. Or could it be that Kattegat is to be twinned with Sparta?
Another legend in reverse is the opposition between the two male main leads. Some parts of the audience compare it to the Biblical antagonism of Cain and Abel. Between you and me, since both North Men are happily killing around, one wonders who is Cain and who is Abel, but we are not going to start holding a body count as to crown the less murderous of the two characters.
A tale, once again, plays a part in this storyline. Namely the Ugly Duckling where a sad little misfit discovers after many tribulations and travels (raids?) that he is a swan and happily joins with his new found family to be happy ever.
Replace our feathered hero by a younger brother who is clearly not finding his place in the society he is living in, finds if History is to be believed happiness with a flock of swans hailing here from Frankia. Interestingly, the fairy tale was written by the Dane Hans-Christian Andersen born probably in an area known to the real Ragnar if ever there was a real Ragnar.
Rollo has not finished his long life hence it comes to no surprise that he is starring in a Viking version of Beauty and the Beast titled here The Princess and the Bear. But our plate is not full as we can also wonder if he is not going to play a Norse Petruchio opposed to a Gallic Kate in The Taming of the Frank Shrew. After Homer, Hirst gives a Norse passport to William Shakespeare. Let us accept without opposition that his Seer could get a part as one of the Witches of Macbeth, bones and stones included.
Myths are eternal: two brothers fighting each other as mortal enemies is an archaic one. Finding oneself at odds with one’s people thus having to leave home and Go West or South in this stance to succeed has been a reality for the ancestors of many Modern Americans. Myths can be built on a nugget of reality.
Some can be reproduced as mortal avatars of a divine order with Floki/Loki killing Ragnar/Odin beloved Athelstan/Balder. Some can be a long standing pessimistic vision about Love: there is no happiness in Love. Ragnar stuck between his ex-wife and his unhappy new trophy wife can certainly confirm the axiom.
In 1976, Bruno Bettelheim wrote about The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. This remarkable book opens our eyes to the real significance as a social key for children to integrate society. Recently Professor Anthropologist Dr Jamie Tehrani has put it to us (and mainly the general public) that fairy tales were much older than previously thought.
Let’s consider Rollo the berserker. The show describes a man-beast who is in dire need of taming to integrate fully the society of his peers. The choice of a bear is not accidental. Michel Pastoureau in his book The Bear: History of a Fallen King explains how in Pagan non-Roman Europe it was the bear which was the king of the animal world. How the rather solitary nature of the bear caused it to be described as a melancholic brute, how it is supposedly a creature that is ready to rape women and how by shaving his hair one finds underneath a man! This notion of a man-beast fits to a T Ragnar’s brother. Shall we add that the very first man-beast of History is found in the Epic of Gilgamesh?
Written about four thousand years ago, it relates how a very wild as in covered with hair and savage man Enkidu. Only by having sex with a temple sacred prostitute, Shamhat is he able to rise from the position of untamed to civilized man.
I will leave you to ponder how a millennia old – written on clay – story is still able to enter in a dialogue with a television series imagined after a man walked on the moon in 1969, an event described by Cyrano de Bergerac (the real writer and noted swordsman) before 1657 in Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon. Why Cyrano and Vikings? Read the play and tell me if the Cadets of Gascony going to battle are unworthy to shout Shield Wall!
There are many more myths to look for in the previous seasons along the new ones coming in the fourth season. And I have no doubt that we all shall be discussing them.
It remains that not all TV series thrown at us allow to discuss in one easy swipe Cain and Abel, a Mesopotamian legend, Hans-Christian Andersen, a French pre Revolution fairy tale along a blind Greek poet and a man from Stratford-upon-Avon.
Season 4 starts by a direct homage to a well-known Renaissance artist. Can you decode the new season poster? All in all I’d say Michael Hirst has woven well his version of the Bayeux tapestry; don’t you think?
You can follow Morangles on Twitter @morangles