By Minjie Su
As one of the most aspiring female characters on the show, Lagertha in the TV series Vikings is introduced as the wife of Ragnarr Loðbrók and a renowned shieldmaiden – women who fight fearlessly in the battlefront. But where does Lagertha’s story originate?
As many of you probably know, one of the major sources for Vikings’s Ragnarr is Ragnars saga Loðbrókar, a 13th-century Icelandic fornaldarsaga (‘legendary saga’) that is often treated as the sequel to Vǫlsunga saga, on the ground that his last wife Áslaug is the (only) child of Sigurðr the dragonslayer and the ex-Valkyrie Brýnhildr. Yet the origin of Lagertha is not to be found in this saga; rather, it goes further back into the past. The name as we know it first appears in Saxo Grammaticus’s Gesta Danorum, ‘Deeds of the Danes’. Composed in the early 13th century in Latin, this ambitious work is intended to relate the heroic, legendary history of the Danes from mythical times to the author’s near past – very much in the same spirit of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum britanniae.
The story of Lagertha begins in Book IX, incorporated in the early adventures of Ragnarr Loðbrók. At that time, the Swedish king Frø just killed the Norwegian ruler Sivard. To humiliate Sivard’s family, Frø sells the wives of his victim’s relatives to a brothel. Upon hearing the news, the young Ragnarr, ruler of Sjælland and grandson to Sivard, sets off to Norway in no time to avenge Sivard’s death. Many distinguished women flock to his side, dressed in men’s clothing, and request to join his army, for they’d rather die than be dishonoured by Frø. Ragnarr receives them well and gladly accepts their help.
Among these women there is one called Lagertha. She stands out as a first-class fighter, someone ‘who bore a man’s temper in a girl’s body’. Her signature is her beautiful long hair – as a maiden, she wears her hair loose. In battle, when she fights amongst the boldest warriors, her hair flies over her shoulders, so that everyone can tell this is a woman fighting. Everybody marvels at her, including Ragnarr himself, who openly praises her fierceness: he would not win the battle without her great feats. Having discovered that she is also as high-ranked as he is, Ragnarr decides to woo Lagertha. On the surface, Lagertha appears to welcome Ragnarr’s approach, but in secret she despises his proposal. When Ragnarr is confident enough to believe he will get the girl and is filled with desires, Lagether fastens a bear and a hound to her door. Then she invites Ragnarr over for a rendezvous. When the man arrives alone at the girl’s home, the beasts are unleashed on him. Yet Ragnarr manages to kill one beast with his spear and another with bare hands. He wins Lagertha for his wife. They live together in peace for three years; Lagether gives birth to two daughters and a son, Fridlef.
In this episode, Lagertha acts very similarly to a character type commonly found in riddarasögur, the chivalric sagas: meykongr, or Maiden King. The Maiden Kings are female rulers who refuse to share power upon their father’s death but resume the title of kings in their own right. More often than not, these Maiden Kings are beautiful, intelligent, capable, extremely proud, sometimes even cruel: they are desired and sought after by kings and princes as potential brides, yet they habitually execute their suitors until the saga hero comes along. The saga hero – being the main character of the saga and therefore good at everything – would complete the impossible tasks set the meykongr and forces her into conforming to social norms. Despite their destined failure, Maiden Kings are nevertheless highly capable women who command respect from both the saga characters and the readers.
Back to Lagertha’s story. Ragnarr soon gets tired of Lagertha but falls in love with Þóra, daughter of the Swedish sovereign Heroth. Now we have reached the beginning parts of Ragnars saga loðbrókar, where Ragnarr kills a dragon and gets his nickname ‘hairy-breeches’. But this is not the story for today. Lagertha is divorced; she fades from Ragnarr’s life for the time being.
Lagertha re-enters the story when Ragnarr has to fight off a rebellion of the Jutes and Scanians. By this time, she has married again – to a king who is not named by Saxo – but still has ‘strong feelings of her former love’ running in her veins. When Ragnarr is enlisting all the help he can get, Lagertha answers the call with her son and her new husband. She not only provides Ragnar with a massive fleet but also comes in person to fight for him. She ‘flew around the rear of the unprepared enemy in a circling manoeuvre’, causing panic across the battlefield. Hilda E. Davidson, whose translation of Gesta Danorum this article has been quoting from, argues that this passage may point to Lagertha’s supernatural roots: her flying around recalls the image of Valkyries. It has also been suggested that Saxo’s Lagertha is the same figure as Þorgerðr Hǫlgabrúðr, a female deity who acts as Earl Hákon’s protector in Jómvikinga saga.
Her crushing triumph on the battlefield perhaps makes Lagertha suddenly realise the immensity of her power. After she returns home, she hides a dart under her gown. When night falls and everybody is sound asleep, she slashes open her husband’s throat, seizing the rulership for herself. Her story ends here with Saxo’s comment: ‘this woman, of the haughtiest temperament, found it pleasanter to govern her realm alone than share the fortunes of a husband.’
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