The Problem(s) With Vikings

May 1, 2014 § 6 Comments

I recently began watching Vikings.  I have two colleagues who are practically drooling over the show, so, one night when my brain was fried from work and my wife was off at her parents’, I began watching the first series.  After watching Episode 1, I was not entirely sure why this was a show people got all excited about.  After discussion with another friend, I was persuaded to keep going.  So I binged watched, the first half of the first series in one night.

I had severe problems with the show. I’m no expert on the Vikings, though I am a big fan of Norse sagas, and I do deal with the stereotypes of the Vikings when I teach World History.  I know enough to know what their culture was like, how they operated, etc.  And therein lies the problem.  In the first series, especially, I was deeply troubled by Gabriel Byrne’s character, Earl Haraldson.  In part, Byrne was horrible in the show, rare for him.  He was like a low-rent Sean Penn, between the bad hair and imperious character.  But then there’s the problem with Earl Haraldson.

The Vikings lived in a kind of proto-democratic world, their leaders were not autocratic, nor could they afford to be, they required consent from the men they ruled.  Interestingly, this is how the hero of the series, Ragnar Lothbrok, rolls.  He asserted his authority and leadership over his men, but he did so because they trusted and respected them, and he treated them with respect and gave them some voice in decisions.  Earl Haraldson, however, did not.  He treated his subjects as if he was an absolutist monarch.  The Vikings wouldn’t have tolerated an Earl operating like Haraldson, he would’ve been deposed and/or killed in short order.  For example, Ragnar ignored Haraldson’s orders and sailed west towards England, where he plundered and brought back a small fortune with his men.  Haraldson responded by confiscating nearly all of the bounty, allowing the men to keep only one item.  I have a hard time believing a Viking leader would do that out of fear of upsetting his followers.

I last watched the episode where Ragnar kills Haraldson in a duel.  Only at the end of his life did Haraldson act like a proper Viking leader, noting his fear (and respect) of Ragnar, a younger version of himself, and making allusions to the men who followed him and why they did.  When Ragnar kills Haraldson, the rest of the men choose to follow Ragnar, who becomes the next earl.  That, at least, is somewhat accurate.

I generally don’t worry too much about historical accuracy when I watch historical TV shows and movies.  I recognise that story matters more than authenticity, but I also know (from my own experience, too, in working with writers, directors, and actors) that there are attempts to gain authenticity where it’s possible.  Take, for example, Martin Scorcese’s The Gangs of New York.  It is largely a horrible film, marred by Leonardo DiCaprio’s inability to act (though Daniel Day Lewis as Butcher Bill is brilliant).  But I use the film when teaching Irish History or the Irish diaspora in the US, mostly because the setting of the film is generally pretty accurate, even if the story is not.

Vikings, however, isn’t so good at this.  Other scholars have criticised it for everything from the clothing the characters wear to the depiction of the Vikings’ religion.  Really, it’s a pretty bad TV show set in a fake Viking world (having said that, there is something incredibly compelling about it, I can’t stop watching it).  But. When the showrunner, Michael Hirst, says “I especially had to take liberties with ‘Vikings’ because no one knows for sure what happened in the Dark Ages,” I’m just left flabbergasted.

Au contraire, we DO know a lot about what happened during the Middle Ages, and had Hirst bothered to educate himself, he would know better.

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§ 6 Responses to The Problem(s) With Vikings

  • Brian Bixby says:

    I was just having a similar discussion with your wife’s colleague Donna Seger on both of our blogs over the new series “Salem.” Synchronicity: I casually mentioned in this discussion that my favorite completely anachronistic character has been Rolf the Viking from “The Long Ships” (1964).

    • Donna is my colleague, too. Our chair as well. This show is horrible, and yet, I can’t stop watching it. My favourite such character is, of course, Haggar the Horrible.

      • Brian Bixby says:

        (Facepalm to self)
        I think we can add this example of my obtuseness to getting your name wrong a few months ago.

        By the way, there was a BBC series called “Horrible Histories” which featured little skits on “Vicious Vikings” (as well as “Rotten Romans,’ “Terrible Tudors,” and “Stupid Deaths”). Ever see it?

      • Heh heh.

        No, I don’t think I’ve even heard of that. I used to think I could do something amusing with what I learned marking Western Civ exams, though.

  • Erik Jensen says:

    As I have been discussing with my Northern Europe class, one of the causes of Viking expansion was the tension caused by kings gradually expanding their power and making stronger claims to authority over the traditional semi-democratic structures of small warrior bands. In that respect, it sounds like the Ragnar/Haraldson interactions on the show are at least based on something, but it still sounds like they vastly overplayed the kind of power someone in Haraldson’s position could realistically exert. (For comparison, check out the struggle between Harald Hardrada and Hakon Ivarsson in King Harald’s Saga from the Heimskringla.)

    • Yeah, I thought the same thing when I first started watching, the Haraldson was supposed to be the reason why the Vikings went travelling, but that would be an intelligent interpretation. This show is not that. The fight between Ragnar and Haraldson was that Haraldsson wanted to keep going east, to the Baltic, to raid, and Ragnar wanted to go west for more riches in England.

      So the Vikings are already portrayed as marauders. As for Haraldson, aside from being horribly portrayed by Byrne in terms of acting, he really rolls as if he’s Henry VIII, an absolutist monarch, (apparently the people behind it were also responsible for The Tudors, a decent TV show completely devoid of real historical accuracy) not as a Viking lord. And, yeah, as you say, Haraldson, who is just an earl forced to marry off his daughter to a more powerful king or something, is vastly overplayed.

      And yet, I can’t stop watching the show. Go figure.

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