The Problem(s) With Vikings

May 1, 2014 § 17 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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