For so long synonymous with horned helmets, longships and pillaging, the Vikings are a fascinating enigma of history – a mixture of myth, fact and legend whose portrayal in popular culture belies their rich, complex tradition.
Originating from Scandinavia, the Vikings were seafarers who raided, traded and settled across medieval Europe from the 8th to 11th centuries. Due to a focus on oral tradition and mythology, later chronicled in Norse Sagas like Saxo Grammaticus’s ‘Gesta Danorum’, the true history of the Vikings has been lost to time. Instead, our understanding of the Viking culture comes predominantly from archaeology and other historical sources.
It is often said that history is written by the victors, yet, in the case of the Vikings, their history has arguably been misrepresented by the surviving accounts of their enemies, who recorded the alleged barbarity of the Vikings for posterity. The earliest such account, as detailed in the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’, is the raid on Lindisfarne in 793 – the historical event considered by scholars as the beginning of the Viking Age, as well as the inciting incident of the History Channel’s historical drama ‘Vikings’.
Following the story of legendary Viking ruler Ragnar Lothbrok (played by Travis Fimmel) and his family, ‘Vikings’ embraces the complex and often contradictory mythology of the medieval Norse people. It’s the perfect template for a TV drama – a semi-historical setting that allows enough wiggle-room for further creative expression and one used to great effect by showrunner Michael Hirst.
As with his work on the ‘Elizabeth’ films and TV show ‘The Tudors’, it’s fair to say Hirst and the History Channel have been fairly liberal in some aspects of their depiction of the Viking Age, which seems entirely appropriate for a series centred around a legendary figure whose very existence is the source of ongoing debate.
Whilst the character of Ragnar features extensively in some of the most notable Norse sagas, it remains unclear to historians whether he was a distinct historical figure or simply the conflation of the deeds of lesser-known Viking heroes into a singular entity. He is rumoured to have fathered many of the other great Viking heroes, including Ivar the Boneless and Björn Ironside, both of whom feature in ‘Vikings’ and are considered legitimate historical figures.
Such is Ragnar’s legend that at least two differing accounts remain of his death – both suitably gruesome for the man considered the scourge of England and France. He is said to have been thrown into a pit of snakes by the King of Northumbria or, alternatively, to have died from the wounds he sustained in his raid on Paris. Ragnar is also said to have married three times, to the shieldmaiden Lagertha, Aslaug and the noblewoman Þóra Borgarhjortr, themselves the subject of much historical debate and the former two of whom also appear in ‘Vikings’.
Like many of the great heroes that dictate the story of human history, Ragnar is a larger-than-life figure of immense cultural and historical significance. In this way, he’s representative of the entirety of Viking culture itself – a richly-drawn relict of a bygone age who is as contradictory as he is complex. Regardless of the direction in which ‘Vikings’ takes the character of Ragnar and how it decides his ultimate fate, it’s safe to say the show understands the beguiling nature of both history and myth and the intriguing way in which they intersect.
Vikings Season 4 Part 1 is out now on Blu-ray & DVD