Monday, April 08, 2013


I’ve been watching the Vikings TV series. My forebears are Vikings on my father’s side, which we can trace back to 10C Normandy (named after the Norsemen).

The show is filmed in Ireland, with magnificent scenery. The story is ostensibly set in the 9C. Apparently, the show is roughly faithful to Nordic legends, which isn’t the same thing as historical accuracy. 

Unlike the Merlin TV series, Vikings does acknowledge the existence of medieval Christianity. Indeed, the tension between Nordic paganism and medieval Christianity is one of the show’s dramatic pivots.

Except for Athelstan, the monkish war captive, none of the other characters is admirable. All of the men are murderous looters. And the women (e.g. Siggy, Lagertha) are just as bad as the men. Ragnar’s young son (Bjorn) has a certain boyish likeability, but he will grow up to be a killer like his dad.

Normally, Earl Haraldson would be the villain. Normally the audience would be rooting for Ragnar to slay Haraldson. Problem is, all of them are villains.

Normally, heroes play off villains, and vice versa. Yet Ragnar is hardly a sympathetic character. He isn’t treacherous the way Haraldson is, but he’s still a rapacious butcher.

Theoretically, the show has great potential if the monk evangelized the pagans. But I doubt the screenwriters will take the story in that direction. That would be too Christian.

When the Vikings plunder the monastery at Lindesfarne, they naturally seize the silver and gold, but what the monks value is not the silver and gold, but the Bible manuscripts. As Athelstan says, “Without the word of God, all is darkness!” And Athelstan smuggles a codex of Scripture to have with him.

Fimmel doesn’t strike me as a natural actor. He tries too hard. You can see the gears moving. Thinks too much about acting.

I liked him better in The Beast, although he was a little off in that role, too. He reminds me of James Dean in Giant, who gave a memorable, but studied performance.

Gabriel Burne is a fine actor. I liked him in Stigmata. Dumb film, but a strong performance. Burne has real stage presence. He originally studied for the priesthood.

Unfortunately, he plays a very grim character in this drama, so it’s a limited part. By killing Haraldson in the latest episode, they kill off the best actor in the series.

There’s a good child actor who plays Ragnar’s son. And the show has some beautiful women!

Athelstan is too soft and pretty to be a realistic medieval monk. I assume you had to be a tough, hardy physical specimen to survive to adulthood in the middle ages–not a fashion model.

They also make the monk very self-conscious about explaining and defending Biblical stories in contrast to Nordic mythology and folklore. That strikes me as a very modern, pluralistic touch. I’m sure medieval missionaries weren’t bashful about touting the superiority of the Christian faith.

I wonder if monasteries were really that defenseless. Did they just trust in the goodwill or superstitious reverence of the neighbors?

There’s an unintentionally comical scene in the latest episode where king Aelle (of Northumbria) tosses his timid general into a snakepit. To my knowledge, there are no venomous snakes in Northern England. Indeed, I believe venomous snake typically reside in the sunbelt. Moreover, you don’t need to know much about snakes to see that these are boa constrictors. 


  1. It's interesting to compare your reactions to mine- I agree that Athelstan is the strongest character, and that they haven't let him be as strong in his convictions as he could or should be. And while I think Gabriel Byrne is a fine actor, I think Haraldson has been the worst-drawn character on the show. I've actually found Travis Fimmel's performance quite compelling, which makes the dissonance of his character's values all the more unsettling.

    1. I think the screenwriters were trying to make Haraldson as hateful as possible so that viewers would cheer when he got his comeuppance. The problem is that his replacement is vicious, too.

    2. I personally felt they went overboard trying to make Haraldson unsympathetic. He's Snidely Whiplash with a battle-ax. He's so committed to being evil that he gets in his own way.

  2. My forebears are Vikings on my father’s side, which we can trace back to 10C Normandy

    I never would have guessed, but this makes sense now.

    1. Friends call me Hägar the Horrible.

  3. Hey, steve, I have Viking forebears too, on my mother's father's side. That probably explains why we think so much alike.

    1. You need to get back in touch with your inner Viking.