Hit U.S. series Vikings is set to take Britain by storm. Full of gritty realism, breath-taking brutality, and historical accuracy, this gripping drama is one you will never forget.
Vikings is History channel’s first foray into historical drama, and it has been a raging success across the pond in the States. Already in its second season and commissioned for a third, the drama immerses the viewer into a true and nuanced representation of Viking society as we follow legendary Viking Ragnar Lothbrook, a warrior who claims to be descended from Odin, on his journey across the ocean in search of the western lands. In other words, the Viking invasion of Britain is happening all over again.
I have already watched previews of the first two seasons of this drama, and what really struck me was its historical accuracy. Writer Michael Hirst (creator of historical teen soap The Tudors) has really done his research into the many poetical sagas based on the exploits of Ragnar Lothbrook. I have to confess that with a PhD in mythology behind me, I let my inner geek rip and checked the accuracy of the plotlines from time to time and I was very pleasantly surprised to find that they corresponded well to the TV series (the downside to this was that I did encounter spoilers when reading Viking poetry, so reader beware!). I was also very impressed with Hirst’s compassionate portrayal of pagan society – the gods are taken seriously and it is clear that they are held in the highest esteem by the main characters, who regularly consult an oracle when faced with important decisions. The importance of paganism to the series is reflected in the role of the seer as an important structural plot device – all of his prophecies come true in time. By the time we reach episode 8 in the series, we get to see just how seriously the Vikings take their religion when they perform the ancient rites of human sacrifice at Uppsala. I do not think that I have seen a more competent representation of pagan faith in ancient society since HBO’s Rome graced our screens.
It would be easy to portray the Vikings as bloodthirsty raiders and berserkers, a brilliant tour de force of violence for the modern television viewer. And, do not get me wrong, Vikings does contain its fair share of gratuitous violence, but Hirst’s drama goes to a much deeper level in its appreciation of Viking society. The Vikings held the world’s first parliament and they had a complex judicial system, as we see in the first episode of this series. They kept humans as slaves, but this series excels in its nuanced portrayal of the complexities of the master-slave relationship. When Ragnar Lothbrook reaches England, his band of men raze Lindisfarne to the ground. The focus of the series then shifts as we meet Athelstan, a Christian monk who Ragnar Lothbrook enslaves and takes back to Scandinavia so that he might learn about the Saxons and their language. As we identify with Athelstan and see the Vikings through his eyes, the viewer’s immersion in Viking society gathers pace. Athelstan lives among the Vikings as a slave and as he sees some masters treat their slaves in an abominable manner, he grows to realise that the respect he commands from Ragnar Lothbrook will ensure his survival and, possibly, ultimately lead him to becoming a freed man who lives among the Vikings as their equal.
Athelstan’s journey from priest to barbarian warrior is just one of the engaging plot lines in Season 1. Ragnar Lothbrook’s ambition drives him to discover the fertile pillaging grounds of Britain, and his growing fame fuels his desire to become Earl (something which the current Earl of Kattegat does not take kindly to). Ragnar’s rise empowers his wife, Lagertha, a retired shield maiden who rediscovers her own purpose in life after giving up her career as a warrior to bring up their two children. Lagertha’s return to battle is remarkable – her bravery and formidable presence in the shield wall have won the loyalty of an army of female viewers all wishing that they could be shield maidens too.
I am sure that Vikings will be a rampaging success when it hits our screens in Britain this week. Its release could not be better timed – I am so addicted to this new TV show that I’ll be visiting the Vikings exhibition at the British Museum this summer. I’m hoping that I can enrol on a Beginners Shield Maiden course.
Vikings will debut on History Channel on 13th May at 10pm.