*For at least ten years, Rachel and I have quoted this as meaning “all chopped to bits by Vikings” from the Old English poem “The Battle of Maldon.” A quick Google has revealed that this line, while (I believe) grammatically sound, never actually appears in the poem. Our minds are blown.
For the last couple of weeks, I’ve found myself very interested (one might say obsessed XD) with pre-medieval Norse culture and other Viking goings-on. I’ve read up on all the online sources I can find and I re-read Njal’s Saga, one of the great Icelandic family sagas. I’ve got a post in the works about it :3 Rachel also gave me several more sagas for Christmas, and right now I’m reading (and loving) Laxdaela Saga.
In my current pursuit of consuming All Things Norse, Rachel and I have been watching the television series Vikings. And I LOVE IT. I’ll try to avoid major spoilers, but I do talk about plot developments in general, so if you haven’t watched this series and want to keep yourself completely unspoiled, turn back now 🙂
(I drew that! :D)
Vikings follows the journey of the semi-legendary Scandinavian Ragnar Lothbrok (literally Hairy-Britches! Love those nicknames) from farmer to earl to king. The revolves around his relationship with his people and with his sometime-enemies/sometime-allies in the English kingdoms. There’s a lot of exploration of the dichotomy between Norse paganism and Christianity, which I feel is handled pretty respectfully on both sides. I find the characters to be delightfully complex—much more so than other period series I’ve seen. I’m going to talk about a few of my favorites :3
I’ve been a supporting character kind of girl all my life: I latch onto one of the side characters and perk up anytime they come onscreen. It’s always been that way. But in Vikings, I find myself equally charmed by Ragnar. Each season deals with one stage of his career, and it’s remarkable how he both changes and stays true to his younger self. Ragnar is by turns goofy, fierce, reasonable, stupid, and absolutely adorable. He loves his children more than anything in the world and he wants to do right by his people. He’s a charismatic, forward-thinking leader and he’s very accepting of—even fascinated by—other cultures. At the same time, he’s a complete idiot when it comes to the women in his life. His casual, teasing manner and (justifiably) huge ego tend to piss off people who might not otherwise be his enemies. That same manner, though, makes him SO FREAKING ENDEARING. He loves and honors his gods but is interested in Christianity, and he wants his gods and the Christian God to be friends (!!! The cuteness, I can’t stand it).
Ragnar also has this majorly adorable soft spot for Athelstan, the Christian priest who he brought back from Lindisfarne as a slave. Athelstan is wonderfully complex—he has to navigate feeling torn between two religions, both of which give him comfort. Ragnar empathizes with him in that he’s drawn to Christianity as well, just as Athelstan is drawn to paganism, though for Ragnar there is little tension between the two in his mind. Ragnar comes to see Athelstan as kin, and they’re very devoted to one another. He consults Athelstan constantly in matters both political and spiritual. As someone who’s tied to him by love and loyalty but not culture, Athelstan gives him a unique perspective and Ragnar is very possessive of him.
But even more than Ragnar, I adore Lagertha. I MEAN, COME ON. LAGERTHA. SWOON.
She is possibly my favorite female character in any TV series I’ve ever seen. Even as a farmer in the first season, she’s already famous and respected as a shieldmaiden. She’s just as dangerous a warrior as Ragnar, but Lagertha is more controlled, less likely than Ragnar to be consumed by battle-rage. She has a calmer head than most everyone else, but she takes no shit; even though Norse society afforded far more rights to women than other Western cultures at the time, women were still expected to keep to affairs of the household and defer to their husbands (especially if those husbands were powerful). Lagertha is both a loving, responsible mother and a wise arbitrator, but if you disrespect her past all bearing, she’ll stab you in the eye and take control of your holdings.
The progression of her character is just as delightful to watch as Ragnar’s and Athelstan’s (and unlike them, she’s yet to make any incredibly stupid decisions). As she moves through different positions in society, you can watch her gain sureness in herself and her place in the world. She always puts first the interests and safety of those she’s responsible for, whether they be her children or the people she leads. When Lagertha goes to war, she brings more women than men to fight with her. Women take care of each other in this series, and I LOVE that. There are some honest, deep friendships between women that exist outside of, and sometimes in spite of, the influence of their husbands. The women in Vikings have complex relationships with the men, but they’re not defined by those relationships. And I appreciate that SO much.
So I said I was a side character kind of girl, that my heart starts going doki-doki whenever I see my favorite supporting character in the background of a shot. It happens practically without my realizing it; I’m all “Hey, I sorta like that one” and then the next thing I know, I’m looking for them in every scene. Well, in this series, that’s Floki: carpenter, shipbuilder, healer, and strange, strange individual.
I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this here, but I have a depression and anxiety disorder. My mental illness is very different from Floki’s, but still, I feel for him. It would’ve been easy for the writers and his actor to portray him as just “crazy”—giggly-weird and violent for no reason—the way “crazy” characters are usually played in similar epic, battle-driven stories. Floki is certainly giggly, and certainly weird, and certainly violent (though not more so than any of his fellow warriors), but his actor plays him in a way that’s very genuine. He’s not a caricature; he seems like a real person with issues that I, at least, find understandable. He acknowledges his own mental illness and he fears it, because he knows how mean he can sometimes be to the people he cares about. And he regrets his lack of a verbal filter when he doesn’t feel justified in feeling the way he does, but when he does trust his feelings, he can be brutally honest.
While Ragnar is open to and interested in Christianity, Floki is threatened by it. From the very beginning of the series he’s been extremely devoted to his faith, and anyone who incurs his ire usually does so by not taking his religion, or their own, seriously. He doesn’t want anything to do with the Christian English; he resents the help Ragnar gives Wessex in attacking their neighboring kingdom and the lives inevitably lost in a war he doesn’t see as their own. He’s also afraid that paganism and Christianity can’t coexist, and that his gods will be wiped out if Christianity prevails. Although little in the series so far would fortell that, from our vantage point a thousand-plus years later, we know his fears to be justified.
He’s particularly suspicious of Athelstan—and I’m convinced that a large part of Floki’s contempt for him comes from jealousy. Floki was portrayed as a bit of a recluse in the first season, with Ragnar as one of his few close friends, but Athelstan soon became Ragnar’s most valued confidant. Added to that, Athelstan adheres to both paganism and Christianity, and he’s introduced the Christian God to Ragnar. That’s more than enough to cause Floki to resent him.
I freaking LOVE his relationship with Helga. They’re such good friends, and I don’t get that impression from any of the other couples. Helga is adorable and perfect, and she knows just how to handle Floki. Her expanded role in the early episodes of the third season delighted me. The two of them are, strangely, the least dysfunctional couple in the entire series.
I’m partway through the third season and Floki and Ragnar are on somewhat tenuous terms right now, and all I’ve got to say is that the writers better fix that before the end. I hold out hope, but for all that I absolutely adore this series, I can’t say I entirely trust it to do well by the characters. The only downside to Vikings is that it has some serious storytelling flaws.
I’ve become convinced, after seeing so many episodes, that the writers and production crew value the aesthetics of the series over the coherence of its story. The visuals are flat-out breathtaking: the landscapes are incredible; the costuming, hairstyling, and sets portray their vision of Norse life in stunning detail; and there are countless shots, lighting, and visual sequences that give me chills. The opening sequence is stirring—utterly perfect. I never fast-forward through it.
But sometimes I have no freaking clue what’s going on. People’s motivations bounce wildly around at a moment’s notice. Scenes that appear to signify something go nowhere. The audience is manipulated for the sake of plot twists: scenes that lead the audience to believe what the writers want them to believe make no sense once the truth is revealed. There’s an attempted murder where we get no explanation as to why the victim is TOTALLY FINE a few scenes later.
I can live with all of that because I love the characters and the visuals so freaking much (though characterization does unfortunately suffer sometimes because of the bad storytelling). The battles are numerous, intense, and well-choreographed, and I find them easy to follow. I’ve never been one to be grossed out by pre-automatic-weapon battles in movies, so maybe it’s easy for me to say, but as brutal as they can be, I enjoy Vikings’ action sequences. One of the things I like most about them is that all of the characters have their own fighting style: most of the warriors use a hand-axe or spear and a shield, which was typical, but Ragnar and Lagertha use swords (indicating their status), Ragnar’s brother Rollo uses a two-handed battle axe because he’s ginormous, and Floki fights with just a hand-axe and a knife—no shield at all.
Honestly the violent scenes that aren’t battles are the more disturbing. The blood eagle—an ultimate punishment—may have been one of the most violent things I’ve ever seen; still, it was so artistically filmed that it was almost beautiful, in a horrifying way. The same goes for the instances of sacrifice and other Norse pagan rituals involving blood. Weirdly, in comparison to the blood eagle, scenes of graphic punishment meted out by the Christian characters are cast in a much less artful light.
We’ll see how I feel after I see the end of season three but as of right now, there hasn’t been a show recently that I’ve loved for so many reasons as I love this one. And at $10 a season, I’m definitely buying the DVDs :3