Thursday, April 23, 2015

Artistic License & History’s “Vikings”

Tonight marks the finale of Season 3 of Vikings on History. While this season has been as good as the prior two, it’s also highlighted the artistic license the writers have taken with real historical events. Let’s just say the “history” of Vikings is a complete mess. It’s conflated nearly a hundred years of real events into the prime years of a single man, mashing together characters who didn’t even live during the same decades. Here is what I mean.

It's unlikely Rollo and Ragnar even knew each other in real life.
It starts with Ragnar Lothbrok and Lagertha. Both are legendary characters in Nordic lore, but there is no historical evidence that either actually existed. As I’ve noted before, Ragnar is to the Northmen what King Arthur is to the Britons. If Arthur was a real man, no one quite knows when he lived. Others think Arthur may be an amalgamation of several real historical figures, and the same is true about King Ragnar. Lagertha is the same way, though some suspect she’s the embodiment of the Norse goddess Thorgerd. Incidentally, Ragnar’s second wife, Aslaug, is also straight out of Norse mythology instead of the annals history.

Given that Ragnar, Lagertha, and Aslaug may or not have been real, one would expect a degree of artistic license in the telling of their tale. In Vikings, Ragnar is among the first to sail to England, where he leads the famous raid on Lindisfarne Abbey (and enslaves Athelstan in the show). That was a real event that took place in 793 A.D., and many consider it the beginning of the Viking Age. This would mean that both Ragnar and Lagertha were adults at the end of the eight century, and here’s where the problems start.

Aslaug may come from legend, but her children were real.
Despite the legendary nature of Ragnar and his wives, their children were real historical figures. Let’s start with Bjorn Ironside, the son of Ragnar and Lagertha who is just a little boy on the show at the time of the Lindisfarne raid. Historically, Bjorn is known for Viking raids in the South of France and in Italy – all around the year 860, nearly 70 years after Lindisfarne. I highly doubt Bjorn did this at the ripe old age of 90.

Next come Ivar the Boneless and Ubba Lothbrokson, two of Ragnar’s sons with Aslaug. In 865, they led a famous invasion of England and conquered Northumbria. These are the events chronicled in Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom, by the way. Ivar dies around the year 873, and Ubba is killed in battle around 878 (by Uhtred of Bebbanburg in Cornwell’s fiction account). In any event, both are still small children in Season Three of Vikings, which features the Siege of Paris as its big set piece. Unfortunately, that real and quite famous historical event occurred in the year 885 –after the deaths of these Vikings lads. 

The Siege of Paris in 885 A.D.
One real historical Viking who did fight in the Siege of Paris was Rollo, who is depicted as Ragnar’s brother in Vikings. Of course, in the show, Rollo also took part in the raid on Lindisfarne, which would make him about 120 years old. Indeed, Rollo would go on to found Normandy in France, and even marry Gisela, the French princess who has appeared in the past two episodes (which explains the glowing prophecy Rollo got from the Norse priest; Rollo’s descendants would include William the Conqueror and the future kings of England). Ragnar Lothbrok, presuming he was indeed the father of the historically-deceased Ivar and Ubba, would apparently be one of the undead if he joined in the Siege of Paris. 

King Ecbert in Wessex - decades before the Seige of Paris
Across the pond, while Paris is being besieged, King Ecbert is plotting to take the kingdom of Mercia and sleep with his son Aethelwulf’s bride. The problem here is that Ecbert of Wessex ruled from 802 to 839, decades before the Siege. His son Aethlwulf reigned from 839 to 858. Incidentally, Aethlwulf's son, Alfred (who is actually Athelstan’s son on the show), would become one of the greatest kings in English history. Alfred the Great was king during the defeat of Ubba and Ivar, and is known for saving England from the invading Danes and Norseman. Bernard Cornwell wrote the first six volumes of his Saxon Tales about Alfred’s reign, and I highly recommend them all.

But back to History’s Vikings. Since they are telling a good story, I personally don’t mind the artistic license taken by the show’s writers. But I also know enough history to know where they’ve taken it. I wish the show would air a special akin to a Historical Note in a book to explain why they made the changes. I’d enjoy that, and given that it’s the ‘History” channel, it seems like the right thing to do. Yet regardless of whether Ragnar and Lagertha would be undead if they were still walking the earth during the Siege of Paris, I’m still looking forward to tonight’s finale. The last episode in each season has been among the best and most shocking, so I can only imagine what’s going to happen . . . even though I know how the Siege of Paris is supposed to end. 

Those are just my thoughts, however. How do you feel about the artistic license taken in History’s Vikings?

* Images courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes


Bill said...

Very good analysis, Joe. I was aware of the ahistorical plot in a more general sense than you lay out.

Were you surprised they killed off Athelstan, given that they can basically do whatever they want?

How about the origin story of the Oriflamme?

Joseph Finley said...

Bill, thanks for the comment. I was surprised with Athelstan's death. I suppose the writers ended up modeling him after one of the Christian martyrs who were killed by Vikings back then. And that origin story about the Oriflamme was news to me, but I am glad they brought out the banner!

me said...

Thank you, Joe, for posting this analysis. I haven't watched the show, but have recently started becoming interested. I was wondering how historically accurate it is and was worried that it was going to be almost entirely fictional. It sounds like they are trying to make it as authentic as possible, while showing the culture of the Vikings, but with some relatively minor alterations mostly for entertainment purposes (I think). I'm glad to hear that.

Joseph Finley said...

Thanks for the comment. The latest season of "Vikings" restarted in late November, while I was focused on "Westworld." I need to catch up, but promise to write some posts on it before we get too deep into 2017.