Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Where Does History’s “Vikings” Go from Here?

With only two episodes left in the second part of Season 4 of Vikings, I’m not a hundred percent sure where the show is going now that Ragnar’s death has been avenged. But I suspect the show will alter history yet again.

The past few episodes of Vikings have embraced some of the more significant events in Viking lore: the famous death of Ragnar Lothbrok in the pit of serpents, the “Great Army” formed by Ragnar’s sons Ubbe and Ivar the Boneless to avenge Ragnar’s death, and King Aelle of Northumbria’s legendary demise by “blood eagle,” the most gruesome punishment of the Viking Age. Aelle’s death is really the end of the “legend” or “myth” of Ragnar Lothbrok, and gives way to real history after that – except on Vikings.

Historically, the Great Army invaded Northumbria in 865 A.D. and defeated King Aelle (whose defense of York, by all accounts, was wholly ineffective, as portrayed on the show). From there, the Great Army headed south, and a few years later pressed into Wessex, where it encountered a king named Ethelred and his younger brother Alfred at the Battle of Reading. Both, incidentally, were the sons of a king named Athelwulf of Wessex.

On the show, of course, there is no Ethelred. Instead King Ecbert has appointed his son Athelwulf to defend Wessex when the Vikings arrive. The historical Athelwulf, however, died in 858 A.D., ten years before the Great Army invaded Northumbria. But his son Alfred would, in fact, grow up to become King Alfred the Great, who’s renowned for saving England from the Vikings in the ninth century.

Viking’s Alfred (who happens to be the son of our favorite monk Athelstan instead of Athewulf) is clearly meant to be Alfred the Great. It also seems likely that Season 5 of Vikings will cover the conflict between Alfred and the Danes. So I suppose the next two episodes of Season 4 will take us to Wessex, where Ethelred does not exist and Athelwulf will leap through time and space to take on Ragnar’s vengeful sons. 

True history has always been a bit of a mess on History’s Vikings – something the show that follows Vikings freely admits. That said, I’ve long been okay with a story taking historical license to make great fiction, and I’m fine with it here. 

Yet one area the show has free reign, historically speaking, is with Lagertha, the famous shieldmaiden who may or may not have been a real historical figure. Season 4 has gone beyond the legendary account of Lagertha’a life by the medieval historian Saxo Grammaticus, so the writers have a blank slate as far as she’s concerned. Lagertha has always been one of my favorites on the show, and I hope she survives to Season 5. I’m don’t mind Vikings toying with real history, so long as it keeps one of the best parts of Norse legend around a while longer.

* Images courtesy of History

Thursday, January 12, 2017

On History’s “Vikings,” Ragnar Lothbrok Gives Rise to Bernard Cornwell’s “Last Kingdom”

I’ll be the first to admit that part 2 of Season 4 of Vikings on History snuck up on me. But when I started catching up with the new half-season, I did not realize that Vikings was becoming a prequel to Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom. In fact, it seems, we can credit Ragnar Lothbrok for giving rise to the very events that would create Uhtred of Bebbanburg. 

Unbeknownst to me, Vikings’ new half-season premiered on November 30th, right after Westworld’s penultimate episode, when I was too caught up with Delores and what may lie at the center of the Maze. I didn’t see a thing about Vikings on the 20 or so blogs I follow regularly, and had no idea the new half-season had even aired until one of my friends asked me about it. Needless to say, I’m a few episodes behind, but after the fourth episode, I was struck by the clever trick the writers had played with actual history.

When Season 4 began way back in February of 2016, I wondered if this season might end with Ragnar Lothbrok’s legendary death at the hands of King Aelle of Northumbria (Ælla, if using his proper Saxon name). Ragnar’s death is what inspires his famous sons to attack Britain, and nearly conquer the whole island. Then, lo and behold, at the end of Season 4’s first part, we’re introduced to the adult sons of Ragnar Lothbrok. Everything seemed to be coming together.

Then History gave us a twist of sorts. I’ve long noted that the actual history on Vikings is quite skewed, especially its timeline. But that’s not the case for this twist. Rather, the writers have had Ragnar Lothbrok become the author of the event that would inspire his sons’ revenge.

Ivar the Boneless plays a role in Cornwell's The Last Kingdom
Throughout all of Season 4, Ragnar has been in a hugely dark place following the failed siege of Paris. In fact, Season 4 opened with Ragnar staring at the gates of Valhalla, only to see them shut before he gets there. He is a man wracked by guilt over the fate of the Viking settlers in Wessex and the death of his beloved friend Athelstan. He’s had a death wish all season and that desire worsens after he shows up years later in Kattegat, when the new half-season begins.

The dialogue between Ragnar and Ecbert was a fantastic scene!
When he and his son Ivar return to Wessex, Ragnar begs King Ecbert to kill him. But Ecbert can’t. The two men are like kindred souls, both haunted by similar demons, and I dare say they’ve almost become friends. But that’s when Ragnar – and the show’s writers – throw us the curve ball. It turns out that Ragnar himself hatches the plot to have King Aelle be his slayer. Ragnar convinces Ecbert to hand him over to Aelle (the very first king whose lands Ragnar ravaged way back in Season 1), with the promise that when his sons seek revenge for their father’s death, they will exact that revenge on Northumbria instead of Wessex. So not only has Ragnar arranged his own famous death, he has aimed his son’s wrath squarely on Northumbria – which is precisely where they go historically.

What the new half-season is setting up to be is a prequel to Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom, which chronicles the Viking conquest of Northumbria. In fact, the capture of York by Ragnar’s sons Ubba and Ivar is one of the first events in Cornwell’s novel, where a boy named Uhtred is captured by the Danes. Uhtred will go on to become one of Cornwell’s most iconic characters, and the hero of no less than 10 novels and a TV series that aired last year on BBC America. 

Uhtred of Bebbanburg on The Last Kingdom
With Vikings big twist, Ragnar Lothbrok has inadvertently set in motion the series of events that give birth to the hero Uhtred becomes. And for anyone who has read the Last Kingdom series (which also focuses on Alfred the Great, the king who basically saved England from becoming Daneland), this does not bode well for Ragnar’s descendants. Quick note to Ragnar’s son Ubba: You do not want to fight Uhtred of Bebbanburg!

Even more interesting is that Vikings has been renewed for a fifth season, which means that it and The Last Kingdom, which will air Season 2 on Netflix, may be covering the same historical events with many of the same characters. This seems surreal, but since both shows are great, I’m not sure I mind. In fact, I think the journey might be rather fun.

* Images courtesy of History and BBC America.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Season 4 of "Black Sails" Is Almost Here!

One of my favorite shows of the past few years has been Black Sails on Starz. It's an amazing prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island and has been, in my view, one of the best shows on television. A rival, perhaps, to even Game of Thrones. The final season premiers on September 29, and one has to expect it will end right about where Treasure Island begins. Also, the trailer looks amazing!

I've written a lot about this show, but if you want to catch up before the final season begins, here are a few posts to start with: "On 'Black Sails' the Seeds of 'Treasure Island' are Beginning to Grow"; "Where Things Stand on Season 3 of 'Black Sails'"; "Eleanor is Making Cersei-like Decisions on 'Black Sails'"; and "It's All About Silver in the 'Black Sails' Season Finale!" You can also read my review of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island here.

Until then, I'll be counting the days until we can sail again on the high seas with Captain Flint, Long John Silver, Anne Bonny, and all the crew!