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.


Bill said...

Great analysis, Joe. I would note that History Channel had some interesting "real Viking history" shows which aired right after the drama series this year. They were well done and featured cast members learning from historians at actual locations. The real history points out some of the anachronisms in the drama series.

Coincidentally, I have been reading The Flame Bearer, which probably is the last in Cornwell's series.

Joseph Finley said...

Bill, thanks for the comment, I wish I had taped that after show. Now that I'm caught up, I'll try to catch it after the next episode. I have a copy of 'the Flame Bearer" on my shelf. I'm just waiting to finish the current book I'm reading before I dive in!